(Nothing in this excerpt will surprise my Jewish readers, but I wish more of my other readers knew! tl;dr: The Hebrew “eshet chayil” in Proverbs 31 does not mean “virtuous woman” in the modern sense, far from it. It means “woman of valor” or daring woman.)
Proverbs 31, from a Hebrew wisdom text, has been treated as one basis for defining “family values” in some Christian communities in the U.S., and has frequently been put to the purpose of subjugating women and validating rigid gender hierarchy. In most Christian translations of Proverbs 31, men are told to praise and admire “the virtuous woman” or “the good woman” (or, in a few versions, the “capable woman” or the “capable wife”). But the Hebrew eshet chayil does not mean “virtuous woman.” It means “woman of valor.” (Jewish translations into English, such as the JPS, get this right.)
In his annotations to The Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter parses the word like this: “…vigor, strength, worth, substance. It is a martial term transferred to civic life.” He also notes the word shalal (“prize, loot”) in the line that follows: “The heart of her husband trusts her / and no prize does he lack” (Proverbs 31:11). It is as though the woman of valor is being compared to a victorious warrior returning home with spoils after war. (In fact, in this metaphor, the husband is the one awaiting the spoils-laden return of the warrior who has his heart; the gender roles a modern reader would expect are flipped.)
In our English Bibles, we often get “virtuous,” “good,” or other adjectives suggestive of moral character because the translation committee commissioned by King James I four centuries ago translated eshet chayil in this way. Because that Authorized Version became our sacred text, future committees have dutifully followed suit. But in the seventeenth century, the word “virtuous” made somewhat more sense; the Victorians hadn’t yet gotten their hands on the word (and wouldn’t for another 250 years). At the time, “virtuous” still suggested the Italian virtù, meaning manliness, purposeful action, and bravery—not moral purity or goodness. Vir is Latin for “man,” and we get from it not only the English word virtue but also virility. The “virtuous woman” in Proverbs 31 is the very same woman whom the King James translation tells us is clothed “in strength and honor,” like a warrior (Proverbs 31:25).
However, the Hebrew eshet chayil doesn’t suggest manliness or masculinity. It suggests valor. The woman of Proverbs 31 is brave, persistent, audacious, resourceful, and ready for anything. In that chapter, we find her running a business. We find her planning for the future, charting a course toward her dreams. A more apt translation of eshet chayil into contemporary English may well be “a daring woman.” Or at least, we could adopt the Jewish translation and go with “valorous woman”; it is far more accurate.
What I want us to notice is the wide gap between the “daring,” bold woman and the “virtuous,” well-behaved woman. This gap persists in our modern Bibles for two reasons. First, the fact that the meanings of many words have shifted dramatically over the past four hundred years, so that words that meant one thing to the readers of King James’ 1611 Authorized Version often convey something completely different to us now. Second, we bring with us into the Bible, eisegetically, a bias from our own culture and our religious tradition, an expectation that in those pages we will find meek, submissive women—and instructions for women to be subservient beings. In reality, little of that is in the text. That’s in us; we bring it with us when we translate or read the book. We insert it because we expect it. And once it’s there, it gets used within our religious communities to justify and reinforce a subjugation and marginalization of women that may be faithful to the nineteenth-century Victorian ideal of “the angel in the house” but that is unbiblical and anachronistic.
I wish to remind my fellow Christians: you and I, we did not become Christians to learn from the Victorians or to run our households in the Victorian way. That’s not why we’re here.
– Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible
I am delighted to announce the release of a new book: Lives of Unforgetting, subtitled “What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible, And A Way of Reading the Bible as a Call to Adventure.”
The ancient Greek word for “truth” means unconcealing or unforgetting. Yet today many ideas and stories that were once critical to how early Christians understood, practiced, and defended their faith often remain “hidden in plain sight” in our Bibles. These ideas are concealed from us by the distance between languages, between eras, and between cultures—yet they are so worth unconcealing and unforgetting.
Whether the first-century church thought there was a hell
What happens when you realize that in Greek, faith is a verb
Why gender in the Bible is more complicated than we think
Which concepts our modern tradition often takes for granted that would have been alien to the original readers (like homophobia)
We have also forgotten that to read the Bible is to receive an invitation to adventure—to encounter the impossible, to move mountains, to walk on water. Instead, we have been taught to read the Bible tamely, to make no choices, to risk no questioning of our tradition. What would happen if we took the adventure? If we readers walked out into the wilderness toward God, leaving home far behind? If we stepped out of the boat of our received tradition, out onto the crashing waves?
All right, with a friend’s help, I found a much faster way to say what I’ve been wanting to say about “hupotassomenoi allelois” (Ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις) in the letter to Ephesus. So here is the more Internet-friendly, tl;dr version.
People often quote Ephesians 5:22 (in English, usually a variation on “wives, submit to your husbands”), and there are several problems with how this verse is usually used.
First, people usually forget to also quote Ephesians 5:21 (“submit to each other in reverence of Christ”), despite the fact that in Greek this is all part of the same sentence and that in that sentence you can’t talk about wives submitting to husbands without simultaneously talking about husbands submitting to wives.
Second, if you look at the original words, you realize that “submit” doesn’t mean “obey.” Our modern “submit” doesn’t even mean what “submit” meant in English when it was used originally, four hundred years ago, in the King James translation of the Bible. The older English translations used “submit” because they were drawing from Latin “sub + mittere,” meaning to deploy oneself like a soldier under a command, to get a mission accomplished. (In fact, we get the English word “mission” from the same Latin verb.) And the Greek “hupo + tassomenoi” means to deploy or arrange yourselves in military formation under a command. The original passage isn’t making a statement about obedience, but about the disciplined and alert support that Christians who are in relationship with each other are called to provide each other as they wear the “full armor of God” and face (spiritual) opposition. It’s actually a remarkable word to use in a first-century Greek text because military metaphors were usually reserved for men. But people of all genders are being asked to deploy themselves in a battle-ready unit in support of each other within the early Christian community. Ephesians 5:21: “Deploy yourselves in support of each other, in reverence of Christ.” The tense is one we don’t have in English, one that suggests continual action: Be always deploying yourselves under and in support of each other. These lines in Ephesians are part of a longer sentence and a longer passage that offers an extended metaphor for how each member of a first-century Ephesian community can be continually, spiritually battle-ready, regardless of their gender, class, or position.
Third, by missing both of the points above, we end up trying to take one piece of a Greek sentence and use it as an isolated aphorism to hang a doctrine on, specifically about women’s roles in [the household / the church / society – take your pick], and we then proceed to miss entirely the point the original writer appears to have been making, which has to do with the need for a community in which all members are actively supporting each other, each member ready to step in wherever the other is vulnerable — operating in concert (“homothumadon,” of one mind) like a Greek phalanx or a Roman battle square. And the use of the military metaphor to apply not only to the citizens and freedmen in the community but to the slaves as well, and not only to men but to others also, subverts the traditional class and gender hierarchies of the community the letter is being written to: treating all believers as though they are all soldiers working together in a unit. It’s a radically subversive idea in the first century, and we don’t have easily equivalent words or concepts to translate it to in modern English.
So when we pluck out the one verse by itself and use it as rhetorical backing for a gender hierarchy that is traditional in *our* culture, we might possibly be committing two errors.
First, we’re missing the forest for the trees. Imagine that we’re grabbing up one branch and whacking women with it while the writer of the passage is standing to one side shouting indignantly, “Wait! Look at the forest! Put down that branch a moment and look at the whole forest! It’s important!” (And there is an impressive, deep, beautiful, and useful forest here, if we don’t busy ourselves waving twigs in the air and we get to see it. The larger message about community that this letter is trying to convey is a very powerful one that is no less radical today than when it was written. It’s just being conveyed within a language and context that’s very different from our own.)
And second, we may be advocating a message that, in spirit, is opposite to the message the epistle was written to convey. That is, we’re enforcing culturally traditional divisions (and doing so potentially in divisive or oppressive ways) in a passage that was all about how to operate as a cohesive and interdependent unit inside of and against what was at that time a divided and highly stratified culture.
Something to think about.
(That’s still quite a long post, I suppose. But much shorter than my other attempts.)
P.S. Sometimes, the King James Version actually gives us a really good translation, but we get in trouble because the meanings of many words have changed in English over the past four centuries (like “submit”). Another example my friends and I have been talking about a lot is the Proverbs 31 “virtuous woman.”
The Hebrew is “eshet chayil.” It doesn’t mean “virtuous woman.” It means “woman of valor.”
The King James translated “chayil” as “virtuous” because in the 17th century, “virtuous” still suggested the French “virtu” and at the time it meant “manly” or “brave.” This is the woman who is also, in the King James translation, clothed in “strength and honor.”
The Hebrew doesn’t suggest “manly”/masculine though. Just: valorous. Brave, persistent, daring, and ready for anything.
“A daring, warrior woman, who can find? Her worth is incalculable” would be a much better English translation. (In fact, the JPS Tanakh used for Jewish worship in the United States translates the verse closer to that.)
Photo above by Caleb Wright on Unsplash.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
Because I think this is worth knowing: many of the verses quoted by teachers of American “purity culture” and taken as justification for the subordination of women were likely originally intended to have the opposite effect. Chastity and virginity were prized in the early first-, second-, and third-century Christian churches in Europe and Western Asia partially as a way to free up men and women to preach and to work in the community outside the home. Roman law after Augustus required young men and women to wed and bed and produce healthy Roman babies. That’s right, likely in response to the extremely high infant mortality rate, the state mandated getting married and knocked up — and penalized those who didn’t. However, there were at least two exemptions I am aware of, one for registered and professional prostitutes and one for priestesses. Rome had this idea that priestesses needed to be virgins and therefore shouldn’t wed and bed Roman men – so priestesses didn’t have to marry.
Now, in most recognized Roman religions, it was very hard to become a priestess, and the number of priestesses were few. But in Christian doctrine from its earliest days, every single Christian was a priest/priestess of God, and the members of the church collectively were the “bride of Christ.” So…during those times when the Empire didn’t ban the religion outright, any Christian woman could claim the marriage exemption, declare herself an official virgin, and rather than devote her life to raising a good Roman family, she could teach, she could preach, she could run a business (as many Christian women did – just look to Lydia of Thyatira for a quick, biblical example), and/or she could join one of the sisterhoods of the holy widows, gathering funds for the poor and organizing efforts to care for the community’s orphans and homeless.
This is one reason that during the times of Nero, Trajan, Domitian, and Diocletian, Christianity was so hated by the Roman government. It wasn’t just that Christianity was nominally monotheistic (and so Christian mothers raised their children not to sacrifice to ancestral deities, a circumstance which eventually led to the crash of several major industries), it was all the growing numbers of women who were unmarried and teaching and leading and bursting into activity in their communities (though others were also withdrawing into secluded communities of scholars or anchoresses). There is a reason the letters in the New Testament name as many or more women apostles and teachers as they do men. To men in power in Rome, this may have appeared to be a bit of an apocalypse. “Women not getting married??? Women preaching??? The world as we know it is ending!! Stop them! Stop the Christians!”
Emperor Diocletian draws my particular ire. He attempted to exterminate Christianity in the Roman Empire in the year 303 specifically by attacking Christian women. He revoked the state’s recognition of Christianity as a legal religion and required that all Christian women marry. All women who refused were either raped by order of the state and then killed, or forcibly married (and then raped), or forced to register as prostitutes (and then raped). It was a systematic, state-ordered enslavement of tens of thousands of women.
After Diocletian, women were much more marginalized in the church, both because many Christian women who had been leaders in the church no longer existed — or lived in enforced marriages — and because the church that survived sold its egalitarianism in exchange for government recognition. The lesson the church seemed to learn from the early fourth century was: Women ministers aren’t safe from the government, and the church isn’t safe while women lead it; let’s have the women sit back and we’ll play it safe.
But it was not so in the beginning.
When you read stories of early Christian women martyrs who refused to give up their virginity, this is the context. Their state-recognized virginity permitted them to travel between churches as apostles, to lead, and to gather as financially independent sister “widows” or “virgins” who could take action in their communities. When Thekla, in the second-century text “The Acts of Paul and Thekla,” repeatedly escapes attempts at rape in order to continue traveling and preaching (where the rapists are hired by someone who had wanted Thekla to marry their son and took spiteful exception to vow of chastity, or by a village magistrate), the context is that rape was a weapon employed by local and imperial authorities to limit the spread of this subversive new religion and to enforce proper, Roman family values. At that time, a woman’s chastity was seen as an act of rebellion.
And today’s purity culture, which often hijacks the language of chastity in Roman-era texts to insist on the seclusion and submission of women … is such a bizarre (and arguably offensive) anachronism once you realize that the original teachings on chastity were intended to free women for public work, leadership, teaching, and preaching. It is one example of how, if you take a teaching out of one cultural and historical context and plunk it down into a different place and time without any consideration of context, you can actually end up with the same verses and the same words having opposite implications.
P.P.S. Even the Apostle Paul, while he did write about marriage being an acceptable outcome and one to be preferred in his mind to a promiscuous state (in 1 Cor 7), he also advocated in very strong terms that an unmarried state and the pursuit of God’s work was preferable to marriage. In the early church, the two — chastity and active work in the community on one side, and marriage on the other — were seen as alternate paths for a Christian’s life to take. We often take from that passage Paul’s parenthetical remark “better to marry than to burn” and treat it as if that’s the important point in the passage; by doing this, we skip the actual point he is making for his first-century readers, which is that to his mind it’s better to be single and do God’s work than it is to marry. When we lack the context in which he’s writing, we emphasize very different things in the passage than his original readers would have.
First-century Christians were called to lives of active involvement in their communities as the agents of God, his “hands and feet,” serving collectively as the body through which God operated in the world. The first-century ideal of chastity was intended to expand the agency of young men and women, whereas modern purity culture so often seeks to contract and limit agency.
P.P.P.S. This post is receiving some love in Likes and Shares on social media, so I will add this list to it:
Lydia of Thyatira.
Damaris of Athens.
Dorcas of Joppa.
The unnamed “elder” who was a “woman appointed by God” (2 John).
These are all women who were called to active leadership within church life in the first century and who are named in the Book of Acts or the Epistles as leaders, apostles, businesswomen and philanthropists, and as organizers or heads of sisterhoods. It was not just one or two women. And that’s just the first century, and this doesn’t even include the names of women leaders Paul wrote to but whose specific names he couldn’t remember (“the sister of Nereus”; “the mother of Rufus”; etc.). It also doesn’t even include the female leaders among those who, according to the gospels, organized and funded Jesus’s original ministry, like Susanna and Joanna.
The list gets long once you dive into second century texts.
So, if you are a woman in the church reading this post whose heart is called to an active life or to leadership, may this list give you courage. You are not some aberration of modern society, as others will insist. This is a list of your sisters. It is a list of names honored and trusted by the writers of the New Testament.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
Both in protest of our nation’s rampant misogyny that walks around wearing religion’s clothes — and also because I love their stories — here’s a shoutout to the badass women of the Bible: to Rizpah, who guarded the bodies of her children from wild animals and carrion beasts all night, defying the king and his soldiers; to Deborah, a middle-aged prophet who settled the court cases no one else could and led armies against an invading force; to Jael, who drove a tent peg through a dude’s head; to Mary, who fled to another country to keep her baby from being killed and then later after returning raised her child in a small town where everyone thought she was a “slut” — and raised him so well that the world still reveres his name (and hers) to this day; to Mary Magdalene, who endured the disbelief of everyone she ever told about what she saw, but didn’t disbelieve herself; to Judith, who seduced an invading general in order to get close enough to chop off his head; to a woman whose name we don’t remember, who stood on the wall of a starving city and killed the tyrant Abimelech by chucking a brick down at his head; to Miriam, the first of the prophets of the Children of Israel after their departure from Egypt, singing on the shores of the Red Sea moments after seeing her people’s enemies crushed under falling water; to Huldah, who commanded such respect that when the lost sacred texts were discovered, the priests handed them over to her and said, “Please interpret these for us, Huldah”; to Dorcas the healer, who refused to leave those dying of fever, no matter the contagion; to the Queen of Sheba, who traveled a continent to meet people of learning and establish trade deals for her nation; to Joanna and Susanna, who funded Jesus’s ministry and had a great deal to do with the early disciples not starving on the road; to Prisca, Mary, Julia, Phoebe, Junia, Chloe, Euodia, Syntyche, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and others, apostles and leaders of the early church; to Mary sister of Martha who studied with a rabbi, and to Martha sister of Mary who did the dishes and cooked so she could; to the unnamed, brave woman who suffered continual bleeding and a life of being outcast and untouchable by her community and who yet found the courage to seek out a miracle worker and commit what her community would treat as an unforgivable act: to touch him; to Anna, who spent nearly a century prophesying in the Temple; to Jochebed, who sent her baby down a river in a basket rather than let him be found by genocidal soldiers; to Abigail, who prevented a massacre; to Dinah, who got blamed for one; to Hadassah (Esther), who stopped a genocide from happening on two continents; to Tamar, who found an unusual, daring, and quite horrifying solution to her father Judah’s neglect in leaving her unprovided for and starving; to Delilah, who outwitted and captured her people’s greatest foe; to Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, who marched up to Moses in the desert and said, “We don’t have a brother, and we want to inherit our father’s property”; to the eshet hayil (the “woman of valor” who “stretches out her hands to the needy”) who fed Elijah when he staggered, exhausted and starving, to her doorstep, though she had only a single cake of bread left in the house; to the Shulammite, who loved a foreign king, survived prejudice and brutality, and chose love over fear, even against all the terror-pressure of past trauma; to Bathsheba, so often remembered as a victim of either rape or seduction, so often reduced in our retellings to a momentary plot device, but whose actual story lasted decades and who successfully maneuvered her only son to the throne; to Naomi, who lost so much to famine and tragedy, yet found joy again; to Ruth, who immigrated to a land hostile to her people, yet stayed and kept her mother-in-law and herself fed and alive, daily risking rape or worse in the fields where young men followed the vulnerable, “exotic” immigrant gleaners at a near distance; to Lydia of Thyatira, the businesswoman who funded Paul’s missionary work in Macedonia because a story he told once lit her heart on fire; and to so many, many others who lived such stories.
