“Famous Last Words”

26 10 2008

Upon telling my father that I often leave books on my desk at uni overnight and that nobody is going to steal them, he laughed and said the three words that constitute the title to this post. That humours me. The only thing that people could steal, such that those would have been my ‘famous’ last words, would be my voice.

In reality, when people say that something constitutes one’s “famous last words” what they really mean to say is that those sentiments will be proven retrospectively to constitute a situational irony. Only that’s quite a mouthful…

The origin of this misunderstanding, so far as I believe, is that so many instances of genuinely famous last words have become genuinely famous for precisely that reason. I am certain that most of them are apocryphal (or, at the very least, not actually the very last words spoken) but their tragic irony renders them unforgettable nonetheless.

The Bible has one such instance as well, although it is my opinion that it is often mistranslated.

In 1 Samuel, King Saul (thus far presented as incompetent, ill-fated and tragically unsure of himself) is commanded to wipe out the entire tribe of Amalek. As a result of his not also slaughtering all of their livestock, and of his sparing the life of their king, he loses the grace of the prophet Samuel, and a new king is anointed in his stead.

The Amalekite king, a man named Agag, is called forth by an enraged Samuel, who hacks him into pieces. It’s quite a charming little scene, especially given the line that Samuel delivers before hewing his enemy with a sword:

As your sword has bereft women,
So shall your mother be bereft amongst women.

I don’t suppose one should be too perturbed by the fact that Agag’s mother had probably just been murdered during Saul’s massacre of her people; we can instead look at this as the Biblical equivalent of the cinematic hero’s riposte, right before giving the bad guy what’s coming to him.

But enough of this: Agag gets a line too and it is the last that he ever speaks. Appearing in 1 Sam 15:32b, the line is as follows:

אכן סר מר־המות
akhen sar mar-hammavet

It’s a pretty little line, and quite assonant. But what does it mean? The JPS translates it as “Ah, bitter death is at hand!” Quite prescient of him, although I suppose it would not have been entirely prophetic under the circumstances. The NRSV (normally my favourite translation) does something similar: “Surely this is the bitterness of death”. If I had to choose between the two I’d take the JPS, but only because I like their inclusion of an exclamation mark. Both translations are wrong.

The word that neither of these translations is conveying correctly (although the NRSV does note in a footnote that it is relying on the Greek) is the verb, סר. From the verbal root סור, meaning “to turn aside”, this verb is a participle. The King James Version (which, were it not for its bombastic tone, would still be my favourite translation) managed to get it right. This is how they translated it, plus an exclamation mark that I am stealing from the JPS and giving to them:

“Surely the bitterness of death is past!”

You see, Agag is an idiot. I mean no disrespect to the historical Agag of course (if there was an historical Agag; I do not know), but to the literary Agag of our text. His tribe has been slaughtered, his livestock plundered, and he has been taken captive. He is led out, “with faltering steps”, into the presence of a furious prophet and a king who was charged with his death. And, despite all this, he has the simple-minded audacity to suggest with relief that the bitterness of death is surely past.

Afraid not, chappy.



2 responses

26 11 2008

Was the title of your post a self-fulfilling prophecy?

26 11 2008
Simon Holloway


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