6

The Verse in Context

The passage, with some context, is this (Isa 57:7-10; NKJV):

7 “On a lofty and high mountain you have set your bed; even there you went up to offer sacrifice. 8 Also behind the doors and their posts you have set up your remembrance; for you have uncovered yourself to those other than Me, and have gone up to them; you have enlarged your bed and made a covenant with them; you have loved their bed, where you saw their nudity (יָד; yad). 9 You went to the king with ointment, and increased your perfumes; you sent your messengers far off, and even descended to Sheol. 10 You are wearied in the length of your way; yet you did not say, ‘There is no hope.’ You have found the life of your hand; therefore you were not grieved.

The Hebrew of v.8 specifically is (BHS):

וְאַחַ֤ר הַדֶּ֙לֶת֙ וְהַמְּזוּזָ֔ה שַׂ֖מְתְּ זִכְרוֹנֵ֑ךְ כִּ֣י מֵאִתִּ֞י גִּלִּ֣ית וַֽתַּעֲלִ֗י הִרְחַ֤בְתְּ מִשְׁכָּבֵךְ֙ וַתִּכְרָת־לָ֣ךְ מֵהֶ֔ם אָהַ֥בְתְּ מִשְׁכָּבָ֖ם יָ֥ד חָזִֽית׃

Some relevant background points:

  1. I acknowledge without question that the context is a sexual one, figuratively representing Israel's idolatry (v.5-6) by juxtaposing it to an adulterous affair (v.7-8).
  2. Major translations handle the word יָד each a bit differently, but generally similarly:
    • "it" (KJV)
    • "nudity" (NKJV; with note "Lit. hand, a euphemism")
    • "nakedness" (ESV [also NIV 1984; NIV 2011 = "naked bodies"]; ESV has note "Or on a monument (see 56:5); Hebrew on a hand")
    • "their manhood" (NASB; with note "Lit hand")
    • "genitals" (HCSB—with two notes, "Lit hand" and "In Hb, the word hand is probably a euphemism for 'genitals.'"; also NET—with note "Heb '[at] a hand you gaze.' The term יָד (yad, 'hand') probably has the sense of 'power, manhood' here, where it is used, as in Ugaritic, as a euphemism for the genitals. See HALOT 387 s.v. I יָד."
  3. Any lexicon will indicate that the primary meaning of יָד is that of hand or forearm; and indeed, that word is used at times to figuratively represent ideas of strength, guidance, etc.

That is a good enough sampling to set up the context for the issue and the question itself.

The Issue

The HALOT entry, noted in the NET notes, actually reads a bit differently still than how NET translated it:

penis Ug. (Gordon Textbook §19:1072; Aistleitner 1139), Arb. wdy: penem exseruit equus; MHeb.2 also אֶצְבַּע and אֵבֶר; Delcor JSS 12:234ff; cf. Weinreich Heilungswunder 20ff; THAT 1:669f; Is 578, with חזה obscene act, 5710 חַיַּת יָדֵךְ “revival of your strength” (Volz; Fohrer); וינקו ידים על האבנים 1QIsg 653, → לְבֵנָה 3 and ינק, or נקה nif; יוציא ידו מתוחת בגדו 1QS 7, 13.

If such a direct euphemism by that particular word is intended as a reference to a sexual body part, then it is the only place in the Hebrew text in which the word is so used, as BDB's entry (4.g) states:

Is 57:8 according to Hi De Che Or Brd Du and most = a phallus thou beholdest; this favoured by context but without support in Heb. usage; Di a (beckoning) hand.

This unique usage, for me, is a bit of an issue, especially when other solutions are proposed that could fit the context:

  • Gesenius believes it figuratively refers to a place (Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures), which is testified to in Dt 23:13, Nu 2:17, and he believes as well in Isaiah in 56:5. This makes sense in the context of seeing "their bed," the place where Israel should not have been (i.e., in idolatry).
  • As BDB noted, A. Dillmann (the "Di" abbreviation in the entry) believed it referred to "a (beckoning) hand." This makes sense in context as that which drew Israel to have "gone up" to "their [the idolaters'] bed," the beckoning of a hand to come join.

