The Bible was written in an archaic language, and, therefore, it is, at times, difficult to figure out what the authors/editors meant to say. Often, the Bible uses figurative language and even euphemisms that are different from ours. In the next few postings I would like to explore a few examples.
But first, a definition. A “metaphor” is a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a similarity, such as, “My life is a dream,” or, “He is drowning in money,”; whereas “euphemism” refers to the substitution of an inoffensive noun or verb for one that could be offensive or unpleasant, such as, “he passed away” for “he died.”
Let us start with the various meanings of the Hebrew word yad, “hand.”
a) In its basic meaning, yad refers to the human hand, such as, “When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand (yad yemino) on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong” (Gen. 48: 17)
b) By extension, yad is also used a metaphor for “power” or “strength,” such as, “When Israel saw the wondrous power (ha-yad ha-gedolah) which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord” (Ex. 14: 31)
c) At times, yad can mean “side,” “along,” such as, “The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along ( al- yad) the Nile” ( Ex. 2: 5)
d) In some cases, yad can mean “place,” such as, “The men of Ai looked back and saw the smoke of the city rising to the sky; they had no room (yadayim, lit. ‘hands’) for flight in any direction.” (Josh. 8: 20)
e) In a few places, yad means “monument,” in the sense that a hand points to and marks, such as, “”Saul went to Carmel, where he erected a monument (yad) for himself” (I Sam. 15: 12), or, ” I will give them [i.e., Sabbath observing eunuchs who were high government officials], in My House, and within My walls, a monument and a name (yad va-shem), better than sons and daughters.” (Isa. 56: 5) (Note: the well-known Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem today is named “Yad Va-Shem”).
f) In addition, some scholars have suggested that yad has also been used as euphemism for “latrine” and “genitals,” and point to two possible texts. The first one is in Deuteronomy, which reads, “You shall have a yad outside the camp, where you can relieve yourself” (23: 13). Some sources translate the word as “place” or “area,” in the sense of “designated area” for defecation (NRSV; see also Onkelos, Sifre). In the Dead Sea Scrolls, “hand” is used in relation to latrines: “There shall be a distance between all their camps and the ‘place of the hands’ (m’kom yad) of about 2000 cubits” (The War Scroll, 7/7), and, “You shall make latrines (m’kom yad) for them outside of the city” (Temple Scroll, 46/13). Consequently, the Jerusalem Bible translates the passage in Deuteronomy as, “You must have a latrine outside the camp.”
The other word is found in an obscure passage in Isaiah 57:8: addressing the idolaters among the Israelites, the prophet says, “You have loved bedding with them [the pagan objects], you have looked upon the yad.” Some interpreters render the last word as “place” (Metzudad Tzion), others, as “symbol” (Anchor Bible, McKenzie), or “you have chosen lust” (NJPS), and some, influenced by the context, translate it as “phallus,” (e.g., You have looked on their manhood” (New American Bible), or “You looked upon with lust on their naked bodies” (New International Version, 2010).
This survey clearly indicates that a simple Hebrew word meaning “hand,” has been used in the Bible by extension metaphorically as well as, possibly, euphemistically.
Next I will study the word, “feet.”