Sunday, May 29, 2011

Notes on the KJV: Saving Face, or Can't Buy Me Grace

In his talk at Ohio State University’s conference on “The King James Bible and Its Cultural Afterlife,” David Richter pointed out several glaring inaccuries in the KJV translation. However, the more interesting aspect of his presentation—at least to me—was his work detailing the Hebrew word play lost in this (and, frankly, every other) English translation.

The trouble with translating Hebrew is that the language has a VERY limited vocabulary. Because there are so few Hebrew lexemes, every word carries multiple significations; the language uses variations of the same word to represent many different ideas. For this reason, reading Hebrew is more an art of interpretation than a science of translation/substitution. (Incidentally, during the conference one speaker pointed out that the ambiguity of Hebrew is so significant that some scholars wonder whether it was originally intended to be a spoken language. Can you imagine listening to someone speak and wondering which of five meanings each of his words carried? On the other hand, maybe that’s an argument for orality; body language and social context might have made it much easier to understand.) English has almost the exact opposite problem—there are so many words that the language allows you to say precisely what you want to say in almost wholly unambiguous terms. As a result, translating Hebrew into English always means stripping ambiguity and multiple meanings from the text in exchange for one clear statement.

Richter’s example of this principle in Genesis sheds some light on the conclusion of the Jacob-Esau story. As Jacob makes his return to Edom, he sees [MXNH] or “God’s host” of angels preparing the way (Gen. 32:2). Remembering that when he left Edom fourteen plus years ago Esau wanted to kill him, Jacob decides to divide his caravan into “two bands” [plural of MXNH] (32:7); then, if [MXNH] “one company” (32:8) is smitten, the other will escape. He hopes to find “grace” [XN] (32:5) in Esau’s sight, so he sends “a present” [MNXH] (32:13) of goods to Esau. The wordplay of the Hebrew here is that Jacob’s hoping for grace [XN] for his company [MXNH], but he sends a payoff [the NX in MNXH], which is the inverse of grace [XN]; he’s trying to BUY grace, that which cannot be bought.

Esau recognizes Jacob’s shiftiness when they two finally get together; he asks, “What meanest thou by all this drove [MXNH] which I met? And [Jacob] said, These are to find grace [XN] in the sight of my lord. And Esau said, I have enough [yesh li rav], my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself” (Gen. 33:8-9). Esau rejects Jacob’s attempt to purchase his forgiveness, to sanctify the stealing of his blessing. Jacob hears Esau and, perhaps offended by his brother’s refusal to forgive, rubs Esau’s face in his subordinate circumstances: “Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee”—I’ve brought you the equivalent of the birthright and blessing I stole; it’s just as good!—“because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough [yes li kol]” (Gen. 33:11). You’ll see that the English spoken by Esau and Jacob is identical: “I have enough.” But the Hebrew is NOT the same. Esau’s words mean, “I have plenty”; Jacob’s mean “I have it all.” In the end, after Jacob’s reminded Esau that he has taken EVERYTHING, he agrees to take Jacob’s bribe; Jacob is allowed to buy grace [XN] with a present [mNXh].

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Jonathan and David: Three Takes

The story of David and Jonathan--their friendship and loyalty in the face of danger and almost certain death has inspired men and women for millennia. A seventeenth-century poet and distant ancestor of mine, Anne Bradstreet, commemorated their love and mutual respect in these words, spoken by David:

"O lovely Jonathan! how wast thou slain?
In places high, full low thou didst remain
Distrest for thee I am, dear Jonathan,
Thy love was wonderfull, surpassing man,
Exceeding all the love that's Feminine,
So pleasant hast thou been, dear brother mine."

Recently, I learned of another prominent early American figure who idealized the friendship between David and Jonathan, calling on that bond as a way to sanctify one of his own friendships. When John Adams was studying law under the tutelage of Colonel James Putnam, he met another young lawyer named Jonathan Sewall. As lawyers Adams and Sewall rode the Massachusetts circuit together, traveling with a judge from one small town to another, bringing justice--or at least legal closure--to the people. Sewall and Adams frequently shared a room and sometimes a bed on these trips; there was no Marriott waiting for them in eighteenth-century Charlestown. As a result of their constant companionship, the two men grew very close; Adams recalled that "he always called me John, and I him Jonathan, and often said to him, 'I wish my name were David.'" Adams loved Sewall as a brother and friend--but he recorded this story in order to make the point that he loved his country more than anything else in the world. Sewall, you see, was a Tory, a man loyal to King George the Third.

