Sunday, December 6, 2009

Blogging the Bible part 10

Genesis chapter 10 now, The Table of Nations. Basically a worthless chapter, unless you like stuff about the made up origins of tribes and cities. There are a few things worth commenting on however.

GEN 10:2 begins "The sons of Japheth:" but we are also told in the footnotes that 'sons' could also be 'descendants', 'successors' or 'nations' in this and many of the other verses of this chapter. Now call me a dirty unbeliever if you will, but when one pretty insignificant word can be interpreted or translated in such a wide way, in fact so widely that the meaning of the sentence can be utterly different with every differing interpretation, how is one supposed to take something in the Bible literally and not look like a drooling idiot?

Next we have verse 4. The sons (or descendents. Or successors. Or nations) of Javan are listed, and amongst them is Rodanim. Only, the footnotes tell us that in some texts this is Dodanim. Apparently this is also so confusing that the footnote itself is confused because it reads:

Some manuscripts of the Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch (see also Septuagint and 1 Chron. 1:7); most manuscripts of the Masoretic Text Dodanim. [my emphasis]
I thought there were no errors in the Bible? I thought it could be taken literally? Is it some of the Masoretic Texts or most of them? Did I miss something blindingly obvious here? Of course, there couldn't possibly have been an error in translation or transcribing that has been passed down through subsequent copies. Oh no. The Bible is inerrant after all.

There's some amateur anthropology and history then sprinkled in here and throughout the rest of this chapter - basically primitive attempts to explain why there are different nations with different languages that I guess we are supposed to take literally but that fly in the face of what we know of human prehistory and early humanity.

In verse 8 we are told that Cush was the father of Nimrod. Of course, the footnotes also tell us that 'father' may actually be 'ancestor', 'predecessor' or even 'founder' here and in verses 3, 15, 24 and 26. And clearly none of those have an entirely different meaning to 'father'. Literalism indeed.

Interestingly, the fact that Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord is also where the well known phrase "Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord." comes from. I know I use it all the time.

Verse 11, and yet more problems with translation and interpretation. Part of the verse reads "... where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir ..." But the footnotes also say that this could be " Nineveh with its city squares". I defy anybody to see the idiocy in taking this text literally. Clearly there are no problems.

Verse 15, more footnotes. We have Canaan's sons/descendents/successors/nations listed. "... father of Sidon his firstborn..." Or, as the footnotes point out, maybe "of the Sidonians, the foremost." Nope, no major differences in meaning there. What's your problem heathen?

Canaan's clans scatter and then we're on to the Semites, sons/descendants/successors/nations of Shem. Now, here in verse 21 we have more problems with translations or interpretations, according to the footnotes. It reads "Sons were also born to Shem, whose older brother was Japheth..." The footnotes tell us that this may also be "Shem, the older brother of..." A quite significant difference. Literal you say?

More lists of names and then the chapter is pretty much over. Not a great deal to write about other than the differing translations of interpretations I think. Really they make a mockery of any idea that the Bible is inerrant or to be taken literally because some of the alternatives completely alter the meaning of the passage in question and one is forced to ask again - which bits are to be taken literally and why, and then which interpretation of which bit is to be taken literally and why?


  1. A lot of these aren't quite so bizarre in the Hebrew; a translation is always an interpretation, and can't necessarily preserve all the nuances (and indeed ambiguities) of the original text. So regarding Shem and Japheth, a more literal translation would be "And unto Shem [there] was born [offspring], also he, ancestor of all the descendents of Eber, brother of Japheth the big" The difficulty is how the sentence breaks. Is it "brother of Japheth-the-elder", i.e. Japheth is the elder brother, or "brother of Japheth, the elder one", i.e. Shem is the elder. "Rehovot Ir" means "streets/squares of the city," but could also be a place-name.

    Dodanim and Rodanim is something you'll see here and there: the letters R and D are very easily confused both in Square Hebrew script as used by Jews and the older Paleo-Hebrew used by Samaritans (cf. Eliasaph son of Deuel in Numbers 1:14, who is called Eliasaph son of Reuel in Numbers 2:14 in most Masoretic texts, including the text used in practice in most synagogues).

    None of this, of course, affects your main point. It might be possible to speak of "literalism" to some extent, but it remains the case that the text of the Bible is ambiguous, and relies heavily upon the traditions of the translators to understand. Christian translations are often mainly based on the Septuagint, which itself is based on early Jewish tradition. Jewish traditions since have some differences. And I recently saw a Samaritan translation being developed, which brings in a whole different set of traditions. (You can look at my blog for some discussion of the differences)

    Keep in mind, also, that the oldest part of the text of the Bible, the part whose origins are "lost in the mists of time", are the *consonants*. Hebrew was written with no vowels (the vowels were invented around the 8th century I think), and without punctuation. This can make a huge difference. Vowels can mean the difference between plural and singular, between passive and active, and even bigger differences. And we already know that punctuation matters. Once again, tradition is critical. The traditions are also often credited as being "divinely inspired" somehow, but naturally there is even more disagreement among traditions than among texts.

    It's impossible to expect anything unambiguous from the Bible (which doesn't stop people from doing it), and even harder to understand how all those interpretations can co-exist when looking at it in translation.

  2. segram - thanks the for comment.

    I am quite deliberately avoiding going back to the Hebrew or any of the original languages of the Old Testament texts, for a couple of reasons.

    First, I don't doubt that these inconsistencies arise from translation problems and the ambiguities are nothing spectacular if comparing simple translations of text. If this were simply a cookbook, there'd be no problem with translation ambiguities. The problem is that there are people who think the Bible is inerrant and can be taken literally and attempt to act accordingly and would often like to make others act accordingly. The simple fact that there are ambiguities makes a mockery of this whether the problems are down to translation errors or transcription errors or something else entirely - how could there be errors or inconsistent or contradictory alternatives if the Bible is the inerrant word of God? If the translations aren't clear and can be interpreted in different ways then the problem for literalism should be obvious.

    Second, most of the people who take the Bible literally or believe it to be the inerrant word of God don't go back to the original languages of the text - they work from the translations. So will my criticism.

    Third, going back to the original language may remove the ambiguities introduced by translation, but it doesn't remove the errors and inconsistencies in the Bible, it merely swaps the language. Hell, if we could somehow find the original written copy of every text of the Bible I'm confident it would not remove the inconsistencies and errors present in the text as a whole.

    Which leads nicely to the fourth reason - although you don't speak of going back to the original Hebrew and so this isn't aimed at you I'll mention it here anyway - we don't have the original Hebrew, paleo-Hebrew or Greek, merely early copies starting from about 300 BCE - it is impossible to know if those early copies are faithful to the originals so anyone who might say or ask "Well, have you gone back to the original Hebrew?" is not being as clever as they think, they're just moving the problem back one step.

  3. And one might even go a bit further and suggest that even the original Hebrew may not in fact be the infallible word of God, but I don't want to be a troublemaker.

    There was of course this story a while back

    A certain Pastor Grizzard held a halloween book burning festival where satanic versions of the Bible were destroyed - “I believe the King James version is God’s preserved, inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God… for English-speaking people."

    Anyway, I found chapter 10 a bit of a let down, and I hope it picks up again in chapter 11. Although, I must say that if Rowan Atkinson ever reads the Bible as an audiobook, this chapter would probably be one of the highlights.

    "....And the Jebusite, and the Amorite, and the Girgasite, And the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, And the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite....."

    It's just asking for a punchline.

  4. ............and the Marmite?