Gene Weingarten: Frankincense and mirth

Gene Weingarten
Columnist November 28, 2012

Gene Weingarten is on vacation. This column originally was published in 2002.

My friend Pat was leafing through her Old Testament the other day, searching for inspirational stories for her Sunday school students, when she happened upon something that was utterly astonishing but waaay too juvenile for the kids. So, she called me.

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

Pat gave me the chapter and verse. Check it out, she said. It’ll make you laugh.

Now, I respect the Bible, but I have never found much humor in it. Sure, you’ve got to like the wonderfully random names (“Ham”) and kooky adjectives (“wroth”) and entertainingly indiscriminate smitings. Also, the rules and regs can get pretty amusing (“If a woman approach-eth any beast to mate with it, she and the beast shall be put to death ...”). But by and large, in my experience, the Bible is a pretty laughless tome.

Pat had directed me to I Samuel, Chapters 5 and 6. It was a story about how the Philistines (the lunkheads who would go down in history for their crummy table manners, crying-clown art, public nose-picking, etc.) had defeated the Israelites and wrested from them the Ark of the Covenant. God did not like this. He showed his displeasure by visiting upon the Philistines a pair of plagues: mice, and something my Bible called “emerods.” I read right over this. Many people do this with the Bible, because the Bible is full of archaic words (“myrrh”) that you have to glide over if you are ever going to get to the smitings.


(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

Anyhow, it turns out this was my mistake. According to the dictionary, emerods are ... “hemorrhoids.”

God smote the Philistines with a plague of hemorrhoids.

The Philistines didn’t seem to mind the mice all that much. But the hemorrhoids got their attention. Quoting from I Samuel 5:12:

“The outcry of the city went up to Heaven.”

The Philistines tried to waddle over to neighboring towns to foist the Ark off on other people, but a plague of hemorrhoids followed not far behind, as it were. Eventually, they decided to give the darned thing back to the Israelites, along with an apology in the form of 10 images carved in gold: to wit, five golden mouse statues, and five golden “figures of their emerods.”

Five golden hemorrhoids!

Discussion Question No. 1: What would these objects look like?

Discussion Question No. 2: In biblical times, were emerods treated with myrrh?

Discussion Question No. 3: Is it possible the fifth day of Christmas originally contained different lyrics?

After reading this, I had a few theological questions, the most obvious being how it could be that, in 40-odd years of practicing adolescence, I had never before heard of this.

So, I called one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Book of Samuel, P. Kyle McCarter, professor of Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Hemorrhoids?

“Probably not.”

The most ancient of biblical texts, he said, probably referred to lumps symptomatic of the bubonic plague, using an ancient Hebrew word that simply meant “swellings.” Alas, over the centuries, McCarter explained, that word came to refer to natural swellings — a vulgar expression meaning “buttocks.” This posed a diplomatic problem. The solution was to retranslate this passage with a more clinical word marrying the notion of swelling and tuchis. Thus was birthed emerods.

Biblical translators have a history of seeking euphemism. Earliest Old Testament texts, McCarter said, occasionally distinguish men from women by referring to men as mashtin bequir, meaning “those who urinate against a wall.” No offense was intended — this was a simple observable fact. Over time, however, this came to seem crude, and most of these references were simply changed to “men.”

Me, I’m not in favor of euphemism. If I were editing the Old Testament, I would insist on rewriting the whole thing, restoring all the original meaning. Not to be a pain in the butt, or anything.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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