Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Bible Study

Gary A. Rendsburg, "The Mock of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50.3 (July 1988) 414-417 (at 414):
One of the most memorable scenes in the entire Bible is the contest between Elijah the prophet of Yahweh and the 450 prophets of Baal atop Mt. Carmel. The confrontation, recorded in 1 Kings 18, called on both parties to attempt to produce rain, with the Baal prophets going first and Elijah scheduled second. When the former's efforts from morning until noon had produced no results, Elijah began to taunt his opponents about the inefficacy of their god. His exact words were as follows: "Shout in a loud voice, for he is a god, kî śîaḥ wekî śîg lô, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping or waking up" (1 Kgs 18:27).

The words left untranslated apparently form a hendiadys, i.e., the use of two words (śîaḥ and śîg) to express one idea (compare the English "bits and pieces" or "odds and ends"). Unfortunately, however, none of the usual meanings of these Hebrew words fits the present context, so the phrase has proved to be enigmatic for scholars.
Rendsburg in his article argues that śîg (go aside, move away) means to go aside for the purpose of defecating (Targum Jonathan translates it as a euphemism for ease oneself) and that śîaḥ means to urinate (there are cognates with this meaning in other Semitic languages). He concludes (at 416):
In short, there is good reason to conclude that both elements in the hendiadys, śîaḥ and śîg, refer to excretion and that the phrase should be rendered "he may be defecating/urinating." These would certainly be powerful words from the mouth of Elijah and would be a most appropriate mock of the Canaanite god Baal.
Unfortunately, I don't know Hebrew, so I can't judge how plausible this interpretation is. There can be no question of any classical influences, but like Old Porteous, I always come back to the Greeks and the Romans, or, in this case, the Greeks.

First, on "going aside," see Xenophon, Education of Cyrus 1.2.16 (tr. Walter Miller):
There remains even unto this day evidence of their moderate fare and of their working off by exercise what they eat: for even to the present time it is a breach of decorum for a Persian to spit or to blow his nose or to appear afflicted with flatulence; it is a breach of decorum also to be seen going apart [ἰόντα ποι] either to make water or for anything else of that kind. And this would not be possible for them, if they did not lead an abstemious life and throw off the moisture by hard work, so that it passes off in some other way.
Second, on the bodily functions of gods, see the passages collected at Holy Ordures and Noctes Scatologicae: Divine Flatulence, to which add Aristophanes, Clouds 373 (tr. Jeffrey Henderson), where, after learning that clouds cause rain, Strepsiades says:
And imagine, before now I thought that rain is Zeus pissing through a sieve!

καίτοι πρότερον τὸν Δί' ἀληθῶς ᾤμην διὰ κοσκίνου οὐρεῖν.
J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams, Oxford Introduction to Proto-European and the Proto-European World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 126, connect Greek οὐρέω (ouréō = urinate) with Hittite warsa- (rainfall) and Sanskrit várṣati (rain). Some derive Greek οὐρανός (ouranós = sky, heaven, cf. Latin and English Uranus) from a root that is also the source of ouréō: see Gregory Nagy, Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 275, who cites Hjalmar Frisk, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, II, 446-447. One is supposed to be able to search Frisk at the Indo-European Etymological Dictionary web site, but I have consistently bad luck with this tool. It almost always responds to my queries with "Sorry, the server may be busy: please try your request later!" M.L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 137, discussing the suffix *-nos, derives Greek Ouranós from *Worsanos = lord of rain.

Hat tip: Rick Brannan, Humor in Ancient Literature (the meme).

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