The interplay between text and context serves as a perennial challenge of interpreting Jewish sources, whether as parsed by traditional commentators or refracted through contemporary academic insight. Premodern classical interpreters assumed, for example, that revealed texts had divine origins; scriptural narrative was a more-or-less accurate depiction of actual events; and the chronological order of text correlated to actual historical sequence. At the risk of forcing a complex set of issues into a simple binary, among classical commentators, text trumps context. For those deploying a contemporary viewpoint — one that proceeds from a historical perspective and a postmodern posture — none of those assumptions are operative, and context almost inevitably trumps text.
This bifurcation of text and context has a parallel partition in the liturgical readings recently read on Rosh Hashanah (Torah narrative of Genesis 21 and the haftarah story in I Samuel 1-2). As we pick up a High Holiday prayer book and peruse these stories, we are looking, as an analogy, at only a few frames of what is actually a full-length film. Since many readers come to these texts out of context, it is not unusual or surprising that they are easier to read in terms of individual experience than in terms of a continuous narrative.
Within the context of the recent High Holidays, we assume that these readings are linked to the concept of Rosh Hashanah as a “day of remembrance.” We pray for the same divine compassion God showed Sarah and Hannah, so that God will “take note” (pakad) of us and allow our deepest hopes to be fulfilled.
But these two stories, read as text without context, can mean something very different to anyone listening to the texts and experiencing some form of infertility or barrier to conception. Read discretely rather than contextually — seen as a few frames without the rest of the film — such stories can be painful reminders that the miraculous interventions that resulted in fertility for Sarah and Hannah are not the stuff of everyday medical research and intervention, or the provenance of health insurance plans that convey ambivalence if not outright insensitivity with regard to infertility.
We are reminded that these sacred stories are potentially a source of distress rather than comfort, and of despair rather than hope. One way to soften the challenge some may hear in such texts is to recontextualize them, so that rather than standing alone, they are seen as part of a pattern in which the message is cumulative — and not derived from a single incident.
Many biblical stories touch on the notion that childlessness can threaten the viability of the Israelite/Jewish future. Each story has its literary uniqueness, but each is also part of a cluster of parallel stories that share a common theme of childlessness. For example, though Genesis 21 represents God promising that Abraham and Sarah will be progenitors of the people Israel, they remain childless. The miraculous offspring who emerges, Isaac, soon duplicates this experience with his wife, Rebecca, (Genesis 25:21) and in another divine intervention, barrenness yields to pregnancy. The resultant twin who is destined to carry the covenantal line, Jacob, has four gestational partners, but the favored one, Rachel, from whom Joseph, the savior of the story, will be born, first also undergoes the ordeal of being unable to conceive without God’s direct assistance. (Genesis 30:22) Hannah’s barrenness, alleviated through similar divine direction, is an echo of these earlier narratives, and it adds another layer to the cumulative message that is being shaped through the metaphor of barrenness.
And so this brings us to the meaning of that metaphor and its relevance to the sacred season of teshuvah that has just passed. The Rosh Hashanah Torah and haftarah readings are not individual incidents of infertility. They are integral pieces of a larger narrative whose message emerges only when we discern the repetition of a theme across multiple narratives. And here is the message about redeemed barrenness: Unlike the other nations of the world who “begat” themselves into procreation and perpetuation, the Jewish people exist only because of the intervention of God. Without divine intercession, the story stops — either with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, or Hannah and her husband, Elkanah.
A less ethnocentric, less supernatural reading of these texts yields a more spiritual, less biological version of the metaphorical message. Perhaps what these clusters of mythic motifs want to suggest is that God is what(ever) makes the possibility of a future into a reality; that God is what(ever) moves us beyond where we are stalled, past where we are stuck, into a future when we thought we might have nothing but a past; that God is what(ever) helps us to overcome the certainty of despair with the delight of surprise.
We are reminded that what sometimes seems destined to die is given a new lease on life. This promise of renewal helps us to set a course of optimism and to overcome the barrenness of hopelessness and the emptiness of despair.email print