Posted on January 25, 2005 By Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin | Series: | Level:

The concept of intertextuality has made its way from the study of literature to the field of Biblical interpretation and midrash studies. Jewish interpreters have increasingly utilized it in recent years. We also have at times invoked this method when comparing similar prophetic passages. Before we contrast Yonah’s formulation of Divine Mercy with those of other prophets, it is appropriate that we discuss the legitimacy and applicability of this method for those who uphold the traditional understanding of Tanach as Divine Revelation.

Intertextuality as defined in literary criticism should not, in my opinion, be applied to sacred texts. Once you get past the jargon what it means in literary criticism is that all texts are, in main, unconsciously in dialogue and conversation with earlier texts. In other words, whatever a writer has ever read affects how he or she formulates the aims of his writing, what expressions and devices he uses, and how he shapes his materials into a coherent and meaningful narrative. This definition is clearly unacceptable for a believing Jew, for prophecy derives of God and not from the prophet; besides, it is from beginning to end a conscious and supernaturally endowed endeavor.

Is it legitimate, however, to suppose that prophets may have had some influence on how they phrased and parsed the message that was revealed to them? Is it conceivable that they may have purposefully invoked previously revealed prophecies that they read or heard in order to broaden or sharpen the impact of their own message by incorporating allusions into their own prophecies? Could G-d Himself have done so? If yes, intertextuality can be admitted into the Sacred as a conscious prophetic technique, albeit in a sharply limited and carefully monitored form. If not, it is a foreign offshoot that feeds of polluted waters and we should leave it to those outside the boundaries of traditional Jewish exegesis.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 89a writes: “R. Yitshak said: One formulation comes to multiple prophets but no two prophets prophesize in the same language. Obadia (1, 3) said: The evil of your heart lifted you. Yirmaih said: It will frighten you, the evil of your heart will lift you (49, 16).” This goes back to the fact that prophets other than Moses received their prophecy in the form of a vision accompanied by its interpretation; this necessarily set narrow parameters of sentences and paragraphs but presumably allowed them some latitude to choice of words and what specific words and word order to use (See Maimonides, Laws of Yesodei Hatorah 7,6). It seems that intertextuality, if properly defined and used, may indeed turn out a legitimate technique.

Yonah said: “…for I have known that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil”. This choice of Divine attributes is identical to that found in as in Joel 2:13-14 – “For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment. Who know but He may repent and leave a blessing behind.”

This contrasts with the prayer of Moses in Exodus 34,6-7 and Numbers 14,18 where both attributes of mercy and justice are listed together. Outside of the Pentateuch, however, prayer appears to invoke solely attributes of mercy (See Psalms 86,15; 103,8; 145,8; Nechamia 9,17). The sole exception is Nachum 1,3 where attributes of Justice predominate but there it is in the context of G-d of vengeance who is described as overturning the power of Assyria.

Yonah’s allusion to Joel and Psalms is likely deliberate. Listing only the attributes of Mercy farther emphasized the prophet’s discomfort with Mercy as the operating principle in the affairs of the world. How did Yonah know when he says “I have known”? Both from his own life and the prophets before him. His personal awareness is now backed up with a long standing prophetic tradition and it is referenced to an established record of revelation. In this fashion, Yonah’s argument takes on the power and strength, not only of his individual experience and sentiment, but the combined authority of the entire prophetic community.

Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and

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