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


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

One is not surprised to learn that eventually these complainers went too far with their sarcastic and loathsome remarks and came to an ignominious end. The Israelites, totally demoralized by the report of the spies, complained to Moses that the inhabitants of Canaan were clearly much too strong to defeat, and said (Numbers 14:2): “We wish we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this desert would we had died.” God’s response (Numbers 14:28-29) to Moses and Aaron was to tell the Israelites that: “Surely as you have spoken in My ears, so I will do to you. In this desert your carcasses shall fall.” The text indicates that the Israelite adults did indeed die in the desert over the next 39 years; their children made it to the promised land.

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.

Pharaoh’s words to Joseph regarding his family are filled with irony. Pharaoh said (Genesis 45:18): “And take your father and your households and come to me; and I will give you the best of the land of Egypt.” Rashi, a leading Jewish commentator on the Hebrew Bible and Talmud, notes that Pharaoh unknowingly alluded to what was going to happen centuries later when the Israelites left Egypt and emptied it out after the final plague. The Egyptians gave the Israelites vessels of silver and gold and clothing and the Israelites “despoiled the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:36).

There is irony in the Song at the Red Sea sung by Moses and the Israelites which described the miracles wrought by God on behalf of the Israelites. One verse in the song declares (Exodus 15:17): “You shall bring them in and plant them on the mountain of Your inheritance.” The Midrash points out that Moses and the Israelites inadvertently prophesied in saying “them” rather than “us.” As we know, this generation, including Moses, did not make it to the promised land (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 15:253).

Moses summoned Dathan and Aviram in the hope of preempting a serious rebellion started by Korach (Numbers 16:12): “Moses then sent to call Dathan and Aviram, and they said: ‘We will not go up.’ ” They were right. A few verses later, the text states that they died by being swallowed up by the earth; they went straight down (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 18:10).

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.

Like everything else in the Hebrew Bible, wordplays are there not merely to entertain, but to teach as well. Sometimes, wordplays serve to connect seemingly different situations or actions. For example, the word arumim is used in Genesis (2:25) to mean naked, i.e., Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden. The next verse (Genesis 3:1) uses the word arum to mean cunning, i.e., the serpent was cunning. There may very well be a connection between these two verses and the reader is challenged to find it.

Another connection by wordplay uses the Hebrew root word shachath, which means ruin and destruction but can also connote corruption and decadence. The Bible first uses this word to describe the utter decadence of mankind just prior to the Great Flood in Noah’s life (Genesis 6:11-14). Later this word is used to describe what the flood will wreak (Genesis 6:17). Thus, during the telling of an engrossing morality tale, the Bible uses wordplay to further emphasize the connection between decadence and destruction.

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.

Jacob stole the blessing (bracha) from Esau. Later, Esau, with 400 men, came to meet Jacob upon his return from living with Laban. Jacob sent a present (mincha) to Esau to mollify him. The word mincha is used several times to describe this gift. However, when Jacob said to Esau (Genesis 33:11): “Please take my gift,” the word Jacob used for gift was birchasee which can mean gift, but literally means ‘my blessing.’ Was this a Freudian slip? Was Jacob nervous about the blessing he “stole” twenty years previously and inadvertently used the wrong word? The more appropriate word would have been minchasee (my gift).

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.”

Jacob’s deathbed blessing to his son Judah contains an interesting wordplay (Genesis 49:9): “A young lion is Judah; from prey, my son, you ascended…” The overt meaning is that Judah is like a lion cub: he takes his prey with none daring to challenge him. The “my son” was a term of address aimed at Judah. However, if the word teref (prey) and beni (my son) are said together without any punctuation between them, then the meaning of the verse becomes that Judah ascended from the prey of Jacob’s son (Joseph). Indeed, it was Judah who said “what profit will there be if we kill our brother…” Years earlier, when Jacob was shown Joseph’s coat covered with blood, he said (Genesis 37: 33): “an evil beast has devoured (tarof toraf) Joseph.” The word used there (tarof) is from the same root as teref. Indeed, the major commentaries on the Bible argue as to whether the “my son” referred to in Jacob’s blessing is Judah or Joseph (see Rashi and Rashbam).

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 Hebrew Bible warns the Israelites not to make themselves disgusting by eating repulsive creatures. The verse then states (Leviticus 11:45): “Because I am God that brought you up (hamaaleh) out of Egypt…” The Talmud notes that the word that is normally used to describe the Israelites being taken out of Egypt (hamotzie) means “who brought you out” not “brought you up,” The word hamaaleh (meaning brought up) that is used in this verse has a double meaning. Besides meaning that God took the Israelites out of Egypt, it also indicates that the purpose of these dietary laws was to elevate the Israelites in a spiritual sense (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 61b).

