In his paper The Mock of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27, Gary A. Rendsburg explains the issue:
…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 hendiasdy, 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 analysis of extra-Biblical material, Rendsburg believes the hapax legomenon, śîg alludes to excreting. This allows him to say:
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
He presents examples of cognates in other Semitic languages and 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” to support the conclusion:3
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 defcating/urinating.”4
There are challenges to these conclusions.
As Rendsburg states, modern scholarship seeks to understand שִׂ֛יג using etymology from 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”).5
This is a logical approach when updating a lexicon. Nevertheless, it dismisses the obvious: how does Scripture address this bodily function? The Hebrew 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)” [Euphemisms] A euphemism for “relieving himself” is found in 1 Samuel 24:3, רַגְלָ֑יו אֶת־ לְהָסֵ֣ךְ literally “cover his feet.” Similarly, Scripture will have subtle ways to describe distasteful or negative situations. During the drought and famine before 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? So the modern lexicon is being used for more than new meanings, it changes standards: distasteful things are now stated explicitly.
Second, as Rendsburg notes, "the hendiadys is perhaps reflected in the LXX's use of but one word, viz., adoleschia ("meditating, talking").6 The hendiadys recognized by the LXX translators uses the meaning of the first word to determine the sense of the phrase. It is also evidence scholars did not recognize excretion as a meaning. In other words, modern scholars find something in the passage scholars closest to the original text, did not understand. Third, the first word śîaḥ in the hendiadys, is used 13 times in Scripture: none of the other uses fit the new meaning posited. So the traditional meaning of the word śîaḥ is abandoned on the basis of the meaning of śîg. That is, śîaḥ means urinating of defecating because it was used in a passage with śîg not on the etymology of śîaḥ.
Finally, the ESV accepts the modern analysis for the hapax legomenon śîg; yet ignores the analysis which understands the phrase as a hendiadys, preserving the traditional meaning of śîaḥ:
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)
If the modern lexicon is employed, the first action is combined with the second; as Rendsburg states, the phrase is “relieving himself.” Thus any sense of Ba’al’s cognitive ability should be stripped from Elijah’s mock. It is reduced to relieving himself, on a journey, or asleep. Obviously the ESV preserves the sense of śîaḥ such as adoleschia which the LXX scholars understood.
Biblical Analysis of Elijah’s Mock
Using the King James translation, Elijah’s mock contains four actions:
The most common word of this group is דֶ֣רֶךְ which is almost universally rendered as journey or trip in 1 Kings 18:27. Yet the word is most frequently (590 times) translated as “way” which, as the LXX shows, need not mean traveling:
And it happened at noon that Eliou the Thesbite mocked them and said, “Call in a loud voice! For he is a god, for pratinga occupies him, and at the same time he is perhaps giving an oracle, or perhaps he is asleep and will get up.” [3 Reigns 18:27 LXX - NET]
a: possibly meditating
The LXX scholars understood Elijah’s דֶ֣רֶךְ to be χρηματιζε which means "to transact business, esp. to manage public affairs; to give a response to those consulting an oracle, to give a divine command or admonition, to teach from heaven; to assume or take to one's self a name from one's public business." [G5537-chrēmatizō]
Another meaning for “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)
The cherubim is guarding the path; Elijah’s mock could be “perhaps he is on a path…” This is how the word is translated 75% of the time. While this does not speak directly to the meaning of the word in question, it does show those traditional meanings for śîg of turning aside, or wandering, or withdrawing to a private place are not redundant with דֶ֣רֶךְ. In fact, based upon how the LXX understands דֶ֣רֶךְ, śîg is the element of Elijah’s mock which conveys the idea Ba’al 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 just 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)
Elijah’s mock connects Ba'al sleep to Saul’s when David took his spear. After the confrontation ends, Elijah will run away and then he will sleep. The word used to describe Elijah’s sleep is even less common than that which is used in the mock:
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)
Elijah's sleep is different from Ba’al’s and like the word “way” (דֶ֣רֶךְ) the writer has chosen to draw from events in the Garden of Eden:
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)
The true meaning of any word is how it is used and not used by a writer. Here the choice to describe Ba’al’s sleep as יָשֵׁ֥ן is at the same time a choice not to use וַיִּישָׁ֑ן (which is used to describe Elijah’s sleep). According to a lexicon, either word would have conveyed the same message: Ba'al 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 is obviously intentional and equally obvious brings additional meaning to Elijah’s mock. The lexicon can describe meaning and origin of a word; yet has little to say about why a writer chooses different words to describe the same action. On the other hand, staying within the confines of Scripture demonstrates the writer has been purposeful to describe different types of sleep in a way which contrasts Ba’al and Saul to Elijah and Adam.
“Sleep” does not help understand the meaning of the word in question. But like “way” it demonstrates a purposeful use of language which calls upon a reader’s knowledge of known 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 mock Ba’al. Therefore, it is unlikely the writer is looking to use a word to point readers away from Scripture.
