Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Mike Pence and the Spider

 After the vice-presidential debate with Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, all anyone could talk about was the fly that landed on Pence's head.  Arguably of more consequence is Mike Pence's spider.  The following occurs in Bob Woodward's Rage:

"Pence recounted [to Dan Coats] the Old Testament story of David, who was hiding from King Saul in a cave when God sent a spider to weave a web across the cave opening.  On seeing the web, Saul did not enter the cave.  The spider had concealed David's presence and saved his life. The story showed that even a spider might be an instrument of great salvation in the hand of God. 

   "Marsha Coats [Dan's wife], whose grandparents were ministers, had never heard a sermon as serious and deep. The story raised obvious questions. Could a spider, normally a cause for fear, bring salvation?"

I don't know if this story influenced Pence or Dan Coats to support Trump; Woodward does not say so. But the important thing to note is that this story is not in the Bible at all.  It is found in the late Jewish midrash the Alphabet of Ben Sira:

וכשנחבא במערה מפני שאול המלך שלח הקב״ה עכביש וארגה על פי המערה וסגרה אותו, בא שאול וראה ארוג אמר בודאי לא נכנס אדם הנה שאם נכנס היה קורע הארוג לקרעים והלך ולא נכנס לשם, וכשיצא דוד וראה העכביש נשקה ואמר לה ברוך בוראיך וברוכה את

When David hid in a cave from King Saul, the Holy One, blessed be he, sent a spider, and she wove a web at the mouth of the cave and closed it. Saul came and saw a web, and said, "Certainly no man has entered here, for if he had, he would have torn the web to pieces." So he left and did not enter. And when David came out, he saw the spider and kissed her and said, "Blessed is thy creator and blessed art thou!"

My experience has been that, in general, Catholics, growing up, do not acquire the same degree of biblical literacy as Protestant evangelicals.  Not a criticism, just an observable fact.  So it is completely possible that Pence believed this story was found in the Bible.  I am surprised that Wheaton grad Dan Coats bought this as a biblical citation, though (if he did).  And beyond all this, I am wondering where Pence heard this story.  Does it have some currency among conservative Christians?  Inquiring minds want to know.

By the way, the same story is told in Islamic legend of the prophet Mohammed.  Good stories have a way of getting around.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the late Fr. Bill Gartig, Ph.D., on what would have been his 68th birthday. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

How is the Fourth Beast in Dan 7:7 "different"?

In Daniel 7, the seer has a vision of four beasts who arise from the sea to trouble the earth (we later find out that these beasts stand for four kingdoms or empires that will arise). He describes each beast, with the remark that they were "each different from the other" (שָׁנְיָן דָּא מִן־דָּא).  The first three beasts resembled, in order, a lion, a bear, and a leopard. The fourth beast is not given an animal name, but is said to be "different from all the beasts that preceded it" (7:7, NRSV; מְשַׁנְּיָה מִן־כָּל־חֵיוָתָא דִּי קָדָמַיהּ). The other translations are similar to the NRSV, as are the ancient versions (LXX, Peshitta, Vulgate). However, what is the point of saying that the fourth beast was different from all the other beasts, when in v. 3 it had already been stated (and shown) that all the beasts were different from each other?

The answer lies, perhaps, in the different verb stems used. In v. 3, the Pe'al (G stem) is used statively, in the meaning "be different" (in other contexts it can denote a change of state, "change, become different").  In v. 7, the Pa'el (D stem) passive participle is used.  The D stem's function with this verb is factitive, that is, it brings about the state denoted by the G stem — in a word, it makes it transitive, "change something, make something different." The passive participle would mean, at face value, "changed, made different."  So does it mean "the fourth beast was changed/made different"? Not exactly, but we're getting there.

Many times, when the root שׁני is used, there is a nuance present beyond just "change," in that the change is often for the worse.  In Dan 5:9, when the king is troubled, his "countenance changed upon him" — that is, he turned pale, or his features were twisted by fear, or the like. In other dialects, some of the translation values it has are fade, be dislocated, depart, go insane, deteriorate. (See the entry in the ComprehensiveAramaic Lexicon.) In the Qumran Enoch text, the sinful angels are told "you perverted/corrupted your activity" (שניתן עבדכן).

