Over at 5 minute Bible I’m putting up my latest podcast in the series trying to find examples of humour in every book of the (Hebrew) Bible, I’ve reached Amos. The example I chose comes from Amos 4:1. Where Amos talks to/about people he calls Bashan Cows. For a quick take on why I think it’s (meant to be) funny go there, here I’ll deal with the verse in more detail.
The image in the verse is rich in possible meaning. If we assume for the sake of simplicity that Amos is referring to the women of the elite of Samaria calling them Bashan Cows1 what does this mean?
In contemporary English to call a woman a “cow” is neither clever, smart or polite. Yet in ancient Israel there was probably no such rudeness. Cow might have intended:
- to ironically identify them as wives of the leaders (see King)
- as a term of endearment (Mays)
- to evoke agricultural imagery of sleek well-fed cattle (Mays)
- to identify them as devotees of Ba’al worship
- even to identify them as worshipers of YHWH represented in the royal sanctuaries of Israel as a bull calf
so the expression in itself is not rude. Calling those (their husbands?) from whom they order a drink “their lords” in any of these understandings suggests their arrogance. For cattle to demand a drink from their owners, or for women to treat their husbands as waiters (in a patriarchal society) is strikingly arrogant. For a worshiper to thus order a god would be to underline the depths to which their theology had sunk.
Yet none of this makes the image really funny. What does that (at least for certain readers) is to imagine these sleek well-fed mistresses of the elite as cattle, the congruity (the image “fits” descriptively)2 together with the incongruity (these arrogant people are like cows) causes laughter, and removes for a moment the cultural and social “superiority” of the targets of the speech.
- This is not always assumed, there are grounds for wondering if men were meant, but I think the use of paroh heifer/cow suggests the addressees are women and all the participles are feminine plurals, however the 3mp suffix on adon “their (mp) lords” does make a male reading of the “cows” possible. [↩]
- Again perhaps not in the affluent West, where the rich are slender, but in poorer cultures wealth and fatness are closely correlated. [↩]