The Making of a Reader Part VIII

by David Hawkinson

I learned more about reading Bible from Earl Schwartz than any other teacher I have known. Earl has been teaching Jewish studies and Biblical texts to a whole generation of Jewish children and adults. I came to the Twin Cities 22 years ago in order to study with him. To my great delight we became colleagues, conceiving the idea for City Gates, a Jewish Christian study center. Our mission focused on teaching the same reading skills I have been exploring in this series, “The Making of a Reader.” Those first years were heady days of study, nourished by a diverse community from different religious traditions and life experiences, woven into a rich tapestry by common delight in reading biblical texts. The text gathered us together. The diversity provided the wondrous energy that enhanced our reading. Some of these readers have become life long friends. In fact, the conventicle which continues to nurture Pietisten originated with many who were early participants in City Gates classes. Those initial years of study and the people who gathered together continue to be a blessing.

I learned many things from this gifted teacher of Hebrew, including a deepened appreciation for the “living” quality of these ancient texts. Earl is appreciative of and conversant with the midrashic reading tradition of rabbinic Judaism which understood that reading was essentially a process of conversation with the text, with ancient readers, and with the person sitting next to us as well. This liveliness touched something deep within my own pietistic heart, for this same knowledge was once shared among our mothers and fathers of the “lärsare” (readers) movement at the heart of our own history. Earl writes about this “living” quality in the introduction to our first City Gates curriculum. I quote him in full:

The Biblical word is, at its heart, a spoken word. The written Bible is a shadow cast by living speech. Thus, God speaks the commandments before they are committed to writing, and Moses exhorts the people to “hear him out” as he pronounces “the great commandment. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
Plato, writing approximately four hundred years before the common era, wisely noted the great danger inherent in committing spoken words to writing. Plato, in the Socratic dialogue “Phaedrus,” suggests that writing can do no more than “remind one who (already) knows that which the writing is concerned with.” It is Plato’s contention that the written word is no substitute for face to face dialogue. The written word can at best merely remind us of something that is already within us, a product of previous thoughts and experiences. However, he goes on to ask:
“But now tell me, is there another sort of discourse, that is brother to the written speech, but of unquestioned legitimacy?...The sort that goes together with knowledge, and is written in the soul of the learner....”
Phaedrus, the young man with whom Socrates is speaking, replies: “ You mean no dead discourse, but the living speech, the original of which the written discourse may fairly be called a kind of image.”
Socrates: “Precisely.” ( Phaedrus 275,276)
The “living speech” to which Plato refers is face to face human dialogue, the immediate give and take of living human beings. The Biblical word originated in living speech, for which the written Bible, to use Plato’s term, is “a kind of image.”
But the Bible is not only a reminder of living speech from long ago. It is also an inexhaustible moderator of dialogue between those who come together in each generation for thoughtful study of the Biblical word. The living speech of Scripture finds its present voice in this ongoing dialogue.

Earl is expressing what came to be a central concern for Martin Buber, who argued that developing a living relationship with the text meant recovering its origin as spoken word. The Hebrew Bible was meant to be heard, as if one were being addressed, and not to be studied as a book, as an object of examination. Earl and I tried to recover this quality by encouraging study as conversation; a dialogue between the text and the reader, between readers while they are reading, and between members of the reading community and God who is speaking. All this like one grand cacophony. In this way, reading and listening become closely bound.

Martin Buber, with his colleague Franz Rosenzweig, went further by translating the Hebrew Bible into German in such fashion as to preserve the actual rhythms of speech present in the Hebrew text. For example, they divided phrases according to the necessities of breathing, tone and intensity of voice, rather than using the grammatical rules of prose that pervade our own English translations. In addition, this emphasis on the oral character of the Bible, led the two to pay close attention to the repetition of Hebrew words and sounds, embedded everywhere in the text—the elements that make up the very stuff of speech. Some consider this highlighting of repetition in the Biblical text one of the great contributions to contemporary Biblical study. Robert Alter, for example, in his wonderful Art of Biblical Narrative, devotes an entire chapter on how to read with an eye toward repetition. This is a very helpful introduction for English readers.

