Israel's Development as a Nation: Form, Storm, Norm, Perform
Leitwörter and Wordplay in the Torah: Three Examples
Martin Buber introduced the term Leitwort (literally “leading word”; Hebrew, מילה מנחה) to modern Biblical Studies to designate “a word or linguistic root that recurs within a text, a sequence of texts, or a complex of texts in an extremely meaningful manner.”
A. היום – Repetition
Everett Fox’s TABS essay, “Committing to the Covenant Today,” identifies a Leitwort in Parashat Nitzavim—the word היום (“today”)—and shows how the repetition of this term serves to emphasize the inclusiveness and timelessness of the divine message.
B. ברכה / בכורה –Wordplay
One variation of this powerful literary technique is the combination of Leitwort with wordplay. A prominent case is the recurrence of varying forms of the words berakha (ברכה) and bekhora (בכורה) in the Jacob-Esau cycle, highlighting the centrality of the rivalry over blessing and birthright in this narrative.
C. קבב / קבה – Repetition and Wordplay
A different sort of wordplay-Leitwort combination has been noticed in the clustering of roots with the letters qoph and bet in Parashat Balak (Num 22-25).
- קבב, meaning to curse or damn, appears ten times in these chapters;
- קבה, meaning tent, in Num 25:8;
- קבה, meaning belly, is used in 25:8 for the place of the mortal wound inflicted by Phineas on the Midianite woman.
The first of these roots, קבב, occurs elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible only four other times, twice in Job and twice in Proverbs. The second word is a hapax legomenon (i.e., a word that occurs only one time in a corpus–the Hebrew Bible in the current context). The last word occurs only one other time, at Deut 18:3.
Gary Rendsburg has described the use of rare words in this way as a “stretching of the usual lexicon” in order to achieve a literary effect. In the example at hand, some scholars have suggested that the repetition of qoph-bet roots in the Balak story, and especially the form לקב, may reflect wordplay with the name בלק- Balak.
Leitwort as Conveying Meaning
As noted above, Buber maintained that the purpose of the Leitwort was to convey meaning. Some subsequent scholars have questioned the extent to which literary effects ought to be viewed as having substantive functions beyond aesthetics. Although it is always difficult to guess at authorial intent, biblical and other ancient Near Eastern descriptions of the power of words, and especially the written word, support the view that specific lexical choices were meaningful and not merely stylistic.
Probably the strongest evidence for the attribution of serious symbolic significance to wordplay and repetition in these corpora is offered by dream interpretation and etymologies of personal and place names.
Leitwörter in Numbers: נשא, נסע
An extended use of Leitwörter can be identified in the book of Numbers, in the strategic repetition of the roots נסע and נשא to shape the readers’ impression of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. This repetition is not merely aesthetic, but functional.
Tuckman’s Model of Group Formation: Form—Storm—Norm—Perform
In 1965, psychologist Bruce Tuckman published a seminal article outlining four stages of group development—“form, storm, norm, and perform”—which are “necessary and inevitable” for a group to grow, prepare for its intended task, and execute it. The model is a useful lens for following the structure and story line of the book of Numbers.
Numbers lays out Israel’s transformation from an assemblage of families (in the initial census, dated in the second year of the Exodus–Num 1:2) to a nation poised to inherit the Promised Land (in the second census–Num 26:53, and the concluding chapter, Num 36).
The stages of this evolutionary process are highlighted by the repeated use of the roots נסע and נשא in the narrative. Of the approximately 150 occurrences of the root נסע in the Hebrew Bible, 90 occur in the Book of Numbers, tracking Israel’s physical and metaphorical journey towards inheritance of the Land.
The Form Phase (Num 1-10): נשא and נסע
Chapters 1-10 describe the preparations of the Israelites for their travels (נ-ס-ע in 1:51; 2:9, 16, 17 etc.; 4:5, 15):
- The counting of the male Israelites of military age (שאו 1:2).
- The enumeration of leaders (נשיאים) who serve as foci for the encampment structure for the wilderness journey.
- That the Levites are not included in the general military census (לא תשא), but that they will carry (ישאו) the Temple and its equipment (Num 1:49-50).
- The counting of the firstborn (שא 3:40) whom the Levites will replace.
- The special appointment of the Kohat family נשא) 4:2, 22),
- The Levitical assignments for transport (לשאת 4:15;נשאו 4:25; משא 9 times in ch. 4; and also mentioned in Num 7:9 ישאו).
