Puns & Pottery

The Bible, and especially the Old Testament, is filled with puns and other wordplay. That’s not to say the Bible is a joke book; wordplay usually made a serious point. Back when most communication was verbal rather than written, wordplay may have been the equivalent of underlining, or using a bold font.

Translation erases most examples. We can see one in 2 Sam 7:4-16, where the pun “translates,” because in both Hebrew and English, the word “house” can mean either a dwelling, or a family dynasty.

King David was preparing to build a temple for God, but God planned for David’s son, Solomon, to do the job. The pun is drawn out over about a dozen verses in this case, though they’re usually compact, like the modern kind. God tells David, you will not build Me a house (dwelling); I will build you a house (eternal dynasty).

It’s not made for a chuckle; it’s intended to tell some important things. There’s at least one in the New Testament, too.

There were many different kinds of pottery, and the picture shows a strainer which may have been the object of a pun Jesus made.

Strainers sift floating material from liquids, and the pharisees of the day wouldn’t drink anything without straining it first. It would avoid accidentally breaking a command given in Lev. 11:20; it’s forbidden to consume any insect that swarms.

Now, these people weren’t squeamish about bugs. God’s law permits locusts and grasshoppers for food, (Lev. 11:21-22) and those little packets of protein were toasted, ground up, and used to add flavor to their higher quality breads. Should any less permissible critters be found swimming in their drink, most folks probably just picked them out before finishing. Strainers prevented accidental ingestion, and the picture above may have been the tool the pharisees used.

In Matt. 23:24, Jesus scolds some pharisees, saying that they strain a gnat but swallow a camel. There’s a strainer in there, but there’s more. In Jesus’ Aramaic, the words “gnat” and “camel” sound alike, and Jesus was saying that they were paying attention to minutiae, while missing the important things. He emphasized it with a pun.

The Gospel of Matthew puts heavy emphasis on all things Jewish, so he’s the one to point out this comment. An Aramaic speaker even reading this gospel in Greek would likely recognize it. We don’t.

In Biblical days, most people couldn’t afford to own a book, so they learned by hearing. Puns are a fine way to add emphasis; they were like speaking in a bold font. They still make us stop and think about what we’ve just heard. We may have lost the art of using them well, but they’re no less effective for all that.

Pharisee Phriction

The word “Pharisee” has become Christianese jargon for a hypocrite, and that might be a sad thing. While the Gospels have no shortage of examples of hypocrite pharisees, it also gives lots of examples of pharisees who are curious or even sympathetic toward Jesus.

After all, it was the pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea who went to Pilate to take Jesus’ body after his crucifixion, and who with another pharisee, Nicodemus, prepared the body, and placed it in the tomb (John 19:38-42).

There are some who may wonder how Jesus could condemn “the pharisees,” knowing that not all of them may have been the hypocrites he denounced them as. It becomes clear when we learn a little more about the people of the day. While the Bible translators can translate words, phrases, and even some ideas, it’s extremely difficult to translate the way people saw themselves, and there were some real differences from how we view ourselves today.

Let’s start with some background…

There were at least two competing schools of thought among the Pharisees at that time: the followers of Hillel, and the followers of Shammai. Hillel was more conciliatory and justice-oriented, while Shammai’s school was quite harsh and strict.

At the time of Jesus’ ministry, Shammai’s faction was dominant. In first century thinking, people were less individuals, and more a part of a group: often a family or tribe, but a faction like the Pharisees worked, too. To refer to the dominant portion as “The Pharisees” was a common way to talk at the time, so there’s no contradiction in Jesus’ condemnation of “the Pharisees” (the dominant part) even though individual Pharisees may have been interested in Jesus.

These names aren’t mentioned in the New Testament, but many have suggested that the more sympathetic Pharisees were from the Hillelite minority. When Jesus taught the golden rule, his listeners almost certainly remembered Hillel, who in a very famous story, had said, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” Jesus appears to have taken Hillel’s statement, and turned it around into something more proactive.

Also, according to the Talmud, Gamaliel was Hillel’s grandson. In the book of Acts, Gamaliel is the Pharisee who asks the Sanhedrin to leave the Christians alone, because if they were not of God, they’d fail, but if they were of God, nothing would stop them.

Luke was writing to an increasingly gentile audience, who might not understand Gamaliel’s prominence among his people. Luke says, “But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people…” To merely say he was honored, is understatement; he was extraordinarily prominent, and it suggests that the Hillelite camp was taking a “hands off” attitude toward these Christian people. They wanted to see where it would lead.

The various references to concern about Jesus’ healing on the sabbath were probably also tinged with the Hillel/Shammai conflicts. There are no Old Testament pronouncements on the matter. However, Shammai taught that caring for the sick constituted work, and was forbidden on the sabbath, while Hillel claimed it was an act of kindness, and therefore permitted. Since pretty much everyone cared for sick family members in those days, the people would know this controversy well. And we might suppose that healing is the ultimate in caring for the sick.

