Make No Bones About It

The Bible in the News

As published in the March/April 2013 issue of BAR

Leonard Greenspoon

Leonard J. Greenspoon.

Recently in my Advanced Greek class at Creighton University we were reading portions of the Samson story from the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). For some reason, this reminded me that I haven’t drawn any expressions from this tale since I wrote about Delilah.* How about, I asked myself, a column on “the jawbone of an ass” (Judges 15:16)?

Psychoanalysts have had a field day with Samson. With specific reference to our chosen expression, he has been diagnosed with “impulsive behaviour—picking fights with passing Philistine armies, once using the jawbone of an ass singlehandedly to kill a thousand men [after which] he gloated over it, showing no remorse” (The Express and The Daily Telegraph). On the basis of this and other incidents, he is described as “reckless, aggressive and clearly dysfunctional” (The Guardian). Moreover, “his choice of weapon—the jawbone of an ass—also fits the criterion of ‘cruelty to animals’ ” (The Washington Times). Perhaps this psychoanalysis-at-a-great-distance should be characterized as cruelty—to serious readers of the Biblical text, that is.

I take no pleasure (well, maybe a wee bit of pleasure) in finding errors of Biblical accounts by those who write for the popular press. I thought I had hit something of a mother lode when I located three different stories (the first from Canada’s Globe and Mail and the other two from Sydney, Australia’s Daily Telegraph) that all seemed to make the same mistake: “Cain killed Abel with the jawbone of an ass,” “Cain took the jawbone of an ass and slayed his brother Abel,” and “Cain picked up the jawbone of an ass, and belted his brother Abel so hard that not even the paramedics could bring him back.” That’s not in any version of Genesis I’ve ever seen, I thought smugly. Then, as if to raise the status of newspaper writers, an account in London’s Times provided this learned observation: “In medieval imagery and texts, Cain is frequently portrayed as beating Abel with the jawbone of an ass.” Rather than showing ignorance, these reporters had demonstrated erudition of a particularly impressive sort! Or had they?

Speaking of politics (how’s that for a segue?), we learn that current verbal give-and-take “is pretty mild stuff in the long and honourable annals of heckling. What a far cry from the days when former President Richard Nixon told a heckler: ‘The jawbone of an ass is just as dangerous as it was in Samson’s time’ ” (Birmingham Post).

For more than a dozen years, Leonard J. Greenspoon’s “The Bible in the News” column has been one of the most popular sections of Bible Review and Biblical Archaeology Review. A new volume, developed exclusively for eReaders, this book brings together all of Greenspoon’s “The Bible in the News” articles and columns into a single collection, beginning with his August 2000 feature article “Extra! Extra! Philistines in the Newsroom!” until his recent column in the November/December 2012 issue of BAR.
Read more here >>

From stories in The New York Times and The Independent, we hear of the “quijada, the percussion instrument made from the jawbone of an ass.” I would love to hear the quijada, especially if it accompanied the famous Carmen Miranda, who is mentioned in the second of these articles.

London’s Sunday Times supplies us with these nuggets of religious history: “In the past, relics have proved problematic. At one point there were more than three heads of John the Baptist in churches across Europe. While during the Reformation, Martin Luther claimed the bone of one saint, enshrined in a German church, was the jawbone of an ass.” Did Luther specify that this was the very jawbone used by Samson?

And, finally, “Let’s have a show of hands. How many of you hate the commercialization of” the winter holidays? Certainly, the author of a feature in Florida’s St. Petersburg Times counts herself among those who would immediately raise her hand (or hands): “A few things about our holiday customs are over the line. I don’t mind shopping, but I hate canned music. By Dec. 23, I’m ready to seize the jawbone of an ass and run amok through Wal-Mart, taking out giggling Elmos and loud-mouthed teddy bears. I want a piece of the accursed little drummer boy who keeps rum-tum-tumming at me.”

Okay, let’s have a show of hands. How many of you hate (or just plain don’t like) my BAR column? If that same reporter raises her hands, I’m hiding under my computer table and taking no hostages!


* Jots and Tittles: “The Bible in the News,” Bible Review 18:05.

