Biblical Humor

Playful Appellations – Part 2

Genesis 29:18-32, Reuben
Genesis 29:33, Simeon
Genesis 29:34, Levi
Genesis 29:35, Judah
Genesis 30:1-6, Dan
Genesis 30:7-8, Naphtali
Genesis 30:9-11, Gad
Genesis 30:12-13, Asher
Genesis 30:17-18, Yissachar
Genesis 30:19-21, Zebulun and Dinah
Genesis 30:22-24, Yoseph / Joseph
Genesis 35:16-20, Benonee / Binyamiyn / Benjamin
Exodus 1:15...16, 2:1-10, Mosheh / Moses
Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 31: Exodus 2:1-10, The Infant Moses Saved from the Nile, by Charles de la Fosse
Ruth 1:1-14, Machlon / Mahlon and Kilyon / Chilion
Ruth 1:15-21, Noomee / Naomi and Marah / Mara
1 Samuel 1:1-20, Shmu-el / Samuel
1 Samuel 4:1-22, Ee-kabod / Ichabod
1 Samuel 16:1-13, David
1 Samuel 25:2-25, Nabal
Matthew 1:18-25, Iesous / Jesus
Matthew 16:13-18, John 1:42, Petros / Peter and Kephas / Cephas

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Genesis 29:18-32, Reuben (6/5/15)

raah/see, ben/son > Reuben/See! a son/Reuben

“Ha ha!” we say. Jacob the trickster is tricked. Esau wanted to kill Jacob for cheating him out of his birthright, so Rebekah got Jacob out of town fast. While Jacob’s on the lam, he falls in love, but as a penniless runaway, he can’t pay the bride price. He works seven years for Rachel, but he has met his match in Laban, who gives him Leah instead. Jacob is not that crazy about Leah, but she thinks that will change when she has the first child. “Raah/See!” she says to the world (meaning Rachel, I’m sure). “I have a ben/son!” She calls the boy Reuben, just so no one will forget that God has seen her sorrow.

Genesis 29:33, Simeon (6/8/15)

shma/hear > Shimon/hearing/Simeon

As I’ve mentioned before, my sister and I have the same name, “Queen,” except that my name is Latin and hers is Greek. Our parents were on a roll, and if they had had a third girl, she would have been named “Queen” in Sanskrit. Consequently, I really understand why Leah wanted to give her boys names with specific meanings. Instead of giving them all the same name in different languages, she gave each one a name that sounded like some significant word in her own language, Hebrew. When we translate into English, the similarity disappears. Our loss.

Genesis 29:34, Levi (6/9/15)

lavah/attached, joined > Levee/Levi

Leah continues to bear sons and give them punning names. John Wesley has this interesting insight into Leah’s situation:
I had never thought of it that way before. I always laid the blame on Laban, but when you think about it, Leah could have said to Jacob at the wedding, “By the way, boyo, I’m not the bride you are expecting.” She didn’t, and now she’s trying to make amends by giving him a whole bunch of sons.

Genesis 29:35, Judah (6/10/15)

yadah/praise > Yehudah/Judah

By now you probably have figured out – if you didn’t know already – that the sons of Jacob and Leah became ancestors of several tribes of Israel: so far we’ve seen Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Leah praises God for her fourth little baby boy.

Genesis 30:1-6, Dan (6/11/15)

dun/to judge > Dan/Dan

Rachel is unhappy because she has no children, and Leah has four. She decides to adopt: she gives her servant Bilhah to Jacob in order to get some children through her. Rachel takes the birth of a little boy as a judgment that she was in the right, and she names the boy Jud. Well, actually she names him Dan, which sounds like dun, which is judge in Hebrew.

Genesis 30:7-8, Naphtali (6/12/15)

naphtul/struggle > Naphtali/my struggle, Naphtali

If I were in a kid contest with my sister, I’d name my boys “Handsome,” “Charming,” and “Intelligent.” I can think of reasons to name a kid “My Struggle,” but it isn’t because of a contest with my sister!

Genesis 30:9-11, Gad (6/15/15)

gad/troop; good fortune > Gad/Gad

The Jewish Publication Society Bible and the Old Testament of the King James Version are typically word-for-word the same. When I noticed that a number of translations varied on why Leah called her fifth (adopted) son “Gad,” I checked JPS and KJV. Somewhat to my surprise, they don’t agree. So then I checked the lexicon, and by golly, “gad” means both “troop” and “fortune.” Wow! A double pun! Gad implies that she is fortunate to have this whole troop full of boys!

Genesis 30:12-13, Asher (6/16/15)

asher/blessed > Asher/Asher

So far, “Asher” is my favorite punning name for Jacob’s sons. A new baby should be a blessing that makes you happy, not a pawn in the kid contest with your sister. By the way, about 90% of the time in the Bible, happy = blessed, and blessed = happy. Hebrew and Greek do not distinguish between blessedness and happiness to the extent that English does. There’s a lesson for us in that.

