On the watch for wordplay in the Bible

Posted: 26th October 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

I want to take a closer look at a couple of puns in the OT and Apocrypha that were mentioned in the comments to my post on the “smooth” punning in Genesis 3. But first, be sure to check out Mike Sangrey’s observations on what smooth might really mean, posted here and here.

Ray McCalla noted some wordplay in one of the Apocrypha’s addition to the book of Daniel, Daniel and Susanna. This story of a young maiden unjustly accused by two lecherous elders concludes with a youthful Daniel separating the elders and producing two conflicting versions of their testimony. The issue at hand is the translation of the type of tree that the elders were hiding behind while they supposedly observed the maiden and her lover.

The following table compares the NEB/REB translation with the NRSV:

NEB/REB NRSV
Daniel and Susanna, v54-55 Daniel and Susanna, v54-55
“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.’ “Now then, if you really saw this woman, tell me this: Under what tree did you see them being intimate with each other?” He answered, “Under a mastic tree.” And Daniel said, “Very well! This lie has cost you your head, for the angel of God has received the sentence from God and will immediately cut you in two.”
Daniel and Susanna, v58-59 Daniel and Susanna, v58-59
‘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.’ “Now then, tell me: Under what tree did you catch them being intimate with each other?” He answered, “Under an evergreen oak.” Daniel said to him, “Very well! This lie has cost you also your head, for the angel of God is waiting with his sword to split you in two, so as to destroy you both.”

It is first important to note that both the NRSV and NEB/REB footnote the other approach. That is, the NEB/REB indicates the literal translation of the underlying Greek (“mastic” and “oak”, respectively), while the NRSB indicates that there is “an ironic wordplay” in the source language not reproduced in that translation.

Mike Sangrey asked the question, “To what extent should the observance of puns influence translation?” Clearly, in this instance, the NEB/REB translators put more importance on drawing out the wordplay through a dynamic translation rather than restricting the text to the literal meaning. It doesn’t hurt that there is evidently a yew tree that grows in northern Iran (Babylon, where the story takes place) and that it is a dense conifer that would presumably offer two elders some visual protection as they leered at a young woman. Another translation, the NJB, leans a bit to the dynamic as well with their choices of “acacia/cut” and “aspen/rend” for the respective examples above – perhaps emphasizing some phonetic similarities indicated in bold, though the aspen is perhaps a bit more geographically challenged.

* * * * *

The other example of wordplay that I wanted to consider was noted by Peter Lopez, who mentioned puns based on “almonds” from Jeremiah 1. An examination of a few translations revealed some interesting approaches:

REB NJB
Jeremiah 1:11-12 Jeremiah 1:11-12
The word of the Lord came to me: ‘What is it that you see, Jeremiah?’ ‘A branch of an almond tree,’ I answered. ‘You are right, said the Lord to me, ‘for I am on the watch to carry out my threat.’ The word of Yahweh came to me, asking, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’ I answered, ‘I see a branch of the Watchful Tree.’ Then Yahweh said, ‘Well seen, for I am watching over my word to perform it.’

In this case, the Hebrew for “almond tree” is shaked, while the Hebrew for “on the watch” is shoked. The NRSV and most other translations are similar to the REB.

The Jewish Study Bible contains a note on this passage that “the almond tree is one of the first trees to blossom in the spring, signifying God’s resolve to bring about the divine word concerning Jerusalem and Judah.” According to several other sources, the almond tree might be called the “watchful tree” (NJB) or “watching tree” (NAB) because it was the first sign of the new growing season. It’s unknown if this is a fanciful name in translation or a true idiomatic reference.

Interestingly, the REB edited out a related approach to this wordplay from the original NEB translation:

The word of the Lord came to me: ‘What is it that you see, Jeremiah?’ ‘An almond in early bloom‘, I answered. ‘You are right,’ said the Lord to me, ‘for I am early on the watch to carry out my purpose.’

In this case, the NEB has added words in an attempt to bring out a semantic meaning of the wordplay, that being the time element of God’s intent to fulfill his word, rather than the close spelling and pronunciation of the original Hebrew.

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    “VERBAL RESONANCE IN THE BIBLE AND INTERTEXTUALITY”
    http://jot.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/26/2/3.pdf

    Puns and Pundits: Wordplay in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature
    http://faculty.washington.edu/snoegel/punpund.html

  2. Kevin Sam says:

    ElShaddai, interesting comparison. In my NJB, the note I have for Jer.1:12 is: “‘Watchful’ (sheqed) is the Hebrew name for the almond tree, watching for the spring to be the first to blossom; here it suggsts the Vigilant One (shoqed), God ever-wakeful.” I think it’s a wordplay of sheqed and shoqed comparing the watchful tree to God being the watchful one.

  3. I think it’s a wordplay of sheqed and shoqed comparing the watchful tree to God being the watchful one.

    Yes. There’s definitely wordplay in the Hebrew – I was mostly interested to see how or if English translations conveyed that wordplay. Using the Hebrew idiomatic name for the almond tree, e.g. the Watchful tree, certainly makes that connection, even though it’s less meaningful to someone outside the Hebrew language.

    I thought that the NEB struck a more idiomatic course in English, while the NRSV, REB et al. translated literally and used footnotes to communicate what was happening in the Hebrew.

    Thanks also for the NJB notes – my text is from a parallel Bible and doesn’t have the full study notes.

  4. @J.K. – thanks for the links! I’ll have to save my pennies and investigate them later…

  5. Kevin Sam says:

    There’s a lot of word plays in the Hebrew. My Hebrew is pathetic and I wished I had more time to study it so that I can catch more of it in the Hebrew that you can’t in English.