Now the meaning of Dan 7:7 comes into focus. The fourth beast is not just "different" or even "changed"; it is distorted, or perverted, an even more monstrous creature than they are.  The comparative grade should be used with the translation, in keeping with the use of the particle min with adjectives or participles of this kind: "it was more monstrous than [or perhaps: stranger than] the beasts that preceded it": a fitting description of a creature with iron teeth and ten horns!

 BIBLIOGRAPHY: Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, s. v. šny

Friday, June 26, 2020

A. E. Cowley, Anti-Semite

A. E. Cowley was a major Semitics scholar of the early twentieth century, and the head of the Bodleian library from 1919-1931.  His Wikipedia page is here
Despite his still-important activity in the realm of Hebraica, you can encounter some nasty anti-Semitism in the introduction to his Aramaic Papyri of the 5th century BC (1923). Speaking of the Jewish colony on Elephantine, he says
 "they aroused anti-Jewish feeling, and suffered violence which they ascribed, as always and probably with as little reason then as now, to hatred of their religion. ... [M]uch is also to be ascribed to natural suspicion of a community with customs differing from those of its neighbours, holding aloof from the common pursuits of its fellow-citizens, and showing contempt or hostility to everything outside itself."
 Oof. Thus he explains the destruction of the YHW temple by the adherents of the god Khnub in 417 BCE.  This description traffics in a number of well-known anti-Semitic tropes that would bear evil fruit less than two decades later in Nazi Germany. 
This is the same Cowley who translated the Gesenius-Kautzsch Hebrew grammar, still in use today (GKC = Gesenius Kautzsch Cowley).  He is still cited, without comment, and his despicable views forgotten. 

Father's Day 2020

Posted on Facebook June 20

My father died in 1985, at a younger age than I am now. He was a real "greatest generation" guy, an Air Force vet, a pilot, a weatherman, a smoker and a drinker. My life choices were a constant source of puzzlement to him, although he dutifully financed them (usually). He was an enthusiastic golfer, an activity inherited and enhanced by my brother Chuck Cook, and although I've never taken up the sport, by sheer osmosis I've acquired more knowledge about it than I can use.
For some reason, when I was around 10 or 11, my father would take me periodically to the golf course and pay me a nickel a hole (rounded up to $1.00 for 18 holes) to "caddy" for him — that is, to drag the wheeled tripod holding his bag while he played, by himself. I have no idea why he did this; maybe my mother made him, to spend time with his younger son; or maybe he was hoping (against hope) that I would acquire an interest he could relate to. I didn't, and I was pretty bored by this activity, but a dollar was major coin for a 5th grader in the early sixties. Whenever he asked, I went.
Those caddying days make an oddly vivid memory, and I can still close my eyes and see him under the summer sun, striding ahead of me, holding a club for the next shot, while I toiled behind with the bag. Happy Father's Day, major, wherever you are.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Statement regarding Prof. Jan Joosten

FIrst posted on Facebook, June 23, 2020.
I am appalled and saddened by the recent news about Prof. Jan Joosten and his arrest as a collector of child pornography. Our compassion should be extended, first, to the innocent children exploited to make this filth. I also feel that Jan should be pitied as someone who fell into an addiction which, I do not doubt, he earnestly wants to be liberated from. In his own way, he too has been exploited by the pornographers. Our rage should be expended mainly on the producers and criminals who produce this garbage, and those who profit from it.
The wrong response to Jan's misdeeds – which he will and should pay a steep price for – is to ban, censor, and eliminate Jan's scholarly work. His work as one of the finest Hebraists of our time stands on its own, and is indispensable. I don't see how his crimes are relevant to an assessment of his work, nor do I see, going forward, how we are to manage as a guild if we have to inspect everyone's rap sheet and download history before we engage with their work.
Indeed, I am surprised (sort of) that the academy, so constantly on guard against any hint of encroachment on First Amendment rights, is eager to erase the outstanding work of one of their own for his deplorable consumption of heinous pornography – and yet would never countenance any movement or legislation to remove the scourge of pornography from the Internet. In fact, such a suggestion would no doubt be met with howls of rage from those now calling for Jan's head.
I for one will pray for the children (I am a father and a grandfather), and for Jan and his family. For the pornographers, I wish nothing but ill. As for Jan's scholarly work, I will continue to use it, cite it, and honor it for its excellence.
Comments welcome. Trolls will be deleted.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Umpteenth Annual Ralphies

