Irony and Wordplay in the Old Testament


Really interesting things pointed out. The section on closeness of words used also is interesting – I get the feeling that the words chosen were so specific, it is unlikely the OT was an invented, false document meant to trick the believers of the time (of course, the critic might argue that this just shows that someone went through the OT and edited it with clever puns).

Some nice excerpts from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York website:

—————————
Humor in the Hebrew Bible

by

Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.
Professor of Business and Marketing
Bernard H. Stern Professor of Humor 1997-1999
Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
E-mail: x.friedman [at] att [dot] net

Job demanded to confront God and know the reason for all his suffering. Job’s wish was granted, and God said to him (Job 38:4): “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Or, in other words, when you create your own world, then you can tell me how to run mine.

When Rachel was still childless, she (Genesis 30:1): “envied her sister and said to Jacob, ‘give me children or else I die.’ ” The tragic irony of this statement is that Rachel subsequently died in childbirth giving birth to Benjamin.

When King David slept with Bathsheba and made her pregnant, she was still married to Uriah. In what is probably his least noble moment, King David sent a letter to his general, Joab, telling him to place Uriah at the front where the battle was the most fierce so that he would be killed. The irony is that David sent this letter via the hand of Uriah, who unwittingly carried his own death warrant to Joab (II Samuel 11:1-16). The tables were turned on David when the prophet Nathan told David a parable but made it seem that the event had actually occurred. Nathan’s parable involved a poor man who owned nothing but a lamb that he loved dearly. A rich man took the lamb and slaughtered it to make a meal for a guest. David, who took the story literally, swore that the person who did this was deserving of death. Since the parable referred to David himself, who had taken away Uriah’s wife, David had also in effect signed his own death warrant.

This may explain why the story ends with the strange statement that (Esther 10:3): Mordechai was “accepted by most of his brethren.” Perhaps, the reason is that some Jews felt that the problems would not have occurred if Mordechai would have bowed to Haman or at least stayed out of his way.

Wordplays are sometimes the subtle means by which the text shows its displeasure with someone’s deeds. In Genesis (9:20): “Noah began to be a man of the soil,” the word for began is vayachel. This word, however, can also mean to debase oneself or to act profanely. Using a wordplay, the Bible shows its displeasure with Noah for first planting a grape vine (and getting intoxicated) after the flood rather than planting something else (see Midrash Rabbah Genesis 36:3). Calling Noah “a man of the soil” may also be a subtle affront in itself. Moses was called “a man of God” because of his concern with spiritual matters and Noah, the person whose priority was to plant a grape vine, was the “man of the soil.”

Another example cited in the Midrash (Midrash Tanchuma Genesis Toldos 8), refers to the statement that Isaac loved Esau because he was (Genesis 25:28): ‘tzayid bapiv.’ This means literally that Esau the hunter provided his father with game for his mouth. The word tzayid can mean game (ba means ‘in’ and piv means ‘mouth’), but it can also mean to hunt or trap. The Midrash and many commentators on the Bible believe that there is a double entendre here. The verse may be suggesting that Esau used his own mouth to trap (i.e., deceive) his father. Esau was deceptive and made his father believe that he was a fine individual and, therefore, his father loved him more than Jacob.

Laban said to Jacob (Genesis 30:28): “Designate (Nakvah) to me your wages and I will give it.” The word “nakvah” means designate or specify. However, this word has exactly the same spelling as nekevah which means female. This is a clever pun and refers to the fact that previously Jacob worked for females, i.e., he worked a total of 14 years for the hand of Rachel.

The expression “will lift up your head” (yisa es roshecha) is used several times in describing Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams of the butler and the baker (see Genesis 40: 13,19, 20). The lifting of the head when referring to the Pharaoh’s butler means to count, i.e., that he will be restored again to his original position and will be counted again among Pharaoh’s servants. However, the “lifting up your head” when referring to the baker is used to mean that the baker will be hanged. This is a clever play on the idiom of “will lift up your head.”

The verse (Exodus 2:12) states: “Moses looked all around, and when he saw that there was no man, he killed the Egyptian” [who had beaten the Hebrew]. The Midrash notes that there was no one man enough to protect the Hebrew from the Egyptian tormentor (see Midrash Exodus Rabbah 1:29).

The prophet Samuel asked King Saul why he spared the sheep of the Amalekites after being told by the Lord to eradicate everything (I Samuel 15:14): “And Samuel said: ‘What then (meh) is this bleating of sheep in my ears?’” The word for “what then” is meh which sounds uncannily like the bleating of sheep.

The prophet Hosea compared God to a lion and a leopard waiting to destroy the Jewish people for having forsaken Him (13:7): “… as a leopard by the way I will watch [stealthily].” The word used to mean “watch stealthily” or “lie in wait” is ashur. This word is spelled exactly the same as the word Ashur which means Assyria except that it is missing a dagesh

Boaz told Ruth (Ruth 2:12): “May the Lord reward your actions and may your payment be full (shlemah).” The word for full, shlemah, is spelled the same as Shlomo (Solomon) in Hebrew. Ruth’s most famous descendant was indeed Solomon (see Midrash Ruth Rabbah 5:4).

For example, the plague of frogs. First, the imagery invoked of a country overrun with jumping frogs, including frogs in the palace, in the bedrooms of Egypt, in the ovens and kneading bowels is quite ludicrous. Then, as if this image is not funny enough, the Egyptian magicians, trying to downplay what Moses had done, “brought up frogs on the land of Egypt ” (Exodus 8:3) to show that they could do the same thing. One would think they would have tried to eliminate the plague (but, of course, they couldn’t). There is even humor in the word used to describe Moses’ prayer to God asking for the frogs to go away. Moses cried (vayitzack) to God. Moses had to cry because the noise made by all those frogs required that Moses scream to be heard (see the commentary of Sifse Chachamim).

Ephron said: My lord, hear me! Land worth four hundred silver shekels, between me and you what is it? Bury your dead.” Ephron, still pretending that he wanted to give away the land for nothing, cleverly mentioned its presumed value. Of course, Abraham understood what Ephron really wanted and ended up paying him the grossly outrageous sum of 400 silver shekels [Jeremiah paid 7 shekels and 10 silver pieces for property that was better, and probably larger, than the Cave of Machpelah (Jeremiah 32:9)].

Also humorous, is the fact that Balaam said to his donkey (Numbers 22:29): “Because you have mocked me; if only there were a sword in my hand, I would now have slain you.” Balaam was ready to eradicate an entire nation with his ability to curse but he suddenly needed a sword to kill his own helpless donkey (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 20:14).

2 Responses to “Irony and Wordplay in the Old Testament”

  1. Zack T Says:

    Hahaa… Interesting. haha. Will definitely be sharing this around. Thanks.

  2. JAzZ Says:

    Very interesting indeed! Thanks for fwding this, ZT!

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