Principle 8

Leading word: a key word is repeated frequently in a story to draw the reader’s attention to an important motif or message.

EXAMPLES (Exodus 2-3):

One of the most important ways in which the Bible gets its messages across is by means of what Buber called the “leading word” principle.  In this technique, a key word recurs in large swath of text, highlighting an important concept or image. The leading word, through its sound, encourages the reader to make connections between diverse parts of a story or group of stories and trace a particular theme. This is not a static process: the word or word root may appear in varied contexts and forms, which changed meaning, lending a sense of movement and development to the text and its personalities.

A classic example occurs in the stories of Moshe’s early biography. When he is born, under the shadow of Pharaoh’s persecution of the Israelites, his mother hides him; the text reads:

When she saw him—that he was goodly, she hid him, for three months.

When this is no longer possible, she sets him afloat in the Nile, under the watchful eye of his sister. He is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, as she bathes in the river:

She saw the little-ark among the reeds
and sent her maid, and she fetched it.
She opened [it] and saw him, the child—
here, a boy weeping!

Typically for the Bible, the hero’s childhood is passed over. Now a young man who has presumably been raised in the Egyptian court, he goes out “to his brothers” (intriguingly, we are not told how he knows he is an Israelite):

he went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.
He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, [one] of his brothers.
He turned this way and that way, and, seeing that there was no one [there],
he struck down the Egyptian
and buried him in the sand.

 To this point, it is clear that the verb “see” plays a role in the early life of Moshe. An occurrence of wider significance appears in a narrator’s aside, in v. 25, referring to God’s taking note of the Israelite slaves’ suffering:

God saw the Children of Israel,
God knew.

But the theme of seeing comes to a head at the key story of the Burning Bush:

And YHWH’s messenger was seen by him
in the flame of a fire out of the midst of a bush.
He saw:
here, the bush is burning with fire,
and the bush is not consumed!
Moshe said:
Now let me turn aside
That I may see this great sight—
why the bush does not burn up!
When YHWH saw that he turned aside to see,
God called to him out of the midst of the bush….
Now YHWH said:
I have seen, yes seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt,
Their cry have I heard….

Two significant points emerge from this hammering in of the word “see.” First, the repetition draws all the strands of Moshe’s early life and destiny together. He who was rescued by being “seen” is chosen because he does not turn away from his brothers in need, but rather “sees” their plight and acts on it. And this “seeing” is linked to God’s active role in history, which he will display partly through Moshe.

Second, the verb “see’ is highly charged in the Bible. It is often connected to prophecy, which is not only foresight, but more pointedly, insight. And Moshe is the pre-eminent example early in the Bible of a prophet, a spokesperson for God. When he dies at the end of Deuteronomy, it will be said that “there no further prophet in Israel like Moshe…”

Such use of a leading word occurs again and again in biblical texts. I encourage you to find your own.


 Principle 9 »