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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.

Posted in Pentateuch, Prophets, Pun | 8 Comments »