Biblical humour: left-handed men

Barack_Obama_signs_at_his_desk2_1024A recent article posted on the Biblical Archaeology Society’s site about left-handed people in the Bible put a smile on my face.

The article makes a good observation:

The Hebrew Bible mentions left-handed people on three occasions: the story of Ehud’s assassination of the Moabite king (Judges 3:12–30), the 700 Benjamites who could use the sling with deadly accuracy (Judges 20:16) and the two-dozen ambidextrous warriors who came to support David in Hebron (1 Chronicles 12:2). All of these stories of left-handed people in the Bible appear in military contexts, and, curiously, all involve members of the tribe of Benjamin.

The thing which looks to me to be intentionaly humorous is that all these left-handed men are from the tribe of Benjamin, and Benjamin means “son of my right hand“! There has to be an intentional, and possibly humorous, play on Benjamin’s name there.

In fact, the Bible has so many stories which refer specifically to meanings of names it seems fairly obvious that in some of these stories the name was actually made up to fit the story, or to ridicule a character. For example, in 1 Samuel 25:25 there is an incident concerning Nabal where his wife says: “My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him”. 

In Hebrew Nabal נָבָל (pronounced Naval) means “foolish”, “worthless” or “good for nothing”. [1]  Since it is unlikely his parents hated him so much as to call him “fool” from birth, so scholars discuss how the name might also be understood according to an alternative Semitic root meaning “noble.” The meaning “fool” would be a play on the double meaning of the name. Zeev Weisman deals specifically with the case of Naval as one of several pejorative names which ridiculed and smeared the bearers, noting that there is also a phonic association between the name Naval and the wordנַבֶל  (navel) wineskin which may be behind the account of Naval’s death: “In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Naval [like an empty wineskin, a navel], his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him”(36-37). [2]

There is certainly some wordplay going on here, and wordplay in the Hebrew Bible is often not just a case of being clever with words, but also of being playful with words in order to ridicule a character or simply to inject some humour in to the story.

[1] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 663

[2] Zeev Weisman, Political Satire in the Bible (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1998), 15-6.

Does God like handsome men? (2)

King-of-EgyptIn my previous post I asked the question what is going on in the story of the choosing of David as king, where God told Samuel not to choose someone based on their appearance, and then tells him that he has chosen David, noting that he was handsome and had beautiful eyes. The two comments stand so closely together in the text it seems to me that the writer is clearly wanting the reader/listener to note the irony. This kind of irony is relatively common in several books of the Hebrew Bible, including 1 and 2 Samuel. (Irony can be humorous, although not necessarily so. Whether or not it’s funny will depend on the listener’s perspective.)

It is probably not coincidence that nearly all of the good-looking people in Samuel are in David’s immediate family: his brother Eliab, his sons Absalom (2 Sam 14:25) and Adonijah, his daughter Tamar (2 Sam 13:1), Absalom’s daughter (also named Tamar 2 Sam 14:27), his wife Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2) and his third wife Abigail (1 Sam 25:3). David’s predecessor Saul was also described as “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Sam 19:2). The books of Samuel go to great lengths to compare and contrast Saul and David and to legitimate David’s kingship by highlighting Saul’s failings. There is a hint of this in the comment about Eliab: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him” (1 Sam 16:7) which mirrors the words about Saul in the opening words “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel” (v.1). When we get repetition of words or phrases in the Hebrew Bible, especially when they stand so closely together, it seems that the writer is almost certainly making a point of some kind.

Yet, when it comes to good looks, both Saul and David were noted for being very handsome. The unnamed [Davidic] king praised in Psalm 45 is described as “the most handsome of men” (v.2), splendid and majestic (v.3) and a casual reference in Judges 8:18 to certain men who “resembled the sons of a king” also suggests that being good-looking was a common feature of royals. Could it be that the writer(s) of Samuel was also comparing Saul and David with the comments about looks? Yes Saul was handsome, and tall, but David’s whole family were good looking! Or could it be that the writer, who apparently was not keen on the institution of monarchy at all, was making a sarcastic comment about kings? No matter how good-looking they are, kings aren’t good for Israel! I’m inclined towards this second view as the story of David is full of ironies and satire. Even though he is regarded later in the books of Samuel and Kings as the ‘benchmark’ for kings, against whom all the kings of Israel and Judah were compared, the writer goes to great length to show how deeply flawed he was. If the narrator was telling us that Saul’s good looks were actually a flaw, then David (and his family) were even more fatally flawed!