When Jesus performed such a sabbath healing, he sometimes prefaced it with very Hillelite arguments: “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) or, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” (Matt 12:11-12).

The minority who followed Hillel’s teachings would have been nodding in agreement; perhaps they’d even be nodding conspicuously at Shammai’s followers.

This leads to an interesting thought. There was no contradiction for Jesus to condemn “the pharisees,” because he spoke to the people according to their understanding, not ours. They were groups, not individuals.

Yet today, we think things the other way around. Might our broad use of the term “Pharisee” be misleading? Worse, might it do some harm?

When the temple-based Judaism of Jesus’ day morphed into the rabbinic Judaism most prominent today, it was based heavily on the teachings of Hillel. The pharisee. The honorable, conciliatory pharisee. It’s possible that some of our Jewish friends may hear us using the term “Pharisee” in the totally negative way that we do, and be dismayed (or worse!) at our ignorance.

It’s not the purpose of this site to push, or argue. Rather, it would be worthwhile to simply ask the gentle reader to consider what a pharisee truly was, and how we might want to conduct ourselves today. If we’re comfortable as we are, then so be it, but if not, maybe it’s time for a change.

Look, if we really, really, *really*, really have some kind of need to call a person a hypocrite, our language is rich, varied, and gives us all sorts of creative options for doing so. Why use the same tired old term, once again? Can’t we find another way?

Let’s be phair to the pharisees.

A Verse to Sink Your Teeth Into

When was the last sermon you heard that quoted from the Song of Solomon? Thought so. While it may be a bit difficult to fit into the Standard Sunday Sermon, we here are tough, fearless, and know how to completely avoid the matter at hand…

Turns out, the Song of Solomon is packed with little verses that hint at everyday life in Biblical times. For Bible geeks like Yours Truly, it’s a trove of wonderful little gems.

Since we made a reference to teeth, let’s check out Song of Solomon 4:2 and 6:6:

Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone.

Not only is it a surprise to see this, but it’s startling to see it’s so important that it’s said twice. The young man is praising his sweetheart’s beauty, and in describing all her lovely-parts, says, “Each tooth has its twin; not one of them is alone.” In that day, a teenager having a full set of teeth was a thing to marvel at (twice!)

We don’t think about it, but in Biblical movies, the makeup artists never consider blacking-out some of the actors’ teeth, no matter how hard they try for accuracy, elsewhere. After all, missing teeth tend to detract from those beautiful close-up shots.

Dentistry had a whole different meaning back then. On one side, the small amount of sugars in their diets helped. Unfortunately, grinding their grain between stones put enough grit into their bread to wear away lots of tooth enamel. People lost teeth.

It was a different world, and today, we have much to be thankful for.

Why In the World Did He Do It?

Someone asked an interesting question in an online discussion, relating to Samson. If  you haven’t read it, please check out Judges:13-16. You can read it now; we’ll wait.

In context, the book of Judges shows an early nation of Israel in a virtual death spiral. They begin in cycles where they disobey God, a foreign people oppress them, the people ask God for help, and God sends a hero to rescue them. Eventually, they stop asking God for help, but He sends someone, anyway (Samson enters the story here). In the end, they become their own worst enemy, descend into savagery, and begin destroying themselves. It doesn’t have a happy ending.

In the story, Samson is almost certainly the world’s most powerful man. In chapter 15, he single handedly kills a thousand men, using nothing but an improvised weapon. Yet for all his strength and power, he’s wrapped around the finger of a woman: Delilah. Worse, he’s wrapped around the finger of a woman who is from and is dedicated to Israel’s enemy: the Philistines.

She repeatedly betrays him, and yet Samson remains madly, obsessively devoted to her. The online discussion related to why Samson stayed with her, while she was clearly trying to get him killed. It’s a great question, and while we can’t read the mind of someone in ancient times, we can speculate. Speculation about dead people is easy; no one can prove we’re wrong. We’ll still try to be careful.

Sometimes we learn from negative examples, and Samson’s is a story of intense irony. In a world where women were considered weak, and had no influence at all, we have the world’s strongest man, completely at the mercy of one. As strong as he was, he had a fatal weakness that destroyed him. It’s a lesson for us, not to count on our strengths, but on God.

I suspect we all at least know of a person who completely shut off their brains as the result of a romantic encounter. Samson’s is the ultimate example, where his lover was clearly out to kill him, yet he remained the moth attracted to the flame that would consume him. His death did spectacularly take out much of his enemy’s movers and shakers. Still, we cant help but see that he went about it in a crazy way.

Standing at a distance, we can see the brainlessness of his decisions, which were invisible to him. Yet we’d miss the point of the story if it remained only about him.

The trick is to look into ourselves, and find the bad decisions that may be invisible to us. Chances are, they’re there, and there may even be people asking similar questions as to why we do the things we do.

It’s a scary thought.

Fortunately, our blunders rarely end in Samson-class disasters, and God is always willing to give us one more chance.