Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Cunny Punning in Hosea 2

Posted by NT Wrong on November 2, 2008

Over the last couple of weeks I have had an opportunity to read quite a few biblioblogs which were new to me. One such biblioblog is the translation-orientated blog, He Is Sufficient by ElShaddai Edwards. Not too long ago, ElShaddai posted on Hebrew punning in a post entitled Cunning punning in Genesis 3. His post discussed the pun between ‘arum (“cunning”; “wise”) and ‘arummim (“naked”) in Genesis 2-3. This was followed up by a post by Mike Sangrey from Better Bibles, entitled Should Translations Run with Puns? Along with further posts by ElShaddai concerning a pun in Susanna and a pun in John 15.2-3, J. K. Gayle of Aristotle’s Feminist Subject followed up with four posts on puns.

The discussion reminded me of a possible pun in Hosea 2, and its translation by Alice Keefe. The passage is Hosea 2.11-12 [English: 2.9-10]:

לכן אשוב ולקחתי

    דגני בעתו
    ותירושי במועדו


    צמרי ופשׁתי
    לכסות את־ערותה׃

ועתה אגלה

    לעיני מאהביה

ואישׁ לא־יצילנה מידי׃

“Therefore I will return and take back

    my grain in its day
    and my wine in its season;

and I will snatch away

    my wool and my flax
    (which were) to cover her pudenda;

and today I will uncover

    her xxxx
    in the eyes of her lovers.

No man shall snatch her from my hand.”

The word ערותה (“her pudenda”) is formed from the same root as the word for “naked” in Genesis 2-3, which was discussed by ElShaddai. The term frequently connotes shame, as it does in both Genesis 2-3 and Hosea 2. So, I have translated it using the slightly archaic term “pudenda”, which in both meaning and etymology also connotes shame. In Hosea 2.11-12, the loss of covering for the woman’s pudenda is paralleled by the “uncovering” of נבלתה. This hapax which I represented by “her xxxx” in the initial translation above is often translated “her shame”, based on the root נבל (“fool”) — as in, eg, the Commentaries by Andersen and Freedman, McComiskey and Macintosh.

But in Woman’s Body and the Social Body in Hosea (2001), Alice Keefe suggests the following translation:

“Now I will uncover her shameful cunt before the eyes of her lovers, and no one will rescue her.” (p. 127, cf. p. 215; cf. Wolff, p. 37).

Keefe relies on an Akkadian cognate, baštu/baltu, meaning “genitalia” for translation of נבלתה. Yet whether נבלתה means “her cunt” or “her shame”, the reference is the same: she is being exposed naked for the abjective gaze of other men. For Keefe, this offensive situation, in which Yahweh offers the woman up to be raped, justifies her own “deliberately offensive translation of the term”. And it may well be the case that the principle of ‘the end justifies the means’ is the only foundation for such a translation — for the נבל root is attested elsewhere in cases of abusive sexual conduct in the rape of Dinah (Gen 34.7), the Levite’s concubine (Judg 19.23, 24; 20.6, 10), and the rape of Tamar (2 Sam 13.12).

However, it’s still an odd form of the נבל root in Hos 2.12 — just like the odd form of “naked” in Gen 2.25. If the odd form of Gen 2.25 is drawing attention to the pun which follows in Gen 3.1, might this also be the same for Hos 2.12?

If this is indeed the case — while the word נבלתה might not be based on the בלת root (“cunt”), and should not be translated as “cunt” — by forming a word from the root נבל in such an odd way it might still be alluding to the term for ‘”cunt”.

There’s a good example in Shakespeare. While he doesn’t explicitly use the offensive term “cunt”, the Bard slips it in a few times, in the form of a pun. Here’s an example from Hamlet which makes a very similar pun to what I think might be happening in Hosea:

    Lady, shall I lie in your lap? (Lying down at OPHELIA’s feet)

    No, my lord.

    I mean, my head upon your lap?

    Ay, my lord.

    Do you think I meant country matters?

    I think nothing, my lord.

    That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

Hamlet’s reply, “Do you think I meant country matters?” is an indirect way in which to express the carnal connotations of lying between Ophelia’s legs. It makes much more sense understood also as a rather naughty pun on what lies between Ophelia’s legs: “Do you think I meant country matters?” And Hamlet (positioned here at Ophelia’s legs) subsequently continues his naughty puerile banter, making the existence of a pun fairly certain.

Likewise, I suggest that, in Hos 2.11-12, while the root נבל (“fool”) provides the literal meaning of the word, the root בלת (“cunt”) provides Hosea’s pun. This is, after all, a bawdy piece of performance art from Hosea, playing on popular patriarchal conceptions in order to raise a warning about Yahweh’s own patriarchal jealousy.

What’s left is how to translate this passage, in order to retain the original cunt-pun. I suggest this:

I will snatch away my wool and my flax which were to cover her pudenda, and today I will expose her pussyfooting in the eyes of her lovers.

8 Responses to “Cunny Punning in Hosea 2”

  1. roland said

    Is this a case of cunning linguists?

  2. ntwrong said

    For cunning linguists I consult the relevant TWAT entry.

  3. O, Roland, and N. T. — that’s just sooo Wrong.

    Actually Alice Keefe and Shakespeare in the same post! What if, as Robin Williams suggests, Mary Sidney wrote Hamlet? http://www.marysidney.com/

    This is an insightful post. (Thanks for the links.)

