A Tale of Two Puns

Now she sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, and said to him, “Behold, the LORD, the God of Israel, has commanded, ‘Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun.  I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.'” (Judges 4:6-7 NASB)

The LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. (Judges 4:15 NASB)

I was going to separate these two “puns” into separate entries, but I only have two days, and I can’t pass up the irony of Jael.  If I have time next week, I’ll continue to unpack this amazing chapter of Judges, but my group is moving through this book pretty fast.

So, two puns, two literary features typically missed in English translations, and very difficult to try to bring across.  In fact, you’d have to “accidentally” spot them with something like a Strong’s Concordance or something.  But they startled me, and I find in them this intriguing character of the author of Judges.

When Deborah sends off to Barak to inspire him to lead two tribes into battle, she quotes God as laying out a form of “agreement” before Barak.  The way that adherents to Scripture typically view things, we’d call that a “covenant”.  It has the structure of “If you do this, I’ll do that”, but with more of a command or imperative nature.  In this example, it’s the verb signifying what each party will do that provides the first “pun”.

I suppose it’s not exactly a pun, but each use stretches the meaning of the verb so it sort of jumps out as being somewhat out of place.  When the meaning is understood apart from this account, you can be left with the clear sense of God’s awareness of the reluctance on the part of Barak.  The verb is “mashak”, and it usually means “to drag off” or “to draw out”.  Even knowing that, it’s kind of hard to spot the two uses of it in this passage, no?

The first usage is not what Barak does to the 10,000 troops of Naphtali and Zebulun, but rather to himself.  It’s a singular imperative “march” in verse 6.  And it’s not in the reflexive, or passive sense either, so he’s not causing himself or being acted upon.  In other words, God is basically saying, “Get your butt out of bed and drag it over to Mount Tabor.”

The second use of this word is more clear at the beginning of verse 7.  Yet when combined, you can see that God realizes that Barak is as reluctant to go to war as his eventual victim is to die.  We’re not told the reason for Barak’s reluctance, beyond that there were 900 iron chariots opposing him.  And it’s not hard to imagine that being a inhibiting factor.

The “agreement” is that, if Barak will drag his sorry butt to Mount Tabor, God will drag his opponent out to Barak to be defeated.  Sounds like a good deal.  Barak is still reluctant, so God gives the eventual glory of Sisera’s death to a woman (another story).

But now, let’s ask why God wants Sisera to be defeated.  Look at how God describes the “troops” of Sisera.  He calls them “many troops”.  That’s pretty simple, nothing surprising or interesting in that.  But if you look up the Strong’s Concordance entry for this Hebrew word, you’ll see this.  Look at the “Root Word” and follow the link.  The root of this word has to do with a loud noise.  God is calling Sisera’s army a “noisy bunch”, not just “many troops”.

And this brings us to the other half of this second pun in verse 15. God “routed” Sisera.  How plain and uninteresting.  Unless you examine the Hebrew verb used, here.  The verb is, again, about making noise.  Both this verb, and the adjective used prior have the same root, hamah (to grumble or to roar) or hum (to disturb with noise).  In other words, God shows up Sisera’s army by revealing what real noise sounds like.

Okay, so what?  God uses a pun to point out Barak’s reluctance, big deal.  God shows a noisy opponent what a truly shocking noise sounds like, okay, so?  Relax, sit back, close your eyes, and begin to imagine you’re in the iron age, and a king of Judah rules an unruly bunch of wayward Hebrews.  Some guy is telling a story about God delivering His people being oppressed by an army with iron chariots, against which the people of God had lots of people with sharp sticks, not a fair fight.  How can the storyteller make sure you get the point?  How does the Creator and Savior of the Sons of Israel get them to understand His point?  He uses literary technique.

The first pun points out Barak’s reluctance, but also God’s willingness to use him anyway.  His lame faith is no excuse to continue to sit on the couch, behind the plowing ox, or among the sheep and goats in the field.  So, neither is ours.  The message to us (and them) is to get our butts up and drag them out to face the enemy God is dragging out to be defeated before us.  That’s pun number one.

The second pun points out the ineffectual character of those that oppose God.  Whatever they might be, God is better at that quality, more dangerous,  smarter, bigger, and, as in this case, louder.  So, whatever enemy is faced, God is better.  But that’s sort of obvious.  Notice that the choice of words used also point out they’re ‘noisy’, not truly dangerous, just noisy.

If you read this account carefully, these tactical geniuses drove their iron chariots through a river.  Clearly they knew less about these tools of war than we’d expect.  I suspect that, since Egypt and the Hittites are pretty much the only ones with the ability to work iron, these guys didn’t make the chariots, but scavenged from a deserted battle field.  The battle plains of Meggido to the south, and Charchemesh and Qarqar to the north would be excellent places to find them.  Patch them up (make the wheels round for instance), and voila, instant technological advantage.  Not that you can truly fix them, only make them functional again.  So, the troops facing these hill people of Naphtali and Zebulun looked a lot like extras from some “Mad Max” Post-Apocalyptic movie.  And having something invented by others doesn’t mean you know how to use those things.  But it does mean you appear (or sound, in this case) very dangerous.

In other words, God took them down a peg.  These hoodlums believed in the noise they made with their accumulated chariots of iron.  God showed them what real noise sounded like.  He also showed the Sons of Israel.  The had been believing the noise of the 900 chariots for 20 years.  It was time for some real noise.  Are we believing the noise of our culture over what we read in Scripture?  God can, and will, show us what real noise sounds like.  But we need to drag our butts off the couch.  The culture sounds great, but our God is greater.  Why aren’t we making more noise about Him?  Or, are you?  If you are, keep it up.

Okay, that’s my view this morning.  I know it was long, but thank you for persevering through.  What’s your view of our God through your knothole?

 

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