I believe there could be a case for another in context idea as well...

Another Possibility

As I noted, the context is clearly a sexual one. BDB noted that context is the primary reason the euphemization proposal finds any favor.

A more direct rendering of the last phrasing from the Hebrew (אָהַ֥בְתְּ מִשְׁכָּבָ֖ם יָ֥ד חָזִֽית) is this:

אָהַ֥בְתְּ  you have loved
מִשְׁכָּבָ֖ם their bed,
יָ֥ד    a hand
חָזִֽית  you have seen

But the final word ("seen"/"looked") is also found at other points to refer to other types of "perception" than seeing, essentially figuratively meaning "experience" (HALOT) or more generally "perceive" (BDB). Examples are most abundant in Job—15:17 (what Eliphaz had experienced, he will tell), 27:12 (experienced the hand of God, v.11), 34:32 (be taught those things that have not been experienced), 36:25 (experienced God's work which is sung about [v.24] from afar). But BDB notes as an example a verse earlier in Isaiah as well, 48:6 (the idea being "perceive all this").

So another in context rendering may be "a hand you have perceived," which could still be a euphemism for sexual acts, as the hand is often involved in intimate sexual encounters. The idea of a hand being perceived in areas where the hand ought not be if a woman were being faithful to her spouse can evoke just as much an image of unfaithfulness in this context.

Such an interpretation takes the words more literally, but still applies a meaning to them that fits the context.

The Question(s)

My goal here is not to argue for the potential interpretation I gave above, nor necessarily for that of Gesenius or Dillmann. Rather, the questions are:

  • What is the actual evidence from Ugaritic (or other languages) that leads to this speculation about the word יָד itself also being so used here? And how certain is the usage a euphemism in that/those language/s itself/themselves, as it may be speculation there as well? (In answering this, realize I do not read Ugaritic, so do clarify in English.)
  • What reasoning have scholars who have taken the word יָד itself as a euphemism rejected solutions that keep the word with its normal meaning?
  • Of course, the title question derives from the above evidences, is a euphemism for male sexual organs really the correct understanding of יָד in this verse?
3

The Idea in Brief

The word “hand” in Is 57:8 appears to be euphemistic reference for the aroused anatomy of the male phallus. (The double-entendre also appears evident in Song of Solomon 5:4 and Song of Solomon 5:14.) Since the dual use of the word “hand” in the context of love is very explicit in Ugaritic texts, the same double-entendre for “hand” is presumptive for Biblical Hebrew when the context involves sexual activity.

Discussion

In 1928, archeologists began analyzing cuneiform texts discovered in what was the Canaanite seaport of Ugarit, which is modern day Ras Shamra in northern Syria. The tablets date to as early as the 14th Century BC(E). Like Biblical Hebrew, the poetry and narrative of these clay tablets appears in dichotomy or parallel form. Since Biblical Hebrew also follows a similar structure (discussed below), the parallels provide insights as to the meanings of words both in and between Ugaritic texts and Biblical Hebrew. Smith and Parker (1997) make the following observations in this regard.

enter image description here

An excellent example is the verse below, where the word for love, אָהַב (ä·hav'), and the word for hand, יָד (yäd), appear in parallel. Each word begins the line or colon, which appear parallel through the lens of the assigned structure of cantillation.