It's that time again.  In accordance with time-honored tradition, and in order to keep my legions of internet fans happy, I offer the latest iteration of the famous Ralphies. Without further ado...

GREATEST SPORTING EVENT OF THE YEAR AND POSSIBLY IN AMERICAN HISTORY:  The Washington Nationals win the World Series.  The last time "my" team won a world championship it was the LA Lakers in 1988 (although there was that 2005  national championship by the Texas Longhorns), so it's been a long wait.  I'm glad I was able to see the Nats play this year (typically, coming back in the bottom of the 9th to beat the Miami Marlins on Aug. 30) and to join in a stadium of people singing "Baby Shark." I was also able to join in the madhouse that was the victory parade.

MOVIES:  How many movies did I see in the theater this year? Three, I think: Avengers Endgame, The Rise of Skywalker, and Little Women.  All were excellent, although the critics didn't like Skywalker.  To spite them, I hereby make it my Movie of the Year.

MOST LOATHSOME POLITICIAN:  Donald Trump could win this category every year, but why give him the satisfaction? Instead the Ralphie goes to Sith Lord Mitch McConnell, who established new lows, even for a Republican, in political cowardice and corruption.

TV:  There is so little of value on TV these days, unless you've shelled out for all the myriad online and premium cable services.  I haven't.  The only one I shell out to (which I won't give free advertising to, but it rhymes with Shamazon) also provided what has to be the funniest (and most poignant) series ever, namely Fleabag.

BEST TRIP:  I traveled more than last year, and each of the trips — to Toronto, Hilton Head (SC), San Diego, and San Jose —had something special about them. But I'm going to go with San Jose because of the presence of a certain grand infant, who was celebrating his first birthday.

MUSIC:  There's always lots of good music, if you look in the right places.  Some of the places I looked turned up tunes like "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings" (Caroline Polachek), "You're No Good" (the Chromatics), "Dylan Thomas" (Better Oblivion Community Center), "Harmony Hall" (Vampire Weekend), "Stay High" (Brittany Howard), "Peach Fuzz" (Caamp), and no doubt others that I've overlooked.   I'm always on the lookout for some great guitar playing — not shredders or showoffs, but something clear and spare and emotional.  The most beguiling riff I head all year was in "Misheard" (Moaning).  But the Song of the Year was not a new one.  I was late to the Alabama Shakes party and missed a lot, seemingly. However, "Hold On" played on repeat in my head for most of the summer, and has to get the Ralphie.

CONCERTS:  I actually saw three! Lazer Lloyd (excellent axeman), Ex Hex (in Toronto), and the aforementioned Moaning (opening for Ex Hex).  All the artists are highly recommended.

BOOKS:  I always forget what I've read, because I read a lot. But one book stands out.  For fiction I have to give the Ralphie to the tetralogy Book of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe (who died this year).  No better writer has worked in the sci-fi idiom.  Non-fiction is a tougher call, and I've got to leave it blank until I think of something. 

All right, you trolls, that's enough for now.  Have a great 2020, the last year of the decade!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Why and When Did Nebuchadnezzar Regain His Reason?

The story of King Nebuchadnezzar's madness is well-known to Bible readers. In Daniel 4, we hear of the king's overweening pride and his humbling at the hands of God, as he loses his faculties and lives like an animal.  His sentence is that he shall live like this "until seven times shall pass."  Whatever be the exact meaning of "seven times" (seven seasons?), it must refer to a definite period of time.

