Gouging Out the Wool Over Their Eyes

Bottichelli painting of Moses, Korah

Gouging Out the Wool Over Their Eyes
Numbers 16:14

Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up. (KJV)

Bible translators must deal with original language idioms which do not necessarily transfer to English when using word-for-word translation methods. In some cases, these idioms do not necessarily have replacement idioms in English.

And sometimes we wonder if these “idioms” really are idioms. We offer here an expression in Hebrew which is most likely an idiom, but where we retain some wonder whether it might have been meant with face value.

wilt thou put out the eyes

Our phrase comes in Numbers 16:14, where the words in the Hebrew (and many English translations) present a claim by Moses’ Hebrew detractors that he might gouge out their eyes. Is this an idiom?

Let’s start with the Hebrew:

אַ֡ף לֹ֣א אֶל־אֶרֶץ֩ זָבַ֨ת חָלָ֤ב וּדְבַשׁ֙ הֲבִ֣יאֹתָ֔נוּ וַתִּ֨תֶּן־לָ֔נוּ נַחֲלַ֖ת שָׂדֶ֣ה וָכָ֑רֶם הַעֵינֵ֞י הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָהֵ֛ם תְּנַקֵּ֖ר לֹ֥א נַעֲלֶֽה׃
(BHS)

which reads in raw form something like this:

indeed not to land gushing-of milk and+honey you-brought+us and you-are-giving to+us allotment-of field and+vineyard ? eyes-of the+mortals the+they you-are-gouging-out not we-shall-come-up (Scripture4All CHES)

(As we at Bible Bits are not in any way competent at Hebrew translation, we are amazed that anybody can turn this into English.)

The King James, NASB, Holman CSB, and Berean represent those which follow the Hebrew plain wording:

Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, or given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up. (KJV)

Indeed, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up! (NASB)

Furthermore, you didn’t bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey or give us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you gouge out the eyes of these men? We will not come!” (Holman CSB)

Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you gouge out the eyes of these men? No, we will not come! (Berean)

Other translations — especially those following thought-for-thought and paraphrase translation principles — abandon the words and convert the literal poking and gouging into their clearer English meaning:

What’s more, you haven’t brought us into another land flowing with milk and honey. You haven’t given us a new homeland with fields and vineyards. Are you trying to fool these men? We will not come. (NLT)

You keep promising us rich farmlands with fertile fields and vineyards–but where are they? Stop trying to trick these people. No, we won’t come to see you. (CEV)

You certainly have not brought us into a fertile land or given us fields and vineyards as our possession, and now you are trying to deceive us. We will not come! (GNT)

What is more, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us fields and vineyards to inherit. Do you think you can hoodwink men like us? We are not coming. (NEB)

But these don’t yet turn Hebrew idiom into English idiom. God’s Word Translation finally make this happen:

Certainly you haven’t brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us any fields and vineyards to own. Do you think you can still pull the wool over our eyes? We won’t come. (GWT)

In the meantime, we still have some (very small) lingering doubt that the gouging threat was idiom to begin with. Can you find interpretation sources arguing that Moses’ detractors might have serious fears of this violent punishment?

It is certainly true that the detractors are blind to reality. The insubordinate Korah, Dathan, Abiram and On represent the ongoing grumbling and complaining of the entirety of Moses’ unfrateful Hebrew nation. Two of these four, Dathan and Abiram, are called for and confronted by Moses in one of several exchanges. Here a bit more of the passage:

Num 16:12-14 Moses sent to fetch Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, but they answered, ‘We are not coming. 13Is it a small thing that you have brought us away from a land flowing with milk and honey to let us die in the wilderness? Must you also set yourself up as prince over us? 14What is more, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us fields and vineyards to inherit. Do you think you can hoodwink men like us? We are not coming.’ (New English Bible)

Do you catch the black-is-white and up-is-down view of these men? They claim that the slavery life of heavy toil in Egypt was that of flowing milk and honey goodness. Egypt, not Canaan, is the land of flowing milk and honey. The capability of man for self-delusion is infinite, as evidenced by Dathan and Abiram being unable to discern the oppressions of Pharaoh against the miraculous mercies and provisions of God. They reject God for Pharaoh. They are blind for sure. Idiom or not.

In any event, the gouging out of eyes was an instrument of power in the Mesopotamian world. King Zedekiah and Samson were both on the receiving end of this form of cruelty:

2 Kings 25:5-7 And the army of the Chaldees pursued after the king, and overtook him in the plains of Jericho: and all his army were scattered from him. 6 So they took the king, and brought him up to the king of Babylon to Riblah; and they gave judgment upon him. 7 And they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon. (KJV)

Judges 16:21 And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes and brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles. And he ground at the mill in the prison. (ESV)

We look through commentary on this verse in the search for any literal interpretation of eye gouging, and find little or none.

Jewish rabbinical writer Rashi (c. 1100) seems to allow for a literal interpretation (but not a substantive actual threat):

WILT THOU PUT OUT THE EYES OF THESE MEN etc. — This means: even if you were to send to put out our eyes if we would not come up to you we would not come up! (Rashi commentary on Numbers)

The Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh translation, in the translation notes, notes that “Gouging out the eyes was punishment for runaway slaves and rebellious vassals.” It does not necessarily follow, however, that the JPS editors interpret 16:14 with a gouging threat and claim.

John Gill (1600’s) sees the possibility of a literal meaning:

wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? or “dig” them out; either in a literal sense, wilt thou be so cruel and merciless as to put out the eyes of these men, Korah and his company, and us for our opposition to thy government? or though thou shouldest do so….

But Gill doesn’t seem to conclude his thought.

We will let rabbinical scholars Sforno (c. 1500) and Chizkuni (1200’s) represent the vast body of interpretation which understands our verse to be a turn of phrase.

Sforno: do you really think that you can fool all these people into not recognising your machinations which are of such a deceptive nature?

Chizkuni: “will you gouge out the eyes of these men?” The verse is to be understood as a question, not as a statement, the authors expressing their astonishment that Moses hoped to get away with misleading the people with such trick. They themselves could certainly not be fooled by him, someone who had so utterly failed in his socalled mission up to now. They expressed wonder that the eyes of the Jewish people should have been fooled thus far, it looked to them as if these people had been blind all the time. Now, instead of making good on their promises, they had decreed that a whole generation of Israelites were to perish in this desert! They would not appear in front of him to be judged by him, he had lost all credence as a leader.

Thanks to the Hebrew interlinear at Scripture4All and Katapi Bible Resources for the NEB.

If you come across commentary which offers a claim that Dathan and Abiram have serious fears that Moses might have them severely punished (this is of course true) AND that their “eyes gouged out” claim is based on this fear, please leave us a comment and citation to your source.

May God bless you and not gouge out your eyes. And may you be observant of God’s ways and will and recognize God’s presence in your life. Let none of us be as blind as Dathan and Abiram.

And read the actual Bible for yourself! 🙂

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