In principle, understanding Biblical Hebrew would seem to be at least as difficult as grasping modern poetry in a foreign language, but in reality translation is much easier, and for a very simple reason: the ways a given word or phrase is used is itself a contextual dictionary, available for all who care to read.
The Torah uses very few words, but their interconnections contain a wealth of information. Take, for example, the word used for “bow,” as in “bow-and-arrow.”
The word is first found in the text when G-d makes a promise:
God further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. That,” G-d said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.” (Gen. 9)
Recall that the flood was not caused solely by rain – G-d releases the barriers from below and above:
All the fountains of the great deep burst apart,
And the floodgates of the sky broke open. (Gen. 7:11)
Telling us that the flood was not merely about rain, or the clouds that produce rain. So this reference to a “bow” is not merely about rain, or even a rainbow. The bow is given symbolic weight; it is the reminder of a divine promise, of an ongoing obligation from G-d to man. In shape, a bow connects two points across a gap (though not in a straight line) – in this case, connecting man to G-d.
The word for bow, keshet, is thus defined as a connective promise, and it helps explain the other uses in the text as well. When Sarai’s servant, Hagar, runs away from her abusive mistress, Hagar gives up:
And she went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.
Why a “bowshot”? The answer is explained by G-d’s promise to Noah: since a bow is a reminder of a promise, then Hagar seeks to break the maternal bond. She wants nothing to do with her obligation to save her son’s life. She separates specifically by a “bowshot” to abandon her son.
Which helps explain why her son, Ishmael, ends up in a certain profession:
G-d was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman.
Why a bowman? The text is telling us that Ishmael, rejected by both his mother, Hagar, and his father, Avraham, was left insecure by the abandonment. A bowman seeks to connect things at a distance, to span the gap. Symbolically, Ishmael seeks to repair his parental relationships and reconnect. G-d may have raised him (as above, “G-d was with the boy”) but there was still no replacement for the genuine articles.
The same theme with the word for “bow” continues through the text (the word is only found in Genesis, and not afterward). The next example is when Isaac seeks to bless his son, Esau:
And he said, “I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game.
The bow would once again be used to establish and grow a relationship, the reciprocity between father and son, growing ties between them, just as G-d did with the first bow after the Flood.
The last person to refer to a “bow” is Jacob, and he does it specifically when blessing Joseph:
And now, I assign to you Shechem more than to your brothers, which I wrested from the Amorites with my sword and bow. (Joseph’s tribe inherited the city of Shechem – Jacob’s other sons Simeon and Levi conquered it.)
Joseph is a wild ass,
A wild ass by a spring
—Wild colts on a hillside.
Archers bitterly assailed him;
They shot at him and harried him.
Yet his bow stayed taut,
And the arms of his hand were made firm
By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob—
There, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel—
The meaning of “bow” is now clear to us, making this blessing easier to understand. Joseph sought to reconnect the family, the connections, obligations and promises within his family. Jacob says that Joseph’s bow stayed taut: Joseph’s desires to achieve this reunification with his father and brothers overcame every extreme adversity. Joseph maintained and delivered on longstanding promises and relationships between man and G-d, parents and children.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn and @blessedblacksmith production]