Monday, March 21, 2005

Bob Dylan and Esau's Kiss (Gen. 33:4)

I've been reading A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of "Blood on the Tracks" by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard. This book tells you everything you could ever want to know about the making of that classic record, all the way down to the brand name of the mike used on the kick drum in the Minnesota sessions (Shure M57).

What truly intrigued me, however, was the appearance on page 102 of the puncta extraordinaria of Genesis 33:4. According the authors, Dylan and his brother David Zimmerman have sometimes had their difficulties, but worked together on arranging the Minnesota sessions for the album. This leads the authors on a long and not very illuminating ramble through the dynamics of brotherly love as interpreted by Rabbi Sim Glaser of Temple Israel in Minneapolis. Rabbi Glaser finishes his midrash on the Dylan brothers this way:
There's something that only happens in one place in the Torah ... All it says in the English is "Esau [sic; should be Jacob] went ahead, bowed low seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to his brother; he kissed him" — but if you look at the Hebrew, it is the only place in the whole Torah, va-yishkayu where you have dots on every single syllable on the top of a word like this, which signify emphasis, because you're supposed to say the word violently. He was angry at his younger brother, but he needed him at that moment, and he loved him — in Hebrew it says all this; it says everything about that moment.

Well, far be it from me to find fault with a sermon. One is not necessarily on one's scholarly honor in a sermon, and midrashists throughout the ages have exercised themselves on the supralinear dots on the word "he kissed him," which look like this:
The fact is, however, that in ancient times such puncta were used primarily for one reason: to indicate that the words should be deleted. They occur in the Qumran biblical texts with exactly that purpose. And my guess is that the ancient examplar that was the ancestor of all the Masoretic manuscripts had these points on that word to indicate that it should be deleted.

One could further ask, however, why the ancient scribe thought the word should be deleted. Is it for what we would call "text-critical" reasons, because, after a comparison with other scrolls, he found that they didn't have this word? Or was it for exegetico-theological reasons: because he didn't think that the Bible would portray Esau as truly reconciled to his brother? Some of the early midrashim like Genesis Rabbah, followed by the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum, suggest that the verb used should have been נשׁך, to bite, not נשׁק, to kiss: Esau bit Jacob. The hostility to Esau was such that he could not be portrayed as friendly.

All the ancient versions I have checked retain "he kissed him"; but I notice that several modern versions omit "he kissed him" without a comment, among them the Jerusalem Bible and Robert Alter's recent translation.

If I had time, I would riff on the relationship of Esau's kiss to that of Judas, this being Holy Week and all, but that will have to wait. But in the end I doubt whether Esau's kiss is truly relevant to the biography of Bob Dylan.

1 comment:

Tim Bulkeley said...

I'm puzzled how such a copy with error came to be the ancestor of almost all extant texts... But then I'm no text critic. However, the Rabbi's comment works really well with the text as we have it ;)