When Sewall invited Adams for a walk in 1774, just before he was to leave for the First Continental Congress, Adams had to make a choice between his dearest friend and his country. On that walk, Sewall

"said 'that Great Britain was determined on her system; her power was irresistible and would certainly be destructive to me and to all those who should be severe in opposition to her designs.' I answered 'that I knew Great Britain was determined on her system, and that very determination determined me on mine' . . . The conversation . . . terminated in my saying to him, 'I see we must part, and with a bleeding heart I say, I fear forever; but you may depend upon it, this adieu is the sharpest thorn on which I ever sat my foot.'"

Bradstreet and Adams invoked the friendship of Jonathan and David because that relationship was such a powerful symbol of trust and friendship, but they were far from the first to do so. Ancient Jewish and Christian commentators have invoked the story of David and Jonathan for centuries--and even they were only following in a tradition begun by the Israelite prophet Amos. Writing just 300 years after David and Jonathan, Amos is famous in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for three verses. 

Two of those describe a period of apostasy that Latter-day Saints associate with the years between the death of the apostles and Christ's appearance to Joseph Smith in 1820: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of he Lord, and shall not find it" (8:11-12). The other verse emphasizes the importance of prophets--"Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (3:7)--and serves as a commentary on the relationship between Jonathan and David. 

Amos 3:7 clearly paraphrases the language of 1 Samuel, where David flees from the wrath of Saul and Jonathan promises to act as an advocate for David. David asks Jonathan, "what is my sin before thy father, that he seeketh my life?" and Jonathan replies, "thou shalt not die: behold my father will do nothing either great or small, but that he will shew it me" (1 Sam. 20:1-2). The similar English language in these two verses is a product of similar Hebrew; both texts revolve around the same three Hebrew words: 'asah (will do) dabar (nothing) galah (but he will show/reveal). What can we learn by recognizing the connection between these two texts? 
  1. We can learn that Amos read 1 Samuel, that 1 Samuel was written before Amos. This point may seem obvious, but it's worth making, given the questions scholars have and ask about biblical chronology.
  2. We can learn something about the relationship between prophets and those that they preach to. By paraphrasing 1 Samuel 20:2, Amos suggests that prophets relate to those over whom they have stewardship in the same way that Jonathan related to David. In the Book of Mormon prophets are repeatedly accused of teaching the people "according to your own desires" in order to "keep them down even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labor of their hands" (Alma 30:27). Amos frames the relationship between prophet and people as a corollary of the relationship between Jonathan and David so that the people will know (paraphrasing 1 Samuel 18:1) "that the soul of a prophet is knit with the souls of the people, and a prophet loves them as his own soul." 
  3. We can learn something about the relationship between God and his prophets. Despite his love for David, Jonathan always remained true to Saul. He identified first and foremost as a son, remaining true to and present with Saul throughout his life. Jonathan loved David, but his first obligation was to Saul. The Father-Son relationship which Amos describes between God and his prophets reminds me of the progression made by Joseph Smith, who was first described by God as a "servant" (Doctrine & Covenants 5:1), then as a "friend" (D&C 84:63), and finally as a "son" (D&C 130:15). 
  4. We can learn something about the relationship between God and his people--especially as that relationship existed in Amos' time. The exchange between Jonathan and David reprized by Amos is one that takes place as Saul prepares to murder David; the exchange between Amos and Israel takes place as God prepares to scatter and 'destroy' Israel. Jonathan buys David time and space through his advocacy with Saul and timely warnings to David; Amos offers Israel the same chance, but if they refuse to hearken to his voice, they will be destroyed as surely as David would have been destroyed. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Great are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 45

In chapter forty-five, Isaiah develops and extends the temple imagery he introduced in chapter forty-four; the chapter division is a modern imposition on a seamless section of text. After rebuking Israel for corrupting the temple ordinances the Lord promises that Cyrus, a future king of Babylon, will help Israel to rebuild the temple (44:28), introducing this unborn leader as a type of all temple worshippers: “Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden [. . .] I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places [. . . for] I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee [. . . and] I girded thee” (45:1-5) Cyrus has been anointed and clothed, as Aaron and his sons were anointed and clothed preparatory to entering the temple, and he has received a new name signifying his entrance into covenants with the Lord, as Abraham and Sarah received new names (Genesis 17:5-7, 15).