A note about similar words being paralleled in the biblical narratives for effect: I mentioned in the previous post that Joseph was also described as being handsome and good-looking (Genesis 39:6). In that story his good looks get him in to trouble, as he is seduced by the wife of an Egyptian official. But there is a striking parallel between the description of Joseph and his mother Rachel (Genesis 29:17). Joseph is described in Hebrew as יְפֵה־תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶֽה and his mother Rachel as יְפֵה־תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶֽה. Can you see the difference? There is none! Is this coincidence, is the writer hinting that Joseph was effeminate in his appearance, or is he deliberately hinting that in both cases their beauty caused them problems? There is another striking parallel in a story involving Joseph: Pharoah’s dream about 7 ‘sleek’ cows being eaten by 7 ‘ugly’ cows (Gen 41:1-4). The Hebrew word translated ‘sleek’ is יָפֶה, the same word that is translated ‘handsome’ or ‘beautiful’ elsewhere, and in the descriptions of Rachel and Joseph.  Why handsome and ugly cows? Why not just fat and thin? Is the writer making an ironical comment about human appearances, or having some fun (at Joseph’s expense) about what happens to people with good looks?

Biblical humour – does God like handsome men?

david-headSome of the biblical writers seem to have an obsession with how people look. For example, we read that “Joseph was handsome and good-looking” (Genesis 39:6), that Saul was “a handsome young man” (1 Samuel 9:2), in fact “there was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he”. David’s son Adonijah “was also a very handsome man” (1 Kings 1:6). Ezekiel describes the Assyrian warriors as “all of them handsome young men” (23:6, 12, 23), and he was so impresed he uses this description three times within a few verses! Daniel and his friends were described as “without physical defect and handsome” (1:4), and 4 Maccabees tells the horrific story of the torture and murder of four handsome brothers (8:3ff). Are these just casual observations, or is there something more to the story?

One story at least seems to have a touch of humour, or irony at least. In 1 Samuel 16 we have the well known story of Samuel choosing the future king from the family of Jesse. He begins with Jesse’s firstborn, Eliab, but God says to Samuel “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (v.7). We know the story ends with Samuel choosing and anointing David because the Lord said “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one” (v.12). The funny bit comes just before that: “Now he [David] was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” So, having said he doesn’t look on the outward appearance, the Lord then chose the one who has handsome and with beautiful eyes! What’s going on there?

The Bible’s one and only fart joke (maybe)

I knew as soon as I mentioned it in passing someone would want to know immediately about the alleged ‘fart joke’ in the Bible. Ok, unless you’ve already googled it, here it is, but I should warn you that if you’re wondering why you haven’t seen it already it may because you need to know Hebrew, and Akkadian!

The story begins in Judges 1:11-15 (which is actually repeated from Joshua 15:15-19) where Caleb (one of the famous ‘two good spies’) offers a prize to whoever successfully conquers the city of Kiriath-sepher. The prize? His daughter Achsah as wife. As the story goes, it may have been better if Caleb consulted Achsah about this first, because she wan’t entirely happy about being given away to a hardened soldier as a trophy. The prize-winner was Othniel (later to become one of the famous judges in the book of Judges), Caleb’s nephew (and therefore Achsah’s cousin).

Achsah may have been a great prize for Othniel, but she wasn’t entirely satisfied with the deal herself and wanted something more, so she urges her cousin-now-husband to ask her father for some real estate to sweeten the deal. As the story goes, they come to Caleb and she dismounts from her donkey, prompting Caleb to ask “What do you wish?” (v.14). This is an odd question to ask in response to his daughter getting off her donkey! She asks for some land as a present, and receives it. (And it’s interesting, in passing, that it was Achsah, not Othniel, who did the asking, even though she’d tried to persuade her new hubby to put some pressure on the father-in-law).

The phrase וַתִּצְנַח מֵעַל הַחֲמוֹר “she dismounted from her donkey” includes a verb which occurs only here (in both accounts in Joshua 15:18 and Judges 1:14) and a couple chapters later in Judges 4:21, so translators are at best guessing with their translations. It’s an old problem and the earliest known translation (the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) says instead “she cried out from the donkey” (Joshua 15:18), or “she grumbled” (Judges 1:14) which are hardly the same as dismounting. The Septuagint translators may have misread ותצנח as ותצרח she cried, [1] or perhaps they read it right and another copyist read it wrong, and our Masoretic Text (MT) of the Hebrew Bible has descended from the copy with the mistake.

