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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"FEET" IN THE HEBREW BIBLE; METAPHORS AND EUPHEMISMS

In the Hebrew Bible, the ordinary word for a human foot is regel. The plural is the dual form, raglayim. The word raglim (plural of ragli) means “foot soldiers” (cf. Jer. 12: 5), and the word regalim simply refers to the three pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Weeks (Shavuot) and Tabernacles (Sukot).
When Abraham welcomed the three guests in Mamre (without knowing they were divine beings), he told them to “bathe your feet (rahatzu et raglekhem) and recline under the tree” (Gen. 18: 4). Human toes are called etzbaot raglayim (lit. fingers of the feet; cf. II Sam. 21: 20). Animals too have raglayim: At the end of the forty days of the Deluge, Noah let out a dove, but it “could not find a resting place for its foot” (l’kaf ragla) ( Gen. 8: 9).
Raglayim is also used metaphorically. Tables, for example, have “feet.” After the Exodus, God told Moses to ask the Israelites to set up a portable sanctuary, the Tabernacle, and, among other items, to build in it a table of acacia wood with four rings attached “to the four corners at its four legs” (arba’ raglav) (Ex. 25: 26). Even God has “feet.” When Moses and his entourage went up to Mt. Sinai, one biblical myth states, “they saw the God of Israel; under His feet (raglav) there was like the pavement of sapphire” (Ex. 24: 10; cf. Ps. 18: 10). During the medieval times, many philosophers rejected the idea of divine corporeality. Maimonides agreed with Onkelos (2nd cent. CE), the author of the Aramaic translation of the Bible, who rendered the 3rd pers. suffix as “its” (i.e., “its feet”), referring thus to God’s throne, and not to God’s feet.” Similarly, he adds, “God’s feet” in Zech 14: 4 refers to causation, namely, to “the wonders that will then become manifest at that place” (Guide, #28).
The psalmist spoke of the “foot (regel) of arrogance” (Ps. 36: 11) and of God laying the world under “the feet” (raglav) of human beings (Ps. 8:7), as symbol of domination. In the rabbinic period students “sat before the sages,” as a sign of respect. (See, Ethics of the Fathers, chap. 5: 15; Cf. Luke 10: 39 [“Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet”]; Acts 22: 3; Sitting “at the feet of teachers” is also mentioned in the Zohar 1/4a; 2/55b).
At times, “feet” refers, euphemistically, to “genitalia.” During the period of the Judges, the courtiers of the king Eglon of Moab thought that the king was “relieving himself (mesih et raglav, Judg. 3: 24) in the cool chamber,” when in reality he had already been killed by Ehud, the Benjaminite. (The verb mesih, from the root suh, literally means, to anoint oneself after washing). During the monarchy, an Assyrian representative insulted the Judean soldiers by saying that they “drink their urine” (me raglehem; literally, the water of their feet (II K. 18: 27). At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, among the curses listed as punishment for not observing the commandments, we are told that during a foreign invasion, each woman shall eat “the afterbirth that issues from between her legs” (miben ragleha)” (Deut. 28: 57). The prophet Ezekiel accuses the Judeans of copying the idolatrous ways of the gentiles by saying, you “spread your legs (raglayih) to every passerby, and you multiplied your harlotries” (Ezek. 16: 25).
Most likely this is also the kind of euphemism used in the following texts: In the book of Ruth, we are told that when Ruth met Boaz, her future husband, in the threshing floor, she “uncovered his feet (vategal margelotav) and lay down” (Ruth 3: 7). While some scholars claim that she slept chastely, others more convincingly argue that she actually had sex with him. Similarly, during the period of the Judges, when Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, drove a tent peg through the skull of Sisera, the Canaanite general, the poet says, “between her feet (ben ragleha) he sank” (Judg. 5: 27). Some scholars think the general died after she slept with him. More problematic is the case of the circumcision of Moses’ son. In an obscure passage, we are told that on the way down to Egypt, God tried to kill “him” (Moses? or, Gershom, his son?). So, “Zipporah [Moses’ wife] took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his (whose?) leg (raglav)with it” (Ex. 4: 25). One biblical scholar maintains that Zipporah took the bloody piece of skin that she had removed from her son’s penis and touched Moses’ “feet” (that is, Moses’ penis) in order to save her husband’s life by “tricking the homicidal deity into thinking that Moses himself had just been circumcised” (M. Coogan).
The term “feet” may have also been euphemistically used to refer to the private parts of angelic divine beings. In his famous vision, the prophet Isaiah relates that he had seen seraphim (winged divine beings) attending God in the Jerusalem Temple. Each seraf, he added, had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his “legs” (raglav), and with two he would fly” (Isa. 6: 2). Were these seraphim covering their own genitals? G. B. Gray says, yes: “their feet, i.e., their nakedness.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible (2001) agrees: “Feet, genitals.”
Thus, a simple word, meaning “foot” in the Bible, may, by extension, refer to animals, objects, and even to God.
Rifat Sonsino
rsonsino@tbsneedham.org



1 comment:

  1. very interesting article. Thank you for this. Now, the passage about Ruth and Boaz makes a lot more sense. And also the vision of Isaiah. I always wondered why Seraphim had to cover their 'feet'.

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