Trash talking

“I Will Strike You Down and Cut off Your Head”

If you are into trash talking, you may want to check out my recently published article,

” ‘I Will Strike You down and Cut off Your Head’ (1 Samuel 17:42) Trash Talking, Derogatory Rhetoric, and Psychological Warfare in Ancient Israel.”

It just appeared in a collection of essays entitled,

Warfare, Ritual, and Symbol in Biblical and Modern Contexts, edited by Brad Kelle, Frank Ames and Jacob Wright, from SBL (June, 2014)

Who trash talks in the Bible?  David, Goliath, Elijah, Jezebel, Jehu, the Rabshakeh, and even Yahweh himself.  David is the one who promises to “cut off” the head of his opponent Goliath from the title.

So, is it OK, or even good to trash talk?  Do you trash talk?  Should we trash talk today?  

I also have a series of nine blogs about OT trash talking (click here).

I begin with Shakespeare’s Henry V, then move quickly to John Cleese’s French knight in The Holy Grail (how often do you encounter Monty Python in academic works?) before working through examples in literature of the ancient Near East and the Bible.

I really like some of the section titles,

1) Introduction
2) Insults, Boasts and Predictions
3) Trash-Talk Research
4) Bulls and Birds, Falcons and Foxes: Trash Talking in the ANE
5) Flailing Flesh and Smoldering Stumps: Trash Talking in the Hebrew Bible
6) Canine Consumption: Elijah, Jezebel, Jehu, and Others
7) Eating Dung and Drinking Urine: The Rabshaheh, Hezekiah, and YHWH
8) Lions, Bears, and Dogs: David and the Philistine
9) Biomorphic and Zoomorphic, Scatological and Theological

I first gave an earlier draft of this in Oxford in July 2008, but many of the scholars weren’t familiar with the term “trash talking”, instead they spoke of “sledging” which is apparently what taunt speech is often called in cricket.

Other contributors to the volume include the three editors, as well as,
Saul M. Olyan
Nathaniel B Levtow
Thomas Römer
Kelly J. Murphy
Deborah O’Daniel Cantrell
Rüdiger Schmitt
Mark S. Smith
Susan Niditch
Jason A. Riley
T. M. Lemos

Where else do we find trash talking in the Bible?

Taunting and the Love of God (Psalm 119:42)

Then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me,
for I trust in your word
(Psalm 119:42).

Someone has been taunting the psalmist.  Sounds like more biblical trash-talking (under Categories, see posts on Trash Talking, my favorite: Canine Blood Lickers, Avian Flesh Pickers).

The “Then” at the beginning of this verse ties it back to the last one, so when YHWH’s steadfast love and salvation come to the psalmist (119:41), “then” he’ll have an answer to the taunt.

How does one answer a taunt?  With a taunt (this is the Old Testament, none of that “turning-the-other cheek” stuff here).  How does this sound as a counter-taunt: “God loves me and saves me, so there“?  It sounds a bit strange, but it’s good to be able to state boldly what we know about God and the status of our relationship with God.

Taunts are meant to belittle and discourage.  The fact that God loves me and saves me should give me confidence.

The end of verse 42 is the key for these first two verses of the Vav section (119:41-48, where all verses begin with the 6th letter of the Hebrew alphabet…yes, you guessed it…Vav) The psalmist trusts in God’s word.  And because of this trust, the psalmist is confident that he will have appropriate counter-taunts involving God’s love and God’s salvation to verbally defeat his opponent.

The psalmist knows that God’s word is reliable and trustworthy.  And not just for taunting.

God, give us confidence in your word, your love and your salvation to overcome discouragement. 

How can we use God’s word, God’s love and God’s salvation to overcome taunts or discouragements? 

Image from

Clash of the Titans (1 Samuel 5)

The Israelites had just lost a battle to the Philistines, so they came up with the brilliant idea to get the Ark of the Covenant for the next battle (1 Samuel 4).  Surely, if they had the ark with them, they couldn’t lose.  (That’s what Hitler thought, according to the definitive source on these matters, Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

When the ark is brought into camp, the Israelites celebrate so vociferously, the Philistines hear the noise and panic when they realize Israel has the Ark of YHWH, the God who defeated Egypt.  (Apparently, they share Hitler’s perspective on the ark.)  The Philistines overcome their fear, defeat Israel and capture the Ark as a prize of victory.  It appears that the Philistine god, Dagon, is stronger than YHWH.  Clash of the Titans round 1 winner: Dagon. 

