God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Nabal the Fool

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Wikipedia, the source of all truth, says that Nabal in 1 Samuel 25:25 is “euphemistically translated as fool.” So far as I can tell, it’s always translated as fool or something similar. I can’t seem to find a dirty meaning for “nabal” anywhere. Is that because mainstream scholarship is too prudish or is Wikipedia talking nonsense?

I’ll complain about Wikipedia another time, for now just noting that I took a look at the article and I could find very little right about it.

I don’t think that “fool” is a euphemism here.

In general, it’s hard to know the exact nuances of works like naval, which is why we see translations that include “fool,” “simpleton,” etc. It looks like there are other, possibly related meanings for naval, too, including “sacrilegious person” (which may be why someone thought that “fool” is a euphemism). What’s clear, though, is that it is a derogatory term.

In I Samuel 25, “Nabal” is a person’s name, and the text even observes (25:25) that “he is just like his name,” then using the related n’vala (“disgrace”?) to describe him.

What’s most interesting about naval, though, is its possible connection to nevel, which is a musical instrument — probably a harp or a lyre. Both nevel and nabal come from the root N.B.L, which also gives us n’vela, “carcass” that’s not fit to eat; and n’vala, which we just saw.

Similarly, a “flute” is a chalil. It comes from the root Ch.L.L, and from the same root we get the verb chilel, “to profane”; chalila, “God forbid”; and halal, a slain person.

It might be coincidence, but it doesn’t look like it. Rather, it looks like the names of some musical instruments reflect a decidedly ambivalent attitude toward music.

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February 22, 2010 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. However, I think one would be a fool to make a connection to the human navel.

    But seriously, I sometimes wonder about the connection between rechem, rachumim, and rachumah. I’d assume there is no relevant connection between vulture and the other two words…

    Comment by Gary Simmons | February 23, 2010 | Reply

    • The issue of rechem (“womb”) and rachamim (“mercy,” “love,” etc.) comes up all the time, with some people — wrongly, in my opinion — claiming that because of the shared root r.ch.m, rachamim represents the mother-like way of caring about someone.

      I think this one is a coincidence.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 23, 2010 | Reply

  2. Thank you again.
    It’s possibly worth noting that “fiddle”, “pipe up” and “harp on” are all derogotary English terms. I don’t think any Israelite cultural peculiarity is required to look down on music. It’s simply that music doesn’t do anything materially useful and is therefore considered a frivolous passtime, unlike farming or war.
    One could theorise, from what you say, that the sense of Abigail’s comment MAY have been something equivalent to “Fiddle by name and fiddle by nature”.

    Comment by Mark | February 23, 2010 | Reply

    • Pipe up isn’t always derogatory, though. Sometimes it means to speak with the cheer/enthusiasm/energy of a child — which isn’t always inherently foolish. But yeah, you make a good point, and I wouldn’t want to fiddle with what you’re saying. Forgive me for harping on about it.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | February 23, 2010 | Reply


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