Cunning punning in Genesis 3

The value of a historical-critical study Bible does show itself from time to time. I was reading through the early chapters of Genesis, looking for more “once upon a time…” campfire stories, when I happened upon the study notes in my REB Study Bible for Genesis 3:1:

3.1: Serpent: an ancient extrabiblical story tells how a serpent stole the plant which would have given immortality to human beings. It was believed that when the snake shed its skin, it was rejuvenated. Cunning: there is a pun in the Heb. words for cunning and naked (v.7). Had made: a phrase deliberately used to show that the serpent was only one among God’s many creatures. The idea of the serpent as a primeval adversary of God, indeed, the Devil, arose much later (see Wisd. 2.24); so too the fixing of blame on the woman arose at a much later time (Ecclus. 25.24).

A virtually identical footnote appears in the NEB Study Bible, though with “crafty” instead of “cunning”, as that earlier translation has it. The verses in question are:

The serpent, which was the most cunning of all the creatures the Lord God had made, asked the woman, ‘Is it true that God has forbidden you to eat from any tree in the garden?’ (3:1)

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (3:7)

Leon Kass’ book, “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis“, contains the following note on this text:

The word “cunning,” in Hebrew ‘arum, echoes and puns on ‘arumim, “naked,” […] The root sense of ‘erum, “naked,” is “smooth”: someone who is naked is hairless, clothesless, smooth of skin. But as the pun suggests, someone who is clever is also smooth, a facile thinker and talker whose surface speech is beguiling and flawless, hiding well his rough ulteriour purposes. (p.82)

With this in mind, we might think about how a “Literary Equivalent” English translation might convey a sense of this linguistic relationship in the original Hebrew:

The serpent was the smoothest operator of all the creatures the Lord God had made. He asked the woman, ‘Is it true that God has forbidden you to eat from any tree in the garden?’ (3:1)

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that their naked skin was smooth; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (3:7)

Now obviously “smooth operator” is a very constrained idiom or phrase to use in terms of its historical relevance and one must fight the temptation to begin humming Sade’s song of the same name, but the desired effect is there, drawing the connection between the cunning deceitfulness of the serpent and the nascent self-awareness of the sinful man and woman.

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  1. Posted October 18, 2008 at 8:20 AM | Permalink

    E.S., Whilst I like your translations, I have to say I think you’re working for a lost cause here. There is so much punning of this kind in Genesis it’s kind of ridiculous, and I’m not sure it serves great purpose in translation – I believe the reason it was there to begin with would have been as a mnemonic device.

  2. Posted October 18, 2008 at 1:57 PM | Permalink

    That’s probably a fair conclusion, Damian, though I like the exercise of thinking about how Hebrew literary devices could be emulated in English.

  3. Posted October 18, 2008 at 8:25 PM | Permalink

    I don’t mean you should stop :). I enjoy your translation exercises tremendously.

  4. Posted October 19, 2008 at 7:30 AM | Permalink

    Very nice, ElShaddai.

  5. Posted October 22, 2008 at 8:35 PM | Permalink

    I have been reading the REB Apocrypha recently, and I have encountered some clever, punny translations of wordplays in the Greek.

    For example in Daniel and Susanna, verses 54-55: Daniel said, “‘Now, if you really saw this woman, then tell us, under what tree did you see them together?’ He answered, ‘Under a clove tree.’ Daniel retorted, ‘Very good! This lie has cost you your life, for already God’s angel has received your sentence from God, and he will cleave you in two.'” The footnote points out this wordplay on “clove” and “cleave.”

    Again, in verses 58-59: “‘Now tell me, under what tree did you surprise them together?’ ‘Under a yew tree,’ he replied. Daniel said to him, ‘Very good! This lie has cost you also your life, for the angel of God is waiting sword in hand to hew you down and destroy the pair of you.'” Again, the footnote points out the wordplay between “yew” and “hew.”

    I think this is very helpful and clever on the translators’ part.

  6. Posted October 22, 2008 at 9:00 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for those notes, Ray – that’s a great point about the REB, though I must point out that those renderings were originally from the NEB. I especially liked that they do note the literal Greek in a footnote so you know that they’ve taken a liberty with the text. I’m comparing the NEB/REB to the NRSV/NAB/NJB Apocryphas and none of those achieve nearly the same effect.

  7. Posted October 24, 2008 at 1:06 PM | Permalink

    Yes, Genesis (and the entire Old Testament) is full of this. God’s also a literary genius (surprise, surprise). I don’t have it at my fingertips, but Jeremiah 1 (“almond” and I forget what else) also has good word plays. I really wish there was a way to capture all of this in the English language, though. Nice work.

  8. Mike Sangrey
    Posted October 25, 2008 at 9:08 AM | Permalink

    Your mentioning the pun made me think of an exegesis of this text I’d never considered before. Though the exegesis doesn’t change the main point, it arrives at it in a different way.

