Wibble Wednesday: Hapax legomena (Judges 3:31)

I admit it. This one’s kind of a joke. But if you go through the heroes of Judges one at a time, this is what happens.

Short snarky summary: Shamgar, son of Anath, slays six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad. He too is a champion of Israel.

The stories in Judges are variable in length and tell all sorts of mythos. Gideon’s tale, which confronts in particulars the nature of Israel’s idolworship, goes on for four chapters, including the epilogue with his fractious children. Samson, who is probably the best-known of the Judges, also gets four chapters. A lot of the Judges get less. Some of them only get a passing mention. Shamgar, alas, is one of those, and his story is astonishingly, tantalizingly short. Thirteen words in Hebrew, and not much more in English. The several translations of this line are remarkably uniform as well: “Next was Shamgar, son of Anath, who killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad, and also saved Israel.” And that’s all we get storywise. The most common variations on this in translation are what those last three words of Hebrew come out to, but they range from “He too was a champion of Israel” to “He also saved Israel”, but there’s not much interpretational latitude there.

The unanimity of the translation is a bit peculiar, because we are not actually 100% certain about the identity of that weapon, which is almost universally identified as an “oxgoad” or variant thereof (the Douay-Rheims bible has the almost certainly erroneous translation “ploughshare”; the NIRV, overexplaining a bit much, has “a large, pointed stick that was used to drive oxen”, and The message, which one hadly expects literalism from, says “cattle prod”). His weapon, in the original, is a בקר מלמד. The word בקר is ridiculously common; it’s got cognates in modern Hebrew and Arabic, and means “cow”. It’s מלמד that causes trouble. This word is what is technically known as a hapax legomenon, a grand Greek term for a word only seen once in a work—or, as in this case, in a language. We do not see this word anywhere in ancient Hebrew sources except in this one place. I’m not sure it’s even got known cognates. The presumption that it’s an oxherding tool is based pretty much entirely on the nearby presence of a cow and its use as a weapon, which kind of limits the possibilities, together with what we know of Near East animal husbandry. For all we know, Shamgar was totally beating up Philistines with a cow femur.

But it’s fitting that this hero would be armed with a hapax legomenon, as Shamgar is very nearly a hapax legomenon himself. He’ll get mentioned again, giving slightly more context, in a few chapters, but he remains a tantalizing mystery in hus vagueness and peculiar choice of weapon. We kind of have to focus on the weapon, because there’s not a whole hell of a lot else to say about him. We don’t even know his tribe.

Of course, everyone likes to spin out a Bible story a bit. I don’ think there’s any Midrashic expansion on the tale of Shamgar, but there’s plenty of fanart, including a Westphalian illuminated manuscript, an etching in the 1890 Holman Bible, the ubiquitous Brick Testament reenactment, and a comic strip. I guess that before Blaise Zabini came along fanfiction/fanart types had to find their obscure, minor characters to imbue with unwarranted significance in the Bible instead.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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