[b-hebrew] The Name "Levi"
JimStinehart at aol.com
JimStinehart at aol.com
Mon Dec 10 11:10:13 EST 2007
The JPS1917 translation of the text regarding the name “Levi” is as follows:
“And she conceived again, and bore a son; and said: 'Now this time will my
husband be joined unto me, because I have borne him three sons.' Therefore
was his name called Levi.” Genesis 29: 34
The three key words here are as follows:
LAMED-VAV-heh = “be joined” or “be attached” or “accompany” [At Genesis
29: 34, this word appears in the following form: yod-LAMED-VAV-heh.]
LAMED-VAV = “to him” [Although the vav functions as a vowel-type sound here,
it nevertheless is the same letter as the vav in the two other words that are
explicitly forming a pun here. Thus by a little stretch, we can get the
second phrase at Genesis 29: 34 to be part of this pun by taking notice of this
LAMED-VAV-yod = “Levi”
Note that each one of these three words prominently features lamed + vav, in
Leah hopes that her husband Jacob will be “joined”/L-V unto her by virtue of
the birth of her third son, “Levi”/L-V.
As always, the first pun reflects the immediate circumstances of the son’s
birth, namely, how the mother hopes the son’s birth may improve the mother’s
situation with Jacob.
Leah hopes that her husband Jacob will be “joined”/L-V unto her, by virtue
of Leah having given birth “to him”/L-V (that is, to Jacob), of their third
This starts with pun #1, and then adds to it one more element, the word “to
him”, meaning that “to Jacob” has Leah given another son, Levi.
When Levi grows up, his life will be characterized by “Levi”/L-V being “
joined”/L-V “to him”/L-V, that is, Levi will be joined to his slightly older
brother, Simeon. (Levi is probably born less than 12 months after Simeon.)
Levi joins in with everything that Simeon does. In particular, Levi joins
with Simeon in killing the men of Shechem, and Levi joins with Shechem in almost
murdering their younger half-brother Joseph.
For this, Levi gets a terrible final curse from his father Jacob at the end
of Jacob. Note that the very first line of text in this curse starts out by
explicitly stating that Simeon and Levi are “brothers”, or as nicely translated
in this respect by the JPS1985: “a pair”.
The author of the Patriarchal narratives explicitly tells us that the name “
Levi” is a pun on the word “joined”. Furthermore, the author explicitly tells
us that Leah hopes that her birth of “Levi”/L-V “to him”/L-V, that is, to
her husband Jacob, will cause Jacob to be “joined”/L-V to Leah.
The question then is whether the author is, in addition, deliberately using
this same pun to foretell what Levi’s main role will be later in life. For the
third time in a row (like Reuben and Simeon), we see that such is in fact the
case here. “Levi”/L-V will in each of two critical cases “join”/L-V “him”
/L-V, that is, Levi’s slightly older brother Simeon, both in killing the men
of Shechem, and in almost murdering their young half-brother Joseph.
So for each of Reuben, Simeon and Levi, we have seen that their names
function on at least two very different levels, based on the imaginative puns that
the author of the Patriarchal narratives explicitly sets forth in the text. The
meaning of the name regarding the immediate circumstances of each son’s birth
is explicitly set forth. Leah hopes that the birth of “Reuben”/R-B-N means
that God has “looked”/R “upon”/B her “affliction”/N. Leah sees the birth
of “Simeon”/S-M-N as meaning that God has “heard”/S-M that Leah is “hated”
/S-N by Jacob. And finally, Leah hopes that the birth of “Levi”/L-V means that
Jacob will be “joined”/L-V to Leah, by virtue of Leah having given another
son “to him”/L-V (that is, to Jacob).
But in each case, these puns also foretell the most important actions that
each of these three sons will do in the remainder of the text. “Reuben”/R-B-N
will “look”/R “upon”/B one of his father’s minor wives, and hence cause his
father “affliction”/N. In part for that reason, Reuben receives a final
curse from his father. “Simeon”/S-M-N will “hear”/S-M that his full-sister
Dinah has been with a man of Shechem, and will “hear”/S-M his young half-brother
Joseph’s dreams, and that will make Simeon “hate”/S-N the men of Shechem and
Joseph. (The actual word sana’/”hate” does not appear in chapter 34 of
Genesis regarding the Shechem incident; importantly, the word sana’/”hate” does
appear four times in chapter 37 of Genesis regarding the Joseph incident.)
Finally, “Levi”/L-V will “join”/L-V “him”/L-V, that is his slightly older
brother Simeon, both in killing the men of Shechem, and in almost murdering
Joseph. This causes Simeon and Levi to get a joint ultimate curse from their father
Jacob, as they are truly a pair.
You just cannot get finer clever Hebrew wordplay than that. One consequence
of that is that if we think through the puns that the author of the
Patriarchal narratives is giving us for the first three sons of Jacob, we can see that
there is no way that any of those three sons is going to get the coveted honor
of being named by Jacob to be the leader of the next generation of the new
monotheists. No, the battle for that coveted honor will quickly boil down to
only two legitimate contenders: Judah and Joseph. And the winner of that
critical contest will assuredly be foretold by the puns the author gives us for the
names “Judah” and “Joseph”.
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