Lost In Translation: Genealogies

“And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begot Isaac(VaEile toledot Izhak) this is the beginning of the new Torah Portion, Toledot. These very words, VaEile toledot, occur eleven times in the book of Genesis, serving as a heading for its major divisions and “making descent a keystone of biblical history”[1]. Eleven? Wouldn’t you expect it to be twelve? It’s as if some Toledot – some genealogy – is missing there. This feeling is amplified when we realize that we have Toledot of everyone in Genesis—of Adam, Noah and the sons of Noah,  Terah (Abraham’s Father), Isaac and  Ishmael (Abraham’s sons), Jacob, of Esau and many others—however, we don’t have Toledot of Abraham. There are no Toledot of the most important person in Jewish history, and even though it’s easy for us to follow Abraham’s genealogy, the Torah never says: these are the generations of Abraham… Why? What is the message of these missing Toledot?

Unlike Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Abraham didn’t grow up in a family that knew and worshipped God. The missing Toledot of Abraham makes it very clear: the story and the history of Abraham begin from his personal search and personal revelation. Yes, God builds the whole nation from Abraham, but the beginning of this building is very abrupt, it starts from God’s personal intervention.  And this is in fact, the message of these missing Toledot: to everyone – even to those who grew up in completely dysfunctional or atheistic families – Abraham can say, I was just like you!

 

Like Father, Like Son?  

This portion begins right after the death of Abraham, and one might expect that now the Bible’s attention would switch to Isaac. However, it shifts almost immediately to Isaac’s children. Of all the three patriarchs, Isaac’s personality is the least clearly defined, so much in his life looks like a repetition of Abraham’s experience – therefore, in the eyes of many students of the Bible, Isaac is just a link between Abraham and Jacob. However, I personally think that Scripture depicts Isaac as a very real product of real circumstances. He was the child of his parents’ old age and was probably overprotected in his youth. His mother was a woman of strong character, his father’s great status must have appeared almost intimidating to his son. He lost his stepbrother, whom I believe he loved deeply. On top of it all, he was nearly killed by his father. Traumatic experiences seem to have followed him, so it’s no wonder that, as a result of all his sufferings and traumas, Isaac became a reflective, thoughtful, quiet person. Like everything else, it had both positive and negative connotations: He was probably emotional and tender, and that’s what we see in his relationship with Rebecca, but it could also mean that he was a weak person, and that’s what we see in his parenthood.

How do we know that Isaac was a tender husband? There is a verse in our portion that always touches my heart: “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer…” This verse provides us a glimpse into this marriage, into this couple’s very close and intimate relationship. Both Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Rachel, Jacob’s wife, were also barren, yet we don’t hear a single word in Scripture telling of their husbands praying for them. Moreover, Isaac’s prayer was very special: the word “prayed” here (in many translations it’s “pleaded”) renders the Hebrew word יֶעְתַּר (ye’etar) and is derived from the same root that is used in the second half of this verse, when “the LORD answered his prayer”.  Isaac pleaded (וַיֶּעְתַּ֙ר יִצְחָ֤ק) with the LORD, and the LORD pleaded back in answer to his plea (וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ יְהוָ֔ה). This whole dynamic between Isaac’s plea and the Lord’s answer is completely lost in translation – and yet, it’s precisely this dynamic, this passionate commitment to continue and press on, that brought the desired result: the LORD answered him and Rebecca his wife conceived. Rashi writes: “He (God) allowed Himself to be entreated and placated and swayed by him.”

Was Isaac Really Deceived?

Was Isaac also a good father? Scripture tells us about obvious parental favoritism in Isaac and Rebekah’s family. Remarkably, we don’t find here any judgment or any explanation: the Torah doesn’t justify, doesn’t excuse, doesn’t provide any comment at all – it simply states the facts: Isaac loved Esau … but Rebekah loved Jacob[2] – and we are left to wonder why. As always, Hebrew can help us here.

While most English translations call Esau “a man of the outdoors”, the original Hebrew text calls him “a man of a field”. This difference is important. Unlike his parents, Isaac was born in the Land, stayed in the Land his whole life, and at some point, he became the first farmer in his family: he sowed and reaped and became extremely blessed in that: “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold, and the Lord blessed him.”[3] Probably, that’s why Isaac loved Esau – they were both men of the field: “Oh, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed.”[4] The field is a symbol of the one who loves the land and nature, and Isaac and Esau probably spent a lot of time together outdoors, in the fields. I believe this is how their special bond was developed. But to see this, one has to know that in the original Hebrew text, Esau is called: “a man of a field”.

