I Ancient Near East
The mouth is rendered in Sumerian by KA and in Akkadian pû (same root as the Hebrew peh).
1. The Physical Mouth
In different types of texts (medical, historical, official), it is the real mouth that is discussed: pû is sometimes used in connection with food (“his mouth for eating, his ears for hearing”: Læssøe: 62). Moreover, the sumerogram, which translates the verb “to eat” is composed of a mouth with a triangle (Labat: 54–55). Even the curse formulas of royal texts mention the physical mouth: “May the gods take away the bread from your mouth” (Treaty with Baal of Tyre, Parpola/Watanabe: 5: iv 16’). Medical texts describe diseases of the mouth which were often linked to excessively sweet food (caries, abscesses) or to viruses (herpes). Recent paleo-pathological research helps to supplement old oral problems, revealing excessive wear of the teeth due to insufficient grinding of flour. In addition, it also shows that the Mesopotamians tried to intervene surgically to relieve pain that they knew it could be terrible: “the buʾšānu disease seized the mouth like a lion” (Köcher: 533:78).
Some diseases do not affect the mouth but the latter can reveal one of the symptoms, such as excessive salivation in epilepsy (“saliva flows out of his mouth copiously and cannot be stopped,” Thompson: 31,4: 18), or vomiting and acute diarrhea (“he will void by mouth and anus”; Köcher: 574).
Sometimes the mouth is the instrument to apply the medication (“you blow the medication with your mouth into his penis by means of a copper tube”; Köcher: 112 i 25), or the place targeted by Lamashtu to make babies sick. The mouth can finally be used to inflict punishment: “they pour hot lead into his mouth” (Wiseman: 28:26).
Magic texts often use the mouth to achieve a favorable result. It can be the mouth of a man or an animal or even a figurine created expressly to come out of a spell: “you tie a string of red wool in the clay bull figurine’s mouth” (Ebeling: 62 r. 4).
In the omen series Summa izbu, among the bizarre births, whether human or animal, there are some where the newborn is lacking a mouth or the mouth is in a bad position (“the calf whose mouth is on its back”; Frankena: 50, 23). Other texts concern fantastic animals with several heads or several mouths: “the basmu snake has six mouths and seven tongues” (van Dijk: 66, 18).
Some personal names include the word mouth; e.g., Ša-pî-kalbī, literally “the one taken from the mouth of the dogs,” was the name given to the child rescued from the mouth of the dogs to which he had been thrown as food. And the names of three of the five Neo-Assyrian clay dogs found under the northern palace of Nineveh allude to the mouth: the yellow dog’s name is “Do not deliberate, kick your mouth,” the blue dog “It bites his opponent,” and the black one “Strong is its bark.”
2. The Symbolic Mouth
The mouth can be used metaphorically to indicate the entry of a part of the body, of an object, of a building, or of a watercourse (Roth: 469).
Other texts speak of the mouth in a symbolic way, concerning international relations on one hand and religion on the other. In the Old Babylonian alliance rituals, the two kings after having sacrificed an ass and made the oath, kissed and then drank from the same cup.
In the religious context, the importance of the mouth appears in several actions. First, prophecies are said “by the mouth of the prophet NP,” but in reality it is the deity that speaks; the expression “Thus speaks the god ND” is present in prophecies since the Old Babylonian period. Exorcisms are also said by mouth and indeed the Sumerian terms KA.KÙ.GAL and KA.PIRIG3, which both designate an “exorcist,” literally mean “[the man] of the pure mouth.”
Last but not least, Mesopotamia knew two important mouth rituals: pīt pî and mīs pî. The “mouth-opening” (pīt pî; KA.DUḪ.Ù.DA) consists of a “sensibilization” of the divine mouth by a series of scented essences (honey, ghee, cedar, and cypress). The “mouth-washing” (mīs pî; KA.LUḪ.Ù.DA) involves washing the statue, led from the workshop (bit mummi) to the riverbank, and in particular the mouth – up to 14 times – to purify it. It is often said that these two rituals serve to transfer the essence of the divinity to his statue, but in reality the meaning is deeper – through these rituals the divine statue is born biologically by itself without human help. The rituals refuse to recognize the debt to the craftsmen, because the god cannot be fabricated mechanically by men. The practice of these rituals had to be broader than what we manage to reconstruct; even the sacrificial animal had to be purified by a “washing of the mouth” (Craig: 1:61 r. 2).
With few exceptions, the mouth is one element among others in the description of anthropomorphic and animal faces. In the Chalcolithic era, statuettes without a mouth appear only rarely. In historical times, the mouth is always present, but closed, never smiling. It may have been damaged sometimes by the violence of the conquerors who aimed at the hands and face of royal statues. Rare images show probably ritual acts where the mouth plays an important role but whose meaning escapes us; in the bronze statue of Lu-Nanna (Louvre, AO 15704) the right hand is at the level of the mouth with the thumb and forefinger touching each other while the other fingers are folded over the palm. In the seal of Hash-hamer (British Museum, WA 89126), a high official of the 3rd dynasty of Ur, the official and one of the two Lama goddesses who accompany him carry the right hand very close to the mouth and it is not an ordinary greeting. In rare cylinder seals two figures suck the liquid from a vase placed between them with a straw. The same gesture is found in some terracotta erotic plaques where the woman’s mouth sucks from a vase a liquid with such a straw. Only in depictions of wild animals can the mouth be widely opened; these are some composite beings, like Imdugud, and especially lions and wild bulls, which are animals protecting the entrances to temples and palaces (3rd–1st mill. BCE) and in the 1st mill. BCE are animals worthy of the king who alone attacks them (Neo-Assyrian bas reliefs).
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II Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
There are several words used for mouth in the HB. Ḥek refers to the palate (Ezek 3:26) and may also refer to taste (Ps 119:103). The term is frequently used in parallel with the more common peh. Peh has a wide range of meanings, encompassing the physical, metaphorical, and metonymic. Its base meaning is “mouth,” referring to the opening in the face. However, the meaning is frequently expanded to refer either to openings (the mouth of a well), an edge (the mouth of the sword), or language and/or vocal production (as a metonym for speech or commandment). The letter pe takes its name from this word; early orthography resembles a mouth.
1. The Human Mouth
When used in a physical sense, peh refers to the mouth as a whole. It is sometimes used in parallel to lāšôn, “tongue,” as in Exod 4:10. At other points, the reference is clearly to the organ of the tongue (e.g., Song 4:11). This double set of meanings – physiological and metaphorical – also extends to the term śapâ, “lip.” Frequently, it is used to refer to the organ of speech, though it may also carry the sense of language (Job 12:20, Lev 5:4). Within the mouth are teeth (sing. šēn). A full set of white teeth is a sign of beauty (Song 4:2; cf. Gen 49:12); dirty teeth are revolting (Zech 9:7). Job contains several peculiar expressions involving teeth: in 13:14, Job promises to take his flesh in his teeth, while Job 19:20 speaks of “the skin of my teeth,” perhaps a reference to toothless gums.
Job is not the only figure for whom the mouth presents a site of difficulty. Moses famously suffers from a “heavy mouth and heavy lips” (Exod 4:10). The meaning of this phrase is unclear; it may refer to a physical disability (such as a cleft palate), a speech problem (such as a stutter), or a language problem (such as an inability to speak proficiently). The cure for this problem also hinges on the mouth, as YHWH promises both to be with Moses’s mouth (Exod 4:12) and to furnish him with a prosthetic mouth in the form of Aaron, his brother (Exod 4:15).
2. Uses of the Mouth
The primary purpose of the mouth in the HB is to produce sound, whether verbal or nonverbal. Mouth is often a metonym for language, and is referred to in contexts of producing speech. It is a central locus of prophecy. The mouth is also an important instrument for lawgiving, as in the revelation at Sinai. Rabbinic Jewish tradition holds that revelation included both Written Torah and Oral Torah or “Torah from the mouth.” There are multiple phrases in Hebrew in which peh is used to issue a command. The mouth is also used in situations of legal witness (e.g., Num 35:30).
Not all that comes forth from the mouth is intelligible speech. It is also used to produce screams, cries of pain, and so on. Hebrew does not clearly differentiate between “sound” and “voice,” referring to both with the noun qôl. The “soundscape,” the aural equivalent of the landscape, is a new object of interest in biblical studies.
As the case of Moses suggests, the mouth holds special significance for prophecy. Prophecy is most frequently a practice of speech; the Hebrew prophets seek legitimacy by attributing their prophecies to the mouth of YHWH. In Deut 18:18, YHWH promises to place words in the mouth of the prophet. Jeremiah 15:19 escalates still further, with YHWH promising to make the prophet his mouth. The mouth as body part is also important in prophecy. Ezekiel’s prophetic calling involves him eating a scroll written with divine words (Ezek 2–3). The purity of the organ is an issue; prior to prophesying, Isaiah’s mouth must be purified with a hot coal (this occurs in a vision in Isa 6:5–7). The midrash tells a similar story about Moses, using it to explain the latter prophet’s “heavy mouth” (ShemR 1:26; cf. Exod 4:10).
The mouth has other purposes in Biblical Hebrew besides sound production. It is used for kissing (Song 1:2), eating (1 Sam 14:26), and drinking (Judg 7:6). At other points, the emphasis is on the experience of being eaten, as when Korah is swallowed up by the mouth of the earth (Num 16:32).
3. The Divine Mouth
Beyond human mouths, YHWH’s mouth is important in the HB. Because of the texts’ refusal to represent YHWH visually, sound and voice become essential means of communication and revelation. The HB refers to God’s mouth approximately fifty times, underscoring the importance of this verbal communication. Moreover, the phrase “according to the mouth of YHWH” occurs twenty-four times, with particular frequency in Exodus–Deuteronomy. This phrase links the authority of YHWH’s speech to the organ of his mouth. The movements of the Israelites through the wilderness, extending even to the death of Aaron (Num 33:8) and of Moses (Deut 34:5) are all done “according to the mouth of YHWH.” Disobeying the mouth of YHWH has dire consequences, as in 1 Kgs 13:21–26.
In a few rare instances, YHWH’s mouth does more than speak. In Ps 18:8 and 2 Sam 22:9, fire comes forth from his mouth, paralleling smoke from his nostrils (a figure for anger). In Job 37:22, his voice is described as thunder; this may refer to his vocal/sonic quality or may introduce a more explicitly meteorological meaning. The question is complicated by the use of qôl to mean voice, sound, and thunder.
Is YHWH’s mouth wholly metaphorical or, as with the human mouth, does it provide a metonymical connection between speech and body? The text does not give a definitive answer. YHWH’s body is mostly absent from the text, though certain body parts appear at various moments, including his feet (Exod 24:10), back (Exod 33:23), and general bodily form (Ezek 1:26–28; Dan 8). Though YHWH forbids Moses from gazing upon his “glory” (Exod 33:22), according to Isaiah this glory of YHWH is revealed when his mouth speaks (Isa 40:5).
4. Other Uses of “Mouth”
There are also a number of mouths in the HB that are neither human nor divine. Mouth is used with reference to geographical features. Wells have mouths (Gen 29:2), as do rivers (Isa 9:7) and caves (Josh 10:18); thus peh may refer more generally to an “opening.” In the oracle against Moab, Jeremiah describes the mouth of the pit (Jer 48:28), while Lady Wisdom positions herself at the “mouth” of the city (Prov 8:3). One particularly notable non-human geographical use of peh is to describe the mouth of the earth (e.g., Num 16:32). The mouth of the earth also becomes an important figure in midrash.
The use of peh to describe an opening can also extend to objects; in Zechariah, it is used to describe the opening of a basket (Zech 5:8). Other usages emphasize the sense of “edge” (present as well in the “mouth” of the pit or the river, the latter extending to its banks/edge). Here a common phrase is the “mouth of the sword.”
Animals are frequently described with reference to their mouths. YHWH opens the mouth of a donkey and causes it to speak to Balaam (Num 22:28). Birds also possess mouths (Gen 8:11; Isa 10:18), as does the fearsome Leviathan (Job 41:11). “Tongue” is also used for dogs (Exod 11:7), snakes (Ps 140:4), and again Leviathan (Job 40:2). The teeth of wild beasts (Deut 32:24) and lions (Joel 1:6) are frequent figures of violent threat (used, for example, to describe violent enemies).
The mouth also figures in a number of Hebrew phrases and expressions. With a preposition, it often means “according to.” “Mouth to mouth” (peh lapeh (2 Kgs 21:16) and variants) is used to mean “end to end.” The tooth is also important for the principle of lex talionis in “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exod 21:24; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21).
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III New Testament
In the NT, the Greek word for “mouth” (στόμα) occurs seventy-eight times. It refers to the physical oral cavity and its purpose to mediate between the inside and outside of the body by ingesting food and producing speech (literally e.g., Acts 23:2). The word is often used as a metonym or metaphor for certain acts of speech or openings.
Besides human mouths, the writers of the NT also mention animal mouths (e.g., Matt 17:27), at times connecting them with related actions or ideas such as the guiding of horses (Jas 3:3) or the threat of a lion’s mouth (2 Tim 4:17; Heb 11:33; Rev 13:2).
