Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Chamberpot Story (I)

It so happened that my most recent reading came from one of those Old Testament books that many claim not to be interested in. This was the First Book of the Kings, and the section I was reading was the enthralling tale of Jeroboam son of Nebat. This extremely hard-working and talented king was a bad hat through and through, successor to that tragic Solomon who was once the wisest man in the world.

The account was a dire one, but it had me in stitches, because it is one of the many parts of the Bible which displays a pithy sense of humour. Here I shall recount some of the choicest lines.

The Beginning (11:28-11:32)
, in which a prophet gives a parenthetical example of divine sentimentality:

"And the man Jeroboam was a mighty man of valour: and Solomon seeing the young man that he was industrious, he made him ruler over all the charge of the house of Joseph. And it came to pass at that time when Jeroboam went out of Jerusalem, that the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite found him in the way; and he had clad himself with a new garment; and they two were alone in the field: And Ahijah caught the new garment that was on him, and rent it in twelve pieces:

"And he said to Jeroboam, 'Take thee ten pieces: for thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to thee: (But he shall have one tribe for my servant David's sake, and for Jerusalem's sake, the city which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel.)' "

The Idolatry (12:27-31)
, in which Jeroboam decides to distract the people with two idols so that they won't go to his rival Rehoboam:

"If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah. Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, 'It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.'

"And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan. And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan. And he made an house of high places, and made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not of the sons of Levi."

The Whistleblower and the Cronies (13:1-34)
, which I shall not quote verbatim but summarise — a prophet tells Jeroboam that his priests (see last section) would be destroyed; Jeroboam lays hands on the prophet and his hand withers up; the prophet prays for Jeroboam and Jeroboam is healed; another prophet says that nevertheless, these prophesies will come to pass, and yet (v33)...

"After this thing Jeroboam returned not from his evil way, but made again of the lowest of the people priests of the high places: whosoever would, he consecrated him, and he became one of the priests of the high places."

The Doom (14:7-10)
, in which the prophet Ahijah has some remarkably pungent lines:

" 'Go, tell Jeroboam, 'Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, 'Forasmuch as I exalted thee from among the people, and made thee prince over my people Israel, and rent the kingdom away from the house of David, and gave it thee: and yet thou hast not been as my servant David, who kept my commandments, and who followed me with all his heart, to do that only which was right in mine eyes; but hast done evil above all that were before thee;

'For thou hast gone and made thee other gods, and molten images, to provoke me to anger, and hast cast me behind thy back: therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.' ' ' "

It's a remarkable story, with a truly interesting linguistic sequel. The word 'Jeroboam' later (c. 1816) became a word describing an oversized wine-bottle; that is, a 3-litre bottle of champagne or Burgundy, 4.5 litres if Bordeaux. In 1827, the word became slang for 'chamberpot', because of the large capacity involved. 'Jeroboam' got shortened to 'Jerry', and the word 'Jerry-can' was used to mean a large water container with a capacity of about 20 litres or so. Compare the history of the word 'Jeroboam' with the doom of the king, and you get the feeling that slang-merchants used to be a very educated lot.

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