Poetry in the Torah, Numbers 23:7

Num 23-7.001Most of the Torah is either narrative or legal writing, the stories of early Israel or the commandments of God. But there is also poetry in the Torah. And since poetry is the least common form to be found in these five books, the poetic verses are like stars shining out in the night.

The discourses of Balaam, the Babylonian diviner who was hired to curse Israel, are star clusters in the Torah firmament (Num 23:7-10; 23:18-24; 24:3-9; 24:15-19; 24:20-24). It is important to understand when reading Balaam’s prophecies that he is no saint and that his words and their beauty come from God, not from Balaam’s own goodness or faith. In spite of Balaam’s assurances about his prophetic integrity (“I can only repeat faithfully what the Lord puts in my mouth,” Num 23:12 JPS) he seeks to do Israel harm and eventually finds a way to turn the Lord against Israel (“the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women,” Num 25:1 JPS).

Nonetheless, since God spoke through Balaam, ironic beauty shines from the words through the shadows of human history. One thing that makes this poetry stand out is the beauty and power of the description of Israel’s blessedness. And the ironic brilliance is in the fact that an outsider, one who is motivated to curse Israel, must declare instead the truth that the Jewish people are upheld by Adonai and forever sanctified.

What you will find here are brief translation notes followed by my translation of Numbers 23:7. And at the bottom of the post I link to a page on my Hebrew teaching website, The Hebrew Nerd, where I read Numbers 23:7-10 in its entirety (for people who want to practice pronouncing Hebrew).

Translation Helps, Numbers 23:7.

וַיִּשָּׂא A vav-conversive (the vav converts a “future” to a “past”), the root is נשׂא. This is a “drop letter imperfect,” a term found in The First Hebrew Primer (a textbook I highly recommend) for verb roots with a weak first letter. The usual weak letter that drop out when a prefix comes in front of them are nun and yod (but also any of the letters in Hebrew that spell “vanilla,” vav-nun-yod-lamed-hey).

מְשָׁלוֹ “His mashal.” Mashal is an intriguing word. It can mean “proverb” (the book of Proverbs is called Mishlei, which is the plural construct form of mashal). It can mean parable (as in the rabbinic parables). I will translate it here as “discourse.”

יַנְחֵנִי From נחה, this is a Hifil Imperfect with a 1st person suffix (“me”) and this exact form is also used in Psalm 23 (“he leads me”). The 3rd root letter, hey, drops out when a suffix is placed after it. Hifil verbs usually have a god between the 2nd and 3rd root letter, but as there is no 3rd letter here a Tsere (two dots side by side, pronounced “ay”) replaces the Khirek Yod vowel blend.

לְכָה from הלך, this is a Qal Imperative (command form) with a softening hey on the end, a marker of politeness added to make the command more an invitation. In the Qal pattern (the most common Hebrew verb pattern, 70% of verbs in the Bible are Qal) an Imperative is formed by striking the tav prefix off from the 2nd person Imperfect form (the “you will” form). This just as in English, imperatives strike off the “you will” from a command (e.g., “go” is short for “you will go”). Most translators render this “come” instead of “go,” because this is closer to the way we would say it in English.

אָרָה־לִּי “Curse for me.” From ארר, this is another Qal Imperative. The hey on the end is a softening or marker of politeness added to make the command more an invitation.

זֹעֲמָה “Denounce.” From זעם, this is another Qal Imperative with the softening hey. It is a parallel verb to “curse,” a near synonym, in keeping with the usual feature of Hebrew poetry (rhyming ideas instead of sounds).

And he raised his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak, king of Moab leads me from eastern mountains. ‘Come, curse Jacob for me; come denounce Israel for me.'”

READ Numbers 23:7-10 out loud. Here is a link to an audio file and the Hebrew text on my Hebrew Nerd website: http://www.thehebrewnerd.com/reading-hebrew-out-loud-num-237-10/

Want to study Hebrew with me as your private coach via Skype or Google Chat? Email me at thehebrewnerd at gmail dot com. Lessons cost $20 per week for a half hour session and there is a text book you need to purchase on Amazon. I also teach advanced students who want practice in grammar or higher levels of reading.

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  1. Pingback: Reading Hebrew Out Loud: Num 23:7-10 | The Hebrew Nerd

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