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6 Responses

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  1. Bill says

    I appears that many journalists read each other much more than they read primary sources. That may be why many errors are repeated over and over. It is really hard to stomach many of these “professionals”. The more I know the less I read them. Have you ever been interviewed by a reporter? Better get ready to dumb it way down. If you use any literary allusions get ready for a blank stare.
    You seem to derive as much delight as distress at their ignorance. Good for you. I’m still working on that.

  2. JAllan says

    But where did the medieval artists get the idea that Cain, rather than Samson, used the jawbone of an ass as a murder weapon? Medieval Europeans were ignorant of many details of Biblical life, and the artists were often working from memory, since only priests could actually READ the Bible. The artists probably had heard both stories and mixed them up (but they had the excuse of not being ABLE to refer to the source; today’s news media do not have that excuse.

    The most humorous example of medieval Biblical naivete, in my mind, is the traditional carol of the Three Ships. The second stanza refers to the ships “sailing into Bethlehem”, which is amusing since Bethlehem is in the mountains, near Jerusalem. Only an alien SPACE ship, or a camel (ship of the desert) could get anywhere near Bethlehem!

    But I digress. I was hoping the column would have some new tidbit of linguistic knowledge about the translation of the phrase, such as “the Hebrew ‘jawbone of an ass’ actually refers to a lyre frame” or something similar. Since nothing like this was mentioned, I assume that the Hebrew words WERE accurately translated into Greek, Latin and English, and LITERALLY mean the jawbone of an ass (not a horse or sheep).

    Anyway, psychoanalysts need to remember the cultural setting. Samson showed no remorse over the killing of 1000 Philistines because they were the enemy in wartime! The Biblical writers used this story to PRAISE Samson’s courage, if not his good judgement in picking battles. The common sense “analysis” of his character is of a brave and patriotic Israelite soldier, with poor judgement that led him to marry, or at least romance, two women of the enemy, and failed to guard his secret (Loose Lips Clip Locks). But his heart was loyal, and God found a way for him to redeem himself in the end. And as far as I know, Samson was the first “suicide bomber” in history. Does anyone know of an earlier one, Biblical or not?

  3. Jack says

    Mr. Greenspoon,

    Have you ever seen Gaetano Gandolfi’s “Cain Killing Abel?” It is a piece from the mid 17th century. Cain is clearly depicted as holding the jawbone of an ass.

    Meister Bertram fashioned a Grabow Altarpiece in 1383, guess what it depicts?

    Jan Van Eyk carved an altarpiece with this scene as well in 1432.

    Mind you there are myriad other depictions. Axes, swords, scythes, rocks, clubs, branches are all drawn, painted, carved, and interpreted into these scenes. All are in an attempt to visualize what is an otherwise undescribed scene. Genesis 4:8 simply says that Cain took him out into the field and killed Abel. “harag” is the word used. Cain struck Abel with deadly intent. But with what? What instrument did he use?

    Anytime an artist sets out to capture that moment when, as prototypes of all humanity, Cain allowed his anger to overtake him and bad thinking gave birth to bad action, that artist must give a visual depiction of an instrument of some kind. The use of a murder weapon in the visual representation of the event lends credulity to the art. The viewer receives the feeling of malice and intent to kill when seeing Cain with a weapon. Therefore the artist must make a decision. What weapon did Cain use?

    Newswriters are guilty of knowing more about art than the Bible. Who would have thought any different?

  4. Grant says

    Given that, according to Genesis, metal tools are first made in 4:22 the artists probably assumed that Cain only had the choice of wood, stone, or bone. Perhaps they thought bone the most appropriate because the whole dispute was over animal sacrifices? “You like dead animals? I’ll give you one, brother!”

  5. Mario says

    I had a jawbone of a laugh reading your article. Thank you.

  6. Axel says

    Jack said:
    But with what? What instrument did he use?

    The Midrash gives a detailed account. Abel was the first human ever to be killed and also the first human ever to die at all. Cain had no idea what life depended on and what would make it stop and he had to try several ways before finally finding one that worked.

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