    Here’s the LXX translators grappling with the same biblical text (Hosea 2:9-11). Notice their word plays:

    διὰ τοῦτο ἐπιστρέψω καὶ κομιοῦμαι τὸν σῖτόν μου καθ’ ὥραν αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸν οἶνόν μου ἐν καιρῷ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀφελοῦμαι τὰ ἱμάτιά μου καὶ τὰ ὀθόνιά μου τοῦ μὴ καλύπτειν τὴν ἀσχημοσύνην αὐτῆς·

    καὶ νῦν ἀποκαλύψω τὴν ἀκαθαρσίαν αὐτῆς ἐνώπιον τῶν ἐραστῶν αὐτῆς, καὶ οὐδεὶς οὐ μὴ ἐξέληται αὐτὴν ἐκ χειρός μου·

    καὶ ἀποστρέψω πάσας τὰς εὐφροσύνας αὐτῆς, ἑορτὰς αὐτῆς καὶ τὰς νουμηνίας αὐτῆς καὶ τὰ σάββατα αὐτῆς καὶ πάσας τὰς πανηγύρεις αὐτῆς·

    ἐπιστρέψω and ἀποστρέψω in some contexts means “desire” “fickleness” “turnings”

    τοῦ μὴ καλύπτειν and καὶ νῦν ἀποκαλύψω — why these revelations, so different?

    ἐραστῶν αὐτῆς and ἑορτὰς αὐτῆς — her erotic lovers and her heroic feasts (Seems the LXX translators hated to use that dirty word, Erotic, as connotes Eros, and preferred much more commonly to use Agape, even around a rape once.)

  4. ntwrong said

    Agape-rape in the LXX, huh? Was that of Dinah or Tamar (I’m guessing)?

    Thanks for this, JK.

  5. NT, Thanks for asking.

    καὶ λαβὼν αὐτὴν
    ἐκοιμήθη μετ’ αὐτῆς
    καὶ ἐταπείνωσεν αὐτήν
    καὶ προσέσχεν τῇ ψυχῇ Δινας (Dinah) τῆς θυγατρὸς Ιακωβ
    καὶ ἠγάπησεν (agape) τὴν παρθένον


    “Θημαρ (Tamar) τὴν ἀδελφὴν Αβεσσαλωμ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ μου ἐγὼ ἀγαπῶ (agape)”
    καὶ ἐπελάβετο αὐτῆς . . .
    καὶ ἐκραταίωσεν ὑπὲρ αὐτὴν
    καὶ ἐταπείνωσεν αὐτὴν
    καὶ ἐκοιμήθη μετ’ αὐτῆς
    καὶ ἐμίσησεν αὐτὴν
    Αμνων (Amnon) μῖσος μέγα σφόδρα ὅτι μέγα τὸ μῖσος ὃ ἐμίσησεν αὐτήν ὑπὲρ τὴν ἀγάπην (agape)
    ἣν ἠγάπησεν (agape) αὐτήν


    Any Jewish Male Warrior-Victor (Deuteronomy 21) :

    καὶ ἴδῃς ἐν τῇ προνομῇ γυναῖκα καλὴν τῷ εἴδει
    (and see in the spoils of war a beautiful woman to see)

    καὶ ἐνθυμηθῇς αὐτῆς
    (and passionately desire her in yourself)

    καὶ λάβῃς αὐτὴν σαυτῷ γυναῖκα
    (and take her for yourself, your very own woman)
    . . . .
    καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα εἰσελεύσῃ πρὸς αὐτὴν
    (and afterwards you go into her)

    καὶ συνοικισθήσῃ αὐτῇ
    (and keep her in your very own house with you)

    καὶ ἔσται σου γυνή
    (and she can be now your woman)

    καὶ ἔσται ἐὰν μὴ θέλῃς αὐτήν
    (and should you not desire her)

    ἐξαποστελεῖς αὐτὴν ἐλευθέραν
    (send her out a “free” person)
    . . .
    Ἑὰν δὲ γένωνται ἀνθρώπῳ δύο γυναῖκες
    μία αὐτῶν ἠγαπημένη (agape)
    καὶ μία αὐτῶν μισουμένη
    (Should, however, a mortal man get two women for himself
    one he may love (ἠγαπημένη)
    and one he may hate)

  6. Brian said

    How about this (in more idiomatic terms):

    “I will snatch away her snatch cover, made of wool and flax”

    “Thus I will expose her snatch, but her lovers will not snatch her from my hand”

    This is a more dynamic translation, but it preserves what is rarely evident in English translations: that Hosea was a shocking, vulgar poet/comedian/prophet out to expose Israel’s hypocrisy by what you aptly termed “performance art”

    I would liken Hosea to a number of modern vulgar stand up comedians, who expose Christian America’s hypocrisy. I am currently researching how irony, absurdity, and arbitrarity are used in the OT, and one of the things that I have discovered is how often many of the prophets sound like comedians. It is only the fool who can say the king is a fat, philandering buffoon.

    I would also add that there is a line of subversive irony that runs throughout the entire OT. One example is the Cain/Abel story. God arbitrarily favors Abel’s sacrifice, but this favor does him no good. God’s favor leads to his death at the hands of his brother. Sacrifice is simultaneously efficacious and a failure for Abel and Cain both.


  7. After I posted about Amos and Hosea this morning, J.K. Gayle pointed me to this fabulous post. Thanks for bringing Keefe’s work to light here! Her point seems spot-on. I love the way you bring Shakespeare to bear here, and your punny rendering of the line in question is fabulous!

  8. Did you see Rachel Barenblat’s blogpost at Velveteen Rabbi on Hosea (and Amos) with quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, from The Prophets, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky from “The Wanton Wife of God,” in In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth?


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: