Text Messages in Tanach

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29 Jan 2018

We all know the potential, in our age of email and texting, for the written word to be misunderstood in tone. I still remember the first email argument I got into as a teenager, before there were emojis to help smooth things out, because of one such misunderstanding. Of course, the tone might be obvious to the “speaker” (well, writer), and only after a blow-up has hurt everyone involved do we perhaps realize “Oh, now I see how you read that!”

If we go back to history even more ancient than my high school years ;-) (See how useful they are?), we find that not much has changed under the sun: Even in Tanach, written words are often subject to different readings depending on what tone one ascribes to the speaker.

Take, for instance, the story of Gidon in Shoftim Chapter 6 – a story that, as I have been working through it recently with a couple of high school students, I have become convinced is not taught nearly enough in our schools.

When we first meet Gidon in 6:11, he is threshing wheat in a winepress. Why there, instead of in a granary? The pasuk explains that he was trying to avoid Midianite raiders who had been terrorizing the Jews and stealing their food (see Verses 1-6). Armed with that information, consider the following exchange:

12 And the angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him: ‘The LORD is with you, mighty man of valor.’

13 And Gideon said to him: ‘Oh, my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where are all His wondrous works which our fathers told us of, saying: Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt? but now the LORD has cast us off, and delivered us into the hand of Midian.’[1]

Imagine Gidon, brought so low as to be hiding in a winepress to thresh his wheat, hearing a stranger (later pesukim indicate he did not know it was an angel) hail him with “G-d is with you!” and call him a “mighty man of valor.” What sort of emotional response might that provoke? Yehuda Elitzur, in the Daat Mikra commentary, points out that hearing the phrase “Hashem is with you!” – though it was simply a standard greeting of the time (see Rut 2:4) – and being called a “mighty man of valor” would likely have been “a painful contrast to the low situation and lack of salvation of one who is threshing wheat in a winepress.”

But still, even with the clear pain coming through Gidon’s words, the slant of that pain is less clear. My students, when we first read verse 13 together, took Gidon’s response as sarcasm: “Oh, really? G-d is with me? Then what am I doing here; why isn’t He performing miracles to help me thresh my wheat in peace instead of living in fear of these Midianites?! I’m a mighty man, am I?!” (Sometimes extra punctuation can do the job of emojis; alas, Tanach leaves that out as well.)

Metzudat David, however, portrays Gidon differently:

בקש ממנו להשיבו על דבריו, ואמר לו: ואם אמת שיש ה’ עמנו, למה אם כן מצא אותנו הרעה

He requested of him to answer him about his words, and said to him, “If it is true that Hashem is with us, why then has this evil befallen us?”

In Metzudat David’s portrayal, Gidon doesn’t sound so angry and sarcastic, mocking the greeting with a rhetorical question. Rather, it is a real question: he is asking for an answer. Gidon is not angry; he is sad, yet hoping against hope that there could be an explanation for his nation’s predicament and that Hashem might indeed yet be with them.

This ambiguity in tone continues through most of their dialogue, which might lead a reader to wonder: Why would a prophetic text preserve such a lack of clarity? Why not use, if not emojis or creative punctuation, a few more words that would clarify Gidon’s tone so we could appreciate the account more accurately?

Of course, the question extends way beyond this example.  Often, the notion of “70 faces of the Torah” can feel overwhelming; many students of Tanach would rather identify one “right” explanation, and wonder why things couldn’t have been stated more clearly. Perhaps the ambiguity in our example can offer some insight. In this case, I think the ambiguity itself is instructive, as it serves to highlight the fine line between two very different types of reactions.

With the very same words, Gidon may have been expressing either anger and derision or a beseeching hope out of the depths of his pain. It is a short distance from one to the other, and one might even suggest that the bridge can be crossed by an act of will. Could Gidon possibly have been caught between the two, struggling within himself to determine whether it was emotionally safe to welcome the hope offered by this stranger as a real possibility? Portraying that struggle certainly enhances the telling of the story, and our appreciation of Gidon’s character. Could the Navi possibly want to highlight for us how short that bridge really is, and how we might require only a subtle shift in tone to choose a more positive perspective? Certainly, portraying that potential could offer a powerful lesson for generations of readers.

When presented with a discouraging circumstance, how do we react? When a glimmer of hope is raised, do we snatch it and hold to it or do we deride and dismiss it? When we have questions, do we ask them sarcastically, as if we think we already know the answer (or don’t care to) – or do we genuinely ask for answers, because we long to discover truths that might settle our doubts?  Can we actively choose between the two?

One might also point out that the choice does not lie with the speaker alone. The textual ambiguity in Gidon’s dialogue with the angel gives us, as readers, room to determine how we think Gidon meant it, and what we might learn about and from him based on that meaning. The same choices exist in our everyday communications as well. If I receive a cryptic text, do I bristle at the rudeness or do I assume the friend was simply in a hurry? If I’m not sure whether an email was meant sarcastically, do I assume the best or the worst? Which one should I assume?

In the story of Gidon, it might be appropriate to read anger and bitterness in his tone; it may well have been entirely appropriate for him to feel that way in his terrible situation, and recognizing that enhances our understanding of the narrative. In our own lives, however, as we continually determine the stories of our relationships, we might do better to respond to ambiguity in tone with favorable interpretations and positive responses.

[1] Translation modified from JPS 1917 version as found at www.mechon-mamre.org

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.