God’s mouth is mentioned once by Jesus when quoting Deut 8:3 LXX in Matt 4:4 to refer to Gods life-giving words, although this anthropomorphic feature is omitted altogether in the parallel account (Luke 4:4). The NT mostly speaks of Jesus’s mouth with regard to his teaching and an emphasis on the revolutionary and divine nature of his words (ἐκ/ἀπὸ τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ; cf. e.g., Matt 5:2; Luke 4:22; 11:54; 22:71; Acts 22:14; cf. 2 Thess 2:8 where Jesus’s mouth brings forth judgment). However, other passages underscore Jesus’s human corporality, as when he is given vinegar to drink on the cross (John 19:29). Principally, Jesus stands in direct continuity to the divine words from the mouths of the “holy prophets” and their fulfillment (e.g., Matt 13:34–35/Ps 77:2 LXX; further: Luke 1:70; Acts 3:18, 21; 4:25; explicitly with reference to David and the Holy Spirit: Acts 1:16; 4:25), a continuity that is extended to the Apostles to preach the gospel (Acts 15:7). Therefore, the Apostles expressively “open” (ἀνοίγω) their mouths (Acts 8:35; 10:34; 18:14; Eph 6:19; cf. Luke 21:15), which the writer of 2 Cor 6:11 figuratively uses to convey that everything has been said and laid out in the open (“τὸ στόμα ἡμῶν ἀνέῳγεν πρὸς ὑμᾶς”).
Besides teaching and preaching of the gospel, certain acts of speech are also expressed via a reference to the mouth (also keeping silent cf. Acts 8:32; Rom 3:19 στόμα φράσσω). Parenetic and polemic contexts often reflect the issue of deceitful, deceptive, baneful and disgraceful speech produced by the mouth (e.g., Rom 3:14/Ps 10:7; Eph 4:29; Col 3:8; Jas 3:10; 1 Pet 2:22/Ps 34:14; Jude 16; Rev 14:5; see “Lips II. New Testament”), just as they focus on the mouth’s engagement in praise (Matt 21:16; Rom 15:6) and confessions of faith (Rom 10:9–10; cf. 10:8). At times, the mouth occurs in direct connection to its source, the heart (Matt 12:34; Luke 6:45; cf. Rom 10:8; see “Heart II. New Testament”). The mouth expresses the metonymic arcane interior of the human in speech (cf. Pittacus in Diogenis Laertii 1.78; Sir 21:26; T.Naph. 2.6). By contrast, whatever food goes through the mouth into the body, has no effect on the internal purity (Matt 15:11, 17–18; cf. Acts 11:8).
Furthermore, στόμα represents the conversation’s counterpart. In the postscript of 2 and 3 John, e.g., the expression “στόμα πρὸς στόμα λαλέω” emphasizes the wish for a direct verbal conversation with the addressees of the letter (2 John 12; 3 John 14), a figure of speech that translates into the English “face-to-face” or French “vis-à-vis.”
Also, a direct reference to the mouth (ἐκ τοῦ στόματός; ἐπὶ στόματος δύο μαρτύρων ἢ τριῶν ἵστημι πᾶν ῥῆμα) appears in connection to a witness account (Matt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1; cf. Deut 19:15) or an alleged confession (Luke 19:22; 22:71). The writer of Luke 1:64 proves the restoration of impaired speech by an opened mouth and a freed tongue, resulting in a vocal demonstration of the regained ability.
The motif of the mouth takes various forms in apocalyptic contexts. Most often, it refers to the opening from which different apocalyptic creatures spew forth catastrophe and dooming disaster: e.g., fire, smoke and sulfur (Rev 9:17–19; cf. 11:5); foul spirits (16:13); a flooding river (12:15, which is in turn swallowed by the earth’s “mouth” in 12:16; cf. Gen 4:11) and blasphemous speech against God (Rev 13:4–6). Furthermore, the mouth of the Son of Man is the locus of words and acts of judgement (3:16), which he executes by the use of his “sword from the mouth,” a metaphor for the use of God’s law (1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21; cf. Heb 4:12 and 2 Thess 2:8; cf. the messianic expectations of Isa 11:4 and 49:2 LXX; further: e.g., Isa 11:8; 4 Ezra 13:10–11, 37–39; Ps 149:6; Zeph 2:12). Similar to the mouth’s function in God’s legislation and judgment, prophecy is metaphorically appropriated when the seer is given God’s word in form of a scroll to eat, which tastes sweet in his mouth but turns bitter in his stomach in Rev 10:8–11 (cf. Ezek 2:8–3:3; Ps 119:103; Jer 15:16). Lastly, the figure of speech στόμα μάχαιρα denotes the sharp edge of a sword (Luke 21:24; Heb 11:34; cf. Asclepiodotus 3.5; Homer, Il. 15.389).
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A Second Temple and Hellenistic Judaism
The common Hebrew term for mouth, peh, is regularly rendered στόμα in the LXX, with lāšôn, “tongue”; śapâ, “lip”; and šēn, “tooth” frequently represented with the terms γλῶσσα, χεῖλος, and ὀδούς, respectively. When used metonymically to refer to speech, peh is also commonly translated ῥῆμα. An interesting exception to this pattern is the consistent use of διὰ φωνῆς κυρίου in Numbers to translate ʿal pî yhwh. The Hebrew phrase is uncommon outside of Numbers, and the Greek idiom is wholly unique to Numbers. Other idiomatic uses of “mouth” are dropped in the LXX. Especially in the Pentateuch, the phrases kĕpî and lĕpî, meaning “in proportion to,” are variously rendered in Greek, usually with terms cognate with κατά (cf. Gen 47:12; Exod 16:16; Lev 25:16; Num 26:54). The use of these Hebrew idioms persists in Qumran texts (cf. CD XIII, 12; 1QS IV, 16). Conversely, the idiom lĕpî ḥāreb, “with the edge (lit. mouth) of the sword,” is very frequently preserved in the LXX.
Several authors draw upon the association between the mouth and speech in their elucidations of biblical material. Philo, QG 2.3, explains that Noah’s ark was made with many rooms (Gen 6:14) because the human body is comprised of various holes, the largest of which is the mouth due to its use not only for taste, but also for speech under the guidance of reason. Aristeas describes gossip as embodying in speech what is received through the ears so as to involve others in evil. The viciousness of this ear to mouth process is thus the basis for the Levitical prohibition against consuming animals of “the weasel class (τό τῆς γαλῆς γένος)” (cf. Lev 11:29). For, strangely, weasels conceive through the ears and bear young through the mouth (Let. Aris. 165–66). Rabbinic tradition exploits the awkward wording of Gen 25:28 in which Isaac is said to love Esau kî ṣayîd bĕpîw, lit. “because game [was] in his mouth,” often translated “because he [Isaac] was fond of game” (NRSV). As Kugel (367–68) notes, however, another possible translation is “because he [Esau] was a hunter with his mouth,” i.e., Esau was manipulative, a characterization reflected in Tan Toledot 8. However, this interpretative tradition may be pre-rabbinic since in Philo, Fug. 39 Esau is portrayed as one offering “the baits (τὰ δελέατα) of mortal life.” Sometimes the mouth as the instrument of speech is also controlled by others, whether the devil (L.A.E. 17:4) or, in the case of a prophet, a divine agent (Philo, Her. 266; Mos. 1.274).
Finally, the similar ominous reports in Gen 4:11 and Num 16:30 that the ground “opened its mouth” (pāṣĕtâ ʾet pîhā) prompted the author of L.A.B. to read the accounts of Abel’s murder and Korah’s rebellion as mutually interpretative (cf. Philo, Praem. 68–78). God, despite having forbidden the earth to swallow blood after Abel’s demise (a detail missing from Genesis), was prepared to reverse that injunction to punish Korah and his men (L.A.B. 16:2–3). In turn, Korah is likened to his “prototype” Cain in his incapacity to bear God’s ruling (Fisk: 30).
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B Rabbinic Judaism
In rabbinic literature, the Hebrew word peh and its Aramaic cognate pûm refer to the physical mouth that eats and speaks (in general and also frequently in the contexts of oaths and testimony) as well as to other kinds of openings; the mouth also features in a number of expressions.
Every organ was created with a purpose; the purpose of the mouth is to speak (bBer 31b). A person may “remove from his mouth” speech (bBer 15a), including profane speech that “profanes his mouth” (bKet 8b); an oath (bShevu 20a), for example to become a Nazirite (yNaz 6a); or breath (bBB 75a); this rabbinic usage appears less commonly in biblical Hebrew (Job 15:13; cf. Deut 8:3) and Qumranic Hebrew (e.g., 1Q22 II, 6). The mouth emits noises including laughter (bBer 9b), song (bHag 15b), and Torah study (bShab 30b; bMQ 28a; bBM 86a). The mouth also eats and nurses. An infant will nurse unless their mouth is cold, in which case a cup of coals should be placed near the mouth to warm it (bShab 134a). When a baby is born, an angel hits it on the mouth and makes it forget the whole Torah (bNid 30b).
The mouth is associated with sex and with genitals. When Abba (i.e., Rav) was overheard having sex, his mouth was compared to one who had never eaten a cooked dish (bBer 62a). Sexual activity is compared to eating also without explicit reference to the mouth (e.g., bNed 20b; bShab 62b–63a; bYom 75a). The uterus is called the “lower mouth” (bSan 100a); a menstruating woman’s “mouth” is full of blood (bShab 152a).
That which a mouth speaks is not necessarily trustworthy, in contrast with that which is in the heart (e.g., bMeg 18a). As in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Num 35:30), rabbinic literature associates the mouth with legal testimony. In some cases (according to one view), a woman is not believed based on her own mouth (i.e., her testimony), unless she provides additional evidence for her claim (mKet 1:6–9).
A woman who immerses might place coins or hair in her mouth (mMiq 8:5). On the Sabbath, a woman who has placed spices in her mouth is allowed to go out with them (mShab 6:5).
Mouths also figure in rabbinic angelology. The angel of death is unable to overcome King David and various rabbis as long as their mouths do not cease from studying Torah out loud (bShab 30b; bMQ 28a; bBM 86a). When sick persons behold the angel of death standing, sword in hand, they open their mouths in fright, enabling the angel of death to drop gall or poison into the mouth to cause their death (bAZ 20b). A person should not “open his mouth to the satan”; i.e., they should not say something about disaster and thus provoke the satan to bring this disaster upon them (bBer 19a; 60a; bKet 8b).
Mouths may stand in synecdochically for the individuals (human or divine) who use them. The mouth that places a restriction is also entitled to lift that restriction; that is, persons who declare something forbidden to themselves are trusted to permit themselves that thing (e.g., mKet 2:5; mDem 6:11). Mouths are used synecdochically also in rhetorical questions. One may not recall the past sins of another, asking if the mouth that consumed forbidden foods dare study the Torah that was spoken by God’s mouth (bBM 58b). The framing of Torah as “spoken by God’s mouth” builds on the biblical portrayal of the divine mouth as a source of authority.
Rabbinic literature also refers to animal’s mouths in a wide range of contexts. The “mouth of the donkey,” referring to Balaam’s speaking donkey (Num 22:28), is one of ten things created on the eve of the first Sabbath at twilight (mAv 5:6), along with the “mouth of the earth” (which swallowed Korah and his ensemble; Num 16:32) and the “mouth of the well” (which provided water to the Israelites in the wilderness; Num 21:16–20). The volume of different animals’ mouthfuls feature as measurements for different products that may or may not be carried on the Sabbath (mShab 7:4). One may inspect the animal’s mouth, and specifically its teeth, to determine whether or not it is permissible for consumption (bHul 59a). Animals are distinguished on the basis of a “fine mouth” or a “bad mouth,” which (according to different opinions) may relate to the animal’s saliva or to whether or not it eats discerningly (bShab 140b–141a). A snake may put its tail into its own mouth in order to surround a cave and thereby block entry to it (bBQ 117b).
The peh refers not only to the “mouth” but also to the opening of objects such as a well (mAv 5:6), a barrel (mTevY 2:7), and a jug (bBB 26a); the mouthpiece of a ram’s horn (mRH 3:3); and the entrance of an alleyway (bShab 141a).
To speak “on the mouth” is to recite from memory. Two torahs were given; the oral (“on the mouth”) torah is contrasted with the written one (bShab 31a). Prayer or adages may be “habitual” or “regular” in a person’s mouth (mBer 4:3; bBer 17a). Matters of torah should be sharp in a person’s mouth (bQid 30a).
To ward off witches, one should recite an incantation cursing them with hot excrement in baskets in their mouths (bPes 110a). The biblical Job is cursed with dust in his mouth for saying things he should not have (bBB 16a; see Job 6:2; 9:33; 31:1).
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Christians are confident in the word of God who promises: “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it” (Ps 81:10). As such, the mouth is used for the necessities of human life, eating, drinking, kissing, and metaphorically as the instrument of communication regarding the speakers’ emotions, intentions, thoughts, and heart. The mouth of God and the mouth of humankind issues weal or woe to the effect of blessing or curse.
Christianity has inherited and applied the material and spiritual effects of what issues from or enters into one’s mouth as the source of truth or falsehood. The mouth holds an anthropological locus of meaning that includes the evangelization imperative to witness. Additionally, from antiquity to the present, the mouth is the instrument of the holy kiss in social and liturgical celebrations.
Among the churches’ appropriations of the biblical texts, the most frequently used utterance is found in the monastic, consecrated, and vowed religious life traditions, where the opening prayer in the discipline of the liturgy of the hours (or divine office) begins with the sign of the cross and the words “Lord open my lips and let my mouth proclaim your praise” (Ps 51:15). In this and other instances, the mouth is the organ of speech and the receptacle of wisdom, the opening through which words enter into the inmost depths of the recipients’ bodies and from which the language of blessing or curse emerges. With this fairly consistent appropriation of meaning in the Christian tradition, John Chrysostom opines: “No matter how just your words may be, you ruin everything when you speak with anger” (Chrysostom, Hom. Act. 17).