After describing Cyrus’s entry into the temple’s holy place and holy of holies (its “secret places,” where he is to receive “hidden riches”), Isaiah launches into a description of the creation from God’s perspective: “I form the light, and create darkness . . . . Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring forth together; I the Lord have created it” (Isaiah 45:7-8).This first-person narrative of creation gives way to a series of seemingly unrelated questions. Isaiah, speaking for the Lord, seems to anticipate criticism in verses 9-10: “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? Or thy work, He hath no hands? Woe unto him that saith unto his father, What begettest thou? Or to the woman, What hast thou brought forth?” (Isaiah 45:9-10). The English language of these questions appears wholly unrelated to the theme of creation introduced after Cyrus’s initiation into the “secret places,” but the Hebrew suggests that these verses extend Isaiah’s interest in the creation.

The Hebrew word translated into English as “Maker” is the same used to describe Adam’s creation from the dust of the earth: “And the Lord God FORMED man of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). When Isaiah warns Israel not to “strive” with the “Maker,” he’s referring to the Creator of Genesis. Later in that same verse, the Hebrew verb translated as “makest” is a word almost omnipresent in the Genesis creation narrative (Genesis 1:7, 11, 12, 16, 25, 26, 31; 2:2, 3, 4, 18). So Isaiah’s admonition not to ask “What makest thou?” could be read as an injunction not to question the Lord’s purposes in creating the world. Why would we interrogate the Lord concerning the creation? Because, as Isaiah reminds us in verse 10, that creation resulted in Adam and Eve’s Fall, bringing pain and suffering into our lives. The Hebrew verb translated “begettest” is the same used by God to proclaim Eve’s curse: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt BRING FORTH children” (Genesis 3:16). And “brought forth” at the end of verse 10 carries with it a sense pain, suffering, and affliction in the Hebrew. These verses, in other words, seem to question the purpose of the creation and the necessity of a Fall which brought pain and suffering into the world.

After introducing Cyrus as a representative temple worshipper and giving a first person narrative of the creation, Isaiah warns Israel not to question God’s motivations in creating a world where the Fall could take place. He warns Israel not to judge rashly, but he also, in verses 11-19 explains that God would be more than happy to answer their questions concerning the Fall and its necessity. Isaiah frames this invitation to learn about the creation and Fall in the form of a chiastic poem:

A) Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me (11)
B) I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded (12)
C) I have raised him [Cyrus] up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the Lord of hosts. (13)
D) Thus saith the Lord, The labour of Egypt, and merchandise of Ethiopia and of the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over unto thee, and they shall be thine: they shall come after thee; in chains they shall fall down unto thee, they shall make supplication unto thee, saying, Surely God is in thee; and there is none else, there is no God. (14)

E) Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour. (15)

D) They shall be ashamed, and also confounded, all of them: they shall go to confusion together that are makers of idols. (16)
C) But Israel shall be saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation: ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded world without end. (17)
B) For thus saith the Lord that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the Lord; and there is none else (18)
A) I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth: I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain (19)

Most of these chiastic parallels are clear; the D) sections are the most difficult, but both verses describe idol worshippers in Egypt, Ethiopia, and elsewhere who will, Isaiah explains, eventually recognize the impotence of their idols. The poem begins and ends by inviting Israel to acquire knowledge, and specifically knowledge of the creation; those invitations belie the accusation by idolatrous peoples situated at the center of this chiasmus. The idolatrous complain that God “hidest thyself”; by bracketing this complaint with God’s open invitations to learn of Him, Isaiah demonstrates that God is anything but reclusive and unwilling to answer our questions. Isaiah ironically highlights the wrongheadedness of these complaints by situating them at the center of his poem, the one place that would have been least ‘hidden’ in the entire poem. 

God wants Israel to gain the “hidden riches” of knowledge available in the temple; he wants to explain the purposes of creation and the need for a Fall. Isaiah’s chiastic poem shows Israel just how open and inviting He is: He’s initiated a foreigner, Cyrus, into the temple’s “secret places,” as a sign that all are welcome to learn the mysteries of God.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Notes on the KJV: Of Blessings and Birthrights

At Ohio State University’s recent conference on “The King James Bible and Its Cultural Afterlife,” David Richter gave a fantastic paper on “Misleading Moments in the KJV” that helped to clarify several potentially confounding passages in Genesis.

Jacob’s deception of Isaac (with Rebekah’s help!), when he steals Esau’s blessing, has always troubled me, but before Richter’s talk I had never noticed before that, according to the King James Version, Esau really doesn’t have cause to be upset. You’ll remember that when, after Jacob has tricked Isaac into thinking that he’s Esau by covering his arms in goat’s hair and cooking him some goat meat, Esau returns to the house he begs Isaac for another blessing: “Hast thou but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father” (Genesis 27:38). Isaac does bless him, and Esau’s blessing is, at least in the KJV, substantially the same as Jacob’s. In Jacob’s blessing, Isaac pronounces, “God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth” (27:28). He blesses Esau in essentially the same language: “Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above” (27:39). So if Isaac pronounces essentially the same blessing on both brothers—if Esau’s going to enjoy prosperity as a farmer—why does Isaac’s blessing continue with the words, “and by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother” (27:40)? Why does Esau want to “slay my brother Jacob” (27:41)?

