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The Bible sometimes uses words with multiple meanings to the effect of an intentional pun or wordplay. Punning seems especially common in Hebrew. I think that being aware of these literary devices offers an important insight into the tone and nature of the Biblical text.

But for people who aren't Hebrew speakers (or even those who are), how can I identify puns? And when a pun is identified, how can determine if the suggested double-meaning is plausible or implausible?

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Got mine. It would be a great resource. However, asking for guidance on plausibility may be a bit much. Plausibility is determined by context of a potential double-entendre. Agreement is difficult to obtain because of the very nature of the hidden meaning... it is hidden. You 'get' a joke or you don't. You may draw a picture to help someone get it, but you don't debate the plausibility that it is a joke. –  Bob Jones Jun 8 '12 at 3:03
    
Puns are the hardest thing to translate. Any type of humor risks being lost in translation, but puns are almost guaranteed. –  Frank Luke Oct 2 '12 at 19:43

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

Translators often point out these sorts of puns in footnotes and they are even more commonly mentioned in commentaries. For instance, here's one I found many years ago when I read the NIV Study Bible:

Genesis 40:12-13 (NIV)

“This is what it means, ” Joseph said to him. “The three branches are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position, and you will put Pharaoh’s cup in his hand, just as you used to do when you were his cupbearer.

Genesis 40:18-19 (NIV)

“This is what it means,” Joseph said. “The three baskets are three days. Within three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale your body on a pole. And the birds will eat away your flesh.”

So the same phrase, "lift up your head" is used to signify a good result and a bad one. The humor is dry and quite dark.

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NWT Ref has a footnote on Isaiah 28:10 explaining it to be a pun of some sort. –  TRiG Oct 12 '11 at 11:01
    
Even more than a pun the cup bearer and the baker parallel the elements of communion, where bread is Christ's body (which died like the baker) and wine is the promise of life (since he'll drink it with us in resurrection). Puns are the warp and woof of sensus plenior. –  Bob Jones Nov 23 '11 at 13:06
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@BobJones, gematria, letter re-arrangement, and allegory are not the same as puns. A pun derives from a specific word/phrase having two clear meanings. –  Gone Quiet Jun 8 '12 at 1:37
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The two "lift" examples are very close. The difference comes from what follows the verb; in both cases it says יִשָּׂא פַרְעֹה אֶת-רֹאשֶׁךָ (Paro will lift up your head); in one case it's followed by the next phrase ("and restore you"), and in the other it's followed by "from upon yourself". Very clever! –  Gone Quiet Jun 8 '12 at 2:04
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@BobJones, if they're homophones, sure. Your Elohim example isn't even close to that. As with statistics you can make "hidden messages in text" say whatever you want, so you have to be careful to remain plausible. –  Gone Quiet Jun 8 '12 at 13:12

Proper pun

The English word 'pun' is equivalent to the Hebrew 'al tiqre . . . ellaʾ (“do not read . . . but”) which allows the interpreter to exchange one vowel or consonant for another.

In practice: The 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet divide into 5 phonetic groups, based on their origin in the mouth's vocal system:

the throat: א (alef) ח (chet) ה (hei) ע (ayin)

the palate: ג (gimel) י (yud) כ (kaf) ק (kuf)

the tongue: ז (zayin) ש (shin) ס (samech) ר (raish) צ (tzadik)

the teeth: ד (dalet) ט (tet) ל (lamed) נ (noon) ת (tav)

the lips: ב (bet) ו (vav) מ (mem) פ (pai)

Phonetically, any two letters of the same origin can be interchanged. Thus, there are many Hebrew words whose proximity in meaning derives from their phonetic equivalence. Words made in this way which do not have similar meanings can replace one another as 'puns'.

Manufactured pun

There is another kind of pun where words with different meanings differ only by vowels added later. These puns were manufactured by the addition of vowels. In reality the original word contained the differing meanings. These are identified by dropping the late addition vowels. I use 'late addition vowels' because four of the original Hebrew letters actually act like vowels and are recognized as such by some sages.

Embedded puns

Then in Kabbalah every letter and every combination of letters is analyzed and understood in its own right.

The word bereisheet has three root letters (ROSh), a one letter prefix (B) and a two-letter suffix (eeT). But there are three two-letter sub root combinations as well. The two-letter sub-roots are a core idea which tie together three-letter roots formed by adding one of the four vowel letters. The roots are all aspects of the same core idea. Though they are not considered Hebrew puns technically, effectively the two-letter sub-roots can be considered embedded puns.

There are other word-play devices involving numerations and single-letter meanings, but these would be an even greater stretch to call them puns.

Plausibility

The plausibility of a pun depends on the interpretive structure. In literal methods most puns are viewed as accidental and incidental to the interpretation since only a single literal meaning is being sought. In Jewish Kabbalah they all have meaning, and though we may not currently understand them, we are to wrestle until we find answers. In sensus plenior, the rules filter out the implausible, since only solutions which point to Christ are sought.

For non-Hebrew speakers:

As you are using your Hebrew dictionary, browse before and after the word you are looking at to see other words that share the same consonants. This will identify 'manufactured puns'. Use the letter substitutions above and look up the new words formed to see if the word is productive within your interpretive framework. These are the proper puns. You must be able to identify letters do do this as well as to identify two-letter embedded puns.

If you can pronounce the word, then any other word or combination of words that sounds like it is a candidate for being a pun. Ultimately it is child's play.

Two-letter Subroots and Individual Letters

The word bereisheet has three root letters () and three additional letters: a oneletter prefix () and a two-letter suffix (). The three root letters spell the word rosh, meaning "head" or "beginning." However, in Kabbalah every letter and every combination of letters is analyzed and understood in its own right. The first two letter unit that begins the whole Torah and the whole creative process is therefore BR. The second two letters are ShA , which means fire and the two suffix letters (YTh) are also considered as a third unit on their own.

Harav Yitzchak Ginsburgh p.9

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I am about 1/3 finished with a Hebrew dictionary of manufactured puns for non Hebrew readers. It will be free and online. –  Bob Jones Jun 9 '12 at 3:47
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Hi Bob, do you know someone called 'hudson roper'? He posted a question directed at you about the progress of your dictionary (I assume because he doesn't have the rep to comment here): "how is this going Bob? hopefully well. hudson" –  Jack Douglas Jan 16 '13 at 9:38
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In my view, you are combining processes inside the text with processes outside the text. –  bimargulies Jan 20 '13 at 23:23

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