The נשיאים feature prominently in this formation stage, throughout chs. 1-3 and then again in ch. 7 at the dedication of the Temple. The primacy of the Levites is emphasized again, in the designation of Elazar the son of Aaron as the head chieftain of the Levites, (נשיא נשיאי הלוי; Num 3:32).
These occurrences of נשא alliterate with the root נסע, which appears 25 times in chapters 9 and 10, recurring frequently in the description of the signals for travel: the divine cloud above the Tabernacle and the sounding of trumpets by the priests. Finally, in Num 10:11-12, the instructions and preparations completed, the people set out on their way:
In the second year, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Pact, and the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai (וַיִּסְעוּ לְמסְעֵיהֶ֖ם מִמִּדְבַּ֣ר סִינַָ֧י; NJPS)
With this notation of time and space, the narrative sets into motion…
The Storm Phase (Num 11-25): נשא
Immediately upon the commencement of movement, crisis ensues. Num 11:1 records:
The people took to complaining bitterly before the LORD. The LORD heard and was incensed: a fire of the LORD broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.
Chapters 11-25 are almost entirely taken up with depictions of a turbulent series of complaints, rebellions, and punishment. If the Exodus symbolized the birth of the nation, the wilderness experience is its stormy adolescence. The Israelites express dissatisfaction and anxiety about water and food (manna, the quail); demonstrate deficiencies in self-image (the sin of the spies); act out disobediently (the “ma’apilim”; the Sabbath-violating wood-gatherer); and challenge the authority that was laid out in the description of the group formation (Korah, Datan and Aviram, Miriam and Aaron).
Some clusters of the root נשא in this section of the book feature very different uses than the ones we saw in the outlining of the census and transport in the earlier chapters. For example, a passage in chapter 11 develops the metaphor of the nation as a burden, explaining an adjustment to the initial organizational structure of the team with the commissioning of 70 elders:
11 And Moses said to the LORD, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden (משא) of all this people upon me? 12 Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them (שאהו) in your bosom as a nurse carries (ישא) an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers?… 14 I cannot carry (לשאת) all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. 15 If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!” 16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. 17 I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden (ונשאו אתך במשא העם) of the people with you, and you shall not bear (תשא) it alone.
In Num 16:3, Korah and his followers use the unusual hitpa’el form of נשא in their complaint: “Why then do you raise yourselves (תתנשאו) above the LORD’s congregation?”
The trials and tribulations feel never-ending, even as the Israelites begin to function as a nation, engaging in diplomacy and warfare in a sort of apprentice phase prior to their entry to the Land. Despite the attempt of Balak and Balaam to finally defeat and disempower Israel, Balaam’s words seem actually to have the opposite effect.
One further terrible sin and deadly punishment follows his blessings, but then, Num 25:19 introduces the subsequent phase: “When the plague was over.” The immediate referent is the punishment for the sin with the Midianite women, but this formulaic expression closes the protracted phase of sin and punishment. There is a break in the middle of this verse, following this formula, before the narrative continues with…
The Norm Phase (Num 26-33)
Chapter 26 records the second census. The generation of the Exodus has died out, and the new generation is now ripe for entry into the land. The chapter begins with the imperative “Take a census (שאו) of the whole Israelite community,” recapitulating the opening of the book. The reconstituted nation is now prepared to set out on its mission.
Chapter 33 summarizes the itinerary of the wilderness travels, using the repeating formula, “they travelled (ויסעו) from X and they encamped in Y,” ending in verse 48, “they set out (ויסעו) from the hills of Abarim and encamped in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.”
Perform – The Stage after Numbers
On the banks of the Jordan, the wilderness generation has come of age, and can now proceed to the “Perform” stage. This mission is described as “inheriting the Land.” The book of Numbers traces the journeys and the bearing of burdens that serve to prepare the people to carry out this mission. The performance itself is narrated in the books of Joshua-Kings, which picks up the narrative chronology with the Israelites’ entry into the Land.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 27, 2015
October 15, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Shani Tzoref is currently a Visiting Professor at the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien Heidelberg. Her previous positions include Chair of Hebrew Bible and Exegesis at the University of Potsdam and coordinator of the Biblical Studies program at the University of Sydney. Tzoref holds an M.A. in Jewish History from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. in Ancient Jewish Literature from New York University, and is pursuing an additional M.A. in Digital Humanities from the CUNY Graduate center. She is the author of The Pesher Nahum Scroll from Qumran: An Exegetical Study of 4Q169.
Essays on Related Topics: