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A Tribute to the Musical Story Teller

music sheet small sxc huOne of the great things about learning Hebrew is the ability to share in the feel of the stories beyond raw content. Good writing uses language as more than just a mechanism for passing data; it communicates with a measure of art, and, at times, music, working rhyme,[1] alliteration,[2]  assonance,[3] consonance,[4] pun, homonyms of various types, etc. As Robert Frost observes, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”[5] You will never be a native listener, but being able to listen to the cadence of the story on any level is an improvement over translation, and may, at times, be a clue to a biblical author’s meaning.

Let me warn you in advance. This is going to be a tough one, but if you work hard and stick it out, reading parts of this out loud, even if you don’t understand the sounds you’ll be making, you’ll be glad you did.

Take the flood story for instance. The story is told with a special working of the consonant sounds in Noah’s name in Hebrew. It is hard to express them in writing, but let me try. Noah’s name is נֹחַ pronounced know-och… the CH is like the CH in Loch Ness Monster.

Whatever Noah’s name was in actually history[6] [Yes, I believe there was a real flood hero], to the Hebrew, his name means “Rest.”

“Wait! Did you say rest? Doesn’t the story of his birth say that it means “comfort.” Doesn’t it say, in Genesis 5:29 “and he called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed, this one shall bring us comfort from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.”?”

Why yes it does say that, but the play is more subtle. The text toys with the consonance between Noah (נֹחַ Know-och) (rest) and (נחם Na-cham) (comfort)… again, the CH is scratchy like the CH in Loch Ness Monster. One might, with an amused smile, see this comfort in bringing wine from the ground, but the idea of curse returns in 8:21, suggesting something much bigger in terms of a confrontation of man’s cursed existence.

This consonance continues throughout the story with several major terms falling under its spell.

In Genesis 6:8, Noah (נֹחַ Know-och) finds favor (חֵ֖ן Ch-ain) in the eyes of YHWH.  It reverses the name… and don’t forget to keep working that scratchy CH from Loch Ness Monster.

Genesis 6:9 draws in an earlier reminder of Noah’s (נֹחַ Know-och) forbear Enoch (חֲנ֔וֹךְ Cha-noch) from Genesis 5:24— וַיִּתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ חֲנ֖וֹךְ אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑יםwhen it replicates similar phrases for each hero, still working those scratchy throat sounds, אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ—they both walked (Hit-ha-lech) with God (E-lo-heem).[7]

One finds important plays between the repeated terms “regret” or its homonym “comfort” (נחם Na-cham) and “destroy” (מחה Ma-chah) where one predicts Noah’s worth (Gen 5:29) and God’s regret (Genesis 6:6-7), and the other describes God’s plan for destroying man in his regret (Genesis 6:7; Gen 7:4; Gen 7:23).[8]

In Genesis 8:1, God remembers Noah (נֹחַ Know-och) and the waters calm/come to rest (וַיָּשֹׁ֖כּוּ Wa-yash-shok-koo), leading to “and the ark rested” (וַתָּ֤נַח הַתֵּבָה֙ wat-ta-nach hat-tate-tabah) in Genesis 8:4.  Wow… sorry for all the sounding out of words you don’t know, but I want to help you hear the beauty of the unfolding consonance in the story linking these vital concepts. Next, we find from Genesis 8:9-12 that the dove both fails and succeeds in finding (מָנ֜וֹחַ Ma-know-och) A resting place (8:9-12).  The waters rest, the arks rests, the dove rests.

Genesis 8:21 returns the reader to the birth prophecy of Noah, continuing to work the Noah consonants. After noting, “YHWH smelledרֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ)  ray-och han-nee-cho-och) the soothing aroma”, he promises, “I will not again curse the ground on account of man.”[9]  R. El’azar ben Pedath says of Noah’s name, “Because of his sacrifice he was called so.”[10]  Wenham writes, “‘Soothing’ (הַנִּיחֹחַ han-nee-cho-och) sacrifices have a (נֹחַ Know-och) restful, soothing, pacifying effect on God. That God’s anger at sin is appeased by sacrifice is the clear implication of this phrase.  Here it is also a deliberate pun on Noah’s name.  We might even paraphrase it, ‘The Lord smelt the Noahic sacrifice.'”[11]  Polak says, “Thus, the very name of the surviving hero turns into a symbol of the polarity of destruction and hope for the future, which is fundamental to the structure of the narrative.”[12]

So, to the native listener, the story of Noah works the consonants of Noah stringing together a picture in musical writing of a Hero born to comfort the human race, bring peace with God through soothing sacrifice, as God’s determination to destroy man is counterbalanced in Noah’s favor, as Noah, like the waters, the ark, and dove, finds a place of rest.

And rest? That is one of the most important concepts in Ancient Near Eastern warfare… the battle has ended, the foundations of the kingdom have been laid, and the king takes to building up the infrastructure of his kingdom from a position of strength and safety, basking in the prosperity and peace of a kingdom at rest.

 



[1] Working repetitive sounds at the endings of words.

[2] Working repetitive sounds in the beginnings of words.

[3] Working repetitive vowels sounds in words.

[4] Working repetitive consonant sounds in words.

[5] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/625-poetry-is-what-gets-lost-in-translation

[6] The root of Noah, נֹחַ plays an important role in Genesis 6-9, and may connect with each of the Mesopotamian heroes historically.  Whatever the Heb ear made out of their flood hero’s name, some scholars have argued for an Ethiopic etymology for Noah, suggesting length. Ethiopic ኖኀ (noḫa) be extended, long, rarely rest. BDB ” “נֹחַ” 628.  This is similar to the Sumerian flood hero’s name, Ziusudra’s “life of long days,” which is connected to the Gilgamesh flood hero, Utnapishtim, he who found life, who is also called Atra-ḫasis. Cassuto, Genesis, Noah to Abraham, 17.

[7]Sasson, “Word Play,” 66.

[8]Cassuto, Genesis I, 303, 307.

[9]George Berry, “The Heb Word jwn,” JBL 50 (1931): 207-10, 209.

[10]Midrash Bereshith Rabbah, 25:2.

[11]Wenham, Genesis, 189.

[12]Polak, “‘The Restful Waters,” 71.

[13] Media pic is from sxc.hu

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