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In 1 Kings 18:27, Elijah is recorded as mocking the servants of Ba'al. In this speech as it is recorded in the ESV, Elijah suggests that Ba'al may be indisposed answering nature's call.

And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

This appears to be he Hebrew word שִׂיג (siyg; H78793) which for which translations range widely and the KJV translates this as "pursuing". Some scholars seem to think "relieving himself" is the correct translation.

This appears to mean "withdrawing" (to a private place) or stepping aside according to some definitions which seems like it could easily be a euphemism for doing your business.

Questions

  • What does שִׂיג mean in this context?
  • If it means relieving oneself, how common was this as a euphemistic phrase for the call of nature (for example, I know Saul went into the cave to "cover his feet")?
  • What is the thought process in the KJV translation of "pursuing"? This seems like the opposite of "withdrawing".
  • If this means releiving oneself, on a scale of "using the little boys room" to "taking a [expletive]" how colorful/vivid of a depiction is this and how offensive would it have been to worshippers and priests of Ba'al?
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    The OED lists an archaic meaning of "to travel" for pursue, so that could be what to KJV had in mind.
    – ThaddeusB
    Nov 13, 2015 at 5:55
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    I don't have access to the original source, but I came across this citation: - "busy" and "relieving" is: 8485 שִׂיג (SIG): n. [masc.]; ≡ Page 7873; TWOT 1469-1. LN 23 bowel movement, Defecation, ie, the act. of relieving oneself from the bowels (1Ki 18: 27+) note: for another interp, see next; 2. LN 15.34-15.74 back off, ie, a withdraw from an area as a short or brief linear movement (1Ki 18: 27+) Swanson, James: Dictionary of Biblical Languages ​​With Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament). electronic ed. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, S. DBLH 8485, # 2
    – kmote
    Nov 16, 2015 at 19:14
  • "I know Saul went into the cave to 'cover his feet' ..." If your hypothesis is right, does this affect the interpretation of Ruth 3? Nov 20, 2017 at 21:53
  • @elikakohen: No. It is pretty clear from context that Ruth does not un-defecate on Boaz's feet. Nov 20, 2017 at 23:54
  • @JamesShewey - Obviously, Ruth wasn't deficating on Boaz's feet. However - we are challenging what this passage might mean - and "masturbation / a sexual act" is definitely up for grabs. Onan "spilling his seed" is "וְשִׁחֵ֣ת". The relevance starts making sense given some of the answers below, and other languages. But, I think this could only be proven if it is other places too, in order to draw any conclusion. I am not, by any means, suggesting that this is correct - but it is a far fetched rival hypothesis, and it would fit the character of how Elijah was mocking the prophets of Baal. Nov 21, 2017 at 2:08

3 Answers 3

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The original question contained a link to the interesting article by Rendsburg 1988: http://jewishstudies.rutgers.edu/docman/rendsburg/64-the-mock-of-baal-in-1-kings-18-27/file
Has anyone else looked at it?

The author argues that śiăḥ and śiḡ are a hendiadys. śiḡ or siḡ is well-known in the meaning “go away, step aside”, and can thus reasonably be understood as a euphemism for “defecate”. śiăḥ occurs only here. Rendsburg connects the Hebrew root ś-y-ḥ with the common Arabic word šaḫḫa “to urinate”. The match is not perfect: the Hebrew root is mediae infirmae, while the Arabic is mediae geminatae, but these types of roots are often interchangeable in Semitic. So together the two Hebrew words could refer to urinating and defecating. This seems to me an excellent suggestion.

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Background

And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked. (1 Kings 18:27 KJV)
וַיְהִי בַֽצָּהֳרַיִם וַיְהַתֵּל בָּהֶם אֵלִיָּהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר קִרְאוּ בְקוֹל־גָּדוֹל כִּֽי־אֱלֹהִים הוּא כִּי שִׂיחַ וְכִֽי־שִׂיג לוֹ וְכִֽי־דֶרֶךְ לוֹ אוּלַי יָשֵׁן הוּא וְיִקָֽץ

There are four actions in Elijah's taunt: שִׂ֧יחַ śîaḥ, שִׂ֛יג śîg, דֶ֣רֶךְ “way”, יָשֵׁ֥ן “sleep” which the King James translators understood to be talking, pursuing, on a journey, or sleeping. In his paper The Mock of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27, Gary A. Rendsburg explains the issue with the hapax legomenon, שִׂ֛יג:

…Elijah began to taunt his opponents about the inefficacy of their god. His exact words are as follows: “shout in a loud voice, for he is a god, kî śîaḥ wêḵî śîg lō, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping or waking up.” (1 Kgs 18:27)

The words left untranslated apparently form a hendiadys, i.e., the use of two words (śîaḥ and śîg) to express one idea (compare the English “bits and pieces” or “odds and ends”). Unfortunately, however, none of the usual meanings of these Hebrew words fits the present context, so the phrase has proved to be most enigmatic for scholars.1

Based on modern analysis of extra-Biblical materials, Rendsburg believes śîg alludes to excreting and concludes the accepted meaning of the first term, śîaḥ should be discarded:

If śîg alludes to excreting, then its partner śîaḥ should also refer to bodily discharge. We can, therefore, discard the traditional idea of śîaḥ equaling “converse, meditate,” and posit instead the meaning “excrete.”2

The basis for this change is scholarship which seeks to understand the unique שִׂ֛יג by drawing from etymology of other Semitic languages:

Hebraists are always on the hunt for cognates in other Semitic languages, and in the present instance the desired etyma are readily forthcoming. In Arabic in the present instance the root shh means “urinate, defecate”; in the modern South Arabian dialect the root shh means “urinate”; and in the Ethiopian language of Harari *sahat/ means “urinate,” and sahat asa means “urinate” (literally “make urine”).3

In addition to examples of cognates in other Semitic languages, Rendsburg notes the “ceremonial defecation in the cult of Baal Peor in connection with explicit reference in a Ugaritic tablet (R.24.258) to El’s floundering in excrement and urine” as additional support for his position:4

In short, there is good reason to conclude that both elements in the hendiadys, śîaḥ and śîg, refer to excretion and that the phrase should be rendered “he may be defecating/urinating.”5

I believe there are a number of defects with this approach:

  • The Bible typically uses euphemisms to describe this type of action
  • It is contrary to the understanding of scholars who translated the passage into Greek
  • The Biblical meaning for śîaḥ must be discarded
  • The use of alliteration and allusions must be ignored
  • The writer's use of Vorlage to point the reader to other important events must be ignored
  • New Testament passages which give insight to Baal's failure to send fire

The Use of Euphemisms
The Bible has numerous euphemisms, the majority of which are used to “avoid explicit reference to the usual issues of (a) death (Paul 1994b; Schorch 1999:2154-220); (b) sex (Delcor 1973; Ullendorf 1979; Gravett 2004; Paul 1994a; 1997; 2000; Schorch 1999”220-225); and (c) distasteful things (Schorch 1999:222-224)”6

For example, 1 Samuel 24:3 reads רַגְלָ֑יו אֶת־ לְהָסֵ֣ךְ, “cover his feet” as a euphism for urinating and/or defecating. Similarly, during the drought and famine leading to the contest with the prophets, the writer of 1 Kings "undercuts and diminishes the prophet [Elijah] with unsavory and snide situations, but without specific derogation." Why wasn't Elijah's credibility affected after unclean birds (ravens) fed him for so long?

To suggest שִׂ֛יג is an explicit reference not only relies on extra-Biblical material, it requires one to ignore the practice of using of euphemisms to avoid making an explicit statement.

The Septuagint
Rendsburg states "the hendiadys is perhaps reflected in the LXX's use of but one word, viz., adoleschia ("meditating, talking").7

And it was noon, and Eliu the Thesbite mocked them, and said, Call with a loud voice, for he is a god; for he is meditating, or else perhaps he is engaged in business, or perhaps he is asleep, and is to be awaked. (LXX)

καὶ ἐγένετο μεσημβρίᾳ καὶ ἐμυκτήρισεν αὐτοὺς Ηλιου ὁ Θεσβίτης καὶ εἶπεν ἐπικαλεῗσθε ἐν φωνῇ μεγάλῃ ὅτι θεός ἐστιν ὅτι ἀδολεσχία αὐτῷ ἐστιν καὶ ἅμα μήποτε χρηματίζει αὐτός ἢ μήποτε καθεύδει αὐτός καὶ ἐξαναστήσεται

If שִׂיחַ וְכִֽי־שִׂיג is a hendiadys, then the LXX translators used the meaning of the first word to describe the sense of the phrase. To posit Baal as "relieving himself" discounts how the phrase was understood at the time. It also ignores how a meaning of excretion was rejected, if in fact, that meaning was known to be possible.

