Breaking Wind from Your Ass – Biblical Scholar Slips a Fart Joke into the Bible
Posted by NT Wrong on December 12, 2008
There’s a story in Joshua 15.15-19 (repeated almost verbatim in Judges 1.11-15), in which Caleb offers his daughter Achsah to any warrior who can defeat the city of Debir. The warrior Othniel accepts Caleb’s challenge and successfully conquers Debir. As Debir lies to the south of Hebron, towards the Negev, it’s a dry and dusty place. On arrival in Debir, the new bride Achsah is understandably pissed off at her father for offering her as a prize, particularly because she has ended up in some desert hellhole. So Achsah requests her new husband to ask Caleb to give her a pair of wells as well. And Caleb agrees, giving her the region’s famous ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ wells.
When the bride comes to Caleb (Josh 15.18 // Judg 1.14) she does something which is described using a verb which only appears in this story and in Judg 4.21:
וַתִּצְנַ֖ח מֵעַ֣ל הַחֲמֹ֑ור
After she does this thing, Caleb asks (apparently in response), “What can I do for you?” (מַה־לָּֽךְ). The interpretive crux is: what has provoked Caleb’s response? There isn’t any obvious cognate for the verb root ṣ-n-ḥ, and as a result there have been a variety of (educated) guesses. The traditional English interpretation has been “alighted” or “dismounted” (from her donkey), although the LXX translates “shouted” (adding that Achsah also “murmered”, in Judges).
However, G. R. Driver translated it as follows:
“She broke wind … from her ass.”
As far as I can tell, Driver first suggested this translation in an article in a book published in 1955 (Mélanges Bibliques rédigés en l’honneur de André Robert). However, he never tired of his farting translation, and the same explanation gets a second (and third) wind in articles from 1964 (ALUOS 4: 6-25) and 1967 (JQR 57: 49-165).
Before you exclaim, “WTF?”, you should also know that this farting translation was then adopted by a major Bible translation: the New English Bible (NEB) (1970). As it so happened, the Convener of the Old Testament Committee which translated the NEB was one… Sir G. R. Driver. Arthur Gibson, in Biblical Semantic Logic, confirms that Driver admitted to him that the translation was made “at his own insistence” (30). Although Driver’s farting translation made it into print, it was widely ridiculed. And the translation “she broke wind” was eventually changed to “she dismounted” when the NEB was revised [in 1972, and was not included in the NEB's successor,] the Revised English Bible (1989).
Driver considered that his farting translaton was “sufficiently proved” from the Akk. cognate ṣanāḥu and the LXX. Although in fact, the LXX of Joshua and Judges has Achsah “shouting” in both accounts. Driver interpreted this ‘shouting’ as an anal noise, without any examples of such an anal usage for what is everywhere an oral noise, and even citing a completely different word for “fart” in Aristophanes. Arthur Gibson (following a proposal by G.E.M Anscombe) dubbed Driver’s interpretation an example of “the anal/oral fallacy” (Biblical Semantic Logic, 31). So the argument from the LXX seems to be quite creative. Furthermore, the Akkadian term ṣanāḥu is a specialist medical term for anal bleeding, and is not used in Akkadian to mean “break wind”. There is in fact another standard Akkadian term for farting; it is ṣarātu (Biblical Semantic Logic, 32).
Yet Driver also offered one further reason for good measure — Achsah probably farted “as a sign of her disgust” at the dry waterless desert her father had given her husband. Why would Achsah have chosen such a foul sign of her discontent, rather than choosing some more civil means of attracting her new husband’s attention? This is where Driver seals the argument. She was Middle Eastern. Arabs are, not least in the imagination of Sir Godfrey Rolles Driver, a farting and belching lot. That’s how they communicate, don’t you know, what?
“Such customs persist amongst the Arabs of Transjordan to the present day, as shown by the anonymous traveller’s account [The Times, 6 May 1957, p. 12] of belching as a means of signifying approval of an entertainment. As he was leaving the country, he went to a certain village to say farewell to the head man (muḫtâr) and was not surprised to find that a special banquet had been prepared in his honour; then ‘as, according to custom, I belched my satisfaction after the meal and complimented him in particular on the delicious cooking of the fish, he removed a fish-bone from between his teeth and his eyes twinkled. “Such a pity it tasted a little like donkey,” he said.’ The unchanging East is rapidly changing, but many old customs and habits linger on and can still be cited to illustrate many in the Old Testament, which are now quite unintelligible to Western readers.”
- Sir G. R. Driver, explaining his farting translation
So, what makes it really more likely that Achsah farted than, alternatively, emitted a loud oral complaint or perhaps clapped her hands together to attract her husband’s attention? What clinches Driver’s translation is the belching and farting Arabs of the Transjordan, as recorded in The Times newspaper by an anonymous belching English traveller of the exotic Orient. Now, I don’t deny that belching is a compliment to the chef in many parts of the world. But isn’t it interesting how this serves as an explanation of Achsah’s gesture from the top of her ass. Driver notes that the customs of the East are “rapidly changing” — but apparently not enough to make it inappropriate to make this most extraordinary generalisation… and not enough to stop referring to the East as “the unchanging East”!
You know what I suspect? G. R. Driver was playing a joke. (There’s nothing quite as funny as a fart joke, after all.) This was all a deliberate and elaborate ploy to get the phrase “she broke wind… from her ass” into the Bible. It was something like a public school dare. But G. R. Driver’s joke has now been exposed.
Fortunately, Sir Godfrey died in 1975, comfortable in the knowledge that he had slipped a fart joke into the Bible.