What happens next? According to Dan 4:31 (English 4:34), "When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me.  I blessed the Most High,   and praised and honored the one who lives forever."  This passage seems to clearly state that, first, the king lifted his eyes, then his reason returned, and then he blessed God.

However, I have my doubts.  For one thing, why did the still insane king raise his eyes? It seems most reasonable that he would lift his eyes to heaven as he prepares to bless and praise the Most High. But in that case, his reason must already have returned to him.  Is this not contrary to the wording of the verse?

 It should be noted that the verbal conjugation of "returned" (יתוב) is different than that of "lifted" (נטלת) and "blessed" (ברכת).  Although the prefix-conjugation normally has a future-modal meaning in Biblical Aramaic, sometimes it is used in stories to give background information on the narrated events.  In this case, we might capture this nuance by translating as follows: "I lifted my eyes to heaven — for my reason returned to me — and I blessed the Most High."

Why did Nebuchadnezzar's reason return? It was not because he realized his sin and praised God, as is sometimes stated, but simply because his time of punishment was over, as the text clearly says.  His term of humiliation ("seven times") having passed, his reason returned to him, and the now humbled king gave praise to God.

Thursday, March 07, 2019


In English, "other" and the related "another" have different logical meanings.  Sometimes "another" can mean "another of the same kind," as in "I'll have another cookie," meaning, "I'll have an additional cookie."  But the same words in a different context could have a different meaning.  "I can't eat cookies with nuts, could I have another cookie?", meaning, "Could I have a cookie of a different kind?" The Collins dictionary spells this out here.

Hebrew and Aramaic have the same logical ambiguity in their words for "other, another." Lexicographically, should these different logical meanings form part of a dictionary entry?  We saw above that the Collins dictionary does do this for English.  But Hebrew and Aramaic dictionaries do not divide the senses up in this way.  Since I have written a couple of dictionaries, and am working on another (!), I'm wondering about it.  If a particular sense  is completely context-dependent and not signalled by some grammatical difference, is it part of the "meaning"? If not, does it belong in the entry?

Of course, this is part of the age-old lexicographers' polysemy dilemma. When do different contextual modulations of a word's meaning become identifiable as different senses? And is there a principled way in which to spell out how these different meanings are related? E.g., is one more basic, and the others (!) have emerged from it in some identifiable way (metonymy, metaphor, or the like)?

Or in the case of "other," if there is no clear way in which one sense diachronically presupposes another (!), and no difference in phonological form or morphosyntactic frame, do these senses inhere in the word at all?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps here instead of polysemy we have vagueness (in the technical sense of a word that is just non-specific about certain features).

 In that case, how do we deal with these issues in the dictionary? It might be possible to incorporate the necessary vagueness into the definition itself.  In the case of "another/other" (Heb. אחר, Aramaic אוחרן), we have to start with the fact that the word is anaphoric, that is, it always refers to something already mentioned in the discourse, the antecedent.  What "another/other," etc. means as an adjective is "not the antecedent, but similar to it." In any particular context, either the "not the antecedent" (different) or the "similar to it" (second, additional) part may be highlighted.  The logical freight of "another/other" depends on the meaning of the antecedent, not on any inherent semanteme in the adjective itself.

In Gen 26:22 for instance, we have "And he removed from thence, and digged another well," in context, an additional well; a second token of the same type (well).  In Gen 29:19, we have "And Laban said, It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man." Here the antecedent (the man Jacob) is a type with a single token (the man who is Jacob); hence another man does not mean "a second man, in addition to Jacob" but "a different man, who is not Jacob."

Therefore an entry based on a clear semantic understanding should express the word's vagueness, which is modulated by the context.  Semitic dictionaries have done this mainly by simply using European glosses that are themselves vague.  I'm not sure this is the best approach, but I'm still thinking about the best way to approach this.