Shemot: Language and Translation

The children of Israel proliferated, swarmed, multiplied and grew more and more.* [Exodus/Shemot 1:7]

This is a very odd verse, stylistically. There are four almost synonymous verbs of increase that seem to gain momentum till climaxed by the double-barrelled adverbial intensifier of me’od me’od [note**].
–Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Exodus***

Leibowitz discusses classical views of this language, some of which attempt to “differentiate between the connotations of the four verbs.” She concludes, instead, that “this concentrated crescendo of verbs of ‘increase’ is a stylistic device emphasising the extraordinary nature of this population explosion.”

* Translator’s footnote:

I have deliberately deviated from the classic translations in an effort to reproduce the “form” as well as the “content” of the original. “To an extraordinary degree,” undoubtedly, a more elegant rendering of bi-me’od me’od would not have reproduced the doubling of the intensifier. See author’s note 2, p. 20. Similarly, the predicatives: “were fruitful” and “became strong” lack the force of the unmodified Hebrew verbs. [Aryeh Newman, translator]

** In an endnote, Leibowitz criticizes English, French and German bible translations for their failure “to reproduce in the vernacular the full force and effect of the original,” asking the reader to “Note how they weakened the effect by reducing the number of predicates and their reluctance to end with two identical words.”

Umberto Cassuto*** views this stylistic point in a slightly different way:

And the children of Israel were not merely fruitful, but they teem; they not only multiplied, but grew mighty; exceedingly [b-me’od me’od, literally, ‘with strength, strongly’], in keeping with the promise given to Abraham; so that the land was filled with them, in accordance with the assurance given to Adam and Noah. We are now enabled to understand how the children of Israel could, for the first time, be called a people in v. 9

Seven expressions for increase are used in this verse, a number indicative of perfection: (1) were fruitful; (2) and teemed; (3) and multiplied; (4) and grew mighty; (5) with strength [b-me’od]; (6) strongly [me’od]; (7) so that the land was filled with them. Harmonious perfection is implied here, with the object of teaching us that all that happened was brought about by the will of God in conformity with His predetermined plan.

*** Please see Source Materials, as well as Commentators, for full citation and more details. See also Great Source(s) for more on Cassuto.

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued 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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