A few weeks ago, I suggested that the usual translations of Ephesians 5:22 are too glib and misleading in modern English. You may see translations like “Wives, submit to your husbands” (KJV) or “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (NRSV) followed by a brief statement about how “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church.” And this all sounds very cut and dry in modern English. We read it and hear something rather like: Wives, do what your husband says, much as you would if God were speaking.
But: this ancient letter to a church in Ephesus wasn’t written in modern English, and much of what we assume when we translate it is quite a bit off. And this is sad – not only because we translate this verse in ways that reinforce traditional gender hierarchies in our culture, but also because what we are losing in translation is really a lovely idea about spousal relationships that came with a shock to the Greco-Roman culture and that might potentially come with a bit of a shock to our modern American culture, too.
Specifically, I suggested that rather than submit, “in context, υποτασσομαι (hupotassomai) probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy.”
In fact, I would suggest that a better translation might be something like one of these:
“Wives, support your husbands.”
“Wives, deploy yourselves in support of your husbands.”
“Wives, arrange yourselves for battle for your husbands.”
Or even, less literally:
“Wives, go to battle for your husbands.”
“Wives, defend your husbands.”
This new post (for those who requested it) is to make the case for why I and some others think this. It will be a long post, but hopefully interesting!
Now, I’m interested in this partly because I nerd out about ancient languages, but also because how we translate passages like this one has an enormous impact on our often very religious culture. (To say the least.) That means that translating verses from the New Testament isn’t just a matter of academic interest or scholarly quibbling; it matters to the lives of real people.
To understand what may have gone amiss in the translation of this often-quoted passage, we need to look at three things:
1. The etymology of the word that we’re translating as “submit” or “be subject to.”
2. The larger context of the letter in which this passage appears. This is not a standalone verse that we can just pluck out of context without altering its meaning; it is embedded inside of an extended metaphor.
3. The meaning of the word that we’re translating as “head.”
Here we go. This is going to be exciting!
PART ONE: ETYMOLOGY
So let’s look first at “submit.”
The word being translated here is the Koine Greek verb υποτασσομαι (hupotassomai). This is a combination of the verb τασσο (tasso) with the prefix υπο (hupo). What we miss right away in English is that this verb was a military term for arranging soldiers in ordered formation to confront an enemy. τασσο could be translated “set,” “arrange,” “order,” or “deploy.” The grammar is important, too. The ending of the word tells us we’re in the passive/middle voice. “Deploy -yourself- under.” What we’re talking about is not an ancient Greek word for abstract obedience but a concrete metaphor of military support.
Now this is about to get more nuanced and interesting, but first, here is a quick link to Strong’s, where you’ll see references to commentators noting that τασσο is “primarily military” and offering an array of possible English synonyms for that root verb:
– “/tasso (place in position, post) was commonly used in ancient military language for designating/appointing/commissioning a specific status…”
– “tasso was primarily a military term meaning ‘to draw up in order, arrange in place, assign, appoint, order…”
Now, you -could- read the verb that appears in Ephesians 5:22 as “place yourselves under your husband” and you might be -technically- correct, and then you might look, as past translators have, for something like “be subject to,” in order to render the verse in better, quicker English.
But … if you do that, you lose the military context of “hupotassomai,” which is about forming up for battle and about deploying or stationing yourself to support. And you also risk losing the context this passage is embedded in and the main thrust of the argument in which this verse appears. For that reason, this translation would be a bit misleading. It would also be too glib, inviting us to read the passage lazily (especially when reading the verse by itself, without the surrounding text). We might be encouraged to read into this passage confirmation of the norms of our own culture, rather than paying close attention to the context the ancient writer is speaking to and what they may be advocating.
So, now let’s look at the context…
PART TWO: CONTEXT
The phrase in which the KJV and some modern translations give “submit” for the verb “hupotassomai” is embedded within a passage that provides an extended military metaphor. It immediately follows sentences about forsaking the “bondage” of the ways in which people in their culture have lived in their past (Ephesians 5: 1-20) to live joyously instead in new ways, “singing and making melody…giving thanks for everything.” Then, following the bit about husband and wives, the passage goes on to build toward this closing argument of the letter, a few lines later: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm…” etc. (Eph 6:10-13ff., NRSV).
The passage goes on from there to describe the armor of God in detail, in which each piece of armor metaphorically represents a particular skill or attribute that the early Christian must “put on.” For example, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, etc. Whether the early Christian is male, female, or child, or whether master or servant (all are addressed in the preceding lines of the text), all are invited by the author to put on the full armor of God and deploy themselves against a spiritual enemy that is imagined as “the powers over this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
This is significant. The relationships being described here (spousal and otherwise) aren’t being described in the abstract or in isolation; the passage is about how to abandon the “darkness” and “bondage” of the past and how to support each other in standing firm against the forces of evil, fully armored and fully ready. That’s why the writer is using military verbs like τάσσω (“deploy” / “arrange in formation”).
Now let’s zoom out and look at a broader context: the larger epistolary literature that the original audience of Ephesians would have been familiar with. There are other passages in the New Testament about marriage, using similar metaphors. 1 Corinthians 7, for instance, in which husbands and wives are described as radically interdependent. In 1 Corinthians 7:4, Paul argues that each spouse yields authority to the other, using a military term for delegating power (ἐξουσιάζει, “exousiazei”); he also notes that he says this “not as a command” – something we often glide past in reading it. A few lines later, in 7:12-16, Paul suggests that when married to someone who is not a believer, the spouse shouldn’t discontinue the relationship for that reason but should do all they can to support their unbelieving spouse – because God has called them to εἰρήνη (“eirene”). We translate that “peace” – but it’s really different from the Roman peace, the “pax” that we’ve inherited in phrases like “rest in peace” or “restfulness.” It comes from the verb eirō – to tie or weave together. The idea is that we are to be woven together (elsewhere, in Romans, Paul asks all people to weave themselves together in love). For more on eirene, see Strong’s #1515: http://biblehub.com/greek/1515.htm
So in these passages about interdependency and support, the epistolary writers of the New Testament are addressing either the plight of Christian women with unChristian husbands and how to face the world together and speak your faith to a Greek or Roman husband who believes you’re property (this is the topic in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16) or the need for husband and wife to put on the armor of God and resist the devil (in Ephesians 5-6). Remember that at the time, these letters were being written to challenge hierarchy, not support it, and to propose a radical egalitarianism in human relationships, and that most Christians in first-century Europe were women. The teaching that we are all one body in Christ was a harder pill to swallow for men in the Roman Empire than it was for women. Their culture tells husbands to own their wives and rule them; the letter to Ephesus says instead to “love them” as they love their own selves (Ephesians 5), and the first letter of Peter says to treat wives as “fellow heirs in the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). Fellow heirs! That was a radical idea, especially given inheritance laws and expectations in the Roman empire.
So husbands who become believers in that first-century world are urged to love their wives and treat them as fellow heirs. As for wives – many of whom have husbands who have not converted – they’re being encouraged to deploy themselves in support of those husbands. Unbelieving husbands are pictured as vulnerable, still in bondage to old sins and old ways of thinking, half asleep and like soldiers blundering into enemy fire. In 1 Corinthians 7:16, Paul writes, “Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband.” And he adds, “Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife” (NRSV).
The verb “save” there is σῴζω (sozo), to rescue from destruction and bring the rescued to refuge or safety; we get the Greek word for “savior” from it. See Strong’s #4982: http://biblehub.com/greek/4982.htm
In the first century, there is no need for anyone to tell wives to obey their husbands; obedience is already an expectation in that culture. No, what the epistle-writers are arguing for is a radically interdependent relationship, yielding to and honoring each other. Husbands who have material power over their spouses in the Greco-Roman world are asked to love their wives (Ephesians 5), listen to them “with understanding” (1 Peter 3), and regard them as “fellow heirs.” Wives (many of whom in the early church have unconverted husbands) are encouraged to deploy themselves against “the powers of this present darkness” in support of their husbands who remain in bondage.
In review: I don’t think this passage is about “obedience.” First-century Christian women are being asked to deploy in support of their spouses because many of their spouses were not Christian, and Christian wives of non-Christian men had to figure out how to deal with that situation. 1 Corinthians 7 provides situationally specific advice about not trying to convert the spouse but instead bring love to the table. And Ephesians 5-6 emphasizes: Stand firm against the enemy. Support your spouse in the conflict. Who knows, but through your steadfast love, they might break free?
PART 3: “HEAD OF THE WIFE”
But, someone might ask, doesn’t the next phrase after “hupotasso” talk about the husband being the head of the wife?
Well, yes … and emphatically no.
The word used here in Greek is κεφαλή, “kephale.” It does mean “head.” In English, we understand that to –also– mean “authority” or “leader,” because “head” can mean both things in our language. The same is true in Latin – the word for head also means a commander. But that Latin idiom (which we inherited) doesn’t exist in ancient Greek, as far as we know.
κεφαλή in Koine Greek does have two meanings: “head” and “origin.” Origin, like the head of a spring or the head of a river. A “source.” Marg Mowczko summarizes some fairly extensive research documenting that κεφαλή did not mean “leader” or “ruler” or anything of that kind in Greek until long after these letters were written, and you can find that summary of the research here:
In the first-century letter to the Ephesians, when calling the husband “kephale,” the author may be alluding to one (or both) of the following:
1. The Hebrew lore, recorded in Genesis, that the first woman was formed from the side or rib of the first man.
2. The logistics of Greco-Roman society, by which the husband in the house is the provider and source of the house’s income and resources. The breadwinner. But the same word does not, by itself, mean “master.” That’s a different word in Greek.
So Ephesians 5:22-23 may be saying that just as Christ is the source and the provider for the church, husbands in Ephesus are the source of the provisions in the house. I don’t think either of these two statements is a new assertion; both are stated in the text like givens that the hearers or readers already understand. The writer uses these givens as points of support for the recommendations that follow: for husbands to love (not rule) their spouses; for husbands to act sacrificially on behalf of their spouses (even as Christ does for his community), and for wives to arrange themselves, like a battle-regiment, in support of their spouses.
CONCLUSION (OR RATHER, AN INVITATION TO LOOK DEEPER)
I suggest that the thrust of these passages is not that the husband is the boss, but that the husband in a Greco-Roman world is vulnerable. And it’s not that wives are to “obey” and “be subject” to their husbands, as we have it in modern English. Rather, it’s that wives are to go out to battle for their husbands’ souls.
I mean, really think about that for a moment.
These first-century writers are using an explicitly military term to describe the actions of wives. Rather than acting as passive vessels and subjects of male rule, the ideal of the Christian wife is the woman who issues forth in spiritual battle, dressed in “the full armor of God,” an agent by which Christ might “rescue” (from the verb σῴζω) others on the battlefield.
That’s what I believe we lost in translation.
I would propose that better translations of Ephesians 5:22 than “submit” or “be subject to” might be phrases like:
“Wives, support your husbands.”
“Wives, deploy yourselves in support of your husbands.”
“Wives, arrange yourselves for battle for your husbands.”
Or, less literally:
“Wives, go to battle for your husbands.”
“Wives, defend your husbands.”
POSTSCRIPTS AND POST-POSTSCRIPTS
P.S. For some fascinating textual evidence on the gender dynamics and the roles of women in the first 2-3 centuries of the early church, refer to God’s Self-Confident Daughters by Anne Jensen.
P.P.S. “Submit” doesn’t mean what we think it does, either, by the way. Centuries ago, we borrowed that word from Latin. It’s “sub” (under) plus the verb “mittere” (to send forth). We get the word “mission” from the same word. It’s a Roman military word — to send someone out, to deploy them in support. “I submit” once meant “I deploy myself” or “I support,” or “I send myself in support.” We’ve seen that word evolve over the centuries to mean “obey,” but it was originally a more nuanced word than that. We still retain faint echoes of that prior meaning in specific, formal circumstances. For example, I could conclude this post by writing this sentence:
[I submit to you that the translation “Wives, arrange yourselves for battle for your husbands” may be closer to the sense of the Greek than “Wives, submit to your husbands.”]
If I were to write that sentence, I would not be offering to obey you. I would just be saying that I am sending this idea out, respectfully and earnestly, for your consideration. I am placing this idea “under” you for your review and pondering.
That’s how slippery words really are. They don’t stay put for long. And in some cases, the slippages and the differences may seem subtle at first glance, but that doesn’t mean they are merely trivial.
P.P.P.S. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. I offer it in a spirit of fascination. If there is a “message” I would like to convey, that message is twofold:
1. When diving into a sacred text – especially a very old one -take little for granted. (For the religious among us, reading humbly and assuming from the start that we and others have missed important things in the text is not a stance that questions God but a stance that can glorify God and humble man. It is a way of approaching the kingdom of heaven “like little children.” I talk more about this here: https://stantlitore.com/2014/12/12/why-christians-shouldnt-ignore-derrida/) For that matter, in offering a reading of Ephesians 5:22 that is focused on what I think some have left out, I may have left things out. There may be evidence I didn’t consider. The next reading of this text may be far deeper and more useful or more beautiful or more informed than this one. Take little for granted.
2. If you are reading this particular holy text, and what you are reading sounds like it confirms the traditional customs and fears of your culture, then take a second, hard look. We have inherited a lot of very Roman ideas about the Bible thanks to many centuries of filtering it through Latin and through English translations deeply influenced by the Latin. As I wrote in an earlier post, when you translate radical or subversive texts into the language of Empire, you eventually get Imperial texts.
Take that second, hard look … because the New Testament did not originate as an Imperial text. The New Testament isn’t about celebrating the status quo or about settling on a final, comfortable interpretation. It isn’t about affirming or building up a culture. It’s about cracking culture open – every culture, from Israel to Syria to Greece to Rome to Ethiopia – and letting the healing light of God pour through. It’s about turning all expectations upside-down, whipping money-changers out of the Temple, and challenging Pharisees on traditional and literalist interpretations of sacred texts. It’s about learning to live as the hands and feet of God — hands that feed the poor, liberate captives, and touch the faces of lepers; feet that carry good news to the downtrodden and that get pierced with nails by the powerful and the comfortable and the oppressors, as His feet were. It’s about reading everything in the light of the greatest commandments (love God and love your neighbor).
Remember the Bereans of Acts 17, who “received the Word with alertness of mind and searched the Scriptures daily to see whether those things were so.” Any time the Bible starts to sound really comfortable and … expected … it might be a good time to read it more uncomfortably and more awake, with “alertness of mind.” The Bible is packed with stories of God waking people up, uncomfortably, in the middle of the night, and, like a troublesome guest, rearranging all the furniture of their lives. It’s what he does.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
While on their way to a protest, someone wrote me a kind note asking me what I thought of Jeff Sessions’ take on Romans 13 (which Sessions is using to insist on respect for authorities, specifically in regard to letting our elected officials do as they please with the children of immigrants seeking asylum). Man, I could give you an earful. Interpretations of the opening verses of Romans 13 are controversial and there is a LOT written on them.
