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Tweaking Your Enemies Hebrew Style

name tag immoral fool smallIn my previous blog, “What’s in a Name?” I started a discussion on the importance of paying attention to the meaning of names in the Bible. Sometimes what comes out of these names can be shocking.

The truth is, people tend to take their own names pretty seriously, which opens up a whole world of possibilities for getting under someone’s skin when you really want to. Not that I do that… no… I’m much too sweet for such childish rhetoric. If you don’t believe me just ask my friend, Crabby… ummm… I mean Abby.

School children love to twist their classmates’ names to give them false meanings, often lewd, and almost always insulting. [I will refrain from listing any here… just think back to grade school; I’m sure you can think of a couple.] We might well remember less creative attempts when kids went for obvious gags with names like Bob, Neil, Mat, and the like, but I won’t admit to anything… I’m sure I was much more sophisticated even at 10.

One of my favorites is the Intertestamental mockery of Israel’s enemy Antiochus Epiphanes… yes he took a nickname that is connected to the idea of “epiphany” an illustrious one, a manifest one, some suggest he intended “manifest deity.” The Jews used to mispronounce his name and call him Antiochus Epimames (“The Madman”).[1]

Another favorite is found in the intertestamental tradition of the fall of Anigonus, the last of the Jewish Hasmonean rulers. One tradition has the Roman conqueror, general Sosius, mock Antigonus, as the defeated king pleaded at his feet for mercy. The general is supposed to have looked down upon him and called Antigonus, “Antigone,” the name of Sophocles’ tearful heroine.[2] This whimpering king, shames his name, one he shared with the great general of Alexander the Great, and paints himself a crying woman begging for his life.

Well, Biblical authors and characters are also known to play loose with some people’s monikers when it suited their purposes.  Most of the time, modern readers fail to pick up on it, and even hearing it miss the joke at times because subtle pronunciations can come into play. This toying with names is usually derisive, and often quite humorous if you get the joke. Yehuda Radday wisely cautions scholars who specialize in the etymologies [i.e. origins] of names not to ignore the sense that these names would have to native Hebrew listeners, whose own historic sense of language would not include in-depth knowledge of the many national tongues surrounding them. Indeed, one must not imagine that those listening to the stories of Scripture being read to them in Hebrew failed to make much over the sounds of those names. We do it; why wouldn’t they?

The storyteller in Genesis 11:9 makes a humorous play against a common enemy when he gives a fake etymology for the Babylonian name Babel, saying “because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth.”  This is not a serious etymology of Babel, which means “Gate of God,” but is mocking the place through a subtle play on the sounds bavel vs balel.

Poor poor Evil-merodach, king of Babylon, must have suffered mercilessly on the tongues of Hebrews. His name is innocent enough in his own tongue “Man or soldier of Marduk” their chief deity. In Hebrew, however, his name sounds like the word for Fool, אויל being rendered to their ears as Fool of Marduk. And I assume we all recognize how his name sounds to the English ear.

When one turns to consider David’s one nemesis, Nabal in I Samuel 25:1ff, the Hebrew listener just might squirt milk out of his nose if he were drinking it when first he hears the story.  Nobody would give their Hebrew kid the name Nabal. Imagine a mother having immediately given birth, taking up her son into her arms, cooing at him, poking his little button nose, and saying, “Aren’t you just a little immoral fool… that’s right, Mamma’s gonna call you Immoral Fool.” His name is manipulated. A slight shift in pronunciation might lead to “Wine Skin,” or “Harp.” Some have even suggested a total reversal, making his actual name a more popular one among shepherds, Laban.[3] His story name emphasizes his character, saying in 1Sa 25:3  that he is “harsh and badly behaved” and in 1Sa 25:17  that he is a “worthless man,” [which itself has important sound connections [בְּלִיַּעַל beliya’al]. His wife is more specific yet in 1Sa 25:25 saying “Let not my lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal is his name, and folly is with him.”

Always pay attention to names. If you learn Hebrew, you may even have some fun getting in on many a derisive joke.



[1] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Jewish_Holidays/Hanukkah/History/Antiochus_Madman.shtml`

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antigonus_II_Mattathias

[3] Yehuda Radday, “Humour in Names,” in On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible (Almond Press, 1990) 59-97; If you are interested in this topic, Radday has quite a lengthy discussion on many plays on names throughout Scripture.

[4] Media pic is from sxc.hu

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