Q: I’m puzzled by the word “sod” in Genesis 25:29 of the King James Version of the Bible: “And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint.” I looked up several definitions of “sod,” but I can’t figure out what it means in this verse.
A: The word “sod” in that passage means “boiled” or “cooked,” and that’s the way it’s translated in most modern versions of the New Testament.
Here’s the passage in the New International Version: “Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished.” And here it is in the American Standard Version: “And Jacob boiled pottage. And Esau came in from the field, and he was faint.” This is from the New King James Version: “Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary.”
As it happens, “sod” is an obsolete past tense of the verb “seethe,” which originally meant to boil a liquid or to cook food by boiling or stewing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest example for “seethe” in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is from Old English Leechdoms (circa 1000), a collection of Anglo-Saxon medical remedies:
“Gif mon syþ garleac on henne broþe” (“If a man seethes [boils] garlic in chicken broth”). The þ at the end of syþ, Old English for “seethes,” is a thorn, a letter pronounced like “th.”
The past tense of “seethe” was seaþ in Old English and originally seþ, seeth, etc., in Middle English, according to the dictionary. But the Middle English past tense was later “superseded by the form sod taken from the past participle” (soden or sodden).
The OED adds that the sod past tense for “seethe” is now obsolete, and sodden has “ceased to be associated with this verb.” By the 1600s “seethed” had replaced “sod” as the past tense, and by the 1700s it had replaced “sodden” as the past participle of the verb “seethe.”
The various contemporary uses of “sod” as a noun (a piece of turf, a contemptuous person, an annoying experience, etc.) aren’t etymologically related to the archaic Middle English past tense of the verb.
But “sodden” lives on as an adjective with the boiled-down sense of “having the appearance of, or resembling, that which has been soaked or steeped in water; rendered dull, stupid, or expressionless, esp. owing to drunkenness or indulgence in intoxicants; pale and flaccid,” the OED says.
The dictionary’s earliest citation for “sodden” used in this sense, which we’ve expanded, is from The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels (1601), a satirical play by Ben Jonson: “By Gods will, I scorne him, as I do the sodden Nimph that was heere euen now; his mistris Arete: And I loue my selfe for nothing else.”
The boiling sense of “seethe” is now archaic, but the verb is often used figuratively today for someone or something boiling with agitation, anger, excitement, rage, turmoil, and so on.
The OED defines this figurative sense as to “be in a state of inward agitation, turmoil, or ‘ferment.’ Said of a person in trouble, fever, etc.; of plans, elements of discontent or change; also of a region filled with excitement, disaffection, etc.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida (1602). Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, is talking here to a servant: “I come to speak with Paris from the Prince Troylus. I will make a complimentall assault vpon him, for my businesse seethe ’s.”
We’ll end with an example from Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem in blank verse: “She lay and seethed in fever many weeks, / But youth was strong and overcame the test; / Revolted soul and flesh were reconciled / And fetched back to the necessary day / And daylight duties.”