Additionally, the LXX scholars understood Elijah’s taunt to include χρηματιζε which means "to transact business"8or "to impart a divine message, make known a divine injunction; to take/bear a name/title to go under the name of, called/named, be identified as.9 It is important to note if the first action is combined with the second to mean “relieving himself,” then there is no sense of Baal’s cognitive ability in Elijah’s mock. This is the exact opposite of the LXX which presents Baal with the ability to meditate and transact business, and yet ignores his prophets and priests.

Rejecting the Accepted Meaning for שִׂ֧יחַ
In order to arrive at a meaning for the hendiadys of defecating, the meaning of the first word, śîaḥ must be discarded. However, שִׂ֧יחַ is used 13 times and none fit the new meaning posited. Discarding the unquestioned meaning of śîaḥ in order to arrive at the meaning of śîg is not a reasonable practice. Moreover, a decision to see śîaḥ as excretion is not based on etymology (of śîaḥ); rather, it forces a new meaning solely on the basis of use in conjunction with śîg.

Even the ESV rejects this approach:

And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing (śîaḥ), or he is relieving himself (śîg), or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (1 Kings 18:27 ESV)

Similar to the LXX translation, the ESV continues to render śîaḥ using the traditional meaning. Ironically, the ESV accepts the modern etymology, yet rejects a key assumption necessary to support how the meaning is used.

Biblical Literary Devices, Allusions, and Vorlage
Before resorting to extra-Biblical material, a reader who encounters a questionable element will first look within. For example, śîaḥ and śîg, שִׂ֧יחַ and שִׂ֛יג are nearly identical. The reader will immediately see an alliteration, a common Biblical literary device used to express thoughts or actions having something in common. If the intent was to form a hendiadys, it would develop from the first word, not the second. If two actions are intended, then they should have something in common. Making two unrelated acts like the ESV's musing or relieving himself obscures the literary device present in the original text.

The most common word in the four actions is דֶ֣רֶךְ which is almost universally rendered as journey or trip in 1 Kings 18:27. Yet, “way” is also possible:

He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way (דֶ֣רֶךְ) to the tree of life.
(Gen 3:24 ESV)

Elijah could be alluding to a path, the most frequent rendering (75%). This does not speak directly to śîg, but it does show how a traditional meaning of turning aside, or wandering, or withdrawing to a private place are congruent with דֶ֣רֶךְ. In fact, based upon how the LXX understands דֶ֣רֶךְ, śîg is the element which conveys the idea Baal is unavailable because he is moving around.

The last action Elijah describes is sleep; he does so using a less common word which is used in this specific form in only one other place:

...or perhaps he is (יָשֵׁ֥ן) asleep... (1 Kings 18:27 ESV)

So David and Abishai went to the army by night. And there lay Saul sleeping (יָשֵׁ֥ן) within the encampment, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head, and Abner and the army lay around him. (1 Samuel 26:7 ESV)

The Biblical Vorlage connects Baal's sleep to Saul’s when David took his spear. Later Elijah will run away and sleep. Here too Vorlage brings additional meaning to the passage:

And he lay down and slept (וַיִּישַׁ֔ן) under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” (1 Kings 19:5 ESV)

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept (וַיִּישָׁ֑ן) took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. (Genesis 2:21 ESV)

Elijah's sleep is different from Baal’s and like the word “way” (דֶ֣רֶךְ) the writer has chosen to draw from events in the Garden of Eden.

Consideration of meaning of any word must also factor in the complete Vorlage: what word was used and what word was not used. The choice to describe Baal’s sleep as יָשֵׁ֥ן is also a choice not to use וַיִּישָׁ֑ן (which was chosen to describe Elijah’s sleep). A lexicon says either word would convey the same message: Baal was asleep and his prophets should cry louder to wake him. The fact that the writer varies his choice of words to communicate the same action should be understood as intentional use of Vorlage to build in additional meaning to the passage. That is to say, the lexicon documents meaning and word origin, yet is largely silent why a writer chooses different words to describe the same action. On the other hand, when Elijah's taunt is examined within the confines of Scripture, it is apparent the writer has been purposeful to describe sleep in a way which uses the Vorlage to connect Baal and Saul and Elijah and Adam.

