Ambiguity in the Bible

Imagine the following newspaper headline: “Mother banishes servant and her son, leaving them to wander in the desert without food and drink.”  Not front-page news but still something that catches the reader’s eye.  What justification would a mother have to kick two members of her “family” out?  Is this an incident of a privileged woman exerting authority over her servant, or is there something else going on?

This story behind this newspaper headline can be found in Parshat VaYera, where Sarah sees Ishmael, the servant Hagar’s son, performing an action that leads to her kicking him and his mother out of the family.  The verb that Ishmael is described as doing is מצחק, the same root that forms Isaac’s name!  In the case of Isaac’s name, the verb translates as “laugh,” but is that what it means in this case?  Would Sarah kick out Ishmael and his mother because he laughed?

The biblical commentator Rashi does not believe that לצחק means laugh in this case.  Rashi offers three possible interpretations of what לצחק connotes: idolatry, illicit relations and murder.[1]  He brings in a prooftext from the Torah to justify each of these three possibilities.  It is interesting both that Rashi feels the need to bring in three interpretations of this word and that none of them are related to the commonly found translation of “to laugh.”

It is one thing for Rashi to believe that לצחק does not mean laugh-it is quite another for him to bring in three conflicting interpretations as to what it means. Why would Rashi do this?  Perhaps Rashi is grasping at straws to come up with a justification for Sarah kicking out Hagar and Ishmael.  At times Rashi uses an apologetic approach, where he goes out of his way to try to prove the validity for how our Biblical ancestors acted.  By bringing in three translations of לצחק, all of which perceive the term in a negative light, Rashi is demonstrating that Ishmael was bad and Sarah was right to kick him out.  This approach can also be categorized as the “weakness approach”[2] in that none of these translations is particularly convincing on its own, but they work together to vilify Ishmael.

Another possibility for Rashi’s three interpretations is so he can serve as a facilitator, providing for his readers multiple possibilities for how to read לצחק.  In so doing, Rashi can be seen as encouraging his readership to make their own decision as to which of his three definitions is most compelling for Ishmael’s behavior.  This approach places trust in the reader’s ability to distinguish between the various definitions Rashi employs and to find the one that speaks to him or her.

Why should we care about why Ishmael was banished and why Rashi brings in three interpretations of Ishmael’s action?  Because this teaches us that we need to be careful about ambiguous language.  The fact that Ishmael’s activity is described by a word which has multiple meanings is problematic because we don’t know whether Ishmael was kicked out for laughing, for attempted murder or for something in between.  We should take this as a lesson in being careful about the words we use and how we use them, for depending on the context, what we say can be viewed in a variety of ways.


Related to the importance of using direct language is avoiding communication which produces ambiguous language.  Daniel Goleman wrote a New York Times article about the dangers of ambiguity called “E-Mail Is Easy to Write (and to Misread).”[3]  In his article, Goleman recalled an e-mail conversation with his book publisher who said “It’s difficult to have this conversation by e-mail. I sound strident and you sound exasperated.”  Goleman was surprised by this statement, not only because he was not exasperated but also because he had thought his conversations with his publicist were going well.  This is one of many examples of how easy it is to miscommunicate over e-mail, since there are no nonverbal or emotional cues.  Rather than relying on this emotionless form of communication which can create ambiguity and misreading, Goleman recommends talking over the phone, or when possible in person.  This is an especially prudent lesson, as people spend hours replying to e-mail and talking online, often at the expense of taking the face time that is needed for creating and sustaining relationships.

While we see some of the disadvantages of ambiguous language, there are times when ambiguity is preferable.  For instance, I do not want to let someone I just met know every detail about my life, so I might be intentionally vague or ambiguous when answering a personal question.  If I were to completely open myself up to everyone I met, it would show a lack of control and possibly instability.  Also, when I read a fiction book, I do not want to know how every character will react to a situation or how the conflict will resolve itself because it is more interesting and mysterious if these details are left out.  It forces me to think about possibilities in the story, which is more rewarding than being given all the details.  Similarly, it can be positive to view the Torah is ambiguous because it forces us to fill in the details and to grapple with what we are missing.  While this uncertainty as to what is going on can be frustrating, it can also be rewarding in verifying our need to keep looking for the answers to which we are uncertain.

The positive nature of ambiguity in the Torah is argued by Steve Forman, the editor of Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses.  In his introduction to the book, Forman asserts that the Pentateuch is full of “intentional nuance, intentional ambiguity” and that translations that attempt to create a clearly flowing narrative “obscure the ambiguity and nuance of the ancient Hebrew.”[4]  Forman believes that the Torah was carefully and intentionally redacted and that the authors viewed cryptic writing as an asset to the text.  The lesson I take from this is that just because we live in a world that prefers direct communication, ambiguity also has a place and serves a purpose.

We have seen both positive and negative reasons for why language in the Torah is often ambiguous.  We can understand from the usage of לצחק that words can be interpreted in any number of ways, depending on how one sees their surrounding context.  While it might seem obvious to some of us as to what לצחק means, we need to be able to acknowledge that our view is one of many.  It is also important to acknowledge that the ambiguity of the text allows for our interpretation of the meaning of לצחק to change over time.

Whether ambiguity is an asset or a detraction depends on what you wish to exemplify.  If you are in a situation where a direct response is needed (an important conversation with a friend or job supervisor), than a method less prone to ambiguity, (a phone call or face to face communication) is preferred.  If, however, you are reading a book where you want to be left with a cliffhanger or deep in thought, intentionally ambiguous wording can be preferred.  I am not sure which category לצחק falls in, but at the very least, the fact that its meaning is ambiguous should make us contemplate on the words we use and the interpretations that can be derived from how we use them.  This lesson will serve us well in our day-to-day communication and hopefully will remain with us when we leave Shabbat and return to interacting with the world around us.

[1] Rashi on Genesis 21:9 ד”ה לצחק

[2] For more see Sarah Kamin, Rashi’s Exegetical Categorization: In Respect to the Distinction Between Peshat and Derash


[3] Appeared in New York Times, October 6, 2007.

[4] Robert Forman in Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses (New York: WW Norton and Company, 2003).

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