But look. The United States is not and I hope to God will never be a theocracy. Many of our founders fought and bled and died for the right to live in a country that would NOT be governed according to one faction’s particular interpretation of any religious text. I mean that: our predecessors fled Europe, fought wars, and died for this. So when our federal government starts quoting Scripture to dispel dissent, I get quite angry. This is still the United States of America, not the Republic of Gilead, and a good many of our ancestors died to keep that so. I wish more of our citizens would remember it.
As for what I think, as a Christian, of Jeff Sessions’ use of Romans 13, I’ll answer, since I was asked. Maybe these notes will help someone pull the wool from off a neighbor’s eyes and will be useful for that reason. But I urge you to call and write to your congresspeople before bothering with this post or any other like it, because Sessions is quoting Scripture at us specifically to delay some of our people in arguments and hesitation. I do not want to add to that hesitation.
If it is useful, you can read my notes. If it isn’t, skip it. But regardless, go call your congresspeople. Do that first!
…on Sessions’ use of Romans 13:1-5 as a bulwark against protest or civil disobedience:
1. First, the context in which Romans 13:1-5 was written matters. Romans 13:1-5 is not a standalone passage!
What Jeff Sessions has done, as many have done and as many always do, is pluck a short quote out of its context so that it can be used to say the exact opposite of the overall message of the text it came from.
Remember that chapter and verse numbers are arbitrary, and where punctuation appears in a translation of a Greek sentence is itself often an interpretive choice. If you want to read the opening verses of Romans 13 seriously, you need to read the section before it and the section after it, rather than just pluck part of a Greek text out and treat it like a standalone manifesto. It’s in the middle of an argument about how the first-century Roman church might conduct itself while beset with internal division and oppression from external authorities (the word is “exousia,” which is “powers,” those who have ability and force). Many scholars believe that the passage is a response to a dispute in the early church over how to handle taxation under Nero. (You can read a quick paraphrase of some of the different takes on the historical and rhetorical context here. This article is not at all comprehensive but it will give a starting point and it comes with a list of references.)
In brief, some in the early underground church were calling for the radical act of refusing to pay taxes – an issue that Paul addressed directly in Romans 13:6-7. Paul is cautioning the church to pay its taxes and not provoke an oppressive government. Such provocation will lead to punishment on the church from that government, he warns in 13:2 (“those who resist will incur judgment”). People who are reading the KJV here may get the wrong idea and think that God will punish those who resist governing authorities, because the KJV translates “krima” as “damnation.” Seriously!!! “Krima” means a verdict or a judgment in court. Paul is counseling the Roman church to avoid a situation where their members (some of whom probably lacked the protections of Roman citizenship) are hauled into the courts for refusing to pay taxes and are then fined, imprisoned, or sentenced to execution.
This is important.
There is no evidence that the first five verses of Romans 13 were intended by their author to be read as a universal creed for submission to state authorities. Paul is responding in a personal letter to a specific and local issue about taxation in Rome. He is advocating not stirring things up by withholding taxes – an act of rebellion that he judges to be without purpose. In this he echoes Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, etc.
2. Second, who is speaking also matters!
“Be respectful to the Empire” means something very different when the authority is saying it (Sessions) than it does when the rebel is saying it (Paul)! Context matters!
And by the way, can we please stop translating “hupotasso” as “submit”? Hupotasso = “deploy under,” a military term for deploying oneself, like a regiment, in support. (Latin sub + missio also means to “send under,” and I think it once had a similar connotation of battle support, but in modern English “submit” has specific and different connotations than it did in classical Latin.) A better translation in this context may be “Maintain your support for the authorities.” Paul is building the argument that the Roman church should continue to pay taxes. Context.
3. The larger message of the speaker also matters!
These five verses are so often taken by themselves as if they’re a standalone manifesto and used to silence dissent – as if Paul is advocating against civil disobedience rather than advocating for caution. But if you read the rest of the letter – and, for that matter, the account of Paul’s life in Acts – you will realize quickly that the idea of Paul preaching against civil disobedience is ridiculous. Paul is literally under house arrest for civil disobedience while writing some of his letters. Again and again in Acts, Paul ends up punished or imprisoned by the authorities for choosing civil disobedience when disobedience is necessary.
Just because Paul is saying in Romans 13 that refusing to pay taxes to Caesar is not a battle worth picking does not mean that Paul is saying that no battles are worth picking.
Consider the verses that follow later in that chapter – the ones Sessions didn’t bother to quote even though they are the summation of Paul’s argument on the subject.
Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Romans 13:10 — “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Paul is making the argument for obeying taxation law within the larger context of making sure nothing is obstructing the church from its principal work: loving one’s neighbor. Getting in a financial dispute with the Emperor and getting your members killed would definitely get in the way of that. In fact, in Romans 13: 6-7, Paul contends that the only actual impact that refusing to pay taxes is likely to have is that the tax collectors won’t get paid and won’t have food on the table. Whatever the good intent of those Christians who want to refuse to pay taxes as a form of resistance, the impact will be that they’ll get tried and convicted (krima) and their neighbors who are tasked with the collection of taxes will go hungry. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” Paul urges. Paul appears to suggest that refusing to pay taxes to Nero is a fruitless resistance that is also not the most effective way to love one’s neighbor.
The obvious corollary to this is that there may be other cases where loving one’s neighbor requires civil disobedience. When loving one’s neighbor and doing no wrong requires that you disobey or protest unjust laws, Paul is very much in support of doing so. Loving each other comes first. In that, the law of God is fulfilled, Paul insists.
The letters in the New Testament are frequently unequivocal in telling the church to shelter the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant. It is that which James tells us is “true religion.” So for us to take a line out of context to mean “shut up and let your government put children in concentration camps” when the early church was specifically tasked with providing sanctuary for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant – is patently absurd. That’s not Paul. That’s not Peter either (he told the exousia that “we must obey God rather than man” – Acts 5:29). And that’s definitely not Jesus.
For a Christian, the first directive is always to love one another as selflessly as God loves us, and THAT is what will either drive obedience or disobedience to authority. That is why Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Paul in support of civil disobedience in his Letter from Birmingham Jail!
And that’s an apt reference because this warping of a few lines of text to mean the exact opposite of what the text as a whole is advocating is not just something Sessions does to Paul. It’s the same move when Sessions or others quote the “I Have a Dream Speech” to suggest that Martin Luther King, Jr. — of all people!!! — would have urged today’s citizens not to protest in the street or march on the capital. That, of course, is absurd, since Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on the capital himself. Just as it is absurd to suggest that Paul would advocate against civil disobedience against a government committing atrocities — as, again, Paul was under arrest for civil disobedience!
This kind of rhetorical gymnastics to justify blind obedience to a federal government that is carrying out atrocities is worthier of the Third Reich than of the nation we’ve been insisting that the United States is or could become, and it is insulting to our intelligence, our conscience, and our shared humanity.
4. Finally, the type of ‘authority’ matters! The “exousia” (“powers,” those with ability and force) in Romans 13 refers to the oppressive leaders of Rome: Nero and those Nero appoints. Now, Paul may believe that Nero was “deployed” (tasso) in that position by an act of God, but that is manifestly not the case with the elected officials of the United States of America. Trump and Sessions are not Nero (though I concede that Mr. Trump at times acts like Nero). Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions were not “deployed” (tasso) to their position by an act of God. Our officials are either elected by us or appointed by those we elected, and are therefore answerable to us in a way that Nero was not answerable to the underground Christians in Rome.
When Jeff Sessions quotes Romans 13, he is saying that we should obey our elected officials in the same way and for the same reasons that we would obey an emperor or dictator, those who rule by force. And that is an appalling thought.
– Elected officials are not the same as dictators deployed by an “act of God.” Our officials are our laborers (whom we hired), and by definition are not the “exousia” to which Paul refers. In the U.S., Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions are not “exousia” (“powers” ruling by force), and we the people are literally the government. I have the sense that many of us keep forgetting this. We need to unforget it.
– Taking Romans 13 out of context to say “never protest the government” is not compatible with a larger read of the New Testament, which is packed with countless stories of people protesting the government in cases of atrocity or racial/religious oppression.
– Paul insists that our first duty is to love each other. The writers of Hebrews and James remind us that this means sheltering the orphan, the widow, the immigrant – the vulnerable among us. When children are put in concentration camps, our Christian duty, our American duty, and our human duty to put a stop to this trumps any duty we might have to Trump.
Finally, Sessions’ Bible-quoting is purely a distraction and silencing tactic. It is meant to get citizens who are practicing Christians to be complacent or slow in acting. It is an abuser’s tactic. This is not a time to be slow in acting. This is a time when children are being concentrated in camps within our borders, and it is our duty as the people of the United States, to whom our elected representatives answer, to stop it. Those of us who are Christians, it is our duty as imitators of Christ and lovers of our neighbors to stop it. It is our duty as human beings to stop it. There are a lot of gray areas in religion, politics, and human action. This isn’t one.
So, for the love of God and your neighbor and your country, be LOUD until our federal authorities cease this inhumane, cruel, and ungodly practice of kidnapping children from asylum-seeking parents.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
Someone mentioned the squeezing of a rich man through the eye of a needle yesterday, and of course I started reflecting on mistranslation and the evocative power of language. The camel and the needle is one of my favorite examples of translation shenanigans, and is all the more delightful because no matter which way you translate or mistranslate it, the message of the metaphor remains roughly the same. For those not in the know, here’s what happened. Very probably, the rabbi Yeshua told his followers two thousand years ago that it is easier to thread a rope (like the big ropes used on fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee) through the eye of a sewing needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, in Aramaic – the language he was speaking and the language in which the source text for the synoptic gospels was probably written – “camel” and “rope” are spelled the same: “gml.” They do -sound- different, but written Aramaic doesn’t often represent vowels. So someone dutifully recorded, “gml.” Now this gets even funnier when the synoptic gospels come along and people are translating the words of Christ into Koine Greek. Because in Koine Greek “camel” and “rope” are ALSO the same word, distinguished in text by a single vowel but pronounced almost identically. Camel is “kamelon” and rope is “kamilon.” In Latin and English, of course, “camel” and “rope” are really easy to tell apart. But, in both Aramaic and Greek, they are not. So while it is frustrating enough to try jamming a knotted fishing rope through the eye of a sewing needle, now we are left with the image of a massive dromedary squeezing through a needle, hump and all, and the rich are not only in a proper mess, but comically so. For want of a vowel!
It’s an amusing case because the meaning comes out somewhat similar in either case. And “camel” fits Jesus’s teaching style, which often made humorous use of hyperbole.
Other mistranslations are more sinister, like the popular translation of “arsenokoites” as “homosexuals,” which is a stretch, as there is a separate Greek word for that. “Arsenokoite” is a compound of “man” and “bed” and no one knows what the word means because its usage is so rare and it only appears in lists, without context. It’s been suggested that it was a reference to gigolos, but that’s an equally unsupported guess. In one case the word occurs next to “malakoi” (the luxurious). The traditional interpretation that malakoi and arsenokoites are paired labels for ‘submissive’ and ‘dominant’ partners in sex acts remains guesswork, and other interpretations are just as, or more, plausible. For example, malakoi arsenokoites (“soft ones, man-beds”) could easily be a colorful reference to pleasure-loving rich men who loll about on bed eating grapes all day and ignore the suffering of their impoverished neighbors. That’s a type of vice that the New Testament lectures on frequently and at length, and to which the letters in which these words appear devote considerable attention. Jesus warns that it is not easy for the rich and avaricious to reach the kingdom of heaven (as difficult as threading either a camel or a very heavy fishing rope through a needle!), and in Paul’s second letter to Corinth, those who have wealth but are slow to contribute are taken repeatedly to task for abstaining from giving or for giving only sparingly when they see others in need. Rich, luxurious, gaudy living was also a vice that Greeks and Romans alike tended to scorn and treat with mockery. (They would have found Trump Tower hilarious.) Reading “malakoi arsenokoites” in this fashion is conjecture—but so is every other proposed reading of malakoi arsenokoites.
Other problematic cases include “ezer kenegdo” (which the West translated as “a helpmeet,” a word that meant sense in seventeenth-century English but that we often receive, four centuries later, as conveying a servile role; in Hebrew, ezer kenegdo simply means a helper partner and doesn’t imply hierarchy and is the same word used to describe God’s status toward humanity); or the transformation of the Proverbs 31 “eshet chayil,” the woman of valor, into the “virtuous woman” in many English translations (in seventeenth-century English, “virtue” still suggested the Italian “virtu” with its courage and boldness, and “virtuous woman” suggested something very different then than it does today); or the misinterpretation of “kephale” (head) to mean authority (authority is a different word), because of a Latin idiom we inherited that doesn’t exist in Greek (the Latin word for head also means leader, but in Greek “kephale” simply suggests origin, like the head of a spring or a river, and not authority) — someone asked for a link, so here you go, Marg Mowczko covers the research on “kephale” here.
— Or the mistranslation of “hupotassomenoi” as “submit,” as in, wives submit to your husbands, when “hupotassomenoi” doesn’t mean submit in Greek (there’s a different word for that). Hupotossomenoi is really hard to translate in English. It means “arrange yourselves under,” which may or may not imply what the Romans think it did. It is a military word for deployment in arranged, battle-ready formation, so the Romans jumped all over the possibility of hierarchy. Romans love hierarchy. But in context, in several places it is used in passages where Paul is talking either about the plight of Christian women with unChristian husbands and how to face the world together and speak your faith to a Greek or Roman husband who believes you’re property (this is the topic in the letters to Corinth), or following passages about putting on the armor of God and resisting the devil (in the letter to Ephesus). Remember that at the time, these letters were being written to challenge hierarchy, not support it, and to propose a radical egalitarianism in human relationships, and that most Christians in first-century Europe were women. The teaching that we are all one body in Christ was a harder pill to swallow for men in the Roman Empire than it was for women. The letters to Corinth speak of non-Christian husbands as vulnerable, still in bondage to old ways of thinking, half asleep and like soldiers blundering into enemy fire. In context, hupotossomai probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy.
“Hupakoe,” which we keep translating obey, and which is used for children, never for spouses, in the New Testament, doesn’t mean “obey,” either. It means “hear under.” Children are being advised to listen and learn, not blindly obey. Again, context. These are letters urging people not to return to the ways of their parents, to abandon oppressive systems and live in a radically new way that is different from how their parents live. What’s being urged will create a world of strife within multigenerational Greek families. Hence the urging in that letter for parents not to provoke their children to anger and for children to listen deeply in the midst of the strife.
And so on.
The text is beautiful and often more nuanced than it appears in translation, and we consistently mangle it because we treat it like a Latin/Roman text instead of a collection of Hebrew and Greek texts. (When you translate radical or subversive texts into the language of Empire, you eventually get Imperial texts).
And also because we insist on reading it as if the people writing it were writing it today, with our connotations, figures of speech, and cultural fears, when in fact their cultural fears and figures of speech were completely different ones, and things that we get hung up on wouldn’t even have occurred to them.
And this leads me to reflect on the power of writing. As a writer, I’m a bit biased in thinking about how powerful written language is. But, when we look at a holy book that has been translated and mistranslated and construed and misconstrued over the course of 2000-2,500 years (or, if you want to look at something more recent, of less than 250 years of age, and within our own language without the added complexities of translation, consider the U.S. Constitution), it’s hard not to conclude that sometimes the treatment of a single word can shape entire cultures and political systems. That’s a humbling thought.
ADDENDUM: This post, which began as informal amusement about camels and ropes, has turned out to wildly popular, which I didn’t expect. So I have edited it to provide a little more context on a couple of the words (mostly hupotassomai and hupakoe), in hope that the post will be more useful.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
P.S. On threads sharing this post, several people have brought up the old hypothesis that first-century Jerusalem had a “needle gate” that was very narrow, where a merchant had to unload their camel in order to get through. It’s an elegant and fitting idea, but it’s not historical. It’s a folk etymology proposed by fifteenth century clergy to explain the “camel through the eye of a needle” verse. (In other words, it was made up to explain the verse.) There’s no evidence of narrow gates (either a specific one or generally) being called needle gates or eyes of the needle in the ancient Middle East.
Just a quick plea for humility and a reality check among my brethren, sisteren, and otheren of the faith. Here in the U.S. a lot of us tend to act as though we (a) are the whole body of Christ on earth (or, blasphemously, as though we are the head of the body of Christ on earth) and (b) as if we are the only or best interpreters and arbiters of what the Word means and calls us to do. Neither of these is the case. We are a teeny tiny minority of Christians in the world. Only 11% of Christians are in the U.S. (and only 55% of practicing Christians in the United States vote conservative), and only 33% (one third) of Christians in the world are white. There are more Christians in Brazil than there are in the Bible Belt. There are the same number of Christians in the Philippines as there are in the Bible Belt. What this means is … we should be listening to our siblings around the world, because all of us who follow Christ within the entire U.S. are just eleven seats at a round table of a hundred.