You’re probably becoming a tad impatient at this point and just want me to get to the fart joke! The eminent Biblical scholar Sir Godfrey Rolles Driver noticed a similarity with the Akkadian (Babylonian) word ṣanāḥu which he argued was the Akkadian term for farting, and so he translated the Hebrew as “she broke wind”, suggesting Achsah farted as a sign of her disgust and that was sufficiently clear to her father that he asked his otherwise odd question. One major English translation (the New English Bible) picked this up and included it in their translation. This may not be surprising, however, as G.R. Driver was the Convenor of the NEB Old Testament Committee! (and they dropped it in a later revision in favour of “she dismounted”).

As you may suspect, Driver’s translation received quite a bit of scholarly attention at the time and a fair bit of opposition, and hardly rates a mention in commentaries these days. It’s even been suggested that Driver was playing a joke of his own in slipping a fart joke into the Bible!

[1] As HALOT suggests. Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Study ed. Leiden: Brill, 2001, 1038.

(Toilet) Humour in the Bible

I haven’t been blogging very often for quite some time now, mainly because I’ve been focussed on writing my thesis. However, a friend recently suggested that I should blog about my thesis (which is about possible satire and humour in the book of Jonah), but as I need a distraction from reading and writing about Jonah I’ve decided instead to write a series of posts about a subject which is indirectly related to it. So, I’m planning to post a series here about possible humour elsewhere in the Bible. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that scholars really began to accept that the Bible might contain humour at all. This is probably not surprising because, after all, the Bible is a religious text and religion is serious business! No one really thought there could be anything ‘funny’ in sacred texts.  That probably began to change with articles such as Knapp’s Traces of Humor in the Sayings of Jesus  [1]  which tentatively suggested a small handful of Jesus’ sayings contained traces of humour. These days, humour in the Gospels is much more generally recognised, and it goes well beyond the small handful of texts suggested by Knapp, and some scholars are discovering possible humour in all sorts of places in the Hebrew Bible as well, sometimes in unexpected places.

Many scholars are still cautious about the types of humour we might find in the Bible. Even an interpreter such as Yehuda Radday who has done excellent work on identifying humour in the Bible, fails to recognise some cases of humour because he assumes that biblical humour is “never scatological or frivolous” [2]. “Scatological” is a polite way of saying “toilet humour”. In doing so he misses at least four likely cases of toilet humour in the Bible:

  1. In the Eglon incident in Judges 3:12-30 the King of Moab goes to “a well ventilated room” (v. 20 NET translation) and despite a lengthy delay his guards assume he was simply “relieving himself” (v. 24). The well-ventilated room was clearly his toilet, and his assassination while on the toilet is probably an attempt by the writer to ridicule or belittle him.
  2. Isaac in Genesis 24:63 went to the field  ַלָשׂוּח “to meditate”, a possible euphemism for relieving himself [3], which explains why meeting his future wife under these circumstances was somewhat awkward.
  3. Similarly in 1 Kings 18:27 the Hebrew uses a similar and possibly related word שִׂיחַ  to mock Baal. Elijah suggests to the prophets of Baal to “cry louder” because their god might be ‘meditating’ (or, ‘on the toilet’).
  4. Belshazzar in Daniel 5:6 apparently experienced sudden incontinence: וְקִטְרֵי חַרְצֵהּ מִשְׁתָּרַיִן “the knots of his loins were untied”, and his mother later (v.12) referred to the embarrassing incident with a double entendre, referring to Daniel as וּמְשָׁרֵא קִטְרִין one who “solves problems” or, more literally, “unties knots”. [4]

I read recently that the oldest known joke is, in fact, a fart joke. (Incidentally, the Bible may include a fart joke as well, but more on that later). So it shouldn’t be surprising that a collection of ancient texts such as the Bible should contain toilet humour. Now that I have the toilet humour out of the way I can write about other types of humour in the Hebrew Bible.

 

[1] The Biblical World, Vol. 29, No. 3, March 1907, pp. 201-207

[2] Yehuda T. Radday, “On Missing the Humour in the Bible,” in On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (eds. Radday and Brenner; Sheffield: Almond Press, 1990), 38.

[3] Kaminsky regards the Isaac incident as part of a pattern of “scatological and other, even cruder forms of humor” in the Isaac narrative. In support of his argument he cites Rendsburg who suggests that this word has something to do with urination or defecation. (Kaminsky, J. S. “Humor and the Theology of Hope: Isaac as a Humorous Figure.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 54, no. 4 (2000): 363-375. p. 369 n20.)