Genesis 30:17-18, Yissachar (6/17/15)

sakar/hire, wages > Yissachar/he will bring a reward/Issachar

Although a number of Old Testament marriages were polygamous, polygamy was never the norm in Judaism even in Old Testament times. Then Rabbi Gershom banned polygamy for the Jews about a thousand years ago, with mixed results. Christians have always banned polygamy, also with mixed results, so we aren’t really in a position to comment.

The real question is, why would a guy want to put up with the kind of grief that Jacob is getting from his wives? How in today’s world could he possibly support four wives and twelve kids? Leah may think that God has made payment to her, but Jacob is the one who ends up paying the bills!

Genesis 30:19-21, Zebulun and Dinah (6/18/15)

zabal/dwell with > Zebulun/habitation/Zebulun

deen/(feminine of) justice > Deenah/Dinah

A long time ago, the late Rev. Dr. Robert Templeton told what he expected to be a humorous sermon illustration in which a pregnant woman with nine children, including a babe in arms, sued for divorce on the grounds of “abandonment.” No one in the congregation laughed, smiled, or blinked. Bob passed his hand over his head and said, “That one just went right on over.”

Leah has given birth to six boys and at least one girl, and now she says that “at last” her husband is going to live with her. Bob must have found Zebulun’s name very amusing!

Genesis 30:22-24, Yoseph / Joseph (6/19/15)

asaph/taken away, yasaph/add > Yoseph/he will add/Joseph

How many boys are we up to now? Leah has six, her servant Zilpah has two, and Rachel’s servant Bilhah has two. Last of all, Rachel has two sons. It’s a terrible fate even now not to have children if you want them; in Rachel’s time it was also presumed to be a sign that God had something against you. That’s why she says, “God has taken away my shame.” When she names the boy, however, she’s looking forward, not back: Joseph’s name means “May He Add” or “He Will Add.”

Genesis 35:16-20, Benonee / Binyamiyn / Benjamin (6/22/15)

Benonee/son of my sorrow/Benoni; Binyamiyn/son of the right hand/Benjamin

Until very recent times, childbirth was a leading cause of death among women. Rachel gives birth to a second son, but with her dying breath she names the boy “Son of my Sorrow.” His dad, however, apparently thinks that is not an auspicious name for a motherless child, and he changes it to “Son of [my] Right Hand.” This last and youngest son has cost Jacob his favorite wife. It’s no wonder that a few years later, Judah offers himself in exchange for the boy in Joseph’s court in Egypt, arguing that if he and his other brothers return without Benjamin, his father will die of grief (Genesis 44:27-34).

Exodus 1:15...16, 2:1-10, Mosheh / Moses (6/23/15)

mashah/to draw out > Mosheh/rescued/Moses

The story of Moses contains a punning name, of course, or it wouldn’t be in this section of our overall study on humor in the Bible. In a later section, we’ll take a look at irony, which is often – although not always – used for humorous effect. There is considerable irony in the fact that Pharaoh’s sentence of death for all Hebrew baby boys led directly to Moses’ being raised in the Pharaoh’s court, giving him much of the education he needed to become the greatest leader and law-giver the Jews have ever known.

I won’t even mention the irony that American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in spite of having his name misspelled.

Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 31: Exodus 2:1-10, The Infant Moses Saved from the Nile, by Charles de la Fosse (8/28/15)

Today's Study Tip: As we've seen many of our previous painters do, Charles de la Fosse has dressed his ancient characters in modern clothing (modern to him, anyway) to let us better imagine ourselves in their situation. Pharaoh's daughter wears a little crown, suitable for a princess, and a lovely dress. Her serving girls wear simpler clothing. The baby Moses wears nothing at all except for a little fig leaf or something. An obelisk in the background is the only thing that tells us we are in Egpyt. Everyone is very excited about the beautiful baby, and Pharaoh's daughter decides to adopt him in about the same way you or I would adopt a stray puppy or kitten. After he was weaned and housebroken, Moses joined his foster mother in the palace, where he received the good education and management skills that he would need later to lead God's people out of Egypt.

Previous Step. Next Step.
The Infant Moses Saved from the Nile. Click to enlarge.
"The Infant Moses Saved from the Nile" by de la Fosse,
from the Gamble family Bible,
now in the private collection of Regina Hunter.


Ruth 1:1-14, Machlon / Mahlon and Kilyon / Chilion (6/24/15)

chalah/to be sick > Machlon/Mahlon; killayon/failing, consumption > Kilyon/Chilion

I mentioned before that the formula “called X because Y “ just about always means that you are dealing with a pun in Hebrew, even if you can’t see it in English. Now I’ve about decided that punning names are the default in the Old Testament, even though most of the time we don’t know what the pun is.

