Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

August 18, 2006

The Hilarious Hebrew Bible

In a book entitled On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, Radday and Brenner attempt to demonstrate the assertion that Biblical authors knew how to have a good laugh. The fact that the Bible seems like so serious a text is simply because the people who have translated it over the ages have tended to be reasonably serious people. What is more, that which was funny two thousand years ago is not necessarily funny today. Today, even the reruns of Friends are starting to get tiring: how banal will they appear next millenium?

Throughout the essays in Radday's and Brenner's book, a variety of comic examples are listed. Some of them are slapstick (such as the manner in which the Egyptian magicians, when faced with a plague of blood, demonstrated their own prowess by making the plague worse), while others are simply sweet (such as the manner in which the local girls seem to speak over each other in answering the handsome Saul's questions). I would like to relate another example, but one which is not listed in this entertaining book. It involves the aftermath of Abel's murder.

Once God realises what Cain has done (or, at least, once God forces Cain to confess), Cain is immediately exiled. His punishment? To be a ceaseless wanderer for the rest of his days. He may never dwell amongst humanity, but he must wander the earth as a nomad. The first thing, however, that Cain does is settle in a city, and the rest of his days are spent living an urbanised life. Did Cain contravene the Lord's punishment? It would seem so, but upon closer examination it would appear that Cain found a loophole.

The exact wording of Cain's punishment is
נע ונד תהיה בארץ
na´ v'nad tihyeh va`aretz
You shall be a wanderer and a nomad on the earth
- Gen 4:12

Cain loudly bemoans his fate, for who would wish to be a ceaseless wanderer? In verse 16, however, we are told that he settles down in the land of Nod (to the East of Eden) and, we may assume, meets his wife for in the following verse they have a child. Did he not understand the punishment that he was given? On the contrary, it would seem them he understood it all too well. The name of the city that he chose was Nod, which is formed off the same verbal root as the imperative nad, as seen in the wording of his punishment.

While contemporary readers of modern-day translations may miss the joke, God is effectively telling Cain to be a wanderer and Cain is responding by dwelling in a land called Wander. A Wanderer he shall indeed be for the rest of his days.


At 2:34 PM , Anonymous Dave said...

Is the book On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible available for purchase anywhere online?

At 8:28 PM , Blogger Simon Holloway said...

Quite possibly, although I've not found it (I looked at it in a university library). I did a quick search for you at Amazon (not available), DoveBook and Abebooks, but couldn't find it. If it helps you narrow down your search, I think that it might be part of the JSOT-Supplementary Series.

At 5:57 AM , Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I'm not sure its fair to categorize puns as humor per se, although I recognize that it is possible that word plays were considered funny nontheless.

I'd say that it is certainly possible that the depiction of Esau in Gen. 25 was considered quite funny, with its use of verb הלעיטני:

ל וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן-הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה--כִּי עָיֵף, אָנֹכִי; עַל-כֵּן קָרָא-שְׁמוֹ, אֱדוֹם. 30 And Esau said to Jacob: 'Let me swallow, I pray thee, some of this red, red pottage; for I am faint.' Therefore was his name called Edom.

otherwise used when stuffing an animal (example courtesy of Robert Alter's intro to his Pentateuch translation.)

At 9:27 AM , Blogger S and C said...

If it's any help the ISBN for _On Humour_ is 1850752419. I could not find it on Fetch-Book. The following libraries are among the 251 that seem to own it:
Union-PSCE in VA, Catholic Univ. in DC, Johns Hopkins in MD, Duke in NC, Vanderbilt in TN.

At 11:48 PM , Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

Curious, I am writing a post on this myself. I understand that the phrase 'be'erets-nod' is more likely to be a Hebrew idiom just meaning 'as a wanderer', which is how Jerome renders it. The translation as "Land of Nod" has a history going back to the LXX, but may be a misinterpretation?

My favourite joke in the OT, incidentally, is Ex 40:13 and 40:19, where both the butler and the baker have their 'heads lifted up' by Pharaoh, but in very different ways!

At 10:08 AM , Blogger Simon Holloway said...

Thanks for that, Conrad, I'd not actually considered that possibility before - nor had I looked at either the LXX nor the Vulgate on this verse. Should what you are suggesting (which seems very reasonable) be the case, then the assertion a few verses down that Cain founded a city is not so out of place.

I always felt that it produced a slightly disjunctive image, seeing as he was already leading a settled, urbanised life: where did he found it? Did he leave Nod first?

On the contrary, it may seem to reinforce his own status as a wanderer (although I am reading into the text here). He may found a city and name it after his son, but he may not actually live there himself. An element of pathos, perhaps, in the story of a tired old convict?

At 6:08 PM , Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, the Wandering Jew.

At 2:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

He's wandering around ,but what I find interesting is that he's afraid to leave the garden? What's he afraid of outside the garden? Why does god need to mark him so WHO will know not to harm him?

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