The oldest continuously operating churches on earth are in Ethiopia, and 27% of Christians on the planet are Latin American (and most live south of the U.S.). Roughly 25% are black.
So… we really ought to be in conversation with our family, not only one-way conversation and not only on service missions, but we ought also to be listening and seeking advice and perspective, because some of our siblings in Christ don’t look like us, have been here longer than us, and could give us insights that might surprise us.
I know it’s fashionable in some parties to define one tiny little denomination as the One True Way to follow the founder and author of our faith, but this pie chart hopefully sheds light on just how prideful and hubristic that perspective is.
(Note: There is a tiny “Other” sliver of 0.6% that I couldn’t get to show on this chart. “Other” includes North Africa, the Middle East, and Canada. The numbers shown on the chart are rounded to the nearest whole number.)
So, a small plea for humility.
Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!
Research of this kind fascinates me. So much of how we translate and interpret the Bible is driven entirely by Roman ideologies and Roman cultural obsessions that we have inherited, and by the fact that Greek and Hebrew have been filtered to us through Latin. (Even our modern Greek dictionaries and lexicons tend to offer Latinate English vocabulary for translations.) Thus we almost completely misunderstand what the New Testament means by ‘truth,’ as I get into here in my post on aletheia.
Thus: we completely miss that the diatribe against homosexuality in Romans 1 is a paraphrase of Paul’s opponents in the Roman church and a parody of their over-the-top judgmental rhetoric (the whole point of Romans 1-2 is to dismantle the idea that Christianity and judgmental rhetoric are at all compatible). You can read a bit more on that here. And, bizarrely, we never think to question why this issue only comes up when Paul is speaking to Rome, the ancient world’s most homophobic culture, and never once when he is speaking to various Greek cities in which homosexual and bisexual relations, and an array of gender performances are both normal and expected.
Thus: we mis-translate passages on gender in the Pauline letters in a way that’s completely ahistorical (but that serves the status quo in our own society), as the early church was spread, organized, and facilitated by women. The connection of “head” to “leader” or “authority” is a specifically Roman idiom that we’ve inherited. That idiom didn’t exist in Koine Greek.
Thus: we mis-translate passages as instructing women to ‘submit’ to their husbands, when ‘hupotassomai’ doesn’t mean to submit; it means to deploy yourself in support of; it is a military metaphor. ‘Obey’ is a completely different word in Greek (hupakoe — and even ‘hupakoe’ doesn’t mean ‘obey’; it means to listen attentively to; it is a word used always for children, never for spouses, in the New Testament). And we miss the context (because we’re fond of reading communal letters in isolated little chapters and verses and chunks), so we forget that first-century Christian women are being asked to deploy in support of their spouses because most of their spouses were not Christian, most early Christians were women, and Christian wives of non-Christian men had to figure out how the heck to deal with that situation. It is situationally specific advice about not trying to convert the spouse but instead bring love to the table. It has nothing to do with obedience at all, and the verses that follow roll out an idea borrowed from Judaism that was profoundly subversive in Rome’s ultra-patriarchy: the idea that women “are fellow heirs in the grace of life.” Rome takes the idea of heirs very seriously. In Roman law and custom, women were not heirs; women were property. This idea of “fellow heirs” was radical and threatening to the Roman patriarchy.
Thus: we misread Genesis 2 as describing women as a “helper” sex. But “helper” (ezer genegdo) in Hebrew does not mean maid or servant; it means something a bit more similar to the modern phrase “partner in crime.” It is also the only case in the Old Testament where the word is used to describe women. In every other case, the word is used for God. Chavah (Eve) is a helper in the same sense that God is a helper. It is our post-Roman anachronism that translates ezer genegdo as “the help,” the servant class.
You will be awed (and horrified) at how thoroughly the history of agrarian Europe’s first feminist movement was excised, erased, and finally hijacked and replaced by the Roman patriarchy.
There is a wealth of scholarship on this and has been for years, and there is more all the time, but … for reasons that are probably self-evident … this research rarely trickles into mainstream religious culture.
The reason that Rome was so fervently opposed to Christianity in the first and second century was that Christianity was seen as a profound threat to family values. “Family values,” in the sense that we usually mean it, was originally a Roman idea.) Roman law required women to have children and to do so by a certain age; Christianity created large sisterhoods of unmarried women (the “holy widows,” who were not secluded at that time but socially active, running nonprofits and neighborhood schools).
Rome placed the man in ownership of the household and gave him – at one time – the legal right to execute family members who shamed the family; Christianity undercut that structure. Rome relied on a strict caste system; Christianity insisted on the essential equality of all people regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social class (while exhorting its members at times to obey the law of the land to the greatest extent possible, because Roman torture-death penalties were no joke, and though there were things they were willing to die for, these people wanted to survive – so Christians found loopholes, lots of them, like the legal loopholes that allowed for women to enter holy sisterhoods and gain a marriage exemption if they were priestesses. And since in early Christian doctrine, every Christian woman was a priestess of Christ, this provided a very large loophole, one the government usually couldn’t close because doing so would disrupt other Roman religious institutions that were seen as supportive of the state).
Pliny whines to Emperor Trajan in the early years of the second century about his work torturing ‘two slave women, who in their church are officials.’ The underlying tone of his letter is a frustrated “What the hell, Governor, they have slave girls leading their religion.” Christians were called “the atheists,” because they worshipped at no shrines or temples. And most of all, they were hated because 1) the religion had its origin in foreign immigrants, especially groups of first-century emigrating Jews (Rome was very anti-Semitic), and 2) Roman women converted in massive numbers, and then taught Roman children their superstitious, unmanly new faith. Christianity, to the Romans, was a woman’s religion and “the eunuch’s faith,” prizing compassion over honor, and love over duty, and relationships over hierarchy; there were popular superstitions and prejudices that men who converted out of love for their wives would lose their virility.
We miss out on an exciting episode in history that has tremendous relevance to our own time — a moment when a radically egalitarian ideology and way of life threatened to upend hierarchical and oppressive structures — because men a few centuries later found it useful and convenient to erase that history while appropriating some aspects of the early faith in service to power. (This may sound far-fetched…that in three and a half short centuries, a religious institution might come to stand for many things that were the exact opposite of the teachings three centuries before, but it actually happens all the time and in much briefer spans of history … just look at the way Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words today are appropriated and twisted to sound like they support the status quo, in fact to support statements that are the very opposite of MLK’s arguments and convictions. Ditto, the American founding fathers.) Mistranslate or misconstrue a few abstract concepts in ways that support the status quo, or rip a few passages out of their context, and you can turn a radical faith movement or a new ideology into a nice, tidy, stagnant institution pretty quickly.
We miss out on an exciting episode in our history because certain men a few centuries later chose to erase it and rewrite and replace it (in some cases literally chiseling the faces of female bishops off of monuments), and we still believe their version. Their version still drives our politics, our prejudices, and our cultural norms. But their version was a hijacking of something that looked very different, something worth remembering, something inspiring and provocative, something that calls into question who we think we are.
This is part of what I write about.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
Sos (Greek: “rescued,” “safe” – see Strong’s #4982) nothing is more core to Christian identity than this concept: that we, who were in danger, in peril, without refuge, have been made sos by a Soter (Savior). Each of us is soterion (saved), delivered by a Soter from slavery and from flight, made sos. The early Christians wrote and taught and believed that they were each a soterion, literally a refugee granted refuge. While on earth, they were paroikoi and parepidemoi, strangers in a strange land, sojourners without citizenship, who “hoped against hope” (Romans 4:18) in God’s promise that they would find and arrive in a “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), in which they would have citizenship at last. In which they would be not slaves or exiles but huioi, sons and daughters (Galatians 4:4-6), adopted heirs and “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
To my mind, nothing makes it more clear that a large swath of evangelical Christianity in America has sold its soul and lost its heart than the vocal support and encouragement from many quarters for bans on refugees and for walling out the xenoi: the “others,” the “aliens,” the “immigrants.”
The radical statement of first-century Christianity, recorded in the Gospels and in the Epistles (both Pauline and otherwise)—a statement radical to a Greco-Roman world but traditional in the Hebraic world it was inherited from—was that we are all xenoi. We are all outsiders. The Christ himself was an outsider while on earth, and being one, he was able to welcome all outsiders to break bread with him. The kingdom of heaven, he taught, is like a banquet to which all outsiders are brought in, dressed, fed, and made at home (Matthew 22).
From this core identity as xenoi, as refugees on earth seeking citizenship in a heavenly country, derived the attitudes toward society, community, and alterity that characterized the earliest Christian writings and that often upset Rome’s heavily stratified and deeply xenophobic social order.
Thus, when Peter urges the early Christians to avoid slavery to earthly desires, he abjures them by their identity as refugees:
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners [paroikoi] and exiles [parepidemoi] to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against the soul.” (1 Peter 2:11)
It is our active remembering of our identity as sojourners that permits us to live differently, Peter insists. A paroikos is literally a “dweller-near,” one who lives outside the house (oikos) and is without citizenship, yet is dwelling near the house: a resident alien. Implicit in the Koine Greek is the idea that these non-citizens live closely in community with citizens; the word emphasizes their nearness to the house, not their distance or their origin in a faraway place. That’s why we often find the word translated “sojourner” rather than “exile.” The other word, parepidemos, means a “passer-through,” one who is here for a time but was not born here and may not die here.
Earth is not our country, Peter reminds us. We are passers-through, we are dwellers-near-but-not-of, and this identity must drive our choices, our beliefs, our commitments to ourselves and others, and our actions.
For the early Christians, the lovers of truth (that is, lovers of aletheia, literally “unforgetting”), the promise you were supposed to actively unforget, from hour to hour, from day to day, was the promise of soteria, of salvation and refuge, of heavenly citizenship. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, early Christians of Jewish descent are urged to remember their Hebrew forefathers who held faithfully to a strong hope of soteria:
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers [xenoi] and exiles [parepidemoi] on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)
The archetype for the life of faith in Hebrews 11 is the journey of Abraham across Mesopotamia. Abraham, as a xenos, traveled across a wilderness in search of a new home, “hoping against hope” (as Paul writes in the letter to the Romans) for a better country, a country promised but as yet unknown. In the same way, the Hebrew prophets and the first-century Christians, the writer of Hebrews suggests, are xenoi—others, strangers, aliens in the countries they pass through [parepidemoi]. They are willing to endure any hardship on their journey because of the strength of their yearning for “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Of such faithful refugees, God is not ashamed; he has prepared for them citizenship in a heavenly polis (city).
The writers of the New Testament are informed here by the Jewish Torah and Nevi’im, by the Old Testament, by the recurring insistence of Moses and the Prophets that we are all strangers in the land, that God may grant us a residence in a promised land, but that we remain sojourners on an earth we do not own. “Shelter the strangers in the land,” Moses says also, “for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Hebraic law urges that immigrants be treated with justice—“one law, for the homeborn and for the immigrant”—in memory of the time the Hebrews themselves wandered in the wilderness. And, lest they forget that they remain sojourners even today, the festival of Sukkot remains a time when an increasingly settled people are urged to leave their homesteads and their towns and dwell in temporary booths and shelters in the countryside for a brief time.
This is what Deuteronomy instructed its readers to “unforget,” when they would lie down and when they would wake up and when they would walk down the road—this is what they were told to bind on their foreheads and write on their doorposts (Deuteronomy 6): their core identity as refugees and delivered slaves, brought across a wilderness and granted refuge. And it was as their Deliverer, their Rock and their Refuge, that they were to know their God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” – an authoritative line that repeatedly punctuates passages in the Torah.
By recalling in their daily lives that identity as refugees granted Refuge, they would be less likely to live lives of pride—the ostentatious lives of “self-made” people who, secure in their houses, would not see the children starving outside their walls. It is this forgetting that the author of Jeremiah finds so abhorrent in pre-exilic Jerusalem. Idolatry is abhorrent to Jeremiah largely because of what he sees as the consequences of forgetting the covenant; he describes women who bake cakes for Astarte and have houses full of bread while others’ children sit famished in the street outside. These are not the lives, Jeremiah insists, of people of the covenant—of people who live in daily awareness that their homes are temporary, of people who know their history as refugees and sojourners granted safety at last.
Terence (who, according to the writers of antiquity, was himself a freed slave of foreign birth who became one of the great playwrights in the Roman world) famously wrote, Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto: “I am human; therefore I consider nothing human to be alien to me.” There are no xenoi or paroikoi in Terence’s thinking; all humans are in the oikos, in the house. There are no dwellers-near who lack citizenship in humanity.
The early Christians, commenting on the Torah, arrive at a similar sentiment, but from an opposite point of origin: We are all outside the house. We are all strangers in the land; knowing this, no human can be a stranger to me. We are all xenoi, and we are all refugees. Because we are all shivering in the cold outside the house, and because we are all passing through a strange land hoping for refuge, it is no longer either desirable or rational ethically to wall anyone out. This was more than a metaphor for Paul, for Peter, for the author of the letter to the Hebrews: it was a way of describing the lived experience of a disinherited and diasporic people granted a new hope, a hope of citizenship in a city they had never seen, a city they had not built, a city to which they were being delivered by a Soter, a city they believed they were called to live their lives worthy of.
If evangelical Christians today forget their identity as xenoi and paroikoi—as refugees on the earth—then they will forget both their Soter (Savior) and what it means to be sos (saved, given refuge). If men and women of faith permit themselves to “harden their heart” (Jesus’s phrase) against refugees and deceive themselves into thinking themselves owners of homes (oikoi) and “homelanders” whose country must be defended against all comers, then they will have forgotten who they are. The entire story of the New Testament is that of refugees granted a heavenly city, brought there out of violence and sin and pain by a heavenly Soter, and then urged to imitate that Soter and to live as “citizens of heaven.”
How do citizens of heaven live? How did the Savior live? By giving refuge. By rescuing others. That is what it means to be a citizen of heaven. That is what it means to live as a community of what the Romans (who were obsessed with security, with law and order, with property, “their minds set on earthly things,”) called “the little Christs,” the Christians.
To see refugees as “others” is to forget yourself.
It is to forget your core identity as xenoi, as others.
It is to forget your core identity as the sos, the refugees saved.
THE PTOCHOI EN PNEUMATI
How did we get here?
How did we forget, as people of faith, that we are the outsiders, not the insiders—that we are the sojourners “dwelling near” (paroikoi) the house, not the dwellers in the house. We have forgotten that earth is the wilderness and heaven is our home. We let go of the truth: the aletheia, the ongoing act of “unforgetting.” We forgot that we are exiles and that we are poor.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” With these words, Jesus opens the Sermon on the Mount. In Koine Greek, the word chosen here for “the poor” is the most extreme word possible: hoi ptochoi. This is not hoi penoi (the day-laborers without savings accounts, working for their daily bread) or hoi penichroi (those needing daily bread), but hoi ptochoi, the utterly without-refuge.
To be poor in this way—to be ptochos—is to be unclothed, to be utterly destitute and without resources and to know it. To be ptochos is to be stripped of everything, your skin bare to wind and weather. The man who is ptochos lies naked in the dirt, his face pressed to the ground, utterly at the mercy of the one he is pleading to. To be ptochos en pneumati—poor in spirit—is to know that you are made of ashes, that you will go back to ashes, that belief in your own sufficiency is a delusion.
It is that delusion—that faith in our bank account, or in our personal virtue, or in the solidity of our house, or in our cunning, or in our family heritage, or in our religious standing—that keeps us from living big, blessed lives. (Makarioi, “the blessed,” as I discuss in Lives of Unstoppable Hope, are literally those whose lives are made big in the sense of their impact on others; like Abraham, others’ lives are blessed—made bigger—through them. The root of makarios, “blessed,” is mak, “big”; in English, we get macro and mega from that same root).
The Emperor cannot be big and blessed in his new clothes, because those new clothes in which he is so confident are nothing more than an illusion. They might blow away at the wind of a child’s words. Even so, might our house or our religious standing or our bank account or our cunning fail us. Like the Emperor in the story, we all of us stand naked in the cold world, but some of us, experts in denial, choose to believe we are clothed.
The ptochoi en pneumati—the poor in spirit—are not blessed because they are poor, because they are naked, or because they are without resources.
They are blessed and able to live big lives because they know they are poor, naked, and without resources.