śîaḥ and śîg
The word in question is unique in Scripture yet it is nearly identical to the first:
This combination of שִׂ֧יחַ and שִׂ֛יג is alliteration, a deliberate device. If it is not taken as a hendiadys, it should be understood as connecting thoughts or actions which have something in common. The ESV’s “musing” and “relieving himself” is suspect since it presents two actions which have little or no affinity to one another and so fails to capture the obvious connection which is present.
Moreover, the modern treatment of the word ignores how Elijah’s mock ends. If there is a suggestion Ba’al is relieving himself, there is a reference (1 Samuel 24:3) from King Saul’s earlier attempt to kill David which would work. To believe "relieving himself" is the meaning intended requires a belief this writer abandoned His methodology of using Scripture to convey meaning and instead chose a word whose meaning must be determined from 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 mock has been constructed (as well as how those scholars closest in time understood it). 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 also been crafted to reasonably exclude "relieving himself" as a candidate of potential meaning.
King James - "Pursuing"
The King James renders the two words as “talking and pursuing.” As Shakespeare’s uses show “pursue” and “pursuing” can mean cognitive action and need not involve motion or travel:
I have then sinned against his experience and transgressed against his valour; and my state that way is dangerous, since I cannot yet find in my heart to repent. Here he comes: I pray you, make us friends; I will pursue the amity. All’s Well That Ends Well, Act II Scene 5
Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun
Peer'd forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad;
Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
That westward rooteth from the city's side,
So early walking did I see your son:
Towards him I made, but he was ware of me
And stole into the covert of the wood:
I, measuring his affections by my own,
That most are busied when they're most alone,
Pursued my humour not pursuing his,
And gladly shunn'd who gladly fled from me. Romeo and Juliet, Act I Scene 1
So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season'd showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As 'twixt a miser and his wealth is found;
Now proud as an enjoyer and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure,
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better'd that the world may see my pleasure;
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight
And by and by clean starved for a look;
Possessing or pursuing no delight,
Save what is had or must from you be took.
Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away. Sonnet 75
New Testament Considerations
While the precise meaning of any hapax legomenon may not be fully determined from the specific text where it used, the believer in Jesus Christ should first search the New Testament to gain insight into events which are described. The 450 prophets of Ba’al and 400 prophets Asherah failed in their attempt to call down fire from heaven. However, there is nothing to suggest they believed Ba'al could not answer them. 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)7
James and John did not question their ability to successfully call fire down from heaven. This is not an attempt to compare James and John to the prophets in 1 Kings. It shows those on the "right side" of the contest also believe in the ability of their God to answer their request.
Revelation records a future event where a prophet to a false god will replicate 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 have success calling fire down from heaven and this will deceive those dwelling on the earth. Obviously, if the prophets of Ba’al and Asherah had succeeded all Israel would have been deceived into following Ba’al. The decided 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. There is none to say “If YHVH be God…” Therefore, the contest with Elijah is better understood as one where both YHVH and Ba’al have the ability to send fire: but only YHVH, the one true God, the all-powerful One responds when called upon. The prophets of Ba’al and Asherah failed where the beast in Revelation will succeed because YHVH restrained Ba’al answering when his prophets called to him, just as Jesus restrained James and John by rebuking them when they asked Him for permission to call down fire.
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 7 and 2 Thessalonians 2.
Based upon the entire Bible, the conclusion is Ba’al’s failure to respond was from the lack of authority to send fire in a setting specific to demonstrate Ba’al’s power over YHVH. Simply, Ba’al was prevented from using his ability to deliver fire. The most common meaning for the word śîaḥ is “complaint.” שִׂ֧יחַ Thus the claim none of the traditional meanings of śîaḥ fit the context found in 1 Kings 18:27 may be rejected. In fact, the primary meaning of the word fits perfectly. Ba’al 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 Ba’al.
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 Ba’al from answering, the complaint could be accompanied by Ba’als 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)
So the sense of śîg which some translations see as to turn aside, or withdraw to a private place, fit the context. Ba'al complains and he withdraws, or turns aside, or more accurately, he steps aside while YHVH shows who may use their ability to send fire and has authority over Ba'al. 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 type motion because of the first.
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.
Therefore the literal translation of “relieving himself” distorts the meaning of the hendiasdy and fails to capture the sense of Elijah’s mock which speaks directly to Ba’al's cognitive ability: his awareness he is “a god” who is being restrained from using his limited power by YHVH the One True God. In this case the appropriate way to convey this sense would be through a footnote explaining the word might be being used as a euphemism or metaphorically to describe the offensive and distasteful nature of Ba’al’s complaint.
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. Rendsburg p. 415
3. Rendsburg p. 416. The use of extra-Biblical material to posit rituals for the prophets of Ba’al and Asherah ignores the text. Elijah calls for the prophets, not the priests. It is presumptive to assume a prophet engaged in the same cultic practices as a priest. Even more so when the text 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.
4. Rendsburg p. 416
5. Rendsburg p. 416
6. Rendsburg p. 414
7. 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.