A Curse By Any Other Name - Torah portion Emor

The Torah employs a number of terms meaning "to curse," primary among them: qilel (קלל), arar (אראר), alah (אלה), and naqab/qabab (נקב/קבב). Two of these appear in this week's Torah portion, in a single verse:
וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מֹשֶׁה
"And the son of the Israelite woman cursed (or blasphemed, pronounced) the Name, and he cursed, and they brought him to Moses" (Lev 24:11)
The context is two men in an altercation, one of whom is said to have an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother (v. 10). In the course of the fight, this individual utters a curse involving "the name" (probably the name YHVH, see Rashi). Did he actually curse God, or did he merely use God's name in a curse? There are in fact strikingly similar Mesopotamian laws against pronouncing a deity's name in a curse against another person, specifically in the context of an altercation (see Milgrom, Anchor Leviticus Vol. III, pp. 2108-9). Our case however clearly refers to cursing God, as evidenced a few verses later:
אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יְקַלֵּל אֱ-לֹהָיו וְנָשָׂא חֶטְאוֹ
"Any man, if he curses his God, he will bear his sin" (Lev 24:15)
How do we understand the "curse" implied by the two verbs va-yiqov and vayqalel? First off, it should be said that there is disagreement as to whether va-yiqov in our verse even means "curse," and which root it stems from, naqab (נקב) or qabab (קבב). Whereas the root qabab always connotes cursing, naqab can mean 1) pierce/bore a hole, 2) designate/appoint, or 3) curse/blaspheme (see BDB Lexicon).

A note about Milgrom's translation

Jacob Milgrom assumes the root of va-yiqov to be naqab and translates it here as "pronounced," i.e. an act of verbal designation (Anchor Leviticus, Vol. III, pp. 2107-8). That is to say, the man in our verse pronounced the name YHVH (va-yiqov... et ha-shem) and subsequently cursed that name (vayqalel). Milgrom's reasoning is that when naqab is coupled with the word shem in the Bible (on six other occasions, Nu 1:17; 1 Chr 12:32, 16:41; 2 Chr 28:15, 31:19; Ez 8:20), it invariably means "designate." Plus, a similar Nabatean expression exists which also means designate. So the same meaning - verbally designate/pronounce - should hold true in our verse as well. Therefore va-yiqov here cannot mean curse.

However, Milgrom's reasoning can be contested on the following grounds:

1) Without exception, all other instances of naqab + shem use the same precise expression, niqvu be-shemot, which is not the case in our verse.

     a) The other instances have the formulation "naqab + be-shem," pronouncing or designating "in the name." (Even the Nabatean expression uses the "b" prefix.) Our verse however has "naqab + et ha-shem," and whether we wish to translate et as "to" or "with," it is a different formulation.

     b) In addition to the difference in prepositions, the verb itself, va-yiqov, is conjugated differently than niqvu, the form used in all six biblical verses containing the expression.

     c) The phrase niqvu be-shemot is always presented as a single unit; in our verse the two words naqab and shem are separated by four intervening words.

2) V. 16 states that the "noqev shem YHVH" shall be put to death. If noqev indicates one who "pronounces," there should be no death penalty for merely uttering the name. Rather, the verse should have referred to the "meqalel shem YHVH," the one who "curses" the name, as being deserving of such a punishment.

So it seems to me entirely reasonable to dissociate the instance of naqab + shem found in our verse from other instances in the Bible, counter to Milgrom's proposal, and therefore to maintain that va-yiqov can in fact mean "curse." But what sort of curse does it convey?

Examining the literal to understand the metaphor

The one other instance of va-yiqov in the Bible (2 Ki 12:9) refers to boring a hole, i.e. the root naqab. So it is arguable that va-yiqov in our verse also stems from naqab. Again, naqab sometimes means to physically pierce, in the literal sense, and at other times it means to designate or to curse, employing the act of piercing as a metaphor.

Could va-yiqov here possibly be speaking literally? That seems unlikely. Unless we were to believe that the man in our verse had a piece of parchment with the name YHVH written on it and literally "pierced the name," we need to understand "va-yiqov... et ha-shem" in the idiomatic, metaphorical sense. In that case, we might ask: What characteristics of "piercing" are being borrowed in order to understand va-yiqov metaphorically as a curse? When the verb naqab is used in the Bible to convey physically piercing something, it can refer to:
  1. An act of destruction or injury, as in piercing the hand (2 Ki 18:21, Is 36:6) or impaling the enemy (Hab 3:13, parallel to מחץ, to strike).
  2. Having/creating holes, either for use (2 Ki 12:9) or implying lack of physical integrity (Hag 1:6); this is also arguably the anatomical connotation of נקבה, female.
  3. Subjugating or subduing an animal, by piercing it through the nose (Job 40:24) or piercing a fish with a hook (Job 41:2).
So even within the literal sense of piercing, we can identify at least three different aspects of that act onto which to hang a metaphor. Let's consider each of these individually.

