Tanakh Lab #1: Keywords

Meeting Moshe

Shemot 2

Interactive Learning Module

Moshe Saved from the Nile / Le Sueur

1. Introduction

  • Keywords in a Biblical text are those words which repeat and play a significant role in a given passage, often serving to highlight the main themes of the unit.
  • Often, the keywords are expected and reflect an obvious motif of a unit, but sometimes the repetition of a word subtly reveals less blatant messages which might have otherwise been overlooked.
  • Determining what should be considered a keyword is not an exact science. Variations of a root may appear so many times in the text that they naturally make the reader pause to think about the root's significance.
  • However, a word which appears only a handful of times may also be noteworthy if it appears significantly more times in the passage being studied than it does elsewhere. It is often these words which are the most illuminating.
  • This module will use the Tanakh Lab to explore the keywords of Shemot 2, the chapter which introduces the reader to Moshe Rabbenu.

2. The Tanakh Lab

  • Let's go to the Tanakh Lab.
  • In the box which says "Analyze One Text", use the book, chapter, and verse dropdown menus to select Shemot 2:1-25. Press "display".
  • Alternatively, click here.
  • The Biblical text appears on the right side of the screen, while a computer generated table of significant words appears on the left.
  • Hover over any word in the Biblical text to see how many times it appears in the unit or click on it to highlight all appearances.

3. Explore and Discover

  • After higlighting any word in the Biblical text, a pop-up statistics box with the lexical data for that word will appear.
  • Clicking on any line in the box will provide more information and a list of sources where the word appears (in either the passage itself, the book as a whole, or throughout Tanakh).
  • Search the unit for keywords, analyze them through the statistics boxes, and list those you deem to be significant.
  • By what criteria did you decide that the words were noteworthy?
  • [To clear the text of highlighted words simply click on the word again, or use the garbage icon to erase all.]

4. A Story in Two Halves

  • Let's now compare our findings with those of the computer.
  • In the data table on the left side of the screen, click on the "בקטע" column which will order entries based on the number of occurrences of each root in the passage.
  • What three words top the list?
  • Click on the words "איש" and "ילד" and they will be highlighted in the Biblical text.
  • How are the two words distributed throughout the unit? What does this reflect about the subject of the two halves of the passage?
  • Now, click on the word "בת" and trace its usage in the chapter. Who are each of the "בנות" of the unit and what role do they play vis-a-vis Moshe?
  • Are there any other keywords which cluster in one half of the unit or the other? What might these highlight about the messages of each section?

5. Keywords: Relative Frequency

  • Our initial findings suggest that one of the chapter's main themes might be the maturation of Moshe, tracing how he moves from childhood to adulthood, and the role played by various women in that process.
  • Let's now see if the three keywords "ילד", "איש" and "בת" are equally significant when we look at their relative usage, comparing their frequency in our passage with their frequency in the rest of Tanakh.
  • Click on the "תנ"ך" column which will consider how often a word appears in the unit relative to its occurrences elsewhere in Tanakh.
  • According to this listing, what are the 6 top keywords of the unit? Are the above mentioned words still considered significant?
  • What relationships can you find between the five new words that have moved up on the list? What do these suggest might be the main themes of the unit?

6. On Egyptians and Israelites

  • We have seen that taking into account a word's relative frequency rather than simply looking for which word appears the most times in a given unit, might reveal totally different findings.
  • Let's explore two of the new keywords, "עברי" and "מצרי".
  • Click on the two words and scan where they appear in the chapter.
  • Who is the "עברי" in the very beginning of the unit? Who is the "מצרי" at the end?
  • At this stage of the story, do you think Moshe identified himself as an Israelite or an Egyptian?
  • How might your answer affect how one reads the chapter and Moshe's motivations for coming to the Hebrew's aid?
  • Why might Hashem have chosen a leader who had both Egyptian and Israelite connections? [For further study, see Ibn Ezra on Shemot 2:3, and then return here.]

7. Relative Usage in Sefer Shemot

  • The keywords "עברי" and "מצרי" point to a second theme of the chapter, the conflict between Egypt and Israel.
  • Tracing the words' usage in the unit, though, simultaneously highlights how Moshe stands in the middle, both Hebrew and Egyptian, a fact which raises important questions for understanding his character and the story as a whole.
  • Let's now click on the "ספר" column which allows one to see the relative frequency of words in our unit as compared only to the rest of Sefer Shemot. Which words have now moved down on the list?
  • Why might the words "עברי" and "מצרי" be deemed less significant when comparing their usage only to the rest of Shemot and not to the rest of Tanakh?

7. What it Means to be a Hebrew

  • To see the distribution of the word "עברי" throughout Sefer Shemot, click on the number in the "ספר" column next to the entry and all the verses in Sefer Shemot where the word appears will be displayed.
  • How often are the members of Am Yisrael referred to as "עברים" within the first 11 chapters of Shemot? How often afterwards? Why might that be?
  • Now, click on the number in the "תנ"ך" column next to the entry to see how the word "עברי" is used throughout Tanakh. In general, when are Israelites referred to as "עברים" rather than as "בני ישראל" or the like?
  • What light does this shed on Egyptian-Israelite relations?

8. On Being Nurtured and Nurturing

  • Exploring the usage of the word "עברי" throughout Tanakh reveals that usually one is so called only in contrast to another. The term highlights how Am Yisrael were considereded foreigners in Egypt, always viewed as "the other".
  • Let's now return to look at the other keywords in the "ספר" column. What are the three most significant keywords in the unit according to this ordering?
  • What do each of these roots mean? [Clicking on the "ק" icon next to the word will open the concordance. Press the dictionary tab to see the word's definition.] How do the words relate to each other?
  • Who is the beneficiary of the nurturing and drinking in the first section of the chapter? Who is doing the nurturing in the second half?
  • What might this reflect about Moshe?
  • Taking into account all our findings, what do the various keywords of our chapter suggest about its main themes and messages?

9. Conclusions

  • The guiding words of Shemot 2 showcase several of its central themes.
  • On the most basic level, they highlight that this is a story about Moshe's development from youth to adult.
  • More fundamenatally, though, they reveal what made Moshe into the adult he became.
  • He was born a Hebrew, but raised as an Egyptian in a society in which both groups were in constant conflict, making him unique among his brethren.
  • In his youth, the women in Moshe's life nurtured him, with Bat Paroh turning her back on her father's unjust decrees to raise him.
  • As an adult, Moshe learned to do the same, standing up for justice and nurturing those in need.

10. Additional Reading