The book of Ruth in the form we have it was probably written around the end of the Exile, maybe 530 BC or so, although the action took place in the time of the Judges, maybe 1150 or 1100 BC. (Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David, who lived about 1040–970 BC. There is no reason to believe the story isn’t true.) Naomi’s sons died young; both had names associated with illness and death. Since I have a hard time believing that parents would name their sons “Be Sick” and “Failing,” I subscribe to the idea – not original with me – that their real names had been lost in time and the writer assigned them punning names that comment on their part in the beautiful story of Ruth and Naomi.

By the way, the business in vss. 11-13 is that under normal circumstances, a widow would expect to marry her brother-in-law. Naomi points out that there’s not going to be a brother-in-law, and Ruth and Orpah should go back and get their parents to find them some new husbands.

Ruth 1:15-21, Noomee / Naomi and Marah / Mara (6/25/15)

noam/pleasantness > Noomee/Naomi; marar/make bitter, marah/bitter > Mara

Naomi had a great family when she left Bethlehem – her husband and two sons – and an even better family after her sons married two wonderful women in Moab. Her life, like her name, was pleasant. Now she has returned to Bethlehem after the loss of her husband, both sons, and a daughter-in-law. Her life is bitter, and that is the new name that she takes for herself.

1 Samuel 1:1-20, Shmu-el / Samuel (6/26/15)

shma-el/God hears, Shmu-el/heard by God/Samuel

Notice that Hannah stopped being sad before she became pregnant. She was confident that God had heard her prayer. As a public-service announcement that God answers prayer, she named her baby “Heard by God.”

1 Samuel 4:1-22, Ee-kabod / Ichabod (6/29/15)

kabod/glory, Ee-kabod/no glory/Ichabod

Ichabod’s name is sad, not funny, but the story is full of irony. Who respects God? The Philistines! Who wins the battle after the Israelites “force” their God to show up on the battlefield by carting his box up from Shiloh? The Philistines!

It may be that Ichabod’s mother understood the situation. The glory of Israel wasn’t that they had God in a box that they could cart around with them. Their glory was that the God of the universe had made them his people. When they treated the Ark of the Covenant like an idol, the glory was indeed departed from Israel.

1 Samuel 16:1-13, David (6/30/15)

dod/well-beloved, David/beloved/David

Probably David wasn’t intended as a pun at all. Nevertheless, it means beloved, and certainly God loved David. When he was looking for “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), God chose David. The good news is that God didn’t love David any more than he loves you and me. This week let’s try to reciprocate God’s love and pass it along to each other.

1 Samuel 25:2-25, Nabal (7/1/15)

nabal/fool, wicked person; nebalah/ > Nabal/Nabal

My name is Hunter, but as far as I know nobody thinks I’m a hunter. We don’t look at Farmers and think they’re farmers, and we don’t think Coopers make barrels. We aren’t surprised when a Linda is average-looking, and we don’t assume that Basil is a chef. It’s entirely possible that Nabal’s mom just liked the sound of the name and didn’t give much thought to the meaning. When he turned out to be a fool and a jerk, however, his wife and hired hands made the connection.

Now, David has been in the wilderness with his troops, as have Nabal’s men with their sheep. A lot can go wrong for shepherds – bandits, Philistines, raiding neighbors – but David and his men protected Nabal’s men and made sure they were okay. When David asks politely for some recompense for his trouble, Nabal churlishly refuses. Abigail hears about it and immediately takes gifts to David and asks him to spare Nabal. Abigail was no fool, and David later married her.

Matthew 1:18-25, Iesous / Jesus (7/02/15)

yehoshua/Godsaved; yeshua/God will save > Greek Iesous > English Jesus

An angel told Joseph to name Mary’s baby boy “Jesus,” because he would save people from their sins. In English, the correct response to this is, “What?” Joseph knew what the angel was talking about because the angel was not speaking English. Probably the angel and Joseph were speaking Aramaic or Hebrew, although since Joseph lived in Nazareth, a largely Gentile part of Palestine, they could have been speaking Greek. Jesus is Greek for Yeshua, which is Hebrew or Aramaic for God will save.

Matthew 16:13-18, John 1:42, Petros / Peter and Kephas / Cephas (7/03/15)

Greek petra, petros/rock > Petros/Peter; Aramaic (or Chaldean) kaph/rock > Kephas/Cephas

Do you have a nickname? My grandpa gave nicknames to his grandchildren, and he used them All. The. Time. I’m sure he must have known our real names, but he never used them. In my case, my names were based on my behavior. As a tiny baby living in his house with my days and night backwards, I acquired the name Hoot Owl. When I learned to walk, I had a tendency to run into things, so he changed my name to Bumps. The apostle Simon is wishy-washy and impulsive, so we know that his nickname isn’t based on his past or current behavior! Jesus foresees what his behavior will be after the resurrection, and he names him Rock. The other disciples, without that foresight, probably think it’s hysterically funny. Both Peter (Greek) and Cephas (Aramaic) mean “rock.”

More Voices of the Bible

Biblical Humor
Playful Appellations, 1
Playful Appellations, 2
Less Playful Appellations
Five Funny Stories

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