Paronomasia/Word Play in the Bible

The Hebrew language lends itself to a good deal of word play, and the Scriptures are full of such amusements. Unfortunately most of them are lost in translation.  The jokes and the karte-grosspuns i.e. paronomasia, just don’t translate, and translators often view them as frivolous.  But sometimes they are crucial to understanding what is being said.

The Song of Songs has many of these which are covered in the commentary. Here is a very short look at some that are more easily understood by an English reader.

The Deficient Vav

The latter vav in Hebrew is a consonant that marks a vowel sound. I know that is just weird to an English reader, but technically there are no vowels in Hebrew only consonants. Sometimes the vav is missing from a proper name, and this is called the deficient vav, and is a sign of dishonor.

In Abraham negotiations with Ephron [Gen 23:8-17] over the cave of Mach-pelah, as long as Ephron is offering to give the land to Abraham his name is spelled right, however when he accepts the exorbitant price that Abraham offers his name is missing the vav.

Of the 350 times that Jacob’s name appears in all but five it is deficient of its vav. Only in these five verses is it fully spelled out for they are verses of redemption.[Lev. 26:42; Jer. 30:18; Jer. 33:26; Jer. 46:27; Jer. 51:19]

David

Throughout 1 Kings David is referred to as King David or David, our master. Except on his death bed where he is called only David, for death is the great equalizer.

No man has power to retain the spirit, or authority over the day of death; there is no discharge from war, nor will wickedness deliver those who are given to it. Eccl. 8:8

In 2 Sam. 10, the princes of the Ammonites do not honor David with the title king. The same is true in 2 Sam. 12 when the prophet Nathan confronts David about his adultery.

Solomon

Before the Queen of Sheba leaves to meet Solomon he is only called Solomon. Not till she arrives and sees his greatness does she call him King Solomon. [1 Kings 10]

Cyrus

Cyrus king of the Persians is given the title messiah by God. [Is 45: 1 c.f. Ezra 1:2-3]

Burden

The word burden, in Hebrew it is spelled the same way as the word oracle, there is no way to tell them apart. Here is an example where the translators missed the pun, or didn’t translate it. Clearly the first burden should be oracle.

“When one of this people, or a prophet, or a priest asks you, ‘What is the burden of the LORD?’ you shall say to them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the LORD.’ Jer. 23:33

Grammer

The grammar of Dan 8:12 is completely odd. It breaks all the rules of Hebrew grammar.

In Hebrew grammar all words have gender. The masculine nouns go with the masculine verbs and the feminine nouns go with the feminine verbs. However in verse 12, there are no masculine verbs to go with the masculine nouns. This is odd to the English reader as few word have gender, e.g. king-queen, goose-gander. We have almost always have the subject first followed by the predicate with verbs with verb phrases, etc.. This is how English grammar works. See Also on our Prophecy blog: Parsing Daniel 8:12 

Acrostics

Ps. 37 Pro 31:10-31; Lam 1. 2. & 4

Every verse begins with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order.

 

Lam 3 & Ps 119

Both of these are so obvious that even someone who cannot read Hebrew can see that each line is starting with the same shape i.e. letter.  Remember Hebrew reads from right to left, so that first letter is going to be on the far right of the Hebrew.

In Lam. 3  every three verses begin with the same letter. (See here)

In Ps. 119 each stanza of eight verses begins with the same letter moving through the entire alphabet or 22 letters. (See here)

 

Ps 111 & 112

Each line begins with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order.

 

Ps 25, 34, 145

Each half line begins with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in order.

 

Locust Army

This seems to be what is going on with these locusts and scorpions. If one translates the Greek into Hebrew the words for locust and scorpion stand out. It becomes clear that the locusts army are the Arabs.

In Hebrew locust and Arab are similes, arbeh locust, arbi Arab. A similar pun was made in Judge 6:5.

In Islamic tradition there is a story that locusts dropped into the hand of Mohamed and on their wings was the inscription ‘We are the army of the Great God.’

Scorpion in Hebrew is akrab and in Arabic is akrabes. They are large and black, and the sting is generally fatal.

Moses referred to the desert of Arabia were they had wandered for forty years as the place were there were fiery serpents and scorpions. [Deut 8:15]

 

 

There are many many more.

 

See Also: Shame/Boshet

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10 thoughts on “Paronomasia/Word Play in the Bible

  1. Thanks for these details. In the case of Jacob, it confirms Max Lucado’s description of Jacob as “the riverboat gambler of the Bible.” One picky detail, Jeremiah 10:18 should be Jeremiah 30:18.
    I love these extra tidbits. Keep ’em coming.

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  4. Laurel, here’s another deficient vav in Proverbs 11:12 that you might find interesting:
    …derides…
    בָּז (bûz) despise, hold as insignificant.
    Notice that if you look up this word, it is spelled בּוּז .The missing vav indicates deception on the part of the speaker.
    If you speak negative words about people you live near, they are sure to hear about it. And by the time they get it third or fourth hand, it will be even more insulting than when you said it.

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