[4] Al Wolters, “Untying the King’s Knots: Physiology and Wordplay in Daniel 5,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 1 (1991).

Heman, the afterlife and the “shades” of the dead (Psalm 88)

Following on from my last post, it seems that while we don’t know the cause of Heman’s death, it appears that he was afflicted with a disease from a relatively early age and had been slowly dying for a long time: “afflicted and close to death from my youth up” (v. 15). It’s possible, of course, that he was exaggerating his situation and may have been overly dramatic (although he did die from it!), but in the process of describing his condition, which as I suggested earlier may have caused an untimely and perhaps sudden death, the writer gives us an interesting list of synonyms for the afterlife.

The Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) doesn’t say much after the afterlife, and there is certainly nothing to suggest that the writers had any concept of souls living on after death in heaven or hell. The idea of some souls going to a place of reward while others go to a place of punishment is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible and while it later became popular with Christian and some Jewish writers the idea doesn’t have any roots in the Hebrew Bible. Even the idea of a physical resurrection of the body at some point after death was a relatively late development. The only place in the Hebrew Bible which seems to clearly suggest the idea is the book of Daniel although there may also be a hint of it in Isaiah. Daniel describes a time of trouble such as never was, to be followed by a “resurrection” (12:1-3):

But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

This text poses a few questions. What does it mean to “sleep in the dust of the earth”? Is the writer describing death, or something else? Is his description of these people waking up similar to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37), which is a metaphor for the national restoration of the nation of Israel, or is he describing something else?  Who are these “wise” ones who will shine? What does it mean to “shine like the brightness of the sky” or “like the stars”? Is this literal or figurative? The writer of Daniel may very well have been describing the restoration to positions of power or influence of a group he knows as “the wise ones”, in a way similar to Ezekiel’s description of the revival of the nation. Or, he may have been describing the actual coming to life again of people who have died. If the latter, then this is probably the earliest mention of resurrection in the Bible, and, as Daniel was almost certainly written in the period of the Maccabees around 164BCE, it would suggest that the idea of resurrection was a late development in pre-Christian Jewish thought.

There may also be a hint of a similar idea in Isaiah 26:19

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.

This verse is part of a poetic description of a time of crisis for the nation of Judah, and, similar to Ezekiel and Daniel, it may be describing a revival of the nation following the crisis. Or, it could be describing a physical bodily resurrection of certain individuals. If so, its position within this poetic piece would certainly be odd. Either way, we can’t be certain. (I dealt earlier with a text in Job which appears to refer to resurrection, and argued that it does nothing of the sort).

Apart from these possible references to resurrection, the Hebrew Bible says nothing about the dead going to places of reward or punishment. In fact, it says little at all about the afterlife. One thing is clear: the writers of the Hebrew Bible thought everyone at death goes to the same place, and this place is most often described by the Hebrew word sheol.

Psalm 88 is interesting because of the number of synonyms it uses for sheol and the way it describes the state of the dead:

  • my life draws near to Sheol (v.3)
  • I am counted among those who go down to the pit (v.4)
  • like one set loose among the dead (v.5)
  • like the slain that lie in the grave (v.5)
  • like those whom you remember no more (v.5)
  • they are cut off from your hand (v.5)
  • You have put me in the depths of the pit (v.6)
  • in the regions dark and deep (v.6)
  • in the grave (v.11)
  • in Abaddon (place of destruction) (v.11)
  • in the darkness (v.12)
  • in the land of forgetfulness (v.12)

While this description doesn’t tell us a lot about sheol it does suggest that normal consciousness doesn’t continue and that people who go there forget and are forgotten. However, in the midst of this description the writer uses a strange expression in a (rhetorical?) question about whether anyone in sheol praises God (verse 10):

Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you?

The expression here translated “the dead” appears earlier in verse 5 where it is translated the same way  – it is a common Hebrew word for the dead, מתים metim from the root meaning “to die”. But it is followed here by a term translated variously as “the dead” (KJV), “the departed” (ESV), or “the shades” (NRSV). Here the word is רפאים rephaim. This word is used in the Hebrew Bible as a person’s name, and for a race of giants who inhabited the land before the conquest under Joshua [1]. There are also a few places where it seems to refer to the dead [2].  Its meaning is uncertain and some translations use the term “shades” (a popular Hebrew dictionary gives the translation “shades, ghosts, name of dead in She’ôl” [3]). However, the Septuagint, an ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, presents a completely different idea:

Wilt thou work wonders for the dead? or shall physicians raise them up, that they shall praise thee?

