Wordplay in the Old Testament
A good wordplay catches the eye and often communicates an effective message with wit and humor. The names of companies such as “Cane and Able Mobility Healthcare,” or “Curl Up and Dye,” the name of a beauty salon in London, capture people’s attention, while at the same time effectively communicating what their business is about. This particular type of wordplay is known as paronomasia. Puns are also favorite devices for communicating ideas with wit and humor. Among the better known puns, at least among musicians, is Douglas Adams’s statement, “You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.” For those of a more philosophical bent, Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Immanuel doesn’t pun, he Kant.”
The Use of Wordplay in Samson’s Riddle
Some may not be aware that the Old Testament is also filled with various kinds of wordplay. Of course the wordplay occurs in Hebrew and, therefore, it is not usually possible to communicate it in our English Bibles, but translators give it their best shot when possible. For example, Samson’s riddle to his wedding guests in Judges 14:14, comes through quite well in most English translations. Based on his exploit of killing a lion and later discovering honey in its carcass, which he proceeds to eat, Samson poses the following riddle: “From-the-eater out-came eat[s] and from-the-strong out-came sweet[s]” (translation from Daniel Block, Judges, New American Commentary, p. 433). Although the Hebrew version of the riddle doesn’t rhyme (as Block’s and other English translations do), Samson does use assonance (the use of similar vowel sounds), alliteration (the use of same sounding consonants), and word repetition.
Fun With Names: Paronomasia in the Book of Judges
Although the Book of Judges is not the only book in the Old Testament to play with people’s names, it does have some particularly amusing examples of paronomasia. One of these is found in Judges 3:8, 10. In this short story the Israelite judge, Othniel, battles Cushan Rishathaim from Aram Naharaim. Even in English we can pick up the obvious rhyme between Rishathaim and Naharaim. The NKJV spoils this rhyme by translating Aram Naharaim (which means “Aram/Syria between the 2 rivers”) as Mesopotamia. Besides the obvious rhyme which is a lot of fun to say (try repeating “Cushan Rishathaim from Aram Naharaim” about 5 times!), the name Cushan Rishathaim also is a clever wordplay. The word “Rishathaim” means “doubly wicked.” Cushan may also mean “dark,” and so Cushan Rishathaim means, “the dark doubly wicked one!” Clearly this is not the name that Cushan’s parents gave him! Rather, it is a clever twisting or substituting of vowels to produce a pun that mocks their adversary. The Israelites, and their later Jewish descendants, were famous for making a pun on a name simply by changing a vowel or two. Such a device is similar to modern political cartoons that poke fun at a rival by exagerrating some characteristic of their opponent. Another example of this can be found in Judges 9 when a man named Gaal Ben Ebed strolls into the city of Shechem. Gaal Ben Ebed means “Loathesome son of a slave,” hardly the man’s real name. In cases like this, we will never know the real name of the individual, but we can take an educated guess. For example, by changing a couple of vowels, Gaal becomes “Goel” which means “redeemer.” Were the Israelites making fun of this man whose name may have meant “Redeemer” by calling him “Loathesome?” Remember that when writing ancient Hebrew (much like modern Hebrew) only consonants were used. Therefore, Gaal and Goel would look the same when written out. These examples demonstrate that making fun of a person’s name is not a modern phenomenon, it is a human phenomenon dating back many millennia. While these name changes are not easily detected in English, a good Bible commentary will help identify this use of wordplay.
Words That Look and/or Sound the Same
The technical terms for this kind of wordplay are homographs (words that look the same–“graph” meaning “to write”), homophones (words that sound the same but are spelt differently) and homonyms (words that look and/or sound the same but have different meanings–e.g., “right” and “write”). The prophets were well-known for using this type of wordplay. For example, when Jeremiah was called to be a prophet God says to him in Jeremiah 1:11, “What do you see Jeremiah?” The young prophet responds, “I see a branch of an almond tree.” The Lord responds, “I am watching over my word to perform it” (Jer. 1:12). In Hebrew the word for almond tree is shaqed, while the word for watching is shoqed. Since the almond tree was the first tree to bud in spring, the point of the wordplay is that God’s word will soon come to pass. Once again, only a good commentary will help the English reader, since this wordplay is not obvious in English. In this case, the words are homographs–they look the same–but they are pronounced slightly differently.
My favorite wordplay of this kind occurs in the story of Eli found in 1 Samuel chapters 1-4. We are told on two occasions that Eli has a weight problem. In 1 Samuel 2:29 the Lord accuses Eli and his sons of making themselves “fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel.” Later when Eli dies, the narrator tells us that Eli broke his neck when he fell backwards off his seat because he was old and heavy. The word heavy in Hebrew is kabed. It is from the same root as the Hebrew word for honor which is kabod. The story of Eli emphasizes that he has not honored the Lord (1 Sam. 2:30). Eli’s heaviness is directly related to the lack of honor that he has shown for God because it is his consumption of the stolen meat from the sacrifices that has contributed to his weight problem. The wordplay between kabed and kabod emphasizes the correspondence between the stolen sacrificial meat and the lack of honor given to God. But there is still more to this story. The word kabod which means honor, can also be translated glory in English. After Eli’s death, his daughter-in-law gives birth to a child that she names Ichabod (notice the word chabod, or kabod–it can be spelt either way—in this name). Ichabod means either “no glory,” or “where is the glory?” The child is named Ichabod because, as Eli’s daughter-in-law states, “the glory has departed from Israel” (1 Sam. 4:21-22). When we follow the wordplay through, we come to realize that the story is telling us that because Eli made himself heavy (kabed) and did not honor (kabod) the Lord, the glory (kabod) departed from Israel. I explore this wordplay in more depth in my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.
These are just a few examples of the different ways that the Old Testament uses wordplay. The discovery of wordplay in the Old Testament not only enhances our appreciation for its artistry, more importantly, it helps us to connect with the theology and messages in the biblical text that we might otherwise overlook. For those of you who enjoy a good wordplay, I would love for you to share some of your favorites from the Bible in the comment section below.