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
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.
- Garr, W. Randall. Dialect Geography of Syria-Palestine 1000-586 B.C.E., 38-39.
- Wolters, Al. "Word Play and Dialect in Amos 8:1-2." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31, 4 (1988): 407-410.
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