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Changing the Inevitable: Nachum

There are relatively few words in biblical Hebrew, and many of them do double-duty, having multiple meanings that can only be sussed out in context. Or at least, that is the traditional explanation. It is, however, far more interesting to see how tying the different uses of a word together can teach us lessons about how different concepts are connected through a shared meaning.

For example, when G-d leads the people out of Egypt, the text reads (in a conventional translation):

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’

The problem with this translation is that the same word is used twice – but is translated differently both places! That word is nachum, which is used to mean “lead” and to mean “change of heart.” This is the text with that word, nachum, highlighted:

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not nachum them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘Lest the people nachum when they see war, and return to Egypt.’

The problem becomes clear. If you read this verse as conventional translators do, then it requires a cognitive dissonance: how can the very same word in the very same verse mean different things?! Such dissonance is only acceptable if your goal is to simplify the text, or you just want it to say what you think it means – instead of trying to figure out what it actually is saying.

Traditional translators often read nachum as “comfort,” which may well be the result of the change – but is not the change itself. When studied using the text as its own contextual dictionary, nachum is actually all about resisting inevitability, about changing a previously-agreed plan or course of action. So, for example, when G-d is angry at the people, Moses pleads: “Turn from Your blazing anger, and nachum the plan to punish Your people.”

Which leads to G-d changing his mind! “And the LORD nachumed the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.”

Similarly, though G-d had cursed the ground during Adam’s time, Noach (a derivative of nachum) is named with the hope that he can “nachum from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the LORD placed under a curse.”

G-d indeed hears the message, and ends up changing his entire plan for the world: “And the LORD nachumed that He had made man on earth. … The LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I nachum that I made them.” (As we wrote here, this became a roundabout way for Noach to fulfill the promise of his name.) In both cases, nachum means a fundamental change in direction.

Applied to the verse in the Exodus then, G-d’s use of nachum shows an alteration from the “inevitable” decision of taking the people the shortest path out of the land. And He is trying to proactively prevent the people from countermanding the Exodus by losing heart and nachuming, choosing to return to bondage under Pharoah.

So when Isaac, after his binding and following the death of his mother Sarah marries Rebekah, the text tells us that, “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and was comforted (nachumed) after his mother.” Well, yes, it is clear that marriage was a salve to Isaac’s pain at the loss of his mother. But the use of the word nachum suggests something more fundamental: Rebekkah’s entrance into Isaac’s world changed the course of his life. He was not going in a healthy direction, and nachum was a major change to his direction of travel. In this sense, moving on from death is a new vector, a shift from mourning and decline, to getting on with what we need to do.

We see this when Joseph disappears, and Jacob refuses to be comforted: “All his sons and daughters sought to nachum him; but he refused to be nachum, saying, “No, I will go down mourning my son in Sheol. Thus, his father bewailed him.” Nachum is not merely being comforted: Jacob is choosing to refuse to move on! And he becomes paralyzed as a result, suffering in his pain instead of finding a way forward. That we have learned from the other uses in the text that nachum means “change in direction” we glean Jacob’s state of mind when he refused to be comforted by his children: Jacob was not going to change.

We are given this contrast with Judah, Jacob’s son:

A long time afterward, Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died. When he was nachumed, Judah went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, together with his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

So yes, nachum refers to a period of mourning, to being comforted. But that is only the symptom of what is really going on from the Torah’s perspective: Judah moves on from the loss of his wife, and he goes back to work.

Similarly, when Jacob dies and Joseph’s brothers are afraid of what Joseph might do as a belated revenge, he says: “And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus, he nachumed them, speaking kindly to them. He surely comforted them – but more importantly, he changed the direction of the conversation, using words to alter the story and their relationship and to relieve their fear.

Nachum thus represents a shift in planning, and in attitude:

When the words of her older son Esau were reported to Rebekah, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is nachum himself regarding you to kill you.”

Certainly we could read this, as most translations do, as “comfort himself by killing you.” But if we see that the word really is connected to taking matters into your own hands, to altering the trajectory of a story, then it makes more sense: Esau has been wounded, and victimized, and he is deciding to change the outcome of this story by killing you – in the same way that G-d managed the outcome of the Exodus story by guiding the people the long way around.

Thus, we see that insisting that the word nachum means “comfort” or “lead” or “change of heart” or “regret” deprives us of understanding that it really can mean all of these things. But the core meaning must surely be the common threads among all those meanings, how the word is used in the text: nachum really means something more like, “to change the direction of the future.”

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, and @blessedblacksmith production]

Comments are welcome!