The Evolution of a Hebrew Vision Formula?: נשא + עין + ראה + הנה

(Preliminary note: This post got a bit inductive, so if you want to see where I’m going from the get-go, scroll to the bottom: I’ve bolded & underlined my provisional hypothesis!)

Since preaching on Genesis 37 (the sale of Joseph by his brothers), I’ve been puzzling over the range of use in the Old Testament of a formula that occurs in Gen 37.25:

And they lifted their eyes and they looked, and behold
וישאו עיניהם ויראו והנה

While this might not seem like something worth puzzling over, I was struck by the use of the formula in prose, especially in prose not related to seeing an angelic being or a vision.

My first introduction to the formula was in Zechariah.  When I preached through the night visions a couple years back, I used the formula to delineate the units of Zechariah 1-6.  The book seems to be macro structured by date formulae (Zech 1:1, 1:7 & 7:1).  Within the night visions of chs. 1-6, the formula under consideration (or some variant thereof) seems to be the major structuring device.  So I preached the textual unity in this fashion:

Zech 1.8-17
I saw in the night visions, and behold
ראיתי הלילה והנה

Zech 1.18 [MT 2.1]
And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold
ואשא את-עיני וארא והנה

Zech 2.1 [MT 2.5]
And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold
ואשא את-עיני וארא והנה

Zech 4.2
“I see, and behold…”
ראיתי והנה

Zech 5.1
And I lifted my eyes and I saw, and behold
ואשא עיני ואראה והנה

Zech 5.9
And I lifted my eyes and I saw, and behold
ואשא עיני וארא והנה

Zech 6.1
And I lifted my eyes and I saw, and behold
ואשא עיני ואראה והנה

(The minor variations in the formula are evident, including a few matters of orthography, and note especially that in this schema, the famous vision of Joshua the high priest in Zech 3 is subordinated syntactically to the vision in chapter 2.)

The book of Daniel also uses the basic formula to delineate two of its visions.

Dan 8.3
And I lifted my eyes and I saw, and behold
ואשא עיני ואראה והנה

Dan 10.5
And I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold
ואשא את-עיני וארא והנה

But several other uses of the basic formula occur in prose.

* Gen 18.2 – Abraham sees the three heavenly figures, one of them is said to be YHWH himself (v.1).

Gen 22.13 – Abraham is told not to sacrifice Isaac; he looks up and sees the ram caught in the thicket.

Gen 24.63 – Isaac looks up and sees the camels approaching.  One is bearing Rebekah, his bride to be.

* Gen 31.10 – The Angel of God appears to Jacob in a dream and tells him to return to the promised land.

Gen 33.1 – Jacob looks up and sees his brother Esau coming with his men.

Gen 37.25 – Joseph’s brothers look up from lunch and see the Ishmaelite/Midianite caravan coming.

* Jos 5.13– Joshua looks up and sees a heavenly being, the commander of the army of YHWH.

2 Sam 13.34 – A watchman looks up and sees that the king’s sons are approaching.

2 Sam 18.24 – A watchman looks up and sees a messenger approaching with news.

Of these, only three of them (marked with asterisks above) seem in involve supernatural visions/visitations (although perhaps Gen 22.13 might fit here since the ram is presumably a God-given replacement for Isaac).  The others look entirely mundane – i.e, earthly.

Later prose (e.g., Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah) does not contain the full formula, although I haven’t checked for variants like we find in Zech 1.8 and Zech 4.2. Since this was all born out of my study of Genesis 37, I wondered initially if the action of the brothers in Gen 37.25 was being freighted with some kind of prophetic or eschatological significance, but that just seems tenuous.  Thus I wonder if the prophetic usage of this phrase is born out of the times it occurs in Genesis and Joshua with supernatural referents.

In this case, the prophets would be picking up on the times that this was used to narrate the vision of a heavenly being, and turning it into a stereotyped vision formula.  Later prose would have noticed the “hardened” use of the formula and avoided mundane examples of it.  This preliminary conclusion seems to make sense of the two kinds of usage, although I’m not sure how significant the proposal really is.  If anyone is aware of anything dealing with this – or has any better conclusions – please comment below!