In the period of high scholasticism (late 12th–14th cent. CE), handbooks of theology reached apogee in the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. Comprehensive in subject matter, Aquinas focuses on the nature of speech to promulgate the law and to proclaim the faith with a vow: a promise made to God by words spoken and deeds done for God, for oneself, and for the benefit of others. “Sometimes, however, two other things are added as a sort of confirmation of the vow, namely, pronouncement by word of mouth, … and the witnessing [for the purposes of correction or encouragement] of others” (Summa theologiae II–II q. 88).
Post Reformation and with the advent of modern biblical criticism, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892), a fundamentalist Baptist, preached to large congregations in Southwark, London. Committed to the Bible, he took the words of scripture literally. Among others on the Psalms and Romans, in one image-filled sermon on Ps 81:10, he asks, “What will [God] fill our mouths with?” And answers, like the bird who feeds her chicks, God will fill our mouths with prayer, arguments, desire, [the] sensibility, food, truth, spiritual blessings, sacred joy, song, and praise (Spurgeon).
In both high liturgical church and less formal traditions, something like the mouthed kiss of peace has been practiced since early Christianity as a tangible sign of unity among the members in body and spirit during prayer Eucharist, baptism, and other sacramental gatherings. While kissing is among the oldest of human practices – engaged in formal and informal settings – it has been abused in worship by a sometimes open-mouthed touch of tongues and other erotica between worshippers. As a corrective to licentiousness, the people were instructed to kiss with a chaste and closed mouth, ritualizing a practice that “helped them construct a chaste and closed community” (Penn). While Christians today may not be as fervent in a mouthed kiss of peace, the community sentiment continues with a hug, a cheek-to-cheek, or smile and nod.
The mouth opens for the kiss, the food, the personal vow, and the proclamation of the Good News. Thus, every metaphor referable to the mouth points to evangelization. Every confession that Jesus Christ is Lord is directed toward liberation. As instructed past and present, “the Church is [and its members are] the mouth and voice of the poor and oppressed in the presence of the powers that be” (Joint Working Group). “How necessary [then] it is to multiply the witnessing vocation [voice/mouthpiece] of the Church” (World Council of Churches).
Chrysostom, “Homily XVII on Acts VII:35,” in NPNF1 , vol. 11 (Grand Rapids, MI 1888) 235–46.Search in Google Scholar
Goossens, P. et al., By Word of Mouth (Amsterdam 1995).Search in Google Scholar
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Penn, M. P., Kissing Christians (Philadelphia, PA 2005).Search in Google Scholar
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World Council of Churches Central Committee, “Ecumenical Affirmation: Mission and Evangelization” (1982; www.religion-online.org).Search in Google Scholar
VI Visual Arts
In the Bible, the mouth is often characterized as a liminal zone, the permeable border between the inside of the body and the outside world. Depending on the context, what enters or exits the mouth could be either positive or negative (for example, Jas 3:10). As songs, many of the Psalms include references to mouths, which speak words of praise, but also words of wickedness. Both song and prayer could be connoted with open mouths, such as the singing figures gathered around a lectern in the 15th-century Ghent altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, in St. Bavo’s Cathedral. The words “Oh Lord, thou wilt open my lips …” (Ps 50:17) begin many of the prayers marking the canonical hours of the day in the Books of Hours, including the one for Matins, often accompanied by scenes of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38). A memorable example of the Annunciation is in Reims Cathedral (western portal), where the smiling Gabriel turns toward Mary with an open mouth and visible teeth (see fig. 1).
Open mouths can also connote strong emotion, damnation, and sin. A particularly powerful image is the depiction of Eve wailing during her expulsion from Eden (Gen 3:23–24) by Masaccio in the Brancaccio Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, ca. 1425 (see →EBR 5, fig. 2). In scenes of the last judgment like the 12th-century tympanum of the Cathedral of St. Lazarus in Autun, the damned grimace and cry out, while inside the church, demonic personifications of the vices, especially despair, writhe with open mouths, bared teeth, and extended tongues. In Byzantine psalters, hell (and sometimes Hades) is often represented as an open mouth with teeth, consuming the souls of the damned (the most obvious biblical parallels are Job 41:14 and Rev 12:9). The 12th-century Winchester Psalter has an image of Michael locking the damned inside a huge bifurcated animal mouth (British Library, Cotton MS Nero C IV, fol. 39r). Images of souls leaving the mouth could signify either death or exorcism. The image of Christ with a sword coming out of his mouth (Rev 1:16; 19:15) is a feature of apocalyptic imagery, and appears in psalters and Books of Hours, as well as in 15th-century images of the last judgment painted by Hans Memling (National Museum, Gdańsk) and Rogier van der Weyden (Hospices de Beaune). Certain martyrs suffered tortures directed at their mouths, notably Apollonia, whose teeth were torn out, and Romanus, whose tongue was cut out. This is reminiscent of the angel pulling out the boastful tongue (Ps 12:30), memorably depicted in the 11th-century Theodore Psalter created in Constantinople (British Library, Add MS 19352, fol. 11v).