The Philistines decide to set up the ark next to Dagon in Dagon’s house (1 Samuel 5).  But YHWH doesn’t prove to be a nice guest.  The next morning Dagon has fallen over, face down, on the ground, before YHWH.  Dagon apparently lost and had to do homage.  Clash of the Titans round 2 winner: YHWH. 

Dagon’s servants set him back up next to YHWH, thinking surely YHWH will be a better guest this time.  Unfortunately for Dagon, that’s not the case.  The next morning, Dagon has taken a beating.  Like last time: facedown, on the ground, before YHWH.  This time, however, he’s lost his head and hands.  YHWH decided to send a message.  Don’t mess with me.  Clash of the Titans round 3 winner: YHWH.

Three points to make.  First, the text doesn’t tell us explicitly that YHWH knocked Dagon down, but merely suggests it.  Subtlety can be more powerful than clarity.  Show, don’t tell.

Second, this story is funny.  And people think the Bible doesn’t contain humor…

Third, the God of the Bible will tolerate no rivals.  (I don’t actually think YHWH actually lost in the first round–he was punishing his people.)

How does God humiliate his rivals elsewhere in the Bible?  How does he do it today?

Image of Dagon from Wikipedia (Dagon, the fish-god looks like a Weeble, he’ll wobble, but he won’t fall down?)

Behaving Badly at Bucknell 2

Judging by the comments to my last blog, some people felt like I behaved badly at Bucknell.  (And I thought the title was a joke.)  But people love controversy so my previous blog set a record for daily hits.

To the atheists at Bucknell: I am surprised that you read my last blog.  Thanks for engaging and contributing to a record.  Thanks also for coming on Monday night and asking questions.  Thanks to those of you who commented to my blog.  (Unfortunately, I had to remove two of the harshest comments from an anonymous person–if comments don’t have a real name and are harsh, they disappear.  Notice I kept Sheldon’s.)  Most of my blogs get no comments.  The last one got 6.

Here are some of my responses to comments:

To Sheldon (“While you are praying for us, I will think critically for both of us.”).  I don’t know if we met personally on Monday, but I’m sorry if you felt like I wasn’t thinking critically.  If that were really the case, and I were you, I would have left the talk after a couple of minutes.  If you are a non-theist, I assume you don’t care whether or not I pray to a being that you believe doesn’t exist.  As a theist, I believe that praying is the most loving thing I can do for someone.

To Apathetic: I like the Harry Potter and evilness of Snape analogy.  I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion.  So did I.

To Intrigued: I also wish we had more time to discuss the Old Testament and problematic stories.  Much of the discussion focused on philosophy and religion generally.  Those are not my areas of expertise, and I never claimed that to be the case.  The Bible, the Old Testament, and problematic passages, those are my areas.  I would have loved to talk more about them.  But that wasn’t what the atheists wanted to discuss, which is surprising to me because Richard Dawkins talks about the OT a lot.

To Miffed: I’m sorry you felt like I gave no answers.  If you re-read my initial post, you’ll notice I put “answers” in quotes.  If I did it over, I wouldn’t call it questions and answers, but perhaps questions and more questions, or questions and responses.  If you were expecting me to give satisfactory answers to questions that atheists and theists have been debating for thousands of years, I think that’s unrealistic.  There were 150 people in that room, about 20 questions were posed, many people didn’t get to talk who wanted to.  I was trying to be brief in my comments, so as many as possible could ask or comment.  And yet I repeatedly called upon the row of non-theists, ignoring other people’s raised hands.  I even asked the non-theists questions, giving them more opportunities to talk.

If the non-theists were frustrated by my brief responses or questions, I can understand.  When I emailed Richard Dawkins with a reasonable question, he give me no response, not even an automatic email reply, despite the fact that I am an Oxford alum and have personal connections to his college, Christ Church.

My friend Jesse North, InterVarsity staff at Bucknell shared this quote with me, which I think is relevant.  Cornell West: “People cannot live on arguments. They might be influenced by them…but they live on love, care, respect, touch, and so forth.”