Saturday, July 10, 2010

Joseph Smith Translation Genesis 16, Part One: Beer-la-hai-roi

The Prophet Joseph Smith's New Translation of Genesis 16 brings rich surprises. Among these the idea that the name Beer-la-hai-roi applies first to the angel who visits fleeing Hagar and, only second, "for a memorial" (Heb. le-zikkaron) to the nearby well, where Isaac later camped. The idea shocks. Since be'er (buh-AIR) signifies well in Hebrew, how can the word name an angel? Yet the Prophet insists on the matter: "Hagar saw the angel and the name of the angel was Beer-la hai roi wherefore the well was called Beer la hai roi for a memorial" (see OT Mss. 1 and 2; Mss. 2 gives both Beer-la-hai-roi and Beerlahairoi, etc.).

So what does the name Beer-la-hai-roi mean? Open the book and the answer comes readily--you don't even have to think:

"The well of him who liveth and sees me" (LDS Bible footnote)

"Well of the Living One who sees me" (E.A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible: Genesis, 117)

"the Well of the Living One of Vision" Robert Davidson, who also refers us to the standard:

"the Well of the Living One who sees me."

Now what I like about the Joseph Smith Translation is that it invites further reflection. "It feels so good not to be trammeled," says the Prophet in response to the High Council trying good old Brother Brown for his (incorrect!) views on the Bible. Latter-day Saints, Brother Joseph is saying, are free to think.

In light of this invitation--and why else have a New Translation if we're never going to think about it?--I wish to explore the name Beer-la-hai-roi further.

The compound name consists of three elements: Noun (Well) + the preposition l + Noun Phrase (the participial + infinitival forms are nominal in function):

Well + l + the Living One sees me.

The preposition, la, can be understood in two ways: first, as marking possession (thus the reading "well of the Living One"); second, as marking the transition, or setting the relation, of a logical apposition.

The organization of the compound Beer-la-hai-roi matches that of dedications found on objects. We recall the seals stamped on the handles of jars in ancient Israel. These jars were dedicated lhmlk or la ha-melek "to the king", whatever that means. In like manner, certain objects said to be associated with the Jerusalem Temple (although of disputed origin), bear the signature of dedication l-yy, which signifies "consecrated to the Lord." And that's exactly how we can and should read the name Beer-la-hai-roi, if we so please: "Well consecrated as a memorial to the Living One who sees me," that is, made consecrate by the visionary event. More simply, and thereby losing much of the nuance of the Hebrew, we could also read with the commentators: Well belonging to the Living One who sees me, and thence: Well of the Living One.

Back to my earlier point. The translation of the phrase Well + l + Living One can be rendered (weakly!) with the genitive of--and there's an end on't. But isn't it boring just to meekly copy millennia of biblical interpreters? Can't there be any new ideas? Joseph Smith's New Translation is a well-spring of the new.

A second way of organizing the compound name considers the preposition as marking a relation of apposition. In other words, the preposition, l, organizes the bipartite name as logical apposition. In this reading the noun (Well) is considered in relation to, or in respect of, etc., the action or event described by the noun phrase: The Living (God) sees me.

Perhaps: Well where the Living One sees me, or Place + Event.

Or: Well-in-that-the Living One-in action-of-seeing-me.

This last reading affords one way in which we could consider the angel as the well, or well-spring of the revelation that consists in the phrase Living God seeing me: Well-Spring of the Revelation, the Living God sees me. We recall here that both "spring" and "eye" share one name in Hebrew (ayin). A reading Well ~ Living God sees me" shows the name to be the revelation of God, if not theophany, then reflection--an angel of the Presence.

The noun Well anticipates the action of vision. Indeed, the angel is the well-spring of God's revelation to Hagar, the searcher (hqr) after God. What is a well, after all? (And what is an angel?) It is refuge, oasis, rescue, salvation, nourishment, place of greeting, of shalom, of finding, of safety. In light of the revelation of God through His angel, the well becomes for Hagar all of the above and more. The well becomes a manifestation, in the spiritual desert, of God's presence and watch care. It is wholeness, or shalom; it is love.

And any of these nouns could also name the messenger of revelation.

Read the name how we will, the imagery of the well is that of God's manifest wellspring: the name Well marks the manifestation of God by means of symbol, just as the concrete well marks the place of manifestation. And which idea comes first notionally and logically? The action of divine manifestation? or the place where it occurs?

Yes, there is logic in reading the name of the well as the name of the vision and of the one who brings that vision, both angel, and, ultimately, God Himself: "He is the Well-Spring, even the Spirit or Power of the Living God in whose continual Presence I dwell." In the 88th section of the Doctrine and Covenants we read that "light proceedeth forth [the heavenly well-spring] from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space" and further that that "light giveth life to all things."

Such a reading differs but little from the way the Jews understood the Beer-la-hai-roi (Targum Neofiti 1): "Therefore the well was called: 'The well beside which the One who sustains all ages was revealed'" (or, following Neofiti's marginal gloss: "above which was revealed the glory of the Shekinah of the Lord"). The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan yields: "For [Hagar] said, Behold, here indeed the Glory of the Shekinah of the Lord was revealed, vision after vision. Therefore the well was called 'The well at which the Living and Enduring One was revealed' " (The Aramaic Bible Series, vols. 1a and 1b).

Vision after vision, indeed: just three verses later comes the Theophany to 99-year old Abram wherein he is promised a rebirth of vitality in begetting Isaac and also receives, being now newly-made, the name Abraham. Given the proximity of the verses, who can help not view the vision-drenched names in one light: Beer la hai roi and Abraham; Beer la hai roi ~ Abraham.

Following up on this theme of vitality, a third possibility for reading Beer-la-hai-roi comes to mind. For a moment, let's drop the idea of la as preposition all together, and instead read it as a noun of divine power or strength (as in Ugaritic la-smm = the powers of heaven"; Hebrew lax), a noun which also conveys the idea of refreshment and moisture or vitality: Well-Power-Living-Sees-Me.

Now, by dropping la as preposition, I'm not trying to rewrite the perfectly good grammar of the compound name as it stands (or as it has been understood). I just wish to point out, with sensitivity, what Hagar's Semitic ear would be hearing and how that hearing conveys enough ambiguity to allow for more than one interpretation of the sacred name Beer-la-hai-roi.

From the well flows what the ancients called la--virtue, strength, salvation, vitality. It is the Powers of Heaven. It is the promise of Ishmael (God hears as well as sees) and of Isaac. He restoreth my soul.

At any rate, let's leave boring of by the wayside and consider the following readings:

Well consecrated as a memorial to the vision of the Living One who sees me

Well that stands in apposition to (and identity with) the revelation of the Living God who sees me (in whose Presence I am = Angel of the Presence)

Well--Power of Life--my Seeing God (or Being Seen--and Heard--and Quickened--of God).

And: Well = Power--Life--God sees me [in the Presence of God],

which again corresponds notionally with the revelation to Joseph:

"which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space--the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:12-3).

The Well of God is in the middle of all things, it is the generous bosom of Eternity.

Beer la hai roi also typifies Jesus Christ: "This is the light of Christ" (88:7).

Angels, which "speak by the power of the Holy Ghost" [la = power, spirit], also proceed forth from the presence of God and fill immensity with the "words of Christ." And Christ it is who also proceeds from the Father and thus becomes Himself The Well-Spring, the Bright and Morning Star, Refuge and Meeting-Place and Reconciliation (Shalom) of our Salvation (see 2 Nephi 33).

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