When Korach and his followers rebelled against Moses in the wilderness, they said to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:3): “It is too much (rav) for you.” The Hebrew word “rav” means much or many and its antonym, me’at, means a little or a few. Their complaint was that Moses and Aaron had taken too much power for themselves. Moses’ response (Numbers 16:7) was “You take too much (rav) upon you, you sons of Levi,” i.e., that they have gone too far. Moses’ then told them (Numbers 16:9): “Is it but a small thing (hame’at) that the God of Israel has separated you …” Dathan and Aviram, Korach’s associates in the rebellion, sarcastically used Moses’ own phrase of “hame’at” to ridicule Moses. They told Moses (Numbers 16:13): “Is it but a small thing (hame’at) that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness…” Leibowitz (1980: 206) points out that Dathan and Aviram mocked Moses not only by using his own words but also by using a sentence with a similar structure. Moses asked a rhetorical question (Numbers 16: 9-10): “Is it but a small thing that the God of Israel has separated… and will you seek the priesthood also?” Dathan and Aviram responded rhetorically (Numbers 16:13): Is it but a small thing that you have brought us up… that you must make yourself also a prince over us? According to Leibowitz, what they actually meant was: You concluded with a rhetorical question upbraiding us for our ambition. We too conclude with a rhetorical question which denounces your uppitiness.

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).

Noah’s blessing to his son Japheth (Genesis 9:27), “Yaft Elohim LaYefet” [May God enlarge Japheth] was a play on Japheth’s name, since the word yaft was used only because it is similar to Yefet (Japheth).

With regard to Jacob’s birth, we see that (Genesis 25:26): “And after that came forth his brother, and his hand was grasping Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob (Yaakov, which means one that takes by the heel; the Hebrew word for heel is ekev).” Later on, when Jacob took the blessing that was originally intended for his twin brother Esau by pretending to be him, Esau said (Genesis 27:36): “Is he not rightly named Jacob (Yaakov), for he has deceived me (vayaakveini) these two times.” The word akav means deceived. Esau was making a clever wordplay on Jacob’s name.

Jacob’s blessing of Judah begins (Genesis 49:8): “Yehuda, atta yoducha…” Yoducha means to praise you. The Hebrew word yodu (to praise) is very similar to Yehuda’s (Judah) own name. Jacob’s blessing of Dan begins (Genesis 49:16): “Dan yadin amo…” Yadin means to judge and is similar to Dan’s name. Also, Jacob’s blessing to his son Gad contained a wordplay on his son’s name (Genesis 49:19): “Gad gedud yagudenu.” (“Gad, a troop shall troop upon him.”) The name Gad is similar to the Hebrew word gedud which means a troop or band.

Doeg the Edomite told King Saul that the priests living in Nob gave David food and a sword, when David was on the run from Saul who wanted David dead. Saul ordered Doeg to kill the priests of Nob. Doeg’s name in Samuel I (22:18) is spelled differently than it is elsewhere. The letter aleph in Doeg’s name was replaced with a vav and yod. The name Doeg spelled with an aleph means concerned, anxious, and worried. Doeg did not show any concern for the people of Nob and even slaughtered the women, infants, and cattle (Saul’s order was to slay the priests). The letters vav and yod spell the Hebrew word meaning woe. Doeg went from being a man who showed concern to a man who caused woe. The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b) explains the change in Doeg’s name somewhat differently. At first, God is concerned that a person will go astray (doeg means to be concerned). After a person has become evil, God exclaims, “Woe, that this person has set out an evil path.”

The Talmud believes that some names in the Hebrew Bible are not real names. For example, the Talmud has a tradition that the names of the spies are not their real names but they were named in the Bible after their (bad) deeds (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 34a). Also, there is an argument in the Talmud over whether Nimrod’s real name was Amraphel or vice versa. One opinion is that his real name was Amraphel but he was called Nimrod because he led the whole world in rebellion against God (Eruvin 53a). The Hebrew word for rebel is morod which sounds like Nimrod.

The Talmud asks: “Why was he called Korach? Because he created baldness [i.e., defoliation] in Israel” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b). The name Korach (Numbers 16) is very similar to the Hebrew word karchah which means baldness. This is just a very small sample of the Talmudic approach with respect to names.

The Israelites’ complaint to Moses in the desert was a ludicrous exaggeration (Exodus 16:3): “If we had only died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat.” This was obviously an absurd overstatement: it his highly unlikely that the Egyptians served their slaves pots of meat. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that they were served meat at all. This kind of exaggeration was used several times in the wilderness. Later on the complaint shifted from pots of meat to free fish (Numbers 11:5): “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for free; the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” This complaint was also ludicrous. True, the slaves were probably given food for “free,” but they had to perform back-breaking work and their children were murdered. Apparently, the text is trying to show us how this complaining mode of thought feeds on itself and results in worse and worse behaviors. Ultimately the Israelites wandered in the desert until this generation died, and only the next generation entered the promised land.