Where does this translation “physicians” come from. The Hebrew word רפאים rephaim comes from the root רפא rapha = to heal and the plural noun for physician or healer would be spelled the same way as our word for “the departed” in verse 11. It’s understandable why the Septuagint translators thought the writer of Psalm 88 was asking a rhetorical question and saying something like “once someone is dead surely it’s too late for a physician to work a miracle!”

So where did the translation “the departed” come from? The references to the race of giants may provide a clue, as do the so-called Rephaim texts from Ugarit. These texts, in Ugaritic, a semitic language which has many similarities with Hebrew, refer to a group of people called rephaim whose identity is still a mystery, but may be a group of princely or divine beings, or the spirits of the dead. Some scholars argue that these Ugaritic texts are “conclusive” in identifying the rephaim as the spirits of the dead [4], while others argue from the same texts that they are almost certainly gods, minor deities who served as acolytes of Baal, or cultic functionaries who accompany the king [5]. The connection between them, and with the root רפא to heal is most likely that one of the titles of El was “the healer” (which was also a title of YHVH, the god of Israel, e.g. Exodus 25:6), from the same root, so his acolytes were also described as “healers”. By extension, it is argued, the term for these gods was eventually also applied to (some of) the dead who also took on a god-like status.

In my view, the Septuagint translation is most convincing. It suggests that at the time it was translated (3rd century BCE), there was no still place in Judaism for “departed spirits” in sheol and that the dead had no memory or ability to praise God.

_________________________________

[1] Gen. 14:5; 15:20; Deut.2:11, 20; 3:11 ,13; Josh. 12:4; 13:12; 17:15.

[2] Isa. 14:9; 26:14, 19; Ps. 88:11; Prov. 2:19; 9:18; 21:16; Job 26:5.

[3] Brown, Francis, Samuel R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.

[4] For example, Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Study ed. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

[5] L’Heureux, Conrad. “The Ugaritic and Biblical Rephaim.” The Harvard Theological Review 67, no. 3 (1974): 265-274. 

 

The Ezrahite Psalms (88 & 89)

Two psalms are attributed to “Ezrahites” – the superscription to Psalm 88 says it is “A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” and Psalm 89 “A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite”. Book III of the psalter (Psalms is made up of 5 books) concludes with these two psalms.

Psalm 88, as it stands in the Masoretic Text and all the ancient versions, attributes authorship to both “the Korahites” (בני קרח is literally “sons of Korah”) and to “Heman the Ezrahite”. James Thirtle [1] argued that the phrase “A song, a psalm of Korahites”, should be placed at the end of Psalm 87 which is explicitly described in its superscription as “Of the Korahites; a psalm; a song”, leaving the title “a maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” in place as the title of Psalm 88. He cited Franz Delitzsch who commented that there are here “alongside of one another two different statements” as to the origin of one psalm, and asked “which notice is the more trustworthy?” [2] This explanation creates the difficulty that Psalm 87 would then be the only psalm to have an almost identical description in both its superscript and postscript, although this would be less of a difficulty than Psalm 88 being attributed to two different authors, and it frees Psalm 88 from its awkward association with the Korahites as it differs from the other Korahite psalms in content. [3]

Psalm 88 is distinguished as possibly the most negative, pessimistic psalm in the Bible! The writer complains that his life is miserable, that he is at the point of death, and, in a very Job-like way, describes his situation as being abhorent to his companions who shun him. He further complains that God has turned away from him, and blames God for his misfortunes. It ends abruptly without a glimmer of hope.

It’s not unusual for writers of Psalms to complain about their situation. In fact, “complaints” are the largest category of psalms. Typically, however, these psalms end with the writer turning to God in their misery and praising him for delivering them from their calamity. Not Psalm 88! Heman doesn’t have a positive word to say about his situation and he has apparently has no reason to praise God. So what went wrong? Why is this psalm different? My theory is that it’s an unfinished work and that the writer died before it was completed. Having described his situation as worsening, and complaining that he was at the point of death, it makes sense that he abruptly died!

Perhaps Psalm 89 was an attempt by a relative to “balance” the despair and hopelessness of Heman’s complaint with a more positive and hopeful psalm. It opens by praising God for his steadfast love and is mostly positive throughout.

 

[1] James William Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms: their Nature and Meaning Explained. London: Henry Frowde, 1904, p13-14

[2] Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on Psalms (trans. Bolton; Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint 1973), vol iii, 24

[3] Bruce K. Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 4 (1991): 592