Everyone knows the story of Jacob pretending to be Esau and thus, through deceit, obtaining Isaac’s blessing. There have been endless disputes and discussions as to whether such deception was an acceptable means to achieve God’s purpose. Throughout the centuries, artists have painted expressive pictures depicting old, blind, and helpless Isaac, mistakenly blessing Jacob instead of Esau. However, was Isaac deceived?

Before answering this question, let’s read a short verse at the end of Genesis 26: when Esau was 40 years old, he took two local wives and they were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah”. This expression, “grief of mind”, renders the Hebrew expression marat ruah – literally, “bitterness of the spirit”. Thus, for a Hebrew reader, it’s very clear that these wives were a very serious source of frustration to both Isaac and Rebecca.

However, it was only after Isaac sent Jacob off to Padan-aram to take a wife from there, that the Torah shows us Esau realizing that “that the daughters of Canaan did not please his father Isaac”. Many years had passed since Esau took himself these wives (more than 30 years, according to some calculations), and evidently, over all these years, Isaac was not able to face Esau and tell him how unhappy he was with his choice. Having this special bond with Esau, soft and quiet Isaac is not able to face him with any disappointing or challenging truth.

Thus, we can read the story of the “stolen blessing” in a very different way. Maybe Isaac knows very well that the blessing belongs to Jacob, but he just couldn’t face his beloved son with this message. Jacob’s lie comes as a godsend: Isaac pretends to be deceived, all the while being aware of Jacob’s identity, and blesses the son that was supposed to be blessed!

Water of Life

In this Torah portion, we find another amazing example of the “lost in translation” treasures of Hebrew Scriptures: Isaac reopened the wells of Abraham (“for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham”) and he called them “after the names by which his father had called them,” and then – what did he find there? In English, we read that they found a well of running water or spring water. However, it sounds much more profound in Hebrew.

Surprisingly, the Hebrew words for “running water” here are Mayim Hayim (מים חיים – Living water, or Water of life). True, on a physical level, Mayim Hayim can refer to running water, and in this sense, the translation is correct, but these words also have a deep spiritual meaning, which is completely lost in translation – the significance of the words Mayim Hayim, “Living Water”, cannot be overestimated. Every time these words are used in Scripture, they always refer to the spiritual level—to God’s Spirit, to God’s Water of Life.

 

 

[1] The Torah: A Modern Commentary, NY, 1981, p .29

[2] Gen. 25:28

[3] Gen. 26:12

[4] Gen. 27:27

 

 

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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. John burnett

    I’m sort of amazed at this—

    the story and the history of Abraham begin from his personal search
    probably overprotected in his youth
    his father’s great status must have appeared almost intimidating to his son
    his stepbrother, whom I believe he loved deeply
    no wonder that, as a result of all his sufferings and traumas, Isaac became a reflective, thoughtful, quiet person
    He was probably emotional and tender
    it could also mean that he was a weak person
    Probably, that’s why Isaac loved Esau
    Isaac and Esau probably spent a lot of time together outdoors, in the fields
    I believe this is how their special bond was developed
    evidently, over all these years, Isaac was not able to face Esau
    Having this special bond with Esau, soft and quiet Isaac is not able to face him with any disappointing or challenging truth.

    ELEVEN times this short article speculates about emotional or sentimental states to which the Text gives no attention at all— and apart from the one about Abraham’s “personal search”, all these speculations are about emotions, which is interesting. What is this need to *make up* emotional or sentimental stories when we read Scripture?

    I’ve never forgotten something the German biblical scholar Rolf Rendtorff once said— whenever we find words like “probably”, “evidently”, “must have”— and even worse, expressions like, “without doubt”, “unquestionably”, “surely”— we must realize that whatever statement follows, it will be something for which there is not a shred of evidence in the Text.

    And it’s a very questionable interpretation which is based on speculation and fantasy. But eleven times in twelve paragraphs??

