Cup of Staggering

This is an illustration of my bad habit of assuming that people of course already know what I know when responding to questions.

I came home from work one day to find a message that a woman in our ward had a question about what the “cup of staggering” referred to in Isaiah 51:17. So I dashed off the following e-mail:

The Hebrew underlying “cup of staggering” is qubba’at
kos hattar’alah
, which literally says “the goblet, the
cup [that causes] staggering.” The word “cup” (HEB
kos) was probably not original, but was a gloss in
the Masoretic Text to explain the word “goblet of”

As is often the case, the cup stands by synechdoche
for its contents, in this case intoxicating wine.
Both the cup and the idea of intoxication are common
prophetic imagery for the judgments of God meted out
against the people (in this case, by the Assyrian Empire).

The next day I got another message. This question was actually from the woman’s teenage daughter, who apparently needed it for an English class. And neither she nor her mom had understood a word of it. So I tried again:

I’m sorry, Sandy just now told me that you called,
that this answer was meant for you, and that you
didn’t understand it. Sorry; I thought I was writing
it for your mom.

The important part to realize is that this is an
example of a rhetorical figure of speech called
“synechdoche.” Synechdoche is the use of the part to
represent the whole. So, for example, when a teenager
talks with his friends about his “wheels,” he is
talking about his car; the wheels are literally only a
part of the car, but they represent the whole car, and
everyone recognizes that usage.

Similarly, the cup represents not only a cup, but its
contents, that which is in it. And in this context,
that which is in the cup is intoxicating wine, which
causes men to stagger. This is a metaphor or image
for the destruction that God brought upon the
Israelites by having the Assyrian army defeat them and
take them captive into other lands. When a man is
drunk, he stumbles, weaves, slurs his words, acts
irrationally, and eventually falls down like a fool in
a stupor. That is pretty much what the Israelites did
when they rejected their God, and Isaiah portrays this
in a vivid image.

I hope this is a little bit clearer for you.

I then received the following note from her mom:

HELLO, this is perfect for me, and remember that I need this level of info when you answer [my daughter] or me. Thanks for the flattery though, you really scared me with all those big words.


  1. Kristine says:

    This reminds me of one time when I was riding in the car with my uncle (who is an architect and urban planner) and my cousin who was about 8. Cousin asked “what kind of church is that?” as we drove past an interesting stone edifice, and my uncle replied “well, it’s mostly Gothic, but it’s got some kind of Georgian Revival-looking columns out front, and that east wing addition is a little…” He went on for a couple more paragraphs, until my aunt stopped him and said to my little cousin, “David, it’s a Methodist church.” “Oh, thanks, Mom.”

    It’s hard being smart, ain’t it, Kevin? (That’s what I hear, anyway!)

  2. This doesn’t bother me. What worries me is when I use terms like “humble” and the teenage kids ask me what that means. Frankly, those questions scare me.

  3. True story, and not related in any way: I was once asked by a kid in Florida whether I found it hard to speak English when I was in the US. He wasn’t referring to any kind of dialectal difference. He knew I was English.


    Kevin, you are a hoot.

  4. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Ah, the stumbling block of experts everywhere. Your definition of what is basic (in terms of concept and vocabulary) does not necessarily coincide with what others outside of your discipline know. :)

  5. Once I was giving my kids a little lesson on Hebrew poetry. To start I asked them what some common elements are in English poetry. My oldest, about 11 years old, said rhyming. My second oldest, about 10, said the number of syllables in a line.

    I thought, oh no, those are the obvious answers, what is left for my 7 year old to say? (He’s very competitive and would be upset if he didn’t have anything to offer.)

    He said, “Alliteration.”

  6. Christopher Smith says:

    My friends don’t even know where Africa is.

  7. I had the same question many years ago in high school after reading the last line of James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.”

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Susan M., that is absolutely hilarious! Thanks for sharing. I love it.

  9. Just this morning, my five year old asked my husband what “responsibility” meant. The husband went into a lengthly explanation of the roots of the words “response” and “ability” and began to tie them into gospel principles, not noticing the glazed-over look on Jeffrey’s face.

    Watching from the kitchen, I was amused when Jeffrey finally piped up, “Dad, stop. Just stop!”.

    Consider your audience, I suppose!

  10. About four years ago we traveled to South Bend, Indiana for Thanksgiving where my son was in graduate school at Notre Dame. His daughter was four years old at the time. She had grown up around graduate students and seemed to have an elevated vocabulry and sense of humor – for a four year old. We all pitched in to prepare the Thanksgiving meal and my wife assigned me to peel the potatoes. I complained to my grandaughter that “Grandma is a slave driver!” to which my grandaughter responded “She’s not a slave driver, she’s a motivator.”

  11. I was teaching grade 11 English, and a student raised her hand and asked, ‘Who’s Horace?’ I was surprised, but kids pick stuff up from Sparknotes all the time, so I start in on Horace, excited because I wrote about him in grad school: Roman poet first century BC, came up with Carpe Diem, and I’m reaching for an anthology to read some lines with enthusiasm … when someone says, ‘Urm, no, on the board.’ On the whiteboard, it says, ‘Sir, I left the book on your desk, Horace.’ Horace is the Ghanian cleaner to whom I had loaned a copy of Brave New World. That is a parable of what teaching high school is basically like.

  12. In classic smb style, I would note that I usually spell the word synecdoche. That may have been what threw them the first time. My problem is that my answers are understandable but disruptive. I should go back to inscrutable.

  13. When my husband and I were first dating, we gave a ride to a kid in our singles ward to an FHE activity. We passed his old high school, and he commented that it was being remodeled.
    “Aren’t they doing a seismic retrofit?” I asked.
    “No, I think it has something to do with earthquakes,” he said.
    My future husband and I didn’t even dare look at each other. We’ve been laughing about it ever since.

  14. Peter LLC says:

    Once I was pontificating on what was really quite an elementary…ah, nevermind. You wouldn’t get it.

  15. Sterling says:

    I gave a talk in church yesterday. The topic was the First Vision. After gathering some quotes and scriptures, I felt like I should change my focus. Instead, I read the chapters in Doctrine and Covenants Stories that are based on JS-H 1 for my talk. I thought I would be principally talking to the children, but I all got was comments from adults. They said they appreciated the talk, and some even felt like they learned a lot. I didn’t have the heart to reveal my source to them.

  16. A few years ago I was in the car with a 12 yr old, newly ordained Deacon and his father. He was enthusiastically talking about a movie that all of his friends has seen and said that he wanted to see it to. The father said,
    “Well it is not the type of movie that I think a holder of the Priesthood should see.”
    “Why not?”
    “Well, it’s about prostitutes.”
    Seeing the confused look on his son’s face he asked:
    “Do you know what a prostitute is?”
    The father then tried very carefully to try to explain: “You know the talk we had a while ago about how moms and dads make love and then babies are born?”
    “Well a prostitute is a woman that makes love to a man and gets paid for it.”
    A look of total understanding coming across his face, the son said. “Oh. At school we call them ‘Hookers'”

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