And, recognizing their own nakedness, the “poor in spirit” are no longer able to lord their possessions over others, or to look upon the unclothed with contempt. Yearning themselves for refuge, it would be nonsensical of them to deny refuge to others. (And, recognizing themselves as xenoi, the “poor in spirit” cannot afford xenophobia.)
They are the Emperors who have stopped believing in their invisible clothing. Naked, nothing more can be stripped from them. Poor, nothing more can be stolen from them. These are the people who can live day to day, as Mother Teresa did. These are the people who can lie on their side in the dirt without pride or self-imposed stigma, as Ezekiel did, if by doing so they might move the hearts of others, or who can sit night after night beside a loved one who suffers, if by doing so they might offer one sliver of comfort. These are the people that can march in defense of civil rights, no matter what slurs or fists or bullets are hurled at their faces. They have given the day to a higher cause or a higher God than themselves: “. . . having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
These vagrants, these exiles, these poor in spirit, seek a better country, that is, a heavenly one. They yearn for our world to be more like that. They may march, they may weep, they may doubt, they may die, but they will never give up. The call home—the allure and vision of a world where no man is oppressed, no woman is beaten, and no child suffers needless illness, hunger, or violence—is too insistent to ignore.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That is the first beatitude and the first description in the Gospels of living the saved life, the blessed life, of living life as a citizen of heaven.
THE CALL TO UNFORGET
If Christianity is to be not only “relevant” but critical and active in the years ahead, people of faith must remember who they are. We must remember—in fact, we must unforget, from hour to hour—that we are sos (saved). We must find ourselves again—as refugees on earth, as strangers in the land, as strangers to whom no other human being can be strange. As others (xenoi) who “other” no one. As citizens of heaven, hoping for a new city and yearning for home.
Our Soter requires that we hold to this truth (this aletheia, this “unforgetting”) and thus hold to Him.
Our fellow human beings require that we unforget that we are xenoi together—because, having forgotten, we are hurting them.
And we must do this unforgetting for ourselves, too. Because what will it profit us if we gain “the world” but forfeit our soul?
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
Abstract: “In languages descended from or heavily influenced by Latin, it is possible to bludgeon people with truths, because in Latin, ‘truth’ is a noun. But this is not possible in Koine Greek. In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.”
After a conversation earlier today, I’m going to share this longer post with you because a few of you might find it useful or beautiful, or may want to refer to it in conversations later. The topic is what some key words from the New Testament mean in the original text, because they get thoroughly sucked dry and mangled in English. If the post is useful, it may provoke some readers to read certain things in a very different light than how they are typically read in our culture, or may help them challenge others to do so.
This is written in response to a reader who asked me about the meanings of the words ‘truth’ and ‘belief,’ and how they are connected.
Truth (in English)
A truth (from the word “troth,” the same word we use in “betrothed”) is something you trust deeply, perhaps with all your heart. As I wrote in a post earlier today, a truth is not a fact, and a fact is not a truth. These are very different concepts. It is a truth that I will stay with my wife until she or I die. That is not a demonstrable fact, and will not be for many years, I hope; it is a truth. It is a truth that my wife loves me; this is not a demonstrable fact in any scientific sense, but I trust it deeply. These are truths. And when we got engaged, we pledged our truth (troth) to each other. In religion, one might speak of the Truth of divine promises — something deeply and profoundly trusted by the worshipper, promises judged by the worshipper to be worthy of their trust.
In English, a truth is a promise. In English, you believe in a truth (a promise) likely because you trust (have faith in) the subject who gave you that truth. So, for example, if in religious belief God gives you a promise about salvation or about comforting you with the Holy Spirit, the salvation or the comfort is a ‘truth’ or a promise, and God (and/or, potentially, writers of sacred texts and ancestors) is the subject who has relayed that promise to you. So in English, you believe the truth (the promise) and you trust (have faith in) the subject (God). The object, if there is one, is you yourself, the one trusting.
Belief (in English and Greek)
In Greek there is no word used in the New Testament that corresponds to the modern English “believe.” The word in Greek is much closer to “trust.” It is the verb for the Greek noun that we translate “faith,” but we don’t have a verb for faith in our language (which is a rather enormous oversight, if you think about it), so for four centuries we’ve been forced to substitute the word ‘believe’ as a placeholder for the missing word that doesn’t exist in English and that no one thought to invent. Often with unfortunate consequences, because the modern sense of ‘belief’ is very far from the words actually used in the text. To be fair, the original meaning of ‘believe,’ centuries ago, WAS closer to the intent, so the substitution may have made more sense at the time; the word “believe” has changed a lot over time. It originally didn’t have anything to do with your mind at all. In its Old English and Old Germanic roots, the word meant to hold something dear, to love it. Ten centuries ago, you would ‘believe’ a spouse, meaning you’d embrace and love them and hold them dear. (Compare ‘lieve’ root with modern German ‘liebe’ for love.) That’s what ‘believe’ originally meant.
Truth (in Greek and Latin)
“Truth” is actually a substitution, too, in the case of the New Testament, because again, we don’t have a word in English that means the same thing as Greek “aletheia,” or even close. Truth (a promise) was selected as nearest to the spirit of what translators felt the New Testament was looking to convey. “Aletheia” actually means “unforgetting.” Not just remembering, but un-forgetting (“a – lethe”), the daily act of holding a promise present in your mind and heart, of letting that promise drive all that you do. Literally un-forgetting it. Implied in the word is the idea that we are naturally in lethe (forgetting). Lethe is the river in Greek myth that the dead drink from to forget their lives and pasts and all that mattered to them, so that they can cross the river and dwell as somnolent shades in the underworld. The New Testament writers are telling Greek-speaking readers that, figuratively speaking, they have drunk from Lethe and are at risk of forgetting their relationships and their past and what’s been done for them, and the promises made for their present and future. Hence the word “aletheia,” unforgetting, un-Lethe’ing your heart. In a sense, resurrecting your heart, day by day, hour by hour, from the underworld of forgetfulness where life is expressed in hues of gray, without the constant awareness of joy.
In modern Western culture, when someone young and in love slips a love letter inside their clothing to keep it near their heart and to feel the paper against their skin, that is an unforgetting: an ongoing, constant unforgetting of the new love and joy, and of the promise for the future that the letter embodies.
(Paul’s “aletheia,” and the gospel writers’ subsequent adoption of the word, is an attempt to translate a similar concept from Hebrew, one that you can get the substance of if you read Deuteronomy 6, about keeping your history and the promise before your mind and your eyes constantly, wearing it on your forehead, writing it on your doorpost, telling your children the story when you wake and when you lie down, when you go about your day, when you come home from work, etc. Paul coins the word “aletheia” to transfer that concept into a Greek context. Topic to discuss more fully in some other post, but I mention it because this is also one reason why Judaism does not share Western Christianity’s ways of belaboring “biblical truth”; the Jewish concept of witness is much closer akin to Paul’s ‘unforgetting’ than to English ‘truth.’)
So, for example, when in the book of John Jesus says “I am the Aletheia,” he is saying “I am the Unforgetting.” He is describing himself as an embodied unforgetting of God’s promises, a daily living-out of the promise of union and reunion between God and humanity, and between humanity and humanity, and a daily and ongoing incarnation of God’s promise of ‘ki eyeh immakh’ (I will be with you). It’s a very nuanced and breathtaking passage, which unfortunately we don’t have the vocabulary to render well in English.
Also, notice that in Greek, ‘truth’ (unforgetting) isn’t really a noun or a thing. It isn’t a statement. It’s an ongoing action, a verb wearing noun’s clothing. In Greek, it’s easier to verb nouns than in English. “Believe in the Truth” is a weird Englishism that would have been incomprehensible and fairly circular to writers in Koine Greek, much as if you were to say to someone today, “Trust in Trust.” (Say what?) In the Greek New Testament, rather than ‘believe in the Truth,’ you strive all the time to unforget promises, and you hold dear and trust the one who gave you the promise. Where most of our culture’s conversation about belief is transactional in nature (accept this premise and sign on the dotted line), the original text is entirely relational (trust someone and hold their promise constantly before you).
One reason our translation gets so tilted on its side is that we’ve filtered our religion through the lens of Rome, and our translations (and in fact, the European languages we’re translating into) are profoundly influenced by Latin. The Latin Vulgate translates ‘aletheia,’ rather horribly, as ‘veritas’ (“something verified or confirmed”). This kind of substitution is common in the Vulgate. In the book of Mark, for example, the Vulgate routinely replaces a Greek word conveying a concept similar to ‘authority’ with the Latin word for ‘power’ or ‘force.’ But a moment’s reflection might persuade us that authority and power are not the same thing.
In similar fashion, the empire-builder Romans replaced the Greek idea of aletheia with the idea of verifiable fact. (‘Fact’ itself is a Latin word: factum est, “it happened’). That is why in our culture, we still confuse “truth” with “fact.” That’s a typically Roman thing to do. Our modern translations follow suit. (This is also why, in the story of the trial, Pontius Pilate had no idea what Jesus was talking about. “What is truth?” he asks, because his cultural and linguistic vocabulary leaves him ill-equipped — much as our own leaves us ill-equipped — to “get” it.)
In languages descended from or heavily influenced by Latin, it is possible to bludgeon people with truths, because in Latin, ‘truth’ is a noun. But this is not possible in Koine Greek. In Koine Greek, truth is an activity, not a blunt object.
When Paul says, “Hold fast to the truth,” in Greek he is not saying hold fast to a mental opinion you have in your head; in Greek he is saying, Keep unforgetting the promise. If I might paraphrase, it means: ‘Keep unforgetting who loves you, and how much he loves you.’ And in Greek grammar, that isn’t a one-time activity but something that is ongoing, every hour, something to be actively doing all the time.
Addendum: Exhibit B -“Charity”
It’s easy to remain unaware of the extent to which language shapes our thinking. Here’s another example. The word “charity” has only meant what it means now for roughly 150 years. The word was originally coined as a translation of “caritas” in the Vulgate New Testament, and many older Bible translations have this word “charity” everywhere. But “caritas” doesn’t mean giving at the office; the word means a caring love that holds the other to be of high value. In turn, Latin “caritas” is an attempt to translate Greek “agape,” which means a reckless, spendthrift love that holds no accounts and no ledgers, the love where you sacrifice everything you own, even if you are as rich as king, to save one endangered child. That’s the word that we translated ‘charity.’
In the Old Testament, “charity” translates the Hebrew word for “justice.” In ancient Hebrew, there IS no separate word for charity; our often derisive concept of charity does not exist in that language. The people who wrote the Old and New Testaments regarded responding to the needs of the poor and the marginalized (“the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow”) not as acts of charity but as, depending on the text, acts of justice or acts of reckless love.
This week, I have been asked the same question by two readers from quite different backgrounds. One was a religious person demanding to know how people who don’t believe in God or in an ultimate and absolute moral Truth can have any reason to treat each other decently, and the other was an atheist demanding to know what absolute moral Truth we could find outside of religion in order to resolve that same question.
Though I am myself a religious man, the idea that religious belief is a prerequisite for ethical behavior has always struck me as really odd. It’s neither logical (because a moment’s reflection will reveal that a majority of human beings appear to possess a conscience whether or not they possess religious beliefs) nor biblical (in both his speech at the Areopagus and in Romans 1, Paul insists that ethical behavior and a longing for goodness is written into the world, and later in Romans he argues that the law is written on our hearts, whether we have it in our conscious mind or not).
So why do we want to treat each other ethically? And is it necessary to believe in a Divine Being in order to answer that question?
There has actually been a vigorous conversation and study of this going on for the past sixty years, but because it has been going on in French and on the other side of the world, very few people in the U.S. outside of graduate philosophy courses have been a part of it. This post is my attempt to relay a few key points from it in very easy-to-understand terms. This is important to me because our growing understanding of ethics has profoundly informed my novels — I’ve jokingly referred to Strangers in the Land as “Levinas for everyone” — and has informed my views on life and why I tell stories and love books so, so much. Read on.
What Happens When We Look in Each Other’s Eyes
In the 1950s, in his book Totalite et Infini, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas proposed what in retrospect seems a very simple but powerful idea. Here is the short-short version:
Something happens when we meet each other’s gaze. When two people have a face-to-face encounter and neither avoids the other’s gaze, there is an intimacy that occurs. When I look into the eyes of another person, someone who is not-me, who is in fact different from me, who may have a different gender, religion, race, or class from my own — when I look into her eyes and see her looking back, there is an implicit “demand” in her gaze. (I would call it a request, but Levinas calls it a “demand,” so for now we’ll go with that.)
The demand is that I recognize her as akin to me. In this meeting of our gazes, we are both human. In this moment, I can recognize that she loves, hopes, fears, and desires, even as I do. That gaze bridges, briefly, our separateness and our aloneness. In other words, when I meet her gaze and she meets mine, her eyes communicate, implicitly, the demand that I respond to her as a fellow and equal human being. It is a demand for ethical behavior: for just and compassionate treatment of the other.
This is why we ask others to look us in the eye so that we can see if they are communicating the truth to us. It is harder (not impossible, alas, just harder) to lie when you are gazing into the eyes of the person you’re lying to. It’s also why a hierarchical caste system in which society’s lowest layers consist of “untouchables” is often paired with a cultural restriction on eye contact across castes. When you don’t meet the eyes of untouchables, you are less likely to hear any demand that you treat them justly, equally, and compassionately. Thus, you are less likely to respond, and the system is less likely to change. Gandhi’s project of ahimsa (nonviolence) was about facing the oppressor assertively but non-aggressively, eye-to-eye, making it difficult for them to avoid your gaze — in short, making it difficult for them to deny your essential human kinship.
The Human Other and the Divine Other
This is why ethics is possible whether the universe has a God or not: ethics is a response to that demand in the other’s gaze. That is a demand that we might potentially encounter at meeting anyone’s gaze. It’s why both religious people and atheists “feel” when they see photos of the eyes of children in cages along the US/Mexico border. It’s why both religious people and atheists may, or may not, stop to help an old grandmother across the street.
In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the Abrahamic religions), God is the ultimate Other: the Other who is most “other,” most different from us, and yet who calls to our heart with the greatest yearning for union with us. God is the divine Other who responds to our demand for love, compassion, and justice, and who calls out to us with his own demand that we love him and love our neighbor:
In Christianity, the two “greatest commandments,” upon which “the entire law” — all of ethical and just behavior — rest, are: “Love God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Respond to God’s demand and to the human other’s demand with the very love and justice that you would want given to yourself.
In Judaism, a core tenet is tzelem elohim (from Genesis 1): that all human beings are made in the image of God, and that when you look into the eyes of another person, you see the face of God. Emmanuel Levinas was an atheist Jew, and his philosophy is deeply influenced by Judaism’s approach to ethics.
Whether or not you hear God’s call, God’s demand for your love and for your justice, whether or not you believe God exists, whether or not you care, you will likely hear the demand of human others for your love and your justice. You will encounter that demand at the meeting of the eyes (and on other occasions, too — we’ll get to that in a moment).
So no, it is not necessary to believe in God in order to find reason to behave in an ethical, just, or “moral” way.
That is not to say that belief in God might not add something to ethics; it simply isn’t a prerequisite for ethics. (If empathy and our response to empathy is hard-wired into human beings on a level much deeper than belief, then belief and religion can either augment or detract from our ability to empathize and respond to the demand of the other with love, compassion, or just action.)
What Christianity can add to our ethical life is 1) a powerful story about an ultimate relationship between two who are other (those two being homo sapiens and God); 2) a demonstration of the demand of the other and the ethical response to the other (including the ultimate demonstration of the salvific, messianic sacrifice, the Cross, as a response to humanity’s cry of pain and yearning for God’s love); and 3) a set of specific ethical premises, such as:
that we are more able to love others freely when we realize that a divine Other is already loving us and modeling that love for us (“we love, because He first loved us,” says John);
that all human beings, regardless of race or gender or class, are equally participants in that love (“there is no Jew or Gentile, no male or female, no master or servant, for you are all one in Christ,” says Paul),
and that agape, self-sacrificing love, is the ultimate ethical or “good” treatment of another person (“Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friend,” says Jesus).
The Power of a Story
While Emmanuel Levinas’ idea was pretty awesome and an effective starting point, it did have its flaws, too, as a complete explanation of ethics. Other thinkers have questioned his insistence that only the face-to-face encounter — the meeting of the eyes — can communicate the other’s demand for justice and provoke our response to that demand. After all, blind people have consciences just as sighted people do. And we often respond to requests for love or just action from people we have never actually seen. So perhaps there are other communications that can serve as proxies for a meeting of the eyes.