Again, “sleep” does not directly speak to the meaning of the word in question. But like “way” it demonstrates a use of language which calls upon a reader’s knowledge of other Biblical uses to describe important events. Given the nature of the contest, it can hardly be coincidence the writer uses words which are associated with the fall of man and King Saul attempting to kill David to taunt the prophets of Baal. Therefore, it is unlikely the same writer would point readers away from Scripture to grasp meaning for any other word used.

These devices are particularly relevant to the suggestion the reader is to understand Baal is relieving himself. Having drawn the reader's attention to Saul and David using "sleep," there is a similar event (1 Samuel 24:3) where Saul is "relieving himself." To believe this is Elijah's intended meaning, requires a belief the writer abandoned His methods of using Biblical events to convey meaning choosing instead to point the reader to extra-Biblical usage.

Therefore, even if contemporary scholarship demonstrates an extra-Biblical etymological basis for the meaning of שִׂ֛יג to be "relieving himself," this conclusion conflicts with how the LXX translators understood the mock and ignores how the original text was constructed and ignores the use of euphemisms. In fact, the Biblical evidence is that while the word used has a meaning which may not be precisely determined from other uses of the word or its root in Scripture, the overall passage has been crafted to exclude "relieving himself" as a candidate of potential meaning.

New Testament Considerations
The precise meaning of any Old Testament hapax legomenon may be uncertain, but the Christian understanding should be consistent with pertinent New Testament events or teachings. The 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets Asherah failed in their attempt to call down fire from heaven.

A similar situation is described in the New Testament:

And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them.
(Luke 9:54-55 ESV)

And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.
(Luke 9:54-55 NKJV)9

James and John did not question their ability to successfully call fire down from heaven. This shows those on the "right side" of the contest continue to believe in the ability of their God to answer such a request.

Revelation records a future event where a prophet to a false god will be able to duplicate Elijah’s accomplishment:

Then I saw another beast rising out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in front of people, and by the signs that it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast it deceives those who dwell on earth… (Revelation 13:11-14 ESV)

A false prophet in Revelation will successfully call fire down from heaven and this will deceive those dwelling on the earth. Likewise, if the prophets of Baal and Asherah had succeeded all Israel would have been deceived into following Baal. The difference in Revelation is the absence of an Elijah, or an agent of the LORD who will say:

…How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him… (1 Kings 18:21 ESV)

And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God… (1 Kings 18:24 ESV)

Revelation describes a “one-sided” presentation of power. No one stands up for YHVH, “If YHVH be God…” Then, based on the New Testament the Old Testament contest with Elijah should be seen where both YHVH and Baal have the ability to send fire, but only YHVH, responds because YHVH also restrained Baal from answering (just as Jesus restrained James and John).

The concept of restraining evil is explicitly stated in the Old Testament:

And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.”… (Job 1:12 ESV)

And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.”
(Job 2:6 ESV)

In each case, the LORD restrained Satan from doing something he had the ability to do; in each case Satan left the presence of the LORD. Notably, one of Satan’s attacks was in the form of fire from heaven:

While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” (Job 1:16 ESV)

Similar pictures of restraint are found in the New Testament in Revelation and 2 Thessalonians.

Based upon the entire Bible, we should conclude Baal’s failure to respond was a result of YHVH's restraint. Baal was prevented from using his ability to deliver fire. The most common meaning for the word śîaḥ is “complaint” שִׂ֧יחַ. In this case the claim none of the traditional meanings of śîaḥ fit the context found in 1 Kings 18:27 is wrong. In fact, the primary meaning of the word applies perfectly. Baal has a complaint: he is being kept from answering his prophets. Therefore the sense of śîg should be one which helps to describe the type or nature of complaint or complaining Elijah attributes to Baal.

