Sunday, June 2, 2013

Biblical Poop 2: Electric Burgle-Loo

[Again, I apologize for being irregular. I hope it wasn’t a strain to hold it so long.]

When we left our left-handed hero, Ehud, he had just revealed a pointy secret to King Eggroll, um, I mean Eglon, driving his sword so deeply into the king’s belly that the blade gets stuck in all the fat. And then…

Vayyetseʾ ha-parshedonah! (וַיֵּצֵא הַפַּרְשְׁדֹנָה)

Translators have never known exactly what to make of this. The whole phrase would mean “And then [something] came out,” or “And then he/it went out [something],” but we don’t know what that “something” is, because the word parshedonah (פַּרְשְׁדֹנָה) doesn’t appear anywhere else in Biblical Hebrew. (Scholars call that a hapax logomenon, because scholars like to call stuff things.) But it might be related to the Hebrew peresh (פֶּרֶשׁ), which means “feces.”¹ This reading is backed up by the Latin translation, but the Greek skips the line entirely, jumping straight to the next. And that next line, in Hebrew, sounds awfully familiar:

Vayyetseʾ ʾEhud ha-misderonah… (וַיֵּצֵא אֵהוּד הַמִּסְדְּרוֹנָה)

“And Ehud went out [something]…” Another hapax. And if you read the lines together (as I did for a memorization exercise as a grad student), they make this lovely sort of doublet, like a Kink’s song.² Misderonah is as obscure as parshedonah. The -ah­ ending on misderon probably implies direction, so it seems to be some sort of location or architectural feature; the traditional KJV translation is “porch,” while the NRSV classes it up with “vestibule,” both following the general meaning of the Greek προστάς. But the context supplies some additional clues toward the real meaning of the word.

Perhaps the funniest scene of the whole episode comes when Eglon’s servants (because the only thing more universally funny than poop is clueless servants) come to check on him, and finding the door locked, decide not to bother Eglon, concluding that mesik hu et-raglav (מֵסִיךְ הוּא אֶת־רַגְלָיו), literally, “he is covering his feet.” Now, in Hebrew, “feet” is kind of a catch-all euphemism for any of the southerly body parts, especially the genitals (Ex. 4:25, Is. 6:2, Ruth 3:4).³ Specifically, the phrase “to cover (one’s) feet” appears elsewhere (1 Sam. 24:2, with a different verb), meaning “to defecate.”

So the subtext here is that the servants (possibly smelling the parshedonah spilled by the stabbing), conclude that his corpulent majesty is “reading the paper,” as my dad used to put it. They then stand around awkwardly the way you do when someone is in the can, until they finally hit the “better see if he’s OK” threshold, and take a look inside.

Now, having established that Eglon’s chamber had some sort of en suite facilities, and with the scatological mood of the story well established, we can start to piece together what is going out where. The likely root of misderon is s-d-r (סדר), meaning “order” or “arrangement.” Given the frequency of euphemisms like “commode” (= “suitable”), “facilities,” and even “convenience,” it doesn’t seem too great a stretch to suppose that the “arrangement” involved in the misderonah was feature of the toilet. And it was something Ehud could go through to escape, perhaps a drain or ventilation shaft of some kind.

Based on this, I suggest the following emendation to the NRSV translation of Judges 3:22–23, to reflect the tone, repetition, and sibilance of the original Hebrew (my changes in red):

…the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; then the poop shot out, and Ehud went down the poop chute, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them.4

It’s not a perfect solution (he seems to lock himself in after his escape, but that problem exists in the NRSV), but I think it does more justice to the bawdy nature of the tale. It also functions to throw the reader off balance, confronting them with the alien nature of a text they might otherwise take for granted.

Also, y’know, poop is funny.

¹ One classmate of mine, confused by the British spelling in the standard Hebrew lexicon, tried to translate this word as “faces” rather than “faeces.”
² This is the point where I typically assure my students something would be hilarious if they were 20 years older.

³ I made the mistake of telling my Intro to Hebrew Bible students this, which led them to read every reference to “feet” in the dirtiest possible manner. Sometimes a foot is just a foot.

An alternate reading could render parshedonah as parshedon with a “locative heh” suffix (like on misderon-ah), meaning that rather than being what comes out, parshedon would be what it came out of. If that’s the case, “poop chute” could be used in both verses.

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