Kavanot: Yawning Chiasm

Thoughts on Tanach and the Davening

After the verse (שמואל א כה:א)‎ וימת שמואל ויקבצו כל ישראל ויספדו לו ויקברהו בביתו ברמה; ויקם דוד וירד אל מדבר פארן, there is a long (42 psukim) story about נבל and אביגיל. The author (not שמואל at this point because וימת שמואל) clearly felt it was important, going into so much detail. It is one of the longest stories in שמואל. Compare the last pasuk in the story (שמואל א כה:מג)‎ ואת אחינעם לקח דוד מיזרעאל; ותהיין גם שתיהן לו לנשים. That’s all the detail we get about David’s marriage to אחינעם and her family is important; her son is אמנן of the story of אמנן and תמר.‎ אביגיל's son is דניאל, and we never hear from him. Plus, it’s a story that most of us know so little about it. So I’m going to skip it. For now.

Let’s go to the very end of the perek:

ושאול נתן את מיכל בתו אשת דוד; לפלטי בן ליש אשר מגלים׃

שמואל א כה:מד

I’m going to leave a discussion of exactly what happened with Michal for now, and just look at the grammar: שָׁאוּל נָתַן is in the past perfect, which means it happened before the story in context (in this case, the story of Avigail). This sort of grammatical construct is common in תנ״ך, as a sort of “meanwhile…”.

והאדם ידע את חוה אשתו; ותהר ותלד את קין ותאמר קניתי איש את ה׳׃

בראשית ד:א

כבר קודם הענין של מעלה, קודם שחטא ונטרד מגן עדן, וכן ההריון והלידה, שאם כתב וידע אדם נשמע שלאחר שנטרד היו לו בנים.

רש״י, שם

ויוסף הורד מצרימה; ויקנהו פוטיפר סריס פרעה שר הטבחים איש מצרי מיד הישמעאלים אשר הורדהו שמה׃

בראשית לט:א

חוזר לענין ראשון, אלא שהפסיק בו כדי לסמוך ירידתו של יהודה למכירתו של יוסף…

רש״י, שם

So Saul giving away Michal is really a return to the previous narrative, “he had given Michal his daughter”. דעת מקרא points out that this cuts the connection between Saul and David. In the previous perek, David call Saul אבי, and Saul calls him בני דוד. But now Saul is annulling Michal’s marriage. As a result of the death of Samuel and Saul’s losing his chance of regaining the מלכות, he completely breaks with David.

And as we scan forward, we notice something interesting:

כו:א—The Ziphites betray David to Saul. We’ve seen this before.

כו:ה-ט—David has a chance to kill Saul but overrides the advice of his men and spares Saul. We’ve seen this before as well.

כז:א—David runs to the land of the Philistines, to the king of Gath. That is exactly how David’s journey in מדבר יהודה started! What’s is going on with all the repetition?

One explanation of the repetition is that the book we have in front of us is an amalgamation of older fragments of stories, each incomplete retellings of older tales. This is the Documentary Hypothesis. As believing Jews, this is anathema when applied to the Torah, but it’s not so unreasonable for נ״ך. We would all agree that תהילים‎ is composed of multiple works, and דברי הימים is generally understood to have been assembled from older chronologies:

מה שלא נתיחס יותר זהו הטעם כמפורש בשלהי מגילת ירושלמי ג׳ ספרים מצא עזרא וכל אחד ואחד מן היחס ומה שמצא כתב ומה שלא מצא לא כתב.

רש״י, דברי הימים ז:יג, ד״ה בני נפתלי יחציאל וגו׳

פרשה זו עד כל אלה בני אצל כתובה ב׳ פעמים בספר זה …וזהו שמפרש בסוף מגילת ירושלמי ג׳ ספרים מצא עזרא ספר מעונים ספר זאטוטי ספר האחים ובטלו דברי האחד וקיימו דברי השנים. וכן מצאו הרבה ספרי יחוסין כשנמצא ג׳ או ה׳ בטלו המועט וקיימו המרובים וכשנמצאו זוגות כמו ובגבעון ישבו אבי גבעון הוצרך לכתוב שתי פעמים שאין סדר יחוסן שוה וכן היושבים הראשונים מצא זוגות וחלוקים זה על זה כתבוהו שני פעמים.

רש״י, דברי הימים ח:כט, ד״ה ובגבעון ישבו אבי גבעון

(It should be noted that the commentator printed as רש״י on דברי הימים is most likely not actually רש״י, but similar sentiments are recorded by other Rishonim)

But the biggest problem with the documentary hypothesis is that it is irrelevant. It inverts the role of the author and the source. What we have before us is a text, composed by one or more authors as a unitary work. The documentary hypothesis relegates what has been called the “redactor” to a blind monkey with scissors and paste. Meir Sternberg describes:

…the incredible abuse of this resource [investigation of a text’s sources] for over two hundred years of frenzied digging into the Bible’s genesis, so senseless as to elicit either laughter or tears. Rarely has there been such a futile expense of spirit in a noble cause; rarely have such grandiose theories of origination been built and revised and and pitted against one another on the evidential equivalent of the head of a pin; rarely have so many worked so long and so hard with so little to show for their trouble.

Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, p. 13

We look at the ספר as a literary work, one written by a human being with divine inspiration, and can see how the text itself is composed to further the author’s aims.

Across all doctrinal boundaries, inspiration simply figures as an institutional rule for writing and reading; and it is no more liable to questioning than the Bible’s rules of grammar…To make sense of the Bible in terms of its own conventions, one need not believe in either, but one must postulate both. And to postulate inspiration is to elevate the narrator to the status of omniscient historian, combining the otherwise irreconcilable postures or models: the constrained historian and the licensed fiction-maker.

Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, p. 81

As believing Jews, we have it easier in one way than the academics, since we have a definitive, true, text to work with: the Masoretic Text of תנ״ך. It means that we reject the possibility of “scribal misadventure”—typos—in the words we have today and will have to deal with the text as it is.

One literary form that helps pull the text together is chiasmus, meaning “shaped like a Greek chi, or Χ”. Ιt’s a form of parallelism where the second part is reversed from the first. It’s usually used in a single verse or stanza, to pull the whole thought together in a poetic way (similar to rhyme in English poetry):

הודו לה׳


בנבל עשור

זמרו לו׃

תהילים לג:ב‎


דל ויתום;

עני ורש


תהילים פב:ג







תהילים קמז:ד







בראשית ט:י

But there’s a form of literary chiasmus as well, where the themes of successive paragraphs are arranged as a sequence that goes back on itself. For example, the narrative after יציאת מצרים:

פרשת בא—גלוי שכינה (מכות)

פרק יד—מלכמת מצרים (ים סוף)

פרק טו:כב-כו—מים (מרה)

פרק טו:כז—אוכל (שבעים תמרים באלים)

פרק טז—אוכל (מָן ושלו)

פרק יז:א-ז—מים (מִן הצור)

פרק יז:ח-טז—מלכמת עמלק

פרשת יתרו—גלוי שכינה (מתן תורה)

פרשת בשלח

There is much discussion in the modern literature about the meaning, even the existence, of much of this chiastic structure, but there’s generally a sense of progression; something happens that brings us back to where we started but with a difference. Here we might talk about the change of בני ישראל from passive observers to active participants, ואכמ״ל.

There’s also a form of literary chiasmus with a central element that is not paralleled (what Rabbi Grossman calls “concentric”). This serves to draw attention to that central element, presumably the axis around which the reversal takes place. For instance, in מגלת אסתר:

A Introduction—the royal power of Achashverosh (1:1)

B Two Persian feasts: one for the provincial ministers (180 days), and a special second one for the residents of Shushan (7 days) (Ch. 1)

C Esther comes before the king and is chosen as queen (Ch. 2)

D Describing the greatness of Haman: “King Achashverosh advanced Haman ben Hammedata the Agagite and he elevated him” (3:1-2).

E Casting the lots: war on the 13th of Adar (3:3-7).

F Giving the ring to Haman; Haman’s letters; Mordekhai tears his garments; Esther and the Jews fast (3:8-4:17).

G Esther’s first feast: Haman comes out “happy and of good cheer” (5:1-8).

H Haman consults his kinsmen: optimism (5:9-14).

I The king’s insomnia and the journey on the royal horse (Ch. 6).

H1 Haman consults his kinsmen: pessimism (6:12-14).

G1 Esther’s second feast: Haman is hanged (Ch. 7).

F1 Giving the ring to Mordekhai; Mordekhai’s letters; Mordekhai is clothed in royal garments; the Jews feast (Ch. 8).

E1 The war on the 13th of Adar (9:1-2).

D1 Describing the greatness of Mordekhai and the Jews, who attack their enemies: “All of the ministers of the provinces… were elevating the Jews… for the man Mordekhai was advancing in prominence” (9:3-11).

C1 Esther comes to the king and asks for another day of war in Shushan (9:12-16).

B1 Two Jewish feasts: one for the Jews of all the provinces (the 14th of Adar) and a special second one for Jews of Shushan (the 15th of Adar) (9:17-32).

A1 Conclusion—the royal power of Achashverosh (Ch. 10).

Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman, Chiastic and Concentric Structures

I would propose that the narrative of David’s peregrination has a similar chiastic structure, but in pairs:

כא:יא—David runs to the Philistines
כג:ה—David saves Keilah

כג:יט—The Ziphites betray David
כד:ד—David spares Saul

כה:א—The response to Samuel’s death: Israel mourns and David runs

The story of אביגיל

כה:כד—The response to Samuel’s death: Saul breaks his family ties with David

כו:א—The Ziphites betray David
כו:י—David spares Saul

כז:ב—David runs to the Philistines
כז:ח—David saves southern Judah

שמואל א

The progression is clear: Saul’s authority and kingship is receding as David’s is increasing. The apex story here is that of אביגיל, and we will have to spend a fair amount of time on it.