The problem here, Richter explained, is that Hebrew prepositions have multiple meanings; the same word that means of can also mean from. Esau’s blessing, then should read something like “Behold thy dwelling shall be far from the fatness of the earth, and far from the dew of heaven above.” No wonder he was so upset!

(Part two of Richter’s commentary on Jacob and Esau coming soon!)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why Obedience is the First Law of Heaven

During Saul's tenure as the king of Israel, he received a command to commit genocide against the Amalekites. For the most part, Saul fulfilled this commandment, killing "man and woman, infant and suckling" (I Sam. 15:3). However, he failed to kill "ox and sheep, camel and ass," sparing the "best" Amalekite livestock for a burnt offering to God (I Sam. 15:3, 15). Not interested in the sacrifice of animals he'd commanded Saul to slaughter, the Lord sent Samuel to relieve Saul of the kingship for his disobedience with this memorable phrase: "Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (I Sam. 15:29).

This verse, one of just twenty-five Old Testament verses that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages its juvenile Sunday School students to memorize, sends a very clear message: obedience is the first law of heaven. If you're not obedient, then it doesn't matter what other good qualities you might have, what other goods deeds you might do; to paraphrase Paul, "though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, , so that I could remove mountains, and [act not obediently], I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body too be burned, and [act not obediently], it profiteth me nothing" (I Cor. 13:2-3). In chastising Saul, Samuel makes it very clear that God values obedience above all else. What he doesn't explain is why obedience matters so very much. From my own mortal perspective Saul's sacrificial intent sometimes seems like a good--or at least a thoughtful--idea. So why, exactly, is strict obedience the first law of heaven?

Samuel doesn't do a great job of explaining the logic behind the Lord's decision to depose Saul, but a later prophet's words shed some light on the matter. Hosea complains that Israel, "like men, have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me" (Hosea 6:7). In response, God expresses his displeasure by repeating and paraphrasing the explanation Samuel gave to Saul: "For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6). Hosea's words echo Samuel's but with one key difference: he replaces obedience with mercy (or charity). Hosea's substitution might seem to substantially alter the original sense of Samuel's injunction to obey, but during his mortal ministry Jesus Christ--speaking here to Hosea as Jehovah, so he would know--explained the connection between obedience and mercy or charity, between Samuel's words and Hosea's.

On a Sabbath walk through a field of grain Jesus' disciples "were an hungered, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat" (Matt. 12:1). The Pharisees complained to Jesus that his followers had broken the Sabbath, and Jesus replied that "if ye had known what [Hosea] meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless" (Matt. 12:7). The Pharisees take Samuel's position--'Obedience above all else!'--and Jesus responds by suggesting that the Pharisees have missed the point of Samuel's emphasis on obedience, that they have failed to understand Hosea, who explains why obedience is the first law of heaven. Christ demonstrates Hosea's meaning by healing a blind man on that very same Sabbath and asking, "What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?" (Matt. 12:11). We reflexively interpret this scripture as a justification for hauling our own sheep out of the mire on Sunday--but that's not Christ's point at all. The point is that he--the creator of the Sabbath day--has used it for its original purpose, to bless the lives of his sheep. As he explains in a parallel account of the same incident, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). The Joseph Smith Translation of these verses adds that "the Sabbath was given unto man for a day of rest; and also that man should glorify God, and not that man should not eat" (JST Mark 2:26).

From God's perspective the purpose of our obedience--the why behind Samuel's stern words to Saul--is a desire to bless us, to act with mercy towards us. If the Pharisees had recognized the merciful intent of his command to honor the Sabbath and to rest on that day, Jesus suggests, they would not have construed it as an injunction to refrain from eating "food . . . prepared with singleness of heart" (Doctrine & Covenants 59:13). Obedience is the first law of heaven because obedience is the only way we can qualify ourselves for the mercies Jesus Christ desires to bestow on us, because "[t]here is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundation of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated--and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (D&C 130:20-21). The Lord desires mercy and not  sacrifice, obedience and not self-appointed suffering, because only our obedience will allow him to (justly) dispense the blessings he desires us to have.

If Saul had only understood the rationale behind Samuel's explanation, he probably wouldn't have needed to hear it.