Lekh Lekha: Language and Translation

The Stranger’s Strange Words: a theology

Chapter 16 of Breishit/Genesis introduces the character of Hagar — as in stranger [ger] — who serves as Sarah’s maid and bears Ishmael to Abraham. In one of two episodes in which we find Hagar (and Ishmael) out in the wilderness, she meets an angel/messenger of God [malach yud-hey-vav-hey]. Translators note difficulty working out Hagar’s words after she sees God (and/or was seen by God) — ra-iti acharei ro-i — or, perhaps, as one translator has it, after she sees the back of God.

Here are several translations for these interesting verses (16:13-14) with accompanying notes:

And she called the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-Roi,” by which she meant, have I not gone on seeing after He saw me. [1] Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi [2] — It is between Kadesh and Bered.

NOTES: 1) meaning of the Hebrew uncertain; 2) apparently, “the Well of the Living One Who sees me.” (JPS*)

And she called the Name of HASHEM Who spoke to her “You are the God of Vision,” for she said, “Could I have seen even here after having seen?” Therefore the well was called “The Well of the Living One Appearing to Me.” It is between Kadesh and Bered.

NOTES: 1) Although an angel, not God, had spoken to her, she understood that he was God’s emissary. She went on to exclaim that though it was common for angels to be seen in Abraham’s house, now she had even seen one here in the desert! 2) This well became a place of prayer in the future; see 24:62. (Stone*)

So she called yud-hey-vav-heh who had been speaking to her, “You are El Ro’i” — meaning by this, “Even here I have seen the back of the One who looks upon me!” That is why that well — the one located between Kadesh and Bered — is called Beer-lahai-ro-i.

NOTES: 1) The clause is difficult to parse precisely. It seems to mean that Hagar feels lucky to be alive after a direct encounter with the Deity. 2) Literally, “the well of the living one of my seeing.”…Hagar is the only woman whose experience is enshrined in a place name. (TWC*)

And she called the name of the LORD who had addressed her, “El-Roi,” for she said, “Did not I go on seeing here after He saw me?” Therefore is the well called Beer-Lahai-roi, which is between Kadesh and Bered.

NOTES: 1) The most evident meaning of the Hebrew name would be “God Who sees me.” Hagar’s words in explanation of the name are rather cryptic in the Hebrew. The translation reflects a scholarly consensus that what is at issue is a general Israelite terror that no one can survive having seen God. Hagar, then, would be expressing grateful relief that she has survived her epiphany. 2) Though this might well be a somewhat garbled etiological tale to account for the place name…it is made to serve the larger thematic ends of Hagar’s story: the outcast slavegirl is vouchsafed a revelation which she survives and is assured that, as Abram’s wife, she will be progenitrix of a great people. (Alter*)

Phyllis Trible, renowned scholar of text-based and feminist analysis, adds this explanation:

The expression is striking because it connotes naming rather than invocation. In other words, Hagar does not call upon the name of the deity. Instead she calls the name, a power attributed to no one else in all the Bible….Hagar is a theologian. Her naming unites the divine and human encounter: the God who sees and the God who is seen.

To this name she attaches an explanation. It yields confusion because the Hebrew is obscure….Perhaps Hagar is questioning her own understanding of the revelation she has just received. The God who sees her remains unclear to her….We know only that the maid who names the deity “God of seeing” must return to the suffering that [YHVH] imposes upon her, specifically to the mistress who is slight in her eyes. A circle of bondage encloses Hagar. — p.18, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. (Fortress Press, 1984).

*See Source Materials for full translation citations and additional references.

Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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