    My thought stems from the fact that puns usually have an underlying semantic tie. That’s the beauty of the pun in that you can say something that really isn’t in the words of the text, and yet it makes the meaning of the text more precise. With many puns it’s this non-textual tie–determined and caused by the pun–that bursts into the mind and brings about laughter.

    I often wondered what the issue was with naked (not that I walk around the house nude or anything like that). However, if the core, but explicit, concept is smoothness, then that brings another thought to mind.

    Let me take Gen 3:7, paraphrase it and elucidate it through expansion so as to quickly get to my point.
    “Then they suddenly became aware of something they hadn’t seen before: the smoothness of their bodies showed they were exposed and unprotected.”

    The point wasn’t the nakedness. The point was their exposure evidenced by the smoothness. So, to remedy the problem, they put on some kind of protection against the elements.

    Now, does that help explain 3:10? Here, too, I’ve often wondered what the big deal of nakedness was. In fact, they had already covered themselves so they weren’t technically naked. I can come up with explanations; however, all of them feel like I’m reaching outside the text in order to explain the text. I’m uncomfortable with doing that. However, if I consider that Adam and Eve had now experienced sin and their whole being was changed (metaphorically and spiritually, they had died), then being exposed to a Holy God walking through the Paradise would have been a very fearful event. They would have felt totally unprotected. That’s not injecting anything into the text.

    God then works to get to the bottom of this issue. That is, who on earth put my two wonderful creatures, the height of my creation, into a place where they are fearful of me and think that I would not protect them. The immediately questions from Him were, “Whose responsible?” and “Have you sinned?”

    The pun between 3:1 and 3:7 sets the mind into the right frame to be able to more easily grasp this flow of thought. And, more importantly, the danger of being a sinner in the presence of God. That’s excellent and very basic theology, IMO. Ideal for this location of the development of the text.

  9. Posted October 26, 2008 at 11:17 PM | Permalink

    I like where you’re going with this, exploring the angle of exposure and protection. I might edit my suggested wording of 3:7 to be something more along the lines of:

    Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that their smooth skin was exposed and unprotected; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

    It’s possible too that opening up the linguistic range of options in that verse could identify some other English wordplay options for v3:1. I’ll have to think about that.

  10. Posted October 27, 2008 at 4:00 PM | Permalink

    What makes pun so compelling is the proximity of the one word (ערום /`arowm) in Genesis 2:25 to the other word (ערום/`aruwm) in Genesis 3:1. Yes, the first word is repeated again Genesis 3:7.

    But the second word doesn’t reappear except in Job 5:12 and 15:5, as negatively “cunning” – and yet many other times in the Proverbs as more positively “prudent.” Not sure the “smooth” idea runs through this.

    Your post did make me think of the contrast between Esau, who was cunning ( ידע/ yada`) as in Genesis 25:27 and Jacob, who was smooth ( חלק/ chalaq) as in Genesis 27:11.

  11. Posted October 28, 2008 at 8:35 AM | Permalink

    I wish I could find more evidence for Kass’ claim that nakedness is related to smoothness. (“The root sense of ‘erum, “naked,” is “smooth”: someone who is naked is hairless, clothesless, smooth of skin.”) I can’t find the connection in BDB or HALOT, but I would like to find it, because it would help explain one comment in Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews. (1.18 and notes 69 and 93 in vol. 6)
    Ginzberg writes: “The first result [of their sin] was that Adam and Eve became naked. Before, their bodies had been overlaid with a horny skin, and enveloped with the cloud of glory. No sooner had they violated the command given them than the cloud of glory and the horny skin dropped from them, and they stood there in their nakedness, and ashamed.”
    His notes are less than clear about where the “horny skin” idea is from, but if “smoothness” is indeed connoted by “naked,” then there would be an explanation. Do note also the further wordplay contrasting Adam and Eve’s original garment of light (reading אור ) with their subsequent garment of skin ( עור ).

  12. Posted October 28, 2008 at 9:35 AM | Permalink

    @J.K. – you’re right about proximity, of course. The 2.25 reference might have been the better one for the purposes of this post, though it does raise the question of what is meant by “naked” and how it relates to shame and/or the realization in 3.7.

  13. Posted October 28, 2008 at 9:45 AM | Permalink

    @mgvh: thanks for sharing the Ginzberg comment. It sounds like he’s drawing in a parallel to a snake shedding its skin with humanity before and after sin.

    As for Kass, I found that reference through a Google book search, so maybe there’s something more in his notes?

  14. Dave
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 4:07 PM | Permalink

    Or that a pun has a two-fold essence, bifurcated to give two directions – so that both the deceit and the result have the same root … the serpent’s tongue !

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