The Hilarious Hebrew Bible

24 09 2006

In a book entitled On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, Radday and Brenner attempt to demonstrate the assertion that Biblical authors knew how to have a good laugh. The fact that the Bible seems like so serious a text is simply because the people who have translated it over the ages have tended to be reasonably serious people. What is more, that which was funny two thousand years ago is not necessarily funny today. Today, even the reruns of Friends are starting to get tiring: how banal will they appear next millenium?

Throughout the essays in Radday’s and Brenner’s book, a variety of comic examples are listed. Some of them are slapstick (such as the manner in which the Egyptian magicians, when faced with a plague of blood, demonstrated their own prowess by making the plague worse), while others are simply sweet (such as the manner in which the local girls seem to speak over each other in answering the handsome Saul’s questions). I would like to relate another example, but one which is not listed in this entertaining book. It involves the aftermath of Abel’s murder.

Once God realises what Cain has done (or, at least, once God forces Cain to confess), Cain is immediately exiled. His punishment? To be a ceaseless wanderer for the rest of his days. He may never dwell amongst humanity, but he must wander the earth as a nomad. The first thing, however, that Cain does is settle in a city, and the rest of his days are spent living an urbanised life. Did Cain contravene the Lord’s punishment? It would seem so, but upon closer examination it would appear that Cain found a loophole.

The exact wording of Cain’s punishment is

נע ונד תהיה בארץ
na´ v’nad tihyeh va`aretz
You shall be a wanderer and a nomad on the earth

– Gen 4:12

Cain loudly bemoans his fate, for who would wish to be a ceaseless wanderer? In verse 16, however, we are told that he settles down in the land of Nod (to the East of Eden) and, we may assume, meets his wife for in the following verse they have a child. Did he not understand the punishment that he was given? On the contrary, it would seem them he understood it all too well. The name of the city that he chose was Nod, which is formed off the same verbal root as the imperative nad, as seen in the wording of his punishment.

While contemporary readers of modern-day translations may miss the joke, God is effectively telling Cain to be a wanderer and Cain is responding by dwelling in a land called Wander. A Wanderer he shall indeed be for the rest of his days.

[Postscript: Conrad H. Roth has written a three-part post on the history of interpretations concerning the Hebrew word “Nod”. Read parts I, II and III]

[Note: This post originally appeared on my former blog. For earlier comments, please click here.]




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