I found very limited bibliography that appears to be dealing with this question, but I did consult the following:

Burke O. Long, “Reports of Visions Among the Prophets,” Journal of Biblical Literature 95/3 (1976): 353-65.

Marvin A. Sweeney, Isaiah 1-39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature (FOTL; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 542.

Rev. R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

5 thoughts on “The Evolution of a Hebrew Vision Formula?: נשא + עין + ראה + הנה”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    It’s interesting that you’ve picked up on this. I’ve recently been reading Genesis in Hebrew and noticed the formula (especially its explicit use of a “seeing” verb, ראה) in connection with theophanies. Though the theophanies don’t necessarily use the formula consistently, I found it interesting that Zechariah, et al’s formula would show up in a theophanic context.

    Theologically, I find this intriguing in that it could offer a corrective to overplaying the distinction between word and image in Reformed theology. As much as I am a fan of Horton’s opposition between verbum dei (as Hebraic) and the visio dei (as Greco-Roman), I wonder sometimes if we make too much of the oral/aural nature of revelation and not enough of the visual. Granted, we only have a “textual” record of the events, but I still find it interesting that we are told that the Patriarchs and Prophets “saw” something. (Not the Deus Nudus, of course, but still something)

    Anyway, just interesting…


  2. Hey Nevada – you get extra points for being one of about 4 people to actually read this post! Plus you get a raise for even commenting! (I had a feeling most people might not find it super interesting!)

    It is interesting to note the theophanic context for ראה, although again, several instances of the full formula are just mundane. It is also interesting that Exod 24.10 explicitly says –

    ויראו את אלהי ישראל
    “And they saw the God of Israel”

    Even if this means that they did not see his essence (i.e., I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that they saw him as did Moses who saw only “the back side of his glory”), later interpreters were VERY uncomfortable with this reading. Thus the LXX read that they saw the “place where” the God of Israel stood. All the Targums (Onkelos, Pseudo Jonathan & Neophyti) say that they saw his “Glory.”

    There does seem to be a very visual aspect here to what they saw in the Sinai theophany. I’m not sure how to apply it theologically like you’ve mentioned though. The OT is by and large so aniconic, even these very visual dimensions that we seem to see early on may be on a narrowing trajectory away from visual images. (The Tanaach cult stand is an interesting archaeological find that is perhaps illustrating some of this.) But your point still stands well – any supposed distinction between “Hebrew” and “Hellenistic” must be qualified carefully … the boundaries are just so fuzzy! (Erich Gruen does such a nice job of describing this in vol. 1 of “Cultures of the Jews,” edited by David Biale.)

    Thanks for the comment!


  3. Ha ha ha… Does a second comment equal a double-reverse pass for a touchdown? (Not only winning, but winning in style!)

    Here’s a random thought regarding the visual aspect of OT revelation. I’ve recently been working through Wolfgang Iser’s The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, and he notes that one of the things that makes the construction of a picture in the mind prompted by a novel different from the same image proffered by a movie is that the former requires personal investment. The former is a kind of mental creation whereas the latter is simply observation. This is why, he observes, that readers are often disappointed at the way a movie portrays their favorite book. “That’s not how I picture Gadsby,” they’ll say. Yet when you press them to describe their “picture” it’s actually quite vague and not quite optical. (Iser notes that this proves its semantic nature.) However, they will still prefer their allusive/elusive semantic picture to the visual representation because they are personally invested in it (i.e., they’ve created it through textual cues.).

    I wonder (and I’m totally thinking off the top of my head here) if one could say the same thing about the OT’s seemingly paradoxical prohibitions of images of God and yet textual descriptions of visions/theophanies of God. The latter invite the reader to “picture” something and invest in it without actually being able to treat it like an optical object that can be grasped in its totality. Semantic pictures are always being revised as the story offers new cues for re-imaging. Thus, a reader of the OT would have an elusive/allusive image of God that would always be just out of reach and yet infinitely more engaging than a visual iconic representation because it required personal ideation.

    I don’t know… It sort of reminds me of Terrien’s Elusive Presence…


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