śîaḥ is used in Proverbs:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? (Proverbs 23:29 ESV)

Complaints may be expressed or observed by others in different ways. They may be spoken calmly, or in anger; they may kept “bottled up” yet one’s appearance ("crying eyes") shows one is upset. In the case of YHVH restraining Baal, the complaint could be accompanied by Baal's departure from the presence of the LORD:

… So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD. (Job 1:12 ESV, also 2:7)

A similar context is found in an encounter Jesus had with the devil:

And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:13 ESV)

The sense of śîg which some translations see as to turn aside, or withdraw to a private place, fit the context. Baal complains and he withdraws, or turns aside, or more accurately, he steps aside while YHVH shows both who may use the ability to send fire and who has authority over Baal. The two words might be translated as “complain and storm off” or “complain and leave to sulk” or "complain and leave to cry in private." The first word identifies the issue and the second conveys a corresponding action.

Finally, if the modern lexicon for śîg is a consideration, it should be one which does not distort the meaning of śîaḥ. An emotionally charged contest can be described as a “pissing match.” A visceral complaint can be described as a one person “------ or ------“ (urinating or defecating) on another. The normal bodily functions are used as pejorative metaphors to describe the distasteful or offensive nature of the complaint.


Notes:
1. Gary A Rendsburg, The Mock of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol.50, No. 3, July 1988, pp. 414
2. Ibid., p. 415
3. Ibid., p. 416
4. Ibid. The use of extra-Biblical material to posit rituals for the prophets of Baal and Asherah ignores the text which states: “And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them.” (18:28) The custom of the prophets was to use blood, not urine and/or feces.
5. Ibid.
6. Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, Geoffrey Khan, General Editor, Brill, 2013, pp. 869-871
7. Rendsburg, p. 414
8. Thayer's Greek Lexicon
8. Fredrick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University Chicago Press, 2000, p. 1089
9. The Majority and Received Texts include ““You do not know what manner of spirit you are of” which more closer speaks to the event described in 1 Kings 18:27.

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    Strong's is a concordance, not a lexicon. As such it only tells you how the King James translated a word. It provides zero independent witness as to a word's meaning. Saying a word "means" X based on Strong's is simply incorrect. To then conclude from that (and another concordance) that "The original language offers little to support the idea that Ba’al was relieving himself" is highly flawed. All you can actually conclude is that the KJV translators didn't see compelling evidence for it.
    – ThaddeusB
    Nov 16, 2015 at 1:38
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    I think “relieving himself” is meant in jest if that’s the meaning.... i.e. no need for a physiologic correlate. If you mean to make it literal and impose human standards on the gods, then the lack of oral intake would surely have killed him long ago.
    – Susan
    Nov 16, 2015 at 6:32
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    @RevelationLad Yes. A dictionary/lexicon will consider other texts and other languages to determine what a word's meaning is. Translators use dictionaries when they write their translations, so when you see the uses of a word in a concordance you're two steps removed from the dictionary.
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 16, 2015 at 7:46
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    While it is an improvement that you have edited your answer to reference the Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, this is from 1846. Even The Brown-Drivers-Briggs is from 1906 and since then there have been a great deal of other writings which have been unearthed which have affected the Lexicons. Furthermore, some translations (eg, the NRSV where he has "wandered away, or he is on a journey" seems repetitive. If he has wandered away, clearly he is on a journey, which means busy or withdrawing make more sense. These still can easily mean withdrawn to do his business or busy pooping. A modern lex. is needed. Nov 17, 2015 at 8:11
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    FWIW, the BDB link, which is an update/expansion of Gesenius (linked in post), and does basically the same thing with it --> a variant of סיג. To understand the basis of modern translations, you’ll need a lexicon published after the 1960s-70s when the papers exploring the etymology of שיג using data about cognate languages were published. For info like this, HALOT is probably the best but is not available freely online. (cc: @JamesShewey)
    – Susan
    Nov 17, 2015 at 11:19
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According to the Oxford Jewish Study Bible, the Hebrew of the verse is "uncertain", although Talmudic commentary (Rashi, in English translation) seems to understand that he is on a journey refers to a journey to the "water closet". The Septuagint reads:

for he is meditating, or else perhaps he is engaged in business, or perhaps he is asleep, and is to be awaked.

Where χρηματίζει might just as well have been translated "is doing his business".

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