Jacques Derrida, for example, suggests that a written text might convey that demand, too. A letter, a speech, a sacred book, words spoken to your ears: any of these might also invoke a moment of intimacy and relay the other’s demand for love and justice. Similarly, C.S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, argues passionately that reading a great story can be one of those acts — like love or religious devotion — that permits us to be larger than and outside of ourselves, to be united with others. Reading a thousand stories, Lewis argues, “I see with a thousand faces, yet remain myself.” He goes on to yearn that he might read a story written by an animal, because how much bigger his world might then be, if he might experience it with the multifaceted vision of a bee or the rich olfactory sense of a dog.
Stories can be incredibly powerful because of that potential for sharing in the experience of others, and because we use them to “walk in another person’s shoes” or to “see through another person’s eyes.” In his famous defense of poetry, Percy Shelley argues that imaginative stories train us to “sympathy” for others — that, in fact, all empathy begins with imagination: with the imaginative act of identifying with the other and picturing to ourselves what it would be like to experience and feel what they are experiencing and feeling.
So when we cannot meet each other’s eyes, we can still communicate in stories. Stories can cut deep. They can make us feel what others have felt, even others long past. Even imaginary others who have never been born.
Why do I want to behave well toward other people? Because I can imagine being them. Because when I see their eyes, I realize we are both human. Because when I hear their story, I am moved.
As Hurriya, an ex-slave in my novel Strangers in the Land, tells an aging prophetess:
“When you see another’s face—the face of a child, or another woman, or the face of the goddess, or the face of someone hungry or hurt—their eyes, they look back. They look at you. They ask your love, they ask you to hear their crying and know that you and they are both alive, and some day you may be hurt, you may be hungry. It may be your child carried dying in your arms.” Hurriya choked a moment, then went on. “When I look at you, you look back. Only the dead don’t look back. You think the Law is a pact with your God, a pact with others of your People. But it’s not just a pact. It’s an answer. You have rules for everything. But it’s not the rules that matter. It’s that you want to make them. You want to answer the suffering you see in another woman’s face. You want to give her safety, or justice, or comfort. That’s what matters. That’s why you have your Law, why you love it.”
The core truth of Christianity is that God is on the Cross gazing at us, responding to our pain with his love and demanding that we gaze back and respond with our love, too. And the core truth of the human condition may be that our fellow human beings (whether through a silent gaze or a spoken story) are often demanding our response to their pain and that we all feel that call to respond, that this call is fundamental to human communication, and that we are wired — as relational, communal, social primates — to want to respond. The question demands its response. We are uncomfortable with silence for an answer.
We are also wired for other, contradictory things that prevent us from responding, that prevent us sometimes even from looking at the other’s eyes or hearing the other’s story. Self-defense, for example. Satisfaction of our basic appetites, for another. Tribal identity (to the exclusion of others), for yet another. Whether you want to call the fault sin or appetite or animal instinct or ego or anything else, we have impulses that drive against responding to that call for justice. And so we have crime and conflict, and we start to create laws, rules, or moralities to try to limit that.
It is not the morality or the Law that drives us to be good, though. Moral codes and laws and religious creeds and institutions are the response to our desire to be good (or to our failure to be good), not the cause of that desire. What drives us to be good is the tzelem elohim — that we look into each other’s eyes and see the demand for kinship. Religious people might say that demand for kinship is because in each other’s eyes we see the likeness of God; atheists might say it is a primal instinct for empathy inherited from tribal primate days. But whatever you want to call it, that demand is there.
I am a storyteller and an avid reader because stories are often our best proxy for meeting the eyes. They allow us to take part in the internal life of people (real or imaginary) who are not actually in the room. They make our world bigger, taking it from population-one (myself) to population-potentially-infinite.
It’s also why I care about diversity in fiction and in art. A few days ago, online, I grumped that I had seen yet another poster of a white Jesus with a mullet. I wrote:
If the poster inspires people, I can see that it’s a good thing. It’s just…how are we ever going to navigate racial and religious tensions in our own country if we insist on always depicting God as a white American dude? If God himself is invisible and largely replaced with a white-skinned, rated-PG idol, how are we going to learn to stop treating black and brown people in our own neighborhoods as invisible? That college-aged woman in the airport who said of darker-skinned human beings, “They’re animals, mamma, they’re just animals”: was she aware her “animals” category includes Jesus?
This is why a project like The Zombie Bible is important to me. I get frustrated that we replace powerful, troubling stories with refrigerator magnets and posters. That we get really bad at listening to anyone’s story… The stories we tell and the stories we’re willing to listen to are what make or break our world.
Similarly, the author of the fantasy novels The Gentleman Bastards recently posted a hilariously irate and eloquent response to a reader who had written him indignantly that he should have written his second novel about a male pirate, and not about a black female single-mother pirate. The author, in his response, lamented that the reader’s own vision of the world was so small, that there was room in it for only white male swashbucklers. The author wanted no limits on his imagination: he wanted to envision and experience and share with his readers a world where black single mothers can be pirates and, in fact, where all sorts of extravagant and wondrous things happen. (By the way, just as a footnote, there have been black single mother pirates in the history of our own real world, too.)
In what J.R.R. Tolkien calls “fighting the long defeat” against injustice and evil, our secret weapon is stories. Tikkun olam, they say in Judaism: “Tell the story, and heal the world.”
In stories, we who are so separated draw near each other at last.
That’s part of what attracts me to religious studies in general and Christianity in particular: Christianity is about the power of a story to transform lives, to inspire us to gratitude and love and to just action, to utterly rearrange our lives. That’s because in Christianity, a story — a “good news” (gospel) story — is the occasion for our encounter and union with the ultimate Other, God.
In a less metaphysical and more day-to-day sense, I yearn to hear more stories, and to tell the stories I hear — to tell and retell and pass them on — because in stories I encounter others who are so different from me and yet are human, just as I am. I want to hear everyone’s story. I wish I had the time and immortality and patience to hear everyone’s story. To see the universe with a thousand faces, and to treat the wearers of those thousand faces in the way we treat people when we have taken their stories into our hearts.
We Need a World of Curious, Effective, Avid Readers
Why do we have morality? Why do we want to be ethical, though we often fail to?
Because we are capable of meeting each other’s eyes or imagining meeting each other’s eyes. Because we are capable of hearing and telling stories, of reading and receiving stories. How do you fix the world? I have no idea, but I do know that one of the things we’d need along the way are millions and millions of compassionate, skilled readers. Skilled hearers of stories. People who hear stories of diverse people (whether real or imagined), people who approach everyone’s story as eager, curious readers and hearers.
Yet we have become, increasingly, a culture of folk that spend more of our time talking and soapboxing and less and less of our time reading and listening.
They say that when your one tool is a hammer, sooner or later, every problem looks like a nail. I may be guilty of that; my tools are storytelling and reading. Yet I do believe that what the world needs are really, really good readers and really, really good stories to move into their hearts and do in there the “good news” work of reconciling and reuniting us readers with each other and with God.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
My fellow Christians, for the most part, tend to ignore the ideas of Jacques Derrida, but I am going to propose to you that deconstruction is a tool of considerable importance in devotional reading and biblical study. I don’t mean that it is the only useful tool, and I’m not wise enough to argue whether it is the most useful of all tools; I think we would benefit enormously, too, if we did more group reading in the form of lectio divina to learn simply to sit in the presence of God, we who are so trained now to instead run and spin in circles in the presence of Facebook. And I think Christians would benefit — and have begun to benefit — from looking into the Jewish rabbinical tradition and midrash reading. But deconstruction is also extremely useful to both religious and secular readers, and in America, deconstruction has been widely misunderstood and therefore dismissed.
I ask you to bear with me and hear me out before reaching judgment. This post has a lot to say, so it is going to be long. If you don’t have much time, I hope you’ll read what you can and bookmark it. I promise it will be fascinating and worth it.
To keep this post intriguing and illuminating, I am going to focus on just two ideas — the fallibility of human language and Derrida’s idea of a remainder. (For those who are well-acquainted with Derrida, this really is only going to touch on a tiny piece of the questions he proposed; it’s a first step. Otherwise this post would be as long as a book, or likely longer still. This post offers a tentative first date with Jacques, not a marriage.) Then I’m going to offer an interpretive reading of Genesis 1 for religious readers that, if you haven’t encountered these ideas before, may open new doors in your mind or heart (we’ll see).
Let’s go on an adventure.
Fallen Language and the Remainder
Derrida suggests that all language is fluid, indeterminate, and fallible. This is an idea that has since become ingrained in the humanities and the social sciences, but has been met with derision by the unlikely duo of analytical philosophers and religious readers, especially in America. In America, we have a tendency to assume that (a) after a bit of mental work you can identify, beyond doubt, the complete and final meaning of a written sentence, and (b) that everything can be expressed accurately in “common” language, or language that everyone can understand. Jacques Derrida ruffles our American feathers by suggesting that language is much more fluid and that the task of deriving fixed, absolute meaning from language is a task that can never actually be completed.
But while our feathers may be ruffled, I’d suggest that this is an idea that Christians can actually find a lot of sympathy with. After all, we have our story of the Tower of Babel, with its suggestion that the confusion of languages served the explicit purpose of distancing human beings from God and from building a tower to heaven and becoming like God, comprehending everything. We also have the theological hypothesis that everything in the universe is fallen, as humanity is, and subject to decay. Why should language itself be any different?
We know things get lost in translation from one language to another: the Greek agape suggests concepts that aren’t conveyed by the English word love and certainly aren’t conveyed by the Latin or French equivalents.
We also know that commonly assigned meanings to a word shift over time, sometimes rapidly; “condescend,” for example, used to be one of the most beautiful words in our language. It was often interpreted as “to step down with” someone into their moment of vulnerability, to lift them up on their feet and climb out of that moment together. But because of the way Victorian charities “condescended” to the poor, that word began to suggest very different (and far more negative) meanings to us. The meaning of words doesn’t stay fixed.
Even at the exact same moment in time, the meaning of a word shifts depending on who is speaking it and where and to whom. Forgive me for writing such an incredibly ugly word, but the word “nigger” means something very different depending on whether a black man is saying it to another black man, a black woman is saying it to a black man, a black man is in heated conversation with a white man, or a white man is saying it to a black man. And when I write it in this post, reducing it to an object example, the significance of the word is different, again, from all of the diverse cases I mentioned a moment ago. The meanings that word suggests to the one hearing it shift dramatically, not across time but from one speaker (one interpreter) to the next, from one situation to the next. This flummoxes some white Americans, who simply don’t “get” why the word suggests different meanings when a black man says it than when a white man says it. This empirically evident situation frustrates the commonly-held white American belief that the meanings of words are mostly fixed, easy to understand, and can be depended on reliably. “I said what I said, and I meant what I meant” — that’s a very American sentiment that, to our frequent confusion, doesn’t tend to hold up very well in practice.
We also know that things frequently and regularly get lost in translation in both spoken and written conversations, even between people with the most similar backgrounds, beliefs, and values. How many times have you been misunderstood over email or on social media?
The meaning of words doesn’t stay fixed; it isn’t absolute, out there in some ideal space, something that we can refer back to. The meaning of words, Jacques Derrida cautions us, is something that is constructed in the moment, by the hearer, based on the context, the speaker, the inter-relationships between different words and phrases, the relationships between different ideas, and what the hearer notices or fails to notice.
Derrida would suggest that what’s happening in these cases is that when we interpret communication that is conveyed in words, we are constructing the meaning, the interpretation, in that moment. And constrained as we are by our context, by the influence of other moments in which we’ve encountered similar words and ideas, by our knowledge of the language, by our own values and views, by our opinion and understanding of the writer or speaker, and by many things, when we construct that interpretation we always leave something out of our interpretation. There is something we neglect to consider. Some remainder that is left over after we’ve constructed the meaning of the word, sentence, or chapter we just read. That’s how we get an interpretation — we focus on something and exclude other things.
Deconstruction (which has seemed either so scary or so absurd to many Christians) is a way of reading. It can be very playful and also very intelligent, but at its heart, it is a stance of humility toward the written word. It means that a reader approaches a text (biblical or otherwise) and starts with these realizations:
The interpretations others have offered for this text have left something out. There is a remainder.
If I find what was left out, that finding will deconstruct the established interpretation. It will take that interpretation apart, to one degree or another.
If I find what was left out, I might discover so much through this text that I never noticed before. There will be opportunity for a deeper understanding and another interpretation.
However, my new interpretation will also be fallible, because I am also leaving something out. Language is fallible, so while I may understand more or differently, my new understanding can also be deconstructed.
This might sound alarming to some Christians, because you could take this to mean, “We will never finally know what this passage ‘means.'” But that’s a pretty arrogant response, one that assumes that to approach God, we need to fully understand and comprehend his word, completely, without mistakes, and one that assumes that it is actually possible for us to do that. Of course, God sets no requirement that we fully comprehend him. And it is the height of absurd pride to think that we can. Admittedly, it’s a very American way of thinking — we don’t like to exist in what the Catholic mystics called “the cloud of unknowing,” we don’t like to approach God (or anything) in the dark, and we really, really like to have definitive answers. When we don’t have them, we get frustrated. (And when we do have an interpretation that seems good to us and someone approaches us and deconstructs that interpretation, it may annoy us enormously, or even appear threatening to us. We simply don’t like having our interpretations deconstructed. We are often either proud of our interpretations or very reliant on them.)
In fact, that’s one reason a lot of American Christians have a reactionary stance toward science and deep skepticism about scientists’ ability to uncover useful and reliable knowledge for us. There is a perception that scientists are constantly “changing their answers,” and this appears to annoy us to no end. But of course they are, because they’re constantly testing what they’ve learned, uncovering new evidence, deconstructing a previous theory or interpretation, and arriving at a deeper understanding of the natural world and how and why it works. That new understanding may also be fallible if there is evidence that it left out — if, in Derrida’s terms, there’s a remainder that didn’t get noticed or considered. Newton’s interpretation of how the universe worked was a pretty deep and effective interpretation…until Einstein suggested that something was left out. The effective scientist (and I’m not talking about media personalities, I’m talking about people running experiments in labs) has a relatively humble perspective; like the poet Goethe, the scientist’s heart starts with Many things I know; yet many things I do not understand — and then goes on to add, But it’s going to be so fun and rewarding to step into the space I don’t understand, ask questions, test what answers I get, and learn more.
In religious reading, we sometimes forget that there is a humility and even a joy in looking deeper, in looking for what was left out, in finding the remainder, in approaching the word with the base assumption that our interpretation is going to be fallible. That doesn’t have to be a scary thing. It can be a position that glorifies God and humbles man.
This is Very Similar to How Jesus Read
In What Would Jesus Deconstruct? the radical theologian John Caputo makes an intriguing observation: Jesus, in the gospels, tends to read the Old Testament deconstructively. In fact, only on rare occasions does Jesus make definitive interpretive statements about the Old Testament (which is striking, because in the tradition of Christian theology, he may indeed be the one person in history who might claim a right to do so).
Instead, Jesus constantly asks questions and tells stories — often stories where the ending is left out (as in the case of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan) and the audience or the reader is left with a riddle or a question for interpretation. Will the older son join the father and the younger son in that forgiveness banquet? The audience, many of them uncomfortably in the position of the older son, needs to address that question. (If you want to take a closer look at that example, Tim Keller’s Prodigal God gives a fresh exploration of it.) Looking at the priest, the levite, and the Samaritan, which of these was the man’s neighbor? A Jesus parable is like the opposite of an Aesop’s fable: where Aesop closes with a moral, Jesus closes with a question or a riddle. It’s his method. His stories invite his listeners to deconstruct their previous understanding of how the world works, how God works, and how they could work.
The other thing that we see Jesus do when he teaches is continually deconstruct established interpretations by pointing out the remainder. The Pharisees in the gospels put a great deal of stock in working out, in exactitude and in fine detail, what is meant in the levitical law. They, like today’s American readers, really like to have definite answers, and to have definite answers that don’t shift when you have your back turned. Jesus really, really pisses them off, because he upsets that stability, charging into their interpretations and overturning them as abruptly as a man flipping over tables and whipping moneychangers out of the temple.
Here’s an example. The priests and the scribes notice that Jesus’s disciples are gathering wheat to eat on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is serious business in the Old Testament. So they challenge Jesus on this: You claim to be a religious teacher, so why are your disciples gathering up wheat as they walk through this field?
Jesus responds not with a direct answer but by deconstructing their interpretation of the laws about the Sabbath. You’ve left something out, he says. Don’t you remember the moment in the Old Testament when David took holy bread from the tabernacle on the Sabbath? What can we learn from that moment? “Man is not made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath is made for man,” he tells the religious thinkers of the day. That is the remainder, a really big idea that they left out while they were focused on other details.
