[b-hebrew] And Samuel turned back after Saul: the meaning of 1 Samuel 31

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Thu Jul 23 10:17:51 EDT 2009

George wrote to Karl:  “I am astonished that you don't know who Robert 
Alter is. He is one of the prime movers in literary criticism of biblical 
literature. His two seminal works are "The Art of Biblical Narrative" and "The Art 
of Biblical Poetry".”  George then further wrote to Karl:  “Alter's works 
are highly recommended.”  If I may be permitted to make a comment that 
concerns two different threads…
Prof. Robert Alter is also well known for his translation of, and 
commentary on, Genesis.  One nice thing about Prof. Alter’s book is that he often 
comments on the particular usage of Biblical Hebrew language (which is his 
strong suit).  Here is a classic example of how Prof. Alter examines the style 
of Biblical Hebrew language that is being used in a particular passage:
“The seventeen-year-old Joseph reports the first of his dreams to his 
brothers in the following manner:  ‘And, look, we were binding sheaves in the 
field, and, look, my sheaf arose and actually [wegam] stood up, and, look, your 
sheaves drew round and bowed to my sheaf.’  (37.7).  The language here is 
surely crafted mimetically to capture the gee-gosh wonderment of this naïve 
adolescent who blithely assumes his brothers will share his sense of 
amazement at his dream.  The presentative hineh (‘look’) is the conventional term 
dreamers use to report the visual images of their dreams, perhaps partly 
because it readily introduces a surprising new perception, but here Joseph 
repeats the term three times in one breathless sentence, and the effect of naïve 
astonishment is equally expressed in his redundant ‘arose and actually stood 
up’ (the Hebrew adverb gam most often means ‘also’ but fairly frequently 
serves as well as a term of emphasis or intensification).  The point is that 
the adolescent Joseph speaking to his brothers does not at all sound like 
the adult Joseph addressing Pharaoh, and a translation should not reduce 
either dialogue or narrator’s language to a single dead level.”  Robert Alter, “
Genesis:  Translation and Commentary” (1996), at p. xxxiv.
Although Prof. Alter himself does not quite realize it, there is no way 
that the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives would use that language 
for Joseph’s report of his dream if the Hebrew author wanted us to think that 
Joseph had witnessed 17 fall New Years.  No way.  The very language of 
Biblical Hebrew itself is telling us that Joseph is much younger than that.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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