Principle 4

Many passages in the bible have an orderly structure. This is usually intentional on the part of the writer.

EXAMPLE (Ex. 14:21-2):

Similarly to number 2, the sound of the Hebrew text can yield insights into structure and rhetoric—designed to alert the reader to the thrust of a passage. In the Exodus story, right after their liberation, the former slaves find themselves pursued by the Egyptian chariots, with the sea to their backs. In their panic, they bitterly accuse their leader Moshe (Moses):

they said to Moshe:
Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the wilderness?
Now what have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?
Is this not the very word that we spoke to you in Egypt,
saying: Let us alone, that we may serve Egypt?
Indeed, better for us serving Egypt
than our dying in the wilderness!

Note the repetitions at the end of each line—“Egypt” five times and “wilderness twice—apparently meant to stress the irony of the Israelites’ predicament: as they see it, Egypt means life, and the wilderness, certain death. Important as well is the repetition of “serve,” the key word of the entire book, which early on denotes slavery, but later, the worship of God (Moshe’s request to Pharaoh is “Send my people free, that they may serve me,” and the building of the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, which takes up most of the second half of the book, uses “serve” constantly).

Contrast this reading of the text with a standard translation, in this case the widely-used New International Version:

They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to
the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to
you in Egypt, “Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians”? It would have been better for us
to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

The force of the Hebrew here has been muted. In the interests of varied language, it transposes “to die in the desert” to “to the desert to die,” ignoring how the original has both identically, for emphasis; it varies “Egypt” to “Egyptians”; and it reads more like relaxed standard prose. But the Hebrew, throughout that chapter, is a heightened, rhythmic form of language, meant to instruct as well as to entertain or even inspire.


Principle 5 »