That’s what deconstruction does: it challenges you with the possibility that in focusing on some things, you might actually be leaving out big things. In Christianity, we believe that the scripture is God-inspired. But Scripture is written down and translated by fallible people in flawed and imperfect language (if you have ever tried to express your love or express extreme grief in words, you know how extremely limited a technology language actually is, though I am extremely thankful that we have it), and the interpretation of Scripture is likewise developed by mortal, fallible, fallen human beings.
It always leaves something out.
Jesus, in the gospels, kept pointing out that remainder, again and again. He also pointed out that when you arrogantly assume that your interpretation is final and that there is no remainder, that has real-world and dangerous ramifications. You make big mistakes. You start to leave people out. You judge when it is God’s role alone to judge, and sometimes you judge unjustly. The letter kills, and the spirit gives life, Paul tells us. Following the spirit of the text is about humility, about approaching scripture not with the intent of arriving at a definitive and final answer, but with the intent of encountering the heart of God and having your assumptions, whether prideful ones or lazy ones, shaken up — because God sees so much more than we do.
Let’s Do Some Deconstruction, Right Now, and See if it’s Useful
Maybe this all sounds a bit abstract and academic. In fact, that’s another reason we tend to ignore deconstruction or regard it as suspect — it looks to us, sometimes, like a bit of an academic game.
Christians have often, throughout history, been accused of that same abstraction. (Remember the angels dancing on the head of a pin?) Philosophers have, too. And as American readers, we regard abstract ideas with especial suspicion. We like things that can be boiled down in simple and concrete terms.
But it is fundamental to Christianity that abstract ideas and beliefs have profound impact on real lives and real actions and motivations. This is not a stance that’s foreign to us; it’s central.
Let’s do a quick experiment to see deconstruction in action; then we’ll be better able to judge if it has something to offer in religious reading.
Let’s read Genesis 1 and start with a humble stance that when we’ve read it previously, we left something out. Let’s take that as a given — just for this experiment. And so let’s approach the text looking attentively for what we left out before. In doing so, we may not arrive at a definitive and final interpretation, but we may gain deeper insights into the heart of God. It might waken our hearts and minds. It is worth doing.
When I read Genesis 1, I notice 3 things that usually get left out. There are more, and there are also things I am leaving out. My reading is fallible. The language that I’m reading is fallible. The language in which I’m sharing these observations is fallible and unfixed, and much will be lost in translation when each of you reads this. There are things I haven’t noticed at all. But those 3 things I did notice are pretty huge things, and they challenge me to pray and ponder.
Here are 3 things that some contemporary, American Christians have left out when they read that text:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
An interpretation of this was offered in the fourth century, and we have rarely bothered to look deeper since; we just read the way people in the fourth century did. They suggested the idea of creatione ex nihilo — creation of the universe from nothing. This was because the Greek and Latin words for creation are words for making and because the idea of ex nihilo was very attractive to Roman thinkers, who liked to focus on power and authority as divine attributes, even at the risk of forgetting about other attributes.
Let’s assume something was left out. What?
The next verse got left out. “The earth was without form and waste.” The Hebrew word that I just substituted “waste” for connotes a dry and empty desert; in Latin and English translations, the word’s meaning shifts around like stones sliding down a slope. For example, we often see this translated “void.” But while the Hebrew word suggests emptiness and dryness, it’s empty like a desert, not empty like blank space.
That isn’t nothing. A desert isn’t nothing. It is just, in this verse, a dry waste without life and without form.
That intrigued me. I looked into some research that’s been published on this passage (there has been some vigorous conversation about it in recent years), and I also studied the etymology of bara, the Hebrew word here that we translate create. In other words, the people whose work I was reading had noticed something that got left out and I launched an investigation into it (albeit a small one).
Bara doesn’t mean making something out of nothing. It suggests taking an object that is without use or purpose and creating out of it a new object that has purpose, use, and beauty. For example, when you take a reed and carve holes in it and turn it into a flute, you are doing the kind of creation that is bara. When you take a rock and make a statue, that is bara. When you take twelve people of diverse classes, traditions, and motivations, and weld them into a team of apostles, that is bara. When you take dust and form it into a human being and breathe life into it, that is bara. When you take cells that are not a fetus and develop them embryonically into a fetus in the womb, that is bara. Bara is taking raw materials and making out of them something of purpose and beauty.
This isn’t even a new interpretation, just one that’s been largely forgotten and is now less popular. John Milton, when he wrote Paradise Lost, described God making the universe out of “his dark materials.” (That phrase His Dark Materials became the title of Philip Pullman’s recent fantasy series that has prompted such controversy.) Milton was reading his Old Testament in Hebrew; in fact, some accounts suggest that he had the Old Testament memorized in Hebrew, which staggers my mind if it is true; I haven’t checked. Regardless, he was more familiar with the possible nuances of the word bara than most.
Physicists will inform you that we are all made out of stardust. The atoms in us and in everything we see are the same atoms that burned at the heart of the first stars in the universe. Once reduced to “dust” (or, rather, component atoms), these no longer had any purpose or beauty or use. But we, and the other things we see, that have been remade from those atoms, from those “dark materials,” do or can have purpose and beauty and use.
Take a moment and just ponder the ramifications. Creatione ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and bara (taking raw materials and shaping them into something purposeful and beautiful) are very different concepts. One of these is about emphasizing God’s power. The other emphasizes purpose. One emphasizes what God can do, while the other is briefly suggestive of how and why God does things. If you are a religious reader, this has some big implications.
The other thing that sometimes happens in America when we read Genesis 1 is that we get completely focused on the first verse, as if that is the only verse in the chapter that matters. The question of creation takes up our whole mind; we’re anxious about it. So we get lost focusing all our attention on one thing, and we miss other things that may be just as or more important.
For example, as John Caputo notes in his book The Weakness of God, “created” isn’t the only verb that gets repeated several times in Genesis 1. “Called” and “said” get repeated, too. God calls the world into being — an idea that later gets repeated often in the Psalms.
In fact, look at what does get spoken first in Genesis 1: “Let there be light.”
That isn’t a command. That isn’t the imperative voice. That isn’t the same as, “Light, be!” That’s “Let there be light.” Subjunctive voice. It’s a call, a suggestion, a strong request.
What if, in bara creation, God took the raw materials of the universe and called them to be something of purpose and beauty? What if God is like Isaiah and John the Baptist’s “voice crying out in the wilderness,” calling us to change the world? What if God is, sometimes, a still, small voice that approaches us not with a command but with a call? Elijah hears the still, small voice say not “Elijah, get your butt back into action,” but calling him, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” God walks through the garden in the evening calling for Adam. Jesus calls the disciples. Today, we talk about having “a calling.” God calls Samuel into his presence in the middle of the night. And so on. The Bible is full of calling. In fact, the whole idea in the New Testament of the reformation of the heart is that God takes a heart that has become a wasteland and calls it to purpose, justice, love, and faith. “Grace” isn’t just that God forgives; it’s that he remakes, in a bara sense. He calls us and begins to make us into something new and beautiful.
Just as a Christian might imagine God taking stardust and forming it over time into planets and trees and people, we might think of God taking fallen hearts and calling them to be something new. That is continuing the work of creation and calling that we see in Genesis 1. “Let there be light.” “Let there be waters above the waters.” “Let there be living things.” And so on. That’s God standing at the edge of a formless waste and calling forth life. That’s Jesus standing on the waters calling Peter out of the boat. That’s Christ calling to a desolate heart.
It’s not a command. We can always ignore it. It’s a call. John Caputo would call it a persistent and insistent call, one that can be refused but one that sometimes gets inside us and gets more and more difficult to ignore.
And that idea of “calling” — that big idea that may be core to God’s work of creation described throughout Scriptures, that may even be very core to the Christian faith — gets left out of most of our readings of Genesis 1. Often, when we’re done reading about creation and we finish constructing our understanding of what we’ve just read, that idea of “calling” is one remainder, left over and forgotten.
3. Tzelem Elohim
Here’s another. This is one that the Jewish tradition has not left out; in rabbinical reading, this one is central. But Christian readers often glide past it without really focusing attention and really taking it in. And this one has huge, everyday, real-world implications. We can’t afford to just leave it out and let it be a remainder.
In Genesis 1 we find that we are created tzelem elohim, “in the likeness of God.” In fact, we find that all people, “male and female,” are made in the likeness of God. Paul later comments on this when he tells the Galatians that there is no male or female, no slave or master, no Jew or Greek, no hierarchy or system of classifications in God’s eyes; we are all loved, we are all made in God’s likeness.
That’s a really Big Idea. In fact, if you think about the time in which Genesis was written down, the idea we usually focus on — that God was creating the world — wasn’t a big idea. Almost everyone living in the Near East at that time took it for granted that a deity or deities had created the universe. What would have been a bigger issue is how the world was created (bara) and why (calling) and what kind of world got created. When we get so focused on whether or not God created the world, our attention gets so narrowed that we miss many of the big things that the story may have been addressing.
The ancient Hebrews didn’t miss it. They wrestled with tzelem elohim. In fact, they had an incredibly hard time with it. They lived in a world that was prior to Greek thought and prior to Christian ethics and prior to Talmudic teaching and prior to the Pax Romana and prior to democratic representation and universal suffrage and prior to modern views of slavery. They lived in a world of near-constant warfare, raiding, and violence, a world in which tribes and nations constantly had to protect themselves or attempted to conquer others and harvest their resources (which, for the ancients, meant land, herds, labor, and women). It was also a world with very little restraint; our world still has little restraint, but theirs had less. There was no United Nations. There was no Geneva Convention. There was nothing to prevent one tribe from kidnapping and raping and marrying the women from another tribe — nothing except for either a rival show of force … or a powerful and widely accepted idea.
Let me tell you a story.
Prior to the High Middle Ages, before the Crusades, in the handful of centuries after Rome’s fall that we often poetically refer to as “the Dark Ages,” Europe was a political mess. Roaming tribes, mercenary troops, and local warlords all churned against each other in decentralized and violent conflict over land and other resources. The Catholic Church was an institution that, at the time, did not have the wealth or the political power that it later did; but it did wield significant influence nonetheless, because people gave credence to the Church’s claims of moral authority and representation of God’s will on earth. There were several Popes who attempted, in this climate, to take Jesus’s words about peace and apply them to the real world. They looked at their increasingly violent and chaotic continent, and tried to suggest restraints. Flawed ones, the best they could think of at the time. For example, there was the Pax Dei or “Peace of God,” where a Pope declared immunity for unarmed noncombatants like peasants and clergy. Essentially, the Pax Dei suggested, “Ok, you’re going to fight and kill and slaughter each other, but God says that unarmed villagers and clergy are immune; you cannot kill them in the course of combat.”
This did not always work very well.
That is probably no surprise.
But when at first you don’t succeed, you try, try again. So the Church later came up with the Treuga Dei, or “Truce of God.” This declared that there must be a ceasefire on all holy days. (And, not entirely by coincidence, the Church around this time established a lot of holy days and saint’s days.) This worked a little — but not always. Still, it had an impact, limited as it was. It echoes down the years through European tradition even into the twentieth century; there are cases in which temporary ceasefires have been declared over the Christmas holiday, as in the case of the Brits and the Germans in World War I. But obviously, this does not always happen.
Why did I tell this story? Because it provides a parallel to a project that the ancient Hebrew, levitical priesthood may have attempted around three thousand years ago.
Leviticus and Deuteronomy are immensely well-read books in Jewish traditions of reading, and Jews read these books very differently than anyone else does (and, in many cases, more intelligently, but that’s a topic for this other post to cover). Christians and secular Americans tend to ignore these books to the extent possible. Christians either choose not to read them (much) because they’re “dry” and because the topics addressed in the levitical code are so unsavory (rape of female war captives, for instance), or they may put strong emphasis only on selected passages (like the sentence about gay sex, for example). Secular readers tend to either withdraw from these texts in horror or seize on them as evidence of the latent evil in religion. (“See what your Bible says to do! It says to rape and commit genocide!” That is a comment I have heard quite often.)
Neither of these are very useful or informed approaches. They rely on a glib reading of levitical code as absolute, timeless instruction for religious readers, and by reading in that narrow way, they miss so much that’s important.
Suppose that you were part of a levitical priesthood three thousand years ago, living in the world we just described: roaming tribes coming into frequent conflict, cities being burned and rebuilt and burned again, ubiquitous slavery (which, for the ancients, was their alternative to genocide; they hadn’t yet come up with a third or fourth option for dealing with conquered peoples, to every historian’s sorrow; and one has only to look back at what was done to the Native Americans to realize that some of the third and fourth options we did come up with eventually were also atrocities), and the widespread capture and enslavement of foreign women. It was not, by modern standards, a very kind or just world. It was a mess. (I say “modern standards” to describe what we today expect, not what we have; we can probably each cite a number of occasions on which the “modern” world has proven as bad or worse.)
Now suppose that your priestly community is undertaking the long project of establishing and improving a legal code that you want twelve diverse tribes to adhere to and obey. There are appointed judges, there are now some rudimentary systems for trials and gathering witnesses, and you’ve taken a set of 10 proclamations (that you preserve on stone tablets, to last for all time, because stone is pretty durable) and a set of ethical propositions that are ascribed to divine origin, and you work out a system of over 600 laws. That’s pretty complex for that time. And those laws order and organize many facets of life, from agriculture (how long to leave a field fallow, for instance) to violent disputes (we’ll establish places of refuge where a fugitive and can flee for safety and demand a trial, and if their angry pursuer enters those places and kills the fugitive, that is an offense before God and an abomination) and combat (what restraints will we put around the treatment of war captives?).
Actually, why put any restraints at all?
Well, because the statements your God is recorded as having made (all human beings, male and female, are made in God’s likeness; the sabbath must be kept holy; blood spilled unjustly defiles the land, and the land must be kept holy; keep yourselves a people set apart, a just people; shelter the stranger in the land) are pretty radical, and you are tasked with somehow translating these religious and ethical precepts into actual laws and courses of action for your tribe.
If all people, male and female, are made in the likeness of God, what are the implications?
It means if I look in the eyes of another, I am looking into the eyes of another person who bears the image of God. That is a holy thing.
What does that mean for our tribe, which regularly takes women captive after a conflict? What if those women, too, are made in the likeness of God and have irreduceable and intrinsic value as God-created human beings?
If the spirit of your law is that we are all made in the image of God, the letter will be a flawed, real-world attempt to wrestle that into practice at a specific time, under specific conditions. The regulations we record in the Old Testament can be interpreted and read as just such a flawed attempt to put that spirit into practice in a world very different from our own. Deuteronomy 21 doesn’t say, unfortunately, “Don’t take women captive,” perhaps because no one thought of it or perhaps because taking women captive was too desirable in that culture, or perhaps because no one would actually have obeyed such a prohibition and there would have been no power to enforce it. Just like with the Pax Dei, the man holding the spear could simply laugh at your law and do as he pleased.
But maybe you can apply some restraints and give those restraints religious significance — warn the man that he must “fear God” and observe God’s ways. If that woman who is now a captive, who has witnessed and will suffer atrocities, is truly made in the likeness of God, then she cannot be treated trivially, the way one might, for example, treat a jewelled necklace that one has seized from the burning city, using it immediately or selling it to someone else for a high price. A woman and a jewelled necklace are not the same. There are no feminists in the ancient levitical priesthood — just men wrestling with the concept that a woman is made in the image of God. If that’s true, they propose, then you cannot simply seize her and then rape her. You must recognize, on some level, her humanity. You must grant her one month to mourn for her parents whom you have killed. You may not “go in to her” at that time. You may not force her to wear cosmetics or pretty clothes or show her off as a trophy to the other men, either. You must permit her the mourning customs of the time — shaving the head, wearing clothes of lament. Providing that month to a war captive becomes a law. It also might give the man who has seized her time to consider her slowly, to notice her weeping, time for her to speak to him and appeal to his empathy, time for the initial feeling of triumph and lust to dull and some empathy to develop. Or it might not; that could well be a too-comfortable illusion, something I would prefer to think because the idea of inflicting such suffering on others without empathy disturbs me deeply. As a father of two daughters, that kind of situation is barely comprehensible to me, and I am ill-equipped to understand it. So I must guard against wishful thinking. The likely fact is, that woman is eventually going to be raped and abused. It remains an atrocity.
But the levites make the attempt at restraint, just as the Catholics do with their Pax Dei. There must be some restraint. You must allow the captive her time of mourning. You must recognize her human need to grieve. And when you have, in the end, done as you will, if you then tire of her, the levites say, you mustn’t do any of the things that a tribal warrior three thousand years ago is most likely to do. You may not sell her to another or “treat her as a slave” — she is still a woman made in the image of God. “Let her go where she pleases,” the priests say. The levitical code tries to put in place some protections for these women, because they, too, bear God’s image. A war captive in 1100 BC is not the same as a seized ewe or cow. She has the right to grieve. She cannot be sold or kept as a menial work slave. Horrifyingly, many terrible things can be done to her, but not those things.
