Thursday, July 18, 2013

Fruit Baskets: how foreboding can they be?

If 8th century prophets had directed The Godfather that horse head scene might have involved a basket of figs instead.  

Amos, an 8th century BCE prophet who was lucky enough to get included in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, had some visions.  One of them involves a fruit basket:

"Thus the Lord YHWH showed me: behold, a basket of summer fruit. And he said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then YHWH said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass by them. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord YHWH; “the dead bodies shall be many; in every place they shall be cast out in silence.” (Amos 8:1-3; RSV)

How in the world is a basket of summer fruit a portent of national destruction?  And does this mean that  I should be more concerned when someone gives me a basket of fruit as a gift?

This passage is a great little reminder of the importance of looking at the original language of a text and an example of how verbally clever the Hebrew prophets could be.  When we peel back the English translation and look at the Hebrew text underneath, we find that Amos is using a word play.  It hinges on the similarity of the Hebrew words translated "summer fruit" and "end."  

summer (fruit) = qayiṣ

end = qēṣ 

 Go ahead and sound those out (the 's' with the little dot under it is pronounced like the "ts" in "nets).  They sound similar, right?  They're almost homophones -- two words that sound the same, but have different meanings.  Amos is playing around with this similarity -- the qayiṣ means the qēṣ is near.  

To make things even more interesting, there is evidence that the people of northern Israel who Amos was preaching to would have pronounced both of these words identically (the Samaria Ostraca have taught us some stuff here).  They pronounced words like qayiṣ as qēṣ.  So for them these were not near homophones, but true homophones.  Al Wolters suggests that Amos, who was a guy from Judah preaching to the northern kingdom, may have been poking a bit of fun at these dialectical differences in his vision.  Check out his article below to see this all unpacked a little bit more (he even includes a nice modern example).

Puns are not only for B-rate stand-up comics or your grandpa -- they can also be used in foreboding ways by ancient prophets.
Bonus note: Amos provided glimpses of interesting things to come, and I'm not talking about the destruction of the kingdom of Israel.  In this vision we encounter the seeds of two phenomena that will develop and flourish in later proto-apocalyptic/apocalyptic tradition.  First is the use of the word qēṣ ("end"), which will show up in places like the book of Daniel (2nd century BCE).  Second, this is a visionary forerunner of the angelus interpres or "interpreting angel" that we see for the first time in the later prophet Zechariah, and which is fully developed in apocalyptic literature.  The interpreting angel is (surprise) an angel who interprets the prophet/visionary's visions.  In Amos' vision, YHWH performs this function himself.  Later on he'll delegate this to angels (wouldn't you get tired of having to explain visions to thickheaded prophets all the time too?).  (John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 405; Darrell D. Hannah, Michael and Christ, 47-48;)

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