To destroy someone by impaling them, running them through, certainly sounds like an apt metaphor for cursing. It would be something like our metaphorical use of the term "eviscerate" to imply destroying someone with a particularly forceful argument. Then again, would not ḥarav (חרב, "slay") have afforded an equally suitable metaphor? Why naqab over ḥarav?

Putting a hole in something so as to weaken its integrity, induce leakage, might also work as a metaphor for cursing. The verb va-yiqov could imply puncturing something and draining its life force. However, the verb ḥilel (חלל, "profane," related to ḥalal, "corpse") also implies draining the life force, and in fact the Torah uses ḥilel specifically when it comes to damaging the name YHVH (e.g. Lev 21:6). So why naqab and not ḥilel?

How about subjugating or subduing an animal as a metaphor for cursing? In biblical use, it turns out that piercing an animal's nose, and idea of "tagging" an animal, has an overwhelmingly positive (or at the very least, neutral) connotation when applied as a metaphor. It conveys not subjugation but rather selection or designation, as in:
  • Designating a salary (Gen 30:28)
  • The appointment of people to positions of importance and responsibility (Is 62:2, and the six instances of niqvu be-shemot)
  • A person of distinction/designation (Am 6:1)
(The "designation" or "marking" connotation of naqab makes for an interesting parallel to the words hiqdish and qodesh, which also imply earmarking or designating; a subject for a separate inquiry.)

To be clear, the above caveats do not necessarily rule out destruction, draining, or subjugation as the characteristic of piercing being borrowed by va-yiqov when connoting a curse. But I would like to offer another possibility for understanding the metaphor, one which also connects naqab with qilel.

Curse as diminution, blessing as expanse

A device used to lance or pierce is necessarily wider along the shaft and narrower at the tip. This is for reasons of simple physics: The moderate force one applies across the wide end of the shaft becomes concentrated at the narrow tip, making the force sufficient to impale. Similarly, the act of impaling involves taking a wide potential target area and narrowing in, choosing a specific point of impact. This relates to the metaphor "designate," which is a movement from wide to narrow, from the set of all possibilities to the specific choice made. When narrowing down is thought of in terms of "designation," the biblical connotation is positive. However, narrowing by definition also implies limiting, confining, closing in, closing off possibility, and perhaps that is the aspect of piercing to which naqab as a "curse" refers.

Indeed the other term for "curse" in our verse, qilel, has a similar connotation. The root quf-lamed-lamed also has a literal meaning, namely: "diminishing," "lessening," "abating," as in flood waters physically withdrawing (Gen 8:8, 8:11), and similarly "lightening," "easing up" of weight or force (1 Sam 17:43, 1 Ki 12:10). That then feeds into the metaphorical usage of being "light" on one's feet (i.e. fast, 2 Sam 1:23), or treating a person or matter "lightly" (dishonorably, Gen 16:4-5, 2 Sam 19:43; trivially, 1 Ki 16:31, 2 Ki 3:18). Then of course we have qilel, which means curse in the sense of causing intense dishonor. But if we go back to the literal meaning, the curse implied by qilel is one of lessening, atrophying, growing smaller. The large-to-small movement of qilel then parallels the wide-to-narrow movement of naqab.

To be cursed is to become diminished - in size, stature or power. To bless is precisely the opposite. The verb barakh connotes expansion, proliferation, widening, becoming greater, larger, as in multiplying and filling the earth (Gen 1:22, 28), or becoming as numerous as the stars in the heavens (Gen 15:5, Gen 22:17, 26:4; Ex 32:13). The movement of barakh, in contradistinction to naqab and qilel, is narrow-to-wide, small-to-large.

Going back once again to our original verse, we can perhaps understand va-yiqov... et ha-shem, "cursing the name," as carrying both the destructive connotation of impaling, as well as the diminutive connotation of narrowing, confining. To curse the "name" of YHVH is to attempt to destroy God's reputation and legacy by diminishing it, as if to say, "May YHVH's power and influence atrophy." To say "barukh ha-shem," by contrast, is to amplify God's legacy, to wish for it to expand, proliferate, and thereby exert a greater influence in the world.

Special thanks to Professor Ed Greenstein of Bar-Ilan University, whose online lecture on metaphor in the Bible contributed greatly to this post.