One of the big challenges in studying Old Testament stories is identifying the central character, the one to whom the writer wants you paying close attention. This is especially true in complex stories like that of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing, in which Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau each play an important role. So how do you find the central character, the one in the spotlight?
The Lexham Discourse Hebrew Bible and the Lexham High Definition Old Testament help you find information like this by marking all the places where the most important linguistic devices occur. The device we’ll look at today is overspecification.
Think about the last time you introduced someone to someone else. Chances are you gave a name (“This is Jayson…”) plus some specific connection to you (“. . . my neighbor” or “. . . a friend from work”). You picked the most relevant connection for the context, which required you to choose which connection to use. Here’s what I mean. If I were speaking at a conference, they’d never introduce me as “Ruth’s dad” or “Jayson’s friend.” They’d pick the connection most relevant to the context, like “scholar-in-residence” or “doctor of biblical languages.” After the introduction, they’d only use my name, usually there’s no more mention of the connection. Usually, that is.
Genesis 27 recounts the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing. The main characters are already well established from the preceding context, as is their connection to one another. So why is it that the writer keeps repeating their connection to one another, e.g., “Esau his older son” (Gen 27:1), “Jacob her son”, and “Esau your brother” (Gen 27:6)? What is accomplished by these overly specific connections? They exist for two reasons; we’ll cover the first one in this post.
Since connections are only needed when someone is first introduced, repeating them where they’re not required helps us see where the writer has placed the spotlight. How? Even though the connection is unneeded, it still instructs us how to connect the person to the story. Here’s how it works. The story opens with Esau connected to Isaac as “his son” in v. 1, instructing him to fix him a savory meal. After Rebekah hears of Isaac’s plans, she calls for Jacob, “her son.” Note the shift here. He could have simply been called “Jacob” or alternatively connected to Isaac as “his son.” By connecting Jacob to Rebekah, the writer shifts the spotlight from Isaac to Rebekah just as Rebekah begins hatching a plan to divert Isaac’s blessing from Esau to Jacob.
In Gen. 27:11, overspecification signals another shift in the spotlight, just before Jacob protests against Rebekah’s request. He’s no longer called “her son”; instead, Rebekah is called “his mother.” This new connection forces us to the new initiator.
The coolest example of overspecification comes as Jacob presents the meal he’s prepared to Isaac. Gen 27:17 states that Rebekah gives the food to “Jacob her son,” who, in turn, takes it to “his father.” Here the connections and spotlight shift from Rebekah to Jacob. In v. 20, as Isaac questions the identity of the meal-bearer, he speaks to “his son!” Which one? He’s not sure, and the writer of Scripture captures this ambiguity by changing from “Jacob” vaguer “his son!” In v. 21, as Isaac prepares to touch and smell the one addressing him, there are no connections provided! Why not? It avoids making any judgment about who’s initiating, whether Jacob will triumph or whether Isaac will reject his claim.
Finally in v. 22, as Isaac gives in to Jacob’s request, the expression “Isaac his father” is used, connecting him to Jacob right at the point that Isaac decides to go along with Jacob’s request, despite his misgivings.
In Gen 27 this devices is used to signal shifts by providing new connections between participants. The changes coincide with shifts in initiators, heightening the drama of an already exciting story. The resource annotates all occurrences of 30 of the most exegetically significant discourse devices, and it includes both an introduction and a glossary that help you understand what each accomplishes. The analysis also provides a block-indent outline to help you break down the complexities of Hebrew syntax.
There’s also a version specially designed for those who haven’t studied Hebrew: The Lexham High Definition Old Testament (HDOT). Even though the analysis is based on the Hebrew text, nearly all the same discourse devices are available, displayed on the ESV text.
Both resources come with an introduction and glossary to explain the concepts. Plus the Lexham Discourse Hebrew Bible comes bundled with the HDOT in a six-volume bundle: the Hebrew and the English together at a special price.
There’s a parallel set of New Testament resources currently available that use the same symbols and same linguistic framework:
- Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament
- Lexham High Definition New Testament
- Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament
- Introducing New Testament Discourse Grammar Video Series
These resources are part of a growing suite of exegetical resources that apply cutting-edge linguistic research to day-to-day study, helping you find important details often lost in translation.