    I did enjoy the points about the hebrew expressions, though. However, we have no information about any “personal search” on Abraham’s part. For all we know, he might have just put in another day balancing the books when Yhwh spoke to him. Isn’t that part of the story— that God chose him out of the blue, not because he was great but because God wanted to start with him for his own sovereign purposes?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi John, I don’t know how much you are familiar with the “70 faces of the Torah” concept. The amazing thing about Judaism is that there is no singular explanation for everything in the Scripture. The fundamentalist view of the Torah claims that every word of it is correct and comes from God, – it doesn’t mean, however, that every word has a singular meaning. In fact, every word of the Torah has multiple meanings found in it, and multiple lessons to teach, it speaks differently to every person, and everyone finds different meanings in it. If you open any Jewish text, you would find there completely different, sometimes opposite opinions about almost every verse of Tanach. As for emotions – well, the characters in the Torah were very real people, with very real emotions; and I think we have the right to read between the lines and to see their emotions there. For instance, in the very beginning of chapter 12, Abraham is willing and able to leave everything and everybody behind in order to obey God, yet just a few verses later, the very same man who just committed an act of incredible courage commits an act of incredible cowardice. For me, however, Abraham’s faith and Abraham’s obedience become even more precious after this story. Now we know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that he is no superman, that he has weaknesses and fears, that he is neither very courageous nor brave by nature. Nevertheless, he had a unique and amazing faith as the strongest feature of his character, and because of this faith, he becomes an amazing person, doing incredible things for the Lord, never using his emotions or fears as an excuse. And there are many examples where this emotional extrapolation had been done before: when you read Genesis 22, The Sacrifice of Isaac, don’t you assume that it was very difficult to Abraham to go to that mountain? Yet, the Torah doesn’t say anything about it! would it be also “a very questionable interpretation which is based on speculation and fantasy”?

  2. Gladys Fox

    Thank you so much Julia .
    As always you teach me many things and verify other things . You brought to light something I was pondering recently ..
    I had been watching ( virtually ) a group of people that were talking about Rebecca’s pregnancy and how she was suffering .
    They had many wonderful ideas but didn’t talk about Rebecca herself . I had no way to contact them ,so I couldn’t tell them my thoughts .
    Just in case you are going to write about Rebecca’s pregnancy in your next blog I will wait to tell you what you helped verify for me until then .
    May GOD be with you and all you and your readers love .

  3. Donald Ashton

    Julia,
    I am not sure that generations is the best translation for tol’dot.

    The important question is “does tol’dot introduce a new narrative section, or terminate the previous narrative section?

    My studies have led me to think that every use of tol’dot terminates a section of the text. But this then does not really make sense with ‘generations’ as a translation. (Especially for the first occurrence)

    To me each section of text terminated by tol’dot tells us of the contemporaries of the identified person and indicates the continuous nature of existence.

    The text then starts a new section with that person and identifies those who lived during their lifetime.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Donald, sorry for the delay. I remember responding to your comment, but probably, it was in my head only. Of course, I agree with you that “generations” is not the best translation of “toledot”, but it’s how NKJV renders it, it’s not my translation. I would rather translate it as “genealogy”, even though it’s not a hundred percent exact translation either. As for your question: “does tol’dot introduce a new narrative section, or terminate the previous narrative section?” – I tend to see this word as a literary bridge, holding together two parts of the story. For instance, we find it for the very first time in Genesis 2:4, where it opens the second account of creation and terminates the first one: it’s like a bridge connecting these two accounts: we would not read Genesis 2 without first reading Genesis 1, would we? Another example is the opening verse of the New Testament: it is also like a bridge connecting and holding together two very important parts of Scripture: the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. It’s how I see this word and this sentence.

  4. LaDana Miller

    I just studied these scriptures this week. God surprises me. I love learning meaning and thereby getting understanding and then wisdom. Thank you Julia for clarity.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your kind words, I am glad this article was helpful!

  5. Marge

    Also, at the birth of the twins the message from the LORD was that the elder, (Esau) shall serve the younger, (Issac.)

    1. Julia Blum

      Of course, Marge, this is how this message has always been translated. However, it is very ambiguous in Hebrew. If the sentence is to be translated as “the older will serve the younger” than the word את (et) is missing before צָעִֽיר. Withoutאת (et) it is not clear which word is the definite direct object. It is not clear if the younger will serve the older or the other way around: the text without the directive marker את (et) can work both ways!

  6. Viera Emunah

    …..”the message of these missing Toledot: to everyone – even to those who grew up in completely dysfunctional or atheistic families – Abraham can say, I was just like you!”
    Dear Julia, thank you for your deep insight at the lives of our patriarches.
    Touching .

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Viera, I am really glad you find my articles deep and touching!