Thursday, January 1, 2009

Ruth - pure story

Imagine you are sitting in the cool of the evening around a campfire and the voice begins

Vayehi bimei shepot hashoptim
- or if you prefer וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים
Now there was in the days of the judgment of the judges

What was? Have I got your attention? This is a chain of nouns - read slowly. Cover the transcription and sound out the Hebrew. The definite article is on the third noun so the other leading nouns inherit it. But time works backwards. When we hear bimei, בִּימֵי in days, we don't yet know if the days are specific or not. When we hear shepot, שְׁפֹט we don't yet know if judgment is specific, but when we here ha הַ - then hashoptim הַשֹּׁפְטִים, we place the story in the days of the judges. The specific is established but there is tension in the telling. The tension is built into the language. The end of the phrase is like a musical cadence, in this case, a half-close.

I rendered va וַ as now - but it is as if this is part of a continuing narrative. It is one of the many aspects of vav, in this case pronouced va because of the yod which follows it. The vav is used as a textual connector. Vav means hook as in the hooks that join the curtains to their places in the tabernacle. So vav hooks together words into a narrative. The vav walks like an upright human - are we all hooks to each other that we might make a holy temple for the dwelling place of Ha-Shem?

All this goes through your mind unconsciously as the storyteller begins. You shift a little on the log to taste the cool air and balance your limbs

vayehi ra`av ba-aretz
- notice the repeated word וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ
and there was a famine in the land.

You note that this is a story - there are two invocations of 'once upon a time'. The identified time also has a curious name - the judgment of the judges - or when the judges were judging. Here we can see the 'root' שפט of a word and a plural form with the suffix ים.

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים
וַיְהִי רָעָב בָּאָרֶץ
Who is the story about?

vayelek ish mibeyitlexem yehudah
וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה
and he went a man from the house of bread (Bethlehem) of Judah

It's important, don't you think, to know that there was famine in the house of bread! It takes longer to say this fragment than the first two. Note how it begins with a va again and we don't know 'who' went quite yet nor where he went.

lagur bisdei mo-av
לָגוּר בִּשְׂדֵי מֹואָב
to stay in the fields of Moab

You slip from your perch on the log, relaxing into the desert sand behind, your back burrowing into its grainy touch. You're not going to stay in this sand for ever, but you make yourself a bit comfortable. Moab is a specific place so the chain of nouns is again specific. You think the storyteller is quite lilting with the poesy of the raconteur.

hu, ve-ishto, ushenei vanaiv
הוּא וְאִשְׁתֹּו וּשְׁנֵי בָנָֽיו
he, his wife, and his two sons

Must translate as his two sons in this case. [A different word for child will appear in verse 5 and in chapter 4 at the end of the story as we will see.] Note the flexibility of that hook - at the beginning of the first two sentences is preceded a yod and so was pronounced va. Now it precedes an alef and is pronounced ve and a shin where it becomes -u-. But it is all the same connector.

veshem ha-ish elimelek
וְשֵׁם הָאִישׁ אֱֽלִימֶלֶךְ
and the name of the man was Elimelek

Now for introductions by name. Each name has a story and a hope. The name of the man, God is king.

veshem ishto na`ami
וְשֵׁם אִשְׁתֹּו נָעֳמִי
and the name of his wife Naomi

The name of his wife, Pleasant

veshem shenei-vanaiv maxlon vechilion
וְשֵׁם שְׁנֵֽי־בָנָיו מַחְלֹון וְכִלְיֹון
and the name of his sons, Maxlon and Chilion

and the name of his sons, Mild, and Pining

Ephratim mibeyitlexem yehudah
אֶפְרָתִים מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה
Ephratites from Bethlehem of Judah

In case you were asleep, the storyteller repeats where they were from with a little more information as to their tribe
vayabo-u sdei mo-av
וַיָּבֹאוּ שְׂדֵי־מֹואָב
and they came to the fields of Moab

and closes the bracket with where they were going to
vayiheyu sham
and they were there
and where they stayed.
vayamat elimelek ish na`ami
וַיָּמָת אֱלִימֶלֶךְ אִישׁ נָעֳמִי
and he died Elimelek the husband of Naomi

Whoa - wake up - something has happened. Notice the form of man אִישׁ (ish) and woman אשה (ishah) but with the vav suffix for 'his', it is אִשְׁתֹּו, (ishto) his wife.

vatisher hi ushenei vaneiah
וַתִּשָּׁאֵר הִיא וּשְׁנֵי בָנֶיהָ
and she was bereft and her two sons

She was bereft - passive voice - Niphal conjugation. The sons are her sons now that were earlier stated as his. Note the he הוּא (hu) and the she הִיא (hi) and the masculine בָנָיו and feminine בָנֶיהָ pronouns indicating this as part of the word for the children בן. That ב could have a dagesh (dot) in it when it stands alone. In this story, one would hear a 'v' but the word might also sound with a 'b' if it began a phrase. It depends on the preceding noises and stresses whether b or v is easier to say.

to be continued ...

Update: just found this resource on Ruth


rbarenblat said...

What a lovely close reading; I look forward to the next installment.

A couple of years ago I published a long blog post on the book of Ruth. I don't know whether it will be interesting to you, but I offer the link in case it is:

Ruth: Returning where we've never been

Bob MacDonald said...

Rachel - I am delighted you have enjoyed this first excursion of mine into narrative - and grammar. I just sat down and tried to read the Hebrew alone - that is still difficult for me. And as I read, I realized that it was pure story - as if a dear friend was reading to me. I found this so refreshing in comparison to the ways in which our history imposes meaning. I know there is a very large meaning to this story - but for now, it is just story for me. And a good exercise in hearing the language as an almost 3-year old.

I will look forward to a reading of your link - thank you.

Bob MacDonald said...

For a pdf on the consonants and vowels and a fun reading exercise in English click here