“To them say: ‘They that sacrifice men kiss the calves’” (Hosea 13:2). This was a proverb used in ancient times to mock the idolaters. Normally, individuals kiss other people and slaughter calves for sustenance. Idolaters do the opposite and slaughter their fellow men and kiss the calves (see the commentary of the Ibn Ezra).

The fool is also described in comical, ludicrous, and often graphical ways in Proverbs: “Like snow in the summer and like rain at harvest, so is honor unbefitting for a fool” (Proverbs 26:3). Snow is a disaster in the summer when the crops need warmth and rain is a calamity during the harvest season. Giving a fool honor is also a catastrophe since it makes people think that there is value in folly.

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).

Abraham’s wife Sarah died and Abraham needed a place to bury her. The negotiations between Abraham and Ephron over the cave of Machpelah is a good example of humor used to show the difference between a good person and a mediocre individual. These negotiations are humorous and illustrate the concept that ignoble men promise much and deliver little. Ephron, posturing before his countrymen, said to Abraham (Genesis 23:11): “No, my lord, listen to me! I have already given the field to you, and as for the cave that is in it, I have given it to you; in the view of my countrymen, I have given it to you, bury your dead.” However, Abraham refused to accept the land for free, probably suspecting that Ephron was only offering the land because his countrymen were watching. Abraham replied: “If only you would listen to me. I am giving you the money for the field…” 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)].

The expression “as God lives” is used numerous times throughout Scriptures as an oath (e.g., I Samuel 19:6, 20:3, 20:21, 25:26). One may ask, what expression does God use when He vows? After the spies returned and convinced the people that they would not be able to conquer the promised land, (Numbers 14:21), God vowed to destroy the Israelites over the age of twenty. The expression used by God was “as I live” (chai ani). Apparently, God swears by His own existence. This expression is also used in various places in the Prophets (e.g., Isaiah 49:18, Jeremiah 22:24).

Balak, the Moabite king, was afraid of the Israelites and sent messengers to Balaam whom he wished to hire to curse the Israelites. Balaam was an arrogant seer who wanted to profit from his powers, knowing full well that God did not want him to go curse the Israelites. While the arrogant Balaam called himself (Numbers 24:16): “one who hears the sayings of God and knows the knowledge of the Most High,” God showed Balaam that his own donkey saw things that Balaam did not. The ass saw an angel standing in the way with his sword drawn, but Balaam saw nothing. You might say that God made an ass out of Balaam. 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).

Balaam’s donkey, suddenly endowed with the power of speech, did not talk like a lowly donkey and simply tell his master to stop beating him. Instead, God made the donkey speak like an intelligent and eloquent individual. His first comment to Balaam was a rhetorical question (Numbers 22:28): “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said, “Because you have mocked me; if only there were a sword in my hand, I would now have slain you.” The ass replied, “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your life until this day? Have I ever been wont to do such a thing to you?” Balaam’s response reveal him as irrational and hot tempered. The donkey’s words, on the other hand, indicate a superior and rational intellect.

Ehud came to Eglon King of Moab while he was sitting alone and said (Judges 3:20): “I have a word (dvar) from God to you.” Ehud’s message was a sword which he stuck into Eglon’s huge belly. Eglon was so obese that his fat completely covered the sword. Furthermore, there is a pun in Ehud’s message to Eglon. He told him that he had a dvar. The Hebrew word dvar (or davar) means both thing and word or message. Ehud pretended to have a word but actually delivered a thing, i.e., a sword.

Saul, the future king of Israel, was looking for the prophet Samuel. The young, handsome man encountered some young ladies and, using as few words as possible, asked them (I Samuel 9:11), “Is the seer here?” The young ladies replied (I Samuel 9:12-13): “He is. Behold, he is before you. Hasten now, for on this day he has come to the city since the people will have today’s sacrifice in the high place. When you come to the city, you will immediately find him, before he ascends to the high place to eat; for the people will not eat until he comes, since he blesses the sacrifice, and afterwards those that are invited shall eat.” The Talmud wonders about this strange and very lengthy response and concludes that the young maidens prolonged the conversation because Saul was a very good looking (albeit reticent) young man (Babylonian Talmud, Berachos 48b).

Boaz told Ruth (Ruth 2:8): “Do not go and glean in another field and … but stay close to my maidens.” Boaz told Ruth to stay on the part of the field where the young women were working so that she would not be molested by any of the male harvesters. Ruth repeated Boaz’s words to her mother-in-law Naomi but made a slight modification (Ruth 2:21): “Yea, he even told me, ‘stay close to my young men until they have ended all my harvest.’” In misquoting Boaz, Ruth replaced “maidens” with “young men” (the words are very similar in Hebrew: n’arim = young men and naaroth= young maidens). Naomi must have realized this because she said to Ruth (Ruth 2:22): “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maidens.” Ruth’s Freudian slip might have made Naomi realize that Ruth needed a husband and therefore immediately advised Ruth how to get married.

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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