Camille, M., “Mouths and Meanings: Towards an Anti-Iconography of Medieval Art,” in Iconography at the Crossroads (ed. B. Cassidy; Princeton, NJ 1993) 43–57.Search in Google Scholar
Schmidt, G. D., The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell: Eighth-Century Britain to the Fifteenth Century (London 1995).Search in Google Scholar
The biblical psalms, sung/chanted in Jewish and Christian devotional contexts through centuries, contain numerous references to “mouth” (see also above under “II. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament”). Night after night, the famous line “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Ps 51:15; Domine, labia mea aperies et os meum adnuntiavit laudem tuum in Vg. Ps 50:17) opened the night office according to the Rule of Benedict (6th cent). Since at least the 9th century, this rule provided the framework for the divine office in all Western monastic contexts up to modern times. Especially Ps 51 (= Vg. Ps 50), the Miserere, one of the seven penitential psalms was set again and again by composers from the Middle Ages and up to modern times in several contexts (see further “Lips III. Music”; EBR 16, 756–58).
Many other psalms include references to the mouth either of the psalmist (as in Ps 51:15) or of enemies, like in Ps 22:8, where the mentioned mouths belong to enemies, “they make mouths at me.” Psalms 22 (= Vg. Ps 21) was set in polyphony by 16th-century composers such as Philippe de Monte and Andrea Gabrieli (Gillingham: 2:143, mentioning also other musical receptions of Ps 22); it was further set by Giovanni Gabrieli (1557–1612; Bryant), and much later by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Ernest Bloch (see “Mock, Mockery VIII. Music”).
The Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel (the Song of Zechariah; Luke 1:68–79) includes a reference to the salvation promised “through the mouth of [God’s] holy prophets” (v. 70), in the Vg. per os sanctorum … prophetarum eius. This canticle (see “Canticle”) was sung at Lauds in the medieval office and was set in polyphony by numerous composers in the 16th century. It is also part of many modern liturgical ceremonies (see “Benedictus III. Music”).
Many biblical passages concern mouths in some way without using the word “mouth.” Thus, it may be questionable what exactly counts as a musical reception of “mouth.” Numerous references to, e.g., “lips” or “tongue,” necessarily imply a reference to a mouth, and quite often more than one of these words are mentioned together (see “Lips III. Music”). In any case, it seems natural to include the musical reception of those words in the musical reception of mouth, when understood as a part of the body, not just a word. The seeming fortuitousness in delimiting the reception of “mouth” can be illustrated with an example: In the episode where the crucified Jesus is offered wine mixed with gall in Matt 27:33–34, Jesus’s mouth is not mentioned. In the same episode as referenced in John 19:29–30, a sponge full of wine on a branch of hyssop “is held … to his mouth.” It is clearly unreasonable to count all historiae or oratorio passions (see “Historia [Music]” and Smither: 2:4) based on the Gospel of John to the musical reception of “mouth,” as opposed to those on the Gospel of Matthew, just because the word “mouth” is not found in the passion according to Matthew.
In some cases, the general use of “mouth” in biblical texts (as in Pss or Job) seems to lie behind a wording in an item of biblical music although “mouth” in that case does not reflect a specific biblical passage. This is so, for instance, in one of the stanzas of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O head full of blood and wounds; 1656), used in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In the stanza “Erkenne mich, mein Hüter,” one of the lines reads “Dein Mund hat mich gelabet / Mit Milch und süβer Kost” (“Your mouth has refreshed me / with milk and sweet fare”; Marissen: 38), a statement not directly found in the NT. This line is reflected later in the St. Matthew Passion, in the aria “Gerne will ich mich bequemen” (“Happily will I be so kind as”). This aria includes the phrase “Denn sein Mund der mit Milch und Honig flieβet, hat den Grund und des Leidens herbe Schmach durch den ersten Trunk versüβet” (“For his mouth, which flows with milk and honey, has sweetened the grounds and the bitter humiliation of suffering by the first sip”; Marissen: 42). Thus also the St. Matthew Passion should be counted to the musical reception of biblical “mouth.”
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- Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception
- Mouse, Mice – Nefesh
- Herausgegeben vonEdited by
- Constance M. Furey; Joel LeMon; Brian Matz; Steven L. McKenzie; Thomas Römer; Jens Schröter; Barry Dov Walfish; Eric J. Ziolkowski
- De Gruyter | 2022
- Mouse, Mice – Nefesh (Vol. 20)