Before you say a word…

According to the biblical wisdom traditions, one of the characteristics of wisdom is knowing when to speak and when to keep your mouth firmly closed (see, for example, Proverbs 15:2, 7). In a week where we have had ample illustration of the human capacity to eschew this advice and make ignorant and ill-considered comments, my thoughts have turned to certain biblical characters whose own ‘off the cuff’ remarks had disastrous results, either for themselves or for those unfortunate enough to be caught up in the effects of their verbal folly. For your reading pleasure, I have therefore listed below, in no particular order, my own top three biblical cases of some serious ‘foot in mouth’ disease:

  1. Jephthah (Judges 11)

    Jephthah’s sacrifice, Maciejowski Bible

Our first biblical character is perhaps the perfect exemplar of why the saying, ‘think before you speak’ really is sound advice. During the heady adrenalin rush of battling against Israel’s enemy the Amonites, Jephthah opened his mouth to make a calamitously rash vow; that he would offer up as a burnt sacrifice whatever or whoever came out of his house to greet him on his return home. Alas for him, the ‘whoever’ happened to be his only daughter, who ran out to meet him, dancing and timbrel playing in celebration of his homecoming. Jephthah, naturally, was distraught, although any sympathy we may have mustered for him at this point is tempered by the fact that he seems to impute some degree of blame on his daughter for the debacle before stubbornly refusing to go back on his injudicious word. Perhaps he should have taken a leaf out of the book of Micah’s mother, who, later in Judges 17, appears to laugh off a curse she had uttered earlier against the thief who stole her silver, which would have seen the demise of her light-fingered son. Perhaps, too, Jepthah’s ill-fated daughter should have been a little less understanding of her father’s inopportune vow and made her escape during her two months spent in the mountains bewailing her virginity, rather than returning home, like the archetypal ‘obedient daughter’, to become a sacrifice to her father’s stupidity.

  1. 2.      Adam (Genesis 3)

    Zampieri, Adam et Eve

In the story of the ‘Fall’, Adam’s initial wrongdoing, along with that of his wife, revolves around what he puts in his mouth, rather than any words that come out of it. However, the consequences of his initial verbal response to God’s charge of disobedience (3:12) have unarguably reverberated throughout millennia, spawning a plethora of misogynistic and ill-informed attitudes concerning the character of Eve and, by extension, shaping attitudes and ideologies about women in general. When God asks Adam if he had disobeyed the divine command by eating the forbidden fruit, Adam shrugs off responsibility for his wrongdoing and, with a quick rejoinder of ‘She made me do it!’ shifts the blame fully and firmly onto his wife. And thus follows centuries of analogous remarks made by those who take the character of Adam’s words at face value; about women being the ‘Devil’s gateway’ (Tertullian), the source of sin and death (Ben Sira), ‘imitators’ of the temptress Eve, and thereby ‘imperfect and lustful beings who posed grave danger to men’ (15th Century document on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, which argued that most witches were women because women were, like Eve, particularly susceptible to temptation). What is especially irksome and inequitable about these ghastly responses is the fact that Eve’s own similar attempt to shift the blame onto the serpent (3:13) didn’t work half so well as her husband’s. The reputation of talking snakes has, over the centuries, remained unsullied.

  1. 3.      God and The Adversary (Job 1-2)
‘Does Job fear God for naught?’ (Job 1:9)

As was amply illustrated in number 1 above, sometimes the words of one biblical character can have a shattering effect upon other characters who are unfortunate enough to come into their sphere of influence. This is demonstrated clearly in the prologue to the book of Job, where God and the Adversary, a member of the divine council, are portrayed as engaging in some verbal parrying, thereby unleashing a series of events which rip devastatingly through the lives of one man and his family. In Job 1, God is portrayed as boasting rather smugly to the Adversary about the righteousness of his servant Job. This is simply too good an opportunity to miss for a ‘son of the gods’ whose main role is to wander the earth, looking for potential chinks and weak spots in humanity’s faith. After casting doubt on Job’s fidelity to God and accusing the deity of mollycoddling this particular ‘servant’, the Adversary lays down a challenge that God appears to find irresistible. Before we know it, the storyteller informs us that Job’s household and wealth are taken violently from him and his offspring lie dead.

William Blake, ‘You scare me with dreams’ (Job 7:14)

Even worse, in chapter 2, the same dubious cycle begins again, with a divine boast and adversarial riposte leading to Job’s infliction with a serious and debilitating skin disease. And all, as God himself admits, ‘without cause’ (2:3). It’s an unsettling story, which again drives home the dangerous power of the spoken word. While Job’s own words, in which he rails against the injustices of the divine realm, do ultimately redeem him (42:7), it is perhaps cold comfort given everything that he has lost and endured, all because of a heavenly wager, which, to my mind, went way too far.

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