As with the Pax Dei and the Treuga Dei, I am a bit skeptical that the levitical regulations and restraints actually worked all that often.
This has been a long tangent, though I hope it has been interesting. The point is that the Hebrews who began writing what eventually became recorded as the Old Testament wrestled with tzelem elohim and with other statements that the priests said God had made. These ideas did not jive well with the circumstances of their world, in which top tribal priorities were often keeping the tribe pure from outsiders and gathering more resources.
Today, we typically choose to just ignore passages like the one we just examined (or we take them as literal instruction for us, and then we are justly offended or horrified). But there’s a way of reading (one that Conservative and Reformed Jews do, and that Christians arguably should do) where you look for the spirit of the text, and learn from watching the ancestors wrestle with how to put that spirit into action. As Paul is careful to note, the deeply flawed levitical code is not law for us; it is an ancient example that these issues need to be wrestled with. It is useful and instructive in that sense because those of us who are religious need to wrestle with tzelem elohim today, too, even as the levitical priests once did, and under cultural and political pressures that are different but no less difficult. Will we look into the eyes of children caged on the US/Mexico border and say, “These children are made in the likeness of God, human beings even as our own children are, and we must find a way to treat them accordingly.” Reacting to the Ferguson riots, a young woman told her mother (in the hearing of an author friend of mine at an airport in Florida), “Mamma, they’re animals. They’re just animals.” Well, no, they’re not. Whatever cultural drives or prejudices prompted her conclusion, it is incompatible with tzelem elohim. “They” are not “animals” in the sense that the young woman probably meant the word; they are human beings made in the image of the divine.
How does tzelem elohim affect the way we look at the violence in Ferguson, or in the Near East? These are uneasy questions that we are called to address — because right at the very start of the Bible, this is one of God’s first pronouncements, and one that the rest of the Bible continues to wrestle uneasily with. If we are religious readers, when we turn to Genesis 1, we can’t overlook it. We can’t leave it as a remainder.
Approaching the Word like Little Children
To recap: Deconstruction is the practice of taking apart our current understanding of what we’re reading, looking closely at the parts, and identifying what we’ve left out. A deconstructive reading opens our eyes to potentially important things we’ve missed. That’s why it’s not a mere academic exercise, and that’s why it can be really important (and useful) to Christians, who probably should be starting anyway from the base assumption that our current understanding is limited, that it’s prideful to “lean” unquestioningly on our own understanding, and that our language and our interpretations are necessarily flawed, fallen, and incomplete. When we are willing to deconstruct what we think we know and look for the remainder that our previous interpretation left behind, we find things like bara creation. We learn more deeply that God, from the beginning, has been calling the universe into life, purpose, and goodness, and expecting the universe (and us) to respond. And we are reminded that tzelem elohim stands at the very beginning of the Word and then resonates and troubles the rest of the Bible. Not only should we not just glide blithely by it; it could be central to how we choose to live out a life of “loving our neighbor.” If our only takeaway from reading Genesis 1 is to reinforce the established interpretation that it is all about the fact that God created the universe (and, to some minds, how long it took him to do so), we are missing so much of what’s there in Genesis 1, and so much that may be incredibly important to our lives, to our actions and values.
The purpose and function of deconstruction isn’t to destroy. It’s to take apart a flawed interpretation (which, because it’s flawed, might miss opportunities or even be dangerous). You might then reconstruct, developing a new interpretation that takes into account and is partly shaped by the remainder you’ve noticed. But, because you are a flawed human being using flawed, fallen language, it would be wise to realize that your new interpretation is also tentative and also deconstructible.
The interpretations I’ve shared above as examples are tentative and deconstructible. I am convinced that I have left things out. And I will look for those things when I read the text again or the next time I discuss it with someone. In fact, just now I’ve spotted something I missed in my thought-experiment with Deuteronomy 21. Those words “let her go where she pleases” are pretty vague. Her city might be burned to the ground; where will she go? Is she going with, or without, provision? Is she being simply abandoned? Is this one of the passages that Jesus responds to in the gospels, deconstructing the Pharisees’ teachings on divorce and arguing that it is a great injustice in the eyes of God to put one’s wife away (remember that Jesus was speaking to a century and a culture that had not yet invented alimony and in which employment for unmarried women barely existed, other than prostitution). Or is this passage unrelated to that? Perhaps some rabbinical scholar has explored the passage and can point me toward a new reading. Or perhaps I can look at the Hebrew words that we translated “let her go,” and there may be clues there. I don’t know what I would find if I looked into it; I don’t even know for certain whether I would find something useful; I would have to try and then see. It is just clear that this is something I have left out of my reading. I probably left other things out, too, and the reading I’ve given necessarily stands on shaky ground.
If we approach the Bible (or any other written text) with a willingness to deconstruct our previous interpretation, that is a humble act and may even be, for the religious among us, a devotional act. It is a way of letting go of our desire to master God and his word, and instead open ourselves to encountering God’s heart and his word anew, each day. It is a way of letting go of either our pride or our desperate need for certainty and saying, “God, I will not lean today on my own understanding. Before you, what I think I know is insignificant. I am going to approach your word and your kingdom like a small child, with questions and new eyes and a willingness to notice things for the first time. God, what do you want me to notice today?”
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
Stories that Live in Our Blind Spot I write because I love stories, because I can’t go a day without telling a story or listening to a story. And as a child I encountered the Bible as a wondrous collection of shocking, horrifying, empowering, and troubling stories (sometimes, all four at once). When I embarked on The Zombie Bible, I wanted to share these stories, I wanted to make them new again, I wanted people not to walk past them but to live the horror and the wonder that I found when I read them. At the risk of sounding like a bully, I wanted to make readers cry.
I suspect that the majority of people in the U.S. ignore biblical stories. Religious people ignore these stories because, most often, they read merely for examples to corroborate or elaborate on what they’ve been taught. Secular people ignore these stories because, as a rule, they are unwilling to separate these ancient stories from the political slogans and agendas that refer back to them. To me, this is a tragedy. We are talking about one of our oldest and most diverse treasure-houses of stories, and it is the one such treasure-house that everyone talks about and no one really experiences.
These are horror stories and wonder stories, but we’ve largely forgotten that. In many cases, these stories were written to amaze us, or shock us, or move us. A crucifixion is horrific. A child sacrifice is horrific. These stories try to shock us awake and then invite us to ask really tough questions, necessary questions. I wanted to bring these stories to readers in such a way that they would horrify and amaze us again, move us again.
These stories deserve our attention, and we deserve the opportunity to let them touch our hearts and bring us to tears or anger or joy. We deserve to experience these stories as more than just political slogans or ‘life application’ self-help messages. The shock and grief of zombie horror is a way of letting us do that. It’s a way of taking us back out into the heart of the storm on the lake, to that moment when the waves are high and the sky is crushing us down with its dark weight, God is asleep, and we are hanging on to the gunwale for dear life, learning who and what we are.
How Not to Read (Seriously) Let me try to explain what I mean more clearly. If you’re reading this, skip any part that gets tedious.
I think that most people, whether religious or secular, assume that you should read the Bible as one coherent narrative, novel, or history book. This is true whether you’re ransacking this text for a consistent religious doctrine or whether you’re trying to dismiss it in entirety.
But it isn’t one narrative.
It’s a whole nest of different texts from different times in which different people struggle to understand both God and humanity. Whether you “believe” in God or not — whatever your relationship (or lack thereof) to religion may be — the Bible provides a polyvocal record (a record consisting of many voices) of man’s developing understanding of man, ethics, and God.
This record opens with two ethical statements in Genesis 1:
God looked on creation and pronounced it to be “good.”
Male and female, we were each created in the likeness of the divine.
The thousand-odd pages that follow consist of 66 books (slightly fewer, slightly more, depending on which Bible) that debate these two ethical propositions (and others), across three continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe), three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), and nearly a millennium of writing. You have a collection of legal texts, historical chronicles, poems, sermons, letters, testimonies, hagiographies, collections of proverbs, and dream-stories that wrestle with what these ethical statements mean, what these statements imply about God or about people, and whether/how/in what ways these statements might be lived and practiced in real life.
The Bible is an ongoing wrestling match, not a plotline.
Let me give you an example.
Strangers in the Land You probably recognize Strangers in the Land as the title of my third novel, a nightmarish story of zombies and genocide in 1160 BC. It also refers to one of the core ethical statements in the Old Testament, one repeated again and again throughout the book of Exodus. Moses the Lawgiver instructs the Hebrews that, as they were strangers in the land of Egypt, they must treat the stranger in their own land well. There must be one law, both for the home-born and for the stranger. Strangers’ rights must be protected, vigorously — because the Hebrews, too, were once strangers in a strange land, and because the Hebrew and the stranger are both made in the likeness of the divine.
Now this ethical proposition flies in the face of some of our most basic instincts. We would rather fear the stranger, wall the stranger out, or possibly get rid of them; we want to protect our own. But Moses says no, you have to “shelter” the stranger.
One way to read significant passages in the Old Testament is to read them as dozens of different views of how the Hebrews struggled with two directions that often appeared contradictory: Shelter the stranger on the one hand; on the other, keep your own people safe and secure as well as separate and sacred as a “chosen people.” An ethical conflict that we get to watch in action:
Exodus is the story of the wrath of God falling upon a nation that fails to shelter the stranger.
In Joshua, tribes of Israel invade the promised land, displacing strangers
In Ruth, a stranger from a strange land immigrates to Israel and is, at first, treated horribly — shunned by the Israelite women, starving, in danger of rape in the fields. Yet she is the heroine of the tale (and an ancestor of Jesus). The man who marries her is a man who goes out of his way to shelter the stranger.
In the erotic poem, Song of Solomon, the Shulammite bride is a stranger in the land, and she is not liked. Other women in the city taunt her; the watchmen find her in the night and beat her. Yet her lover and husband finds her breathtaking. The poem is a breathtaking song of their union.
In Daniel and Esther, the tribes again try to survive as strangers in someone else’s land, facing genocide, slavery, and several attempts simply to annihilate their language, their names, and their way of life.
In Ezra, a priest demands that the people of Israel, who have newly returned to the land and have taken strange wives, cast their wives away as strangers, shunning them.
And so on, back and forth. In some accounts, the view that is privileged is “shelter the stranger.” In others, the view that is privileged is reject the stranger — violently, if need be. In the New Testament (in Galatians), Paul says that there is no Greek, no Hebrew, no male, no female, no master, no slave in God’s sight. In other words, race, gender, and class are seen as arbitrary and manmade distinctions. But then Paul has to wrestle with how to make this practical. What if a Christian woman has married a man who worships the old gods? What then? He wrestles with the issue, indicating what he thinks is right, and concludes with the direction that his readers must search their own hearts.
They must wrestle with it.
As readers, these stories, poems, and letters invite us into the wrestling match. Because make no mistake, we have to ask the very same questions that were asked thousands of years ago. Are we to shelter the stranger? How does this impact our views on immigration? How does it effect what we do when our child brings home someone of another race for dinner?
“Who is my neighbor?” one listener asks Jesus, and gets a very uncomfortable story in response. Who am I responsible for loving and sheltering?
You can take any number of ethical statements proposed in the Bible, and watch it get wrestled with, generation after generation, story after story, letter after letter. The Bible is not a consistent plotline or a manual; it’s a record of centuries of intense wrestling and it is an invitation for us to wrestle — openly, honestly — with these ideas. Ideas that have shaped and troubled our world. Ideas that are radical and important.
He Wrestles with God In fact, the word “Israel” literally means “He wrestles with God.”
Think about that.
I mean, really think about that.
What if reading the Bible is not an act of taking in information (which you may then either adopt or reject), but an act of wrestling? How might that be a different reading activity (maybe an exciting one — regardless of whether you are religious or not)? What if the reading experience is supposed to be tense and contradictory and sometimes laden with horror, and what if that isn’t a bad thing?
What are we wrestling with, when we read the Bible?
Well, God, clearly — regardless of whether or not God exists.
We’re also wrestling with ourselves — with our own assumptions.
And we’re wrestling with the dead. With our past, which always (if we ignore it) rises up to devour us.
Wrestling with the Dead There is a 1800-year-old Judaic tradition of reading the Old Testament which stands in stark opposition to the literalism of modern fundamentalist Christianity (and of much modern reading, in general). This tradition survives today in the conservative movement in Judaism and rabbinical scholarship (not to be confused with what “conservatism” means in America). This tradition celebrates the text without treating it as some type of novel or character profile, but as a treasure-house of cultural stories from the ancestors that need to be questioned and wrestled with — precisely because how we approach these stories has an impact on who we are and how we decide who we need to be.
A reader in this tradition is expected neither to accept tales of genocide in the Old Testament nor to reject them, because both are irrelevant to the goal of reading: which is to engage with one’s ancestors, what they felt and believed and hoped and feared, to wrestle with your dead for a while, learn from them, and talk with them, as part of a dialogue through which we create or attain wisdom for the present.
Our dead are different from us — even though they, like us, may have endured exile and privation and even though they, like us, may have experienced love and loss. By listening to our dead, we become better able to listen to the living — who are also different from us.
Relearning How to Read Unfortunately, we’re taught to mine the Bible for information or models for behavior; it is treated as a static document, rather like instructions on how to assemble a bookcase. Maybe it is recognized to be more difficult to read and interpret than the typical bookcase assembly instructions, but in the end, we treat it as that kind of document — except that we are what is being assembled — and we either accept or reject the Bible depending on whether we like the shape we think these instructions will assemble us into.
In fact, we’re taught to read almost everything that way. Unless we have escaped this trap either by means of voracious reading on our part or some college instructor’s insistence, we tend to read even works of great literature in search of their “moral” or their one right, or best, interpretation. We go into stories looking for their end result, whether that end result is “True love conquers all” or “A good man is hard to find” or “Christ will save your soul.”
We aren’t taught that reading can be an act of wrestling.
If you look at a standard, American Christian study bible (let’s say the ESV Study Bible — beautiful translation, awful study aid), what you find is text at the top of the page, and annotations at the bottom of the page, in which one preacher or editor footnotes difficult passages and explains exactly what they mean.
I was shopping for a Bible once, in a religious bookstore, and the woman shopping next to me asked for my advice. “I want a study bible with clear notes,” she said, “so I’ll know what it means and I won’t have to think about it.”
We’re most often taught to read this way — as though every question in the book has an answer and only one answer and one of our fellow human beings will tell us exactly what that answer is. Infallibly.
Let’s compare this to a rabbinical study bible — the Etz Hayim, a Hebrew/English parallel text with annotations at the bottom. It is laid out just like a Christian study bible. But there’s a big difference. The annotations at the bottom might footnote a difficult passage and then run through five examples of how different people have read that passage in different centuries. Some of it is brilliant. Some of it is beautiful. Some of it is thought-provoking. It’s all meant to prompt you to wrestle with the text yourself, to ask smart questions and figure out what it means, not be told what it means.
That’s a beautiful, intelligent, exciting way to read.
How Do We Get There? I think we start by making the stories real again. Whether we start (or end) as religious or atheist or agnostic readers, if we’re going to read at all, we need to encounter the stories — not as chapters in a novel, but as hundreds of stories that are all tackling related questions.
We need to read about Ruth in the fields gleaning scraps of food, as a single woman with a widowed and ailing mother-in-law, and we need to feel her fear and her desperate hope.
We need to read Jeremiah’s words as he howls in the street about the child sacrifices on the Hill of Tophet, and we need to feel his horror when he cries, “I see the blood of children on your skirts!”
And we need to watch Ezra banish the women and let ourselves feel very, very uncomfortable. Not just dismiss it or explain it away. Actually look at it, wrestle with it. And then ask ourselves some hard questions.
We need to read and feel — not just let these stories be some kind of commercial for a political program, nor source texts for a troubling religious dogma that some of us feel obligated to disinherit, nor even a religious instruction manual that is all about us. We need to go to these stories as we go to a date, a tense but hopeful encounter with people who are both like and unlike us, people who are other than us, and let ourselves be drawn into their lives for a while.
These stories have made me cry. And laugh. And shiver.
And they have challenged me to seek deeper relationships with my fellow human beings, with the dead who came before me, and with God. They have helped me work out my faith and my tradition with fear and trembling.
They have invited me to ask tough questions.
I think that’s partly what they’re for.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.