The Hebrew text uses repetition as an important literary tool. English writers generally work hard to avoid it, thereby creating an endless supply of synonyms to save the ear from our conditioned aversion to redundancy. However, repetition is retained in some of our finest rhetoric. Consider the historic speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in l963. King repeats the phrase “I have a dream” again and again, each time building in power and intensity, while drawing out the implications of his dream of justice. In addition, each repetition of the phrase gathers a kind of momentum which gathers such substance that we come to believe in the dream’s ultimate incarnation. The use of repetition helps to fix our ears on the message, much like the repetition of musical theme in a piece of music. Repetition helps us to remember. African American preaching has a deep rhythmic and musical quality. Martin Luther King, Jr. uses repetition to hold and focus our attention, while underscoring the central theme—dreams! Martin Buber likened repetition to “leitmotiv” in music, where themes and variations also carry us backward and forward throughout a piece, weaving the various parts into a whole. He called these carefully placed words, lead words—words that point to or lead toward some deeper place.

Let us see how recognizing repetition in a passage reveals different layers of meaning. Here are the opening verses of I Kings. We are near the end of David’s life, and at the beginning of a second revolt from within his family.

King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm. (2) So his servants said to him, “Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king, and be his attendant; let her lie in your bosom, so that my lord the king may be warm.” (3) So they searched for a beautiful girl throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king. (4) The girl was very beautiful. She became the King’s attendant and served him, but the king did not know her sexually. (5) Now Adonijah son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “ I will be king;” he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. NRSV

When we try to locate and interpret “lead words” we should keep in mind the following points, adapted from Earl Schwartz’s introduction to repetition in the City Gates curriculum quoted above.

1. Lead words appear to be superfluous. They are repeated where we would expect to find an equivalent term, pronoun, or no word at all. They add no further information and so feel redundant. In the text above listen to how many times the word “king” is used. We know David is the king and do not need to be reminded. The New English Bible, unable to tolerate the noise created by too many redundant “kings” rewrites the score so that the sound is more familiar:

Let us find a young virgin for your majesty, to attend you and take care of you; and let her lie in your bosom, sir, and make you warm.

Whew! Much better on our ears. They edit out king several times and replace it with “majesty” or “Sir,” or drop it all together. They got the point and presented it in a more lyrical English style.

But they also gave up something—the deliberate and emphatic reminder that this old man before us, this old man who can’t keep himself warm, this bed ridden old man is still the king, even though he is only a ghost of his former glory. In addition, as we are forced to remember that an old and cold king is still king, an ironic contrast is drawn from our memories of this once, virile and lusty shepherd boy. Even a beautiful young virgin cannot arouse the king. This is David after all! The repetition of king sounds out like some death bell tolling the shocking image before our eyes: the king! the king! the king! How the mighty have fallen! Fallen, not on the battlefield of honor, but wrinkled and shaking in the chill air under his blankets. Long live the king! The Hebrew ear hears six times, “melek!” “king”! Who is the recitation for? For whose benefit is this lead word employed?

The last and seventh use of the lead word “king” in this short section comes on the lips of Adonijah, David’s son. “I will be king,” he says! Perhaps he figures this is his chance. An old and cold king is a powerless king. The time is at hand for seizing the throne. He figures that David will be as impotent a warrior as he is a lover.

2. Here is a second important observation that seems to accompany repetition. Particular attention should be paid to repetitive sets of three, seven, or ten members. Wherever clusters of three, seven, or ten appear we can be reasonably sure that the repetitive pattern is deliberate. In the opening scene we are given a set of seven. Thus, the whole book will take on the name from this initial pattern even as it will be dominated by its central concern—Kings!

The use of repetition is a wonderful tool in the hands of these Hebrew writers who practice their art with the economics of a desert people. The superfluous use of a single word conveys a whole library of meaning, it is accomplished with a minimum of effort, and it is done without interrupting the flow of the narrative. We will spend more time listening for these lead words as they appear and we will follow them into the regions to which they point.