Please click on the image to enlarge.

enter image description here

Now, in their analyses of the clay tablets found at Ras Shamra, Smith and Parker (1997) discovered an exact match of the respective words (in parallel) for “hand” / “love” on the 38th and 39th line of the fourth tablet narrative concerning Baal.

enter image description here

The 38th and 39th line of the fourth tablet narrative concerning Baal (51 IV: 38-39) appears below.

enter image description here

The “hand” is the double-entendre for the aroused male phallus, as other examples in Ugaritic texts make explicit. Fisher, Knutson, and Morgan (1972) also indicate that explicit sexual innuendo is implied by the use of the word “hand” in these Ugaritic texts.

enter image description here

This parallel therefore appears to be consistent with the bicolon (parallel) from the passage in Isaiah 57:8, since there is the presumptive parallel with the Ugaratic Text based on the 38th and 39th line of the fourth tablet narrative concerning Baal. If this parallel is accurate, then the Hebrew word for “hand” may include the imagery of the aroused male phallus in at least two other passages of the Hebrew Bible, where the hand appears in the context of love between a man and a woman.

Song of Solomon 5:4 (NASB)
4 My beloved extended his hand through the opening, And my feelings were aroused for him.

Ogden and Zogbo (1998) provide the following commentary concerning this passage, and their assumption is that “any Israelite” would understand the double-entendre.

enter image description here

Song of Solomon 5:14 (NASB)
14 His hands are rods of gold
Set with beryl;
His is carved ivory
Inlaid with sapphires.

Ogden and Zogbo (1998) provide the following commentary on this verse again with the mention that ancient readers would have understood the double-entendre of hand(s) in allusion to the male phallus.

enter image description here

Conclusion

Jewish sources for this passage (Talmud, Targum, and Midrash) make no connection between the hand and phallus in these passages, and so this correlation is non-existent from the standpoint of Jewish oral tradition. However, when considering that the context of Isaiah 57:8 was the spiritual and sexual promiscuity of Israel in connection with foreign nations, the reliance on the Ugaritic texts for the interpretation of this passage may be very relevant.


Sources:

Fisher, L. R., Knutson, F. B., & Morgan, D. F. (Eds.). (1972). Ras Shamra Parallels: The Texts from Ugarit and the Hebrew Bible. (Vol. 1). Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 192-193.

Ogden, G. S., & Zogbo, L. (1998). A Handbook on the Song of Songs. New York: United Bible Societies, 148, 163.

Smith, M. S., & Parker, S. B. (1997). Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (Vol. 9). Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, passim.

  • Definitely a useful answer on numerous levels, as it does hit on numerous levels from my questions; but from my perspective, it helped to show the weakness of the argument, and for that I am grateful for the information. (1) There is a slight difference between a euphemism (as most say this is) and a double-entendre (which seems to be Ogden & Zogbo's view), as the latter intends both meanings at once, while the former is intended as a single meaning substitution. – ScottS Sep 12 '16 at 4:24
  • (2) The parallel of "love" to "hand" relies on one first viewing "love" as a reference to the sex act itself to even make the leap that "hand" then refers to the instrument of that act from parallelism; yet it is actually the term "bed" that implies the sex, the "love" retains essentially its normal meaning in the Hebrew text. (3) The "38th and 39th line of the fourth tablet" has the same issue as I noted in my question, the literal "hand" can and often does have a part in arousing, so nothing is definitive there. – ScottS Sep 12 '16 at 4:25
  • (4) As I suspected, what some believe is "explicit" in at least this Ugaritic text, I do not see as explicit (the term "staff" in the linked example [for which example I am very grateful] seems far more likely than "hand" to be a euphemism, and that commentators believe both words are euphemisms is very odd, considering the text says "staff in his/your hand" (so both cannot be euphemisms, else it would be "phallus in your phallus"). Rather ... (cont.) – ScottS Sep 12 '16 at 4:25
  • ... El's hand growing long as the sea appears to me to refer to his influence/power widening through his relations as his hand guides his "staff." (5) The silence by the Jewish commentators speaks much also. Your reporting, Joseph, of these ideas from commentators is valuable for helping me see where the thinking is coming from so I could evaluate the thoughts behind it. Thank you. – ScottS Sep 12 '16 at 4:27

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