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Archive for the 'History of Interpretation' Category

The Androgynous Adam: Sex and Sexuality in the Garden

13th February 2011

Claude Mariottini, over at his eponymous blog, drew our attention to a couple recent books on the Bible and Sex, Michael Coogan’s God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says (New York: The Hachette Book Group, 2010; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com) and Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). I have not had a chance to examine either book, so I’m not going to say anything about them. I did, however, want to comment on Mariottini’s quick dismissal of Knust’s notion that the first human was androgynous and only later sexually differentiated. He notes:

Her premise is that the story of creation of the first human person in Genesis 1 was a case of androgyny, that is, that the first person was both male and female and had the genitals of both sexes. Then, in the creation story of Genesis 2, the sexes were separated and this separation created sexual desire in human beings. This desire drives man and woman to have sex so that they can become one again.

This view that God’s original plan for his creation was that a human person would have two sexes in one body is the creation of a fertile mind that finds no support in the Bible. Knust bases her view on ancient Jewish interpreters who were trying to explain why there are two creation stories in Genesis.

Knust’s interpretation is so radical that she reinterprets what the Bible says in order to present a modern view of sex and sexuality that is a complete departure from what the Bible has to say and teach.

The notion that the original human was androgynous (or something similar) isn’t a new idea, nor perhaps is it so radical. Rashi, a 10th century Jewish interpreter, suggested the first human was male on one side and female on the other and that God had simply divided the creature in half (compare the similar idea of Aristophanes, brought to Mariottini’s attention by David Reimer). Perhaps the most well know biblical scholar to champion a similar notion recently is Phyllis Trible, who presented this idea in her masterful, God and Rhetoric of Sexuality (Fortress, 1986; buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). Using rhetorical analysis and a close reading of the text, Trible argues that God created the first human without gender, “the adam” [human] was formed from “the adamah” [humus]. Rather than a man, “the adam” was an “earth creature”  (as an aside, there is a great play on words in the biblical text: “Yahweh Elohim formed the earthling from the earth” or “the human from the humus”).  Not until the woman is built from the side of the earth creature does the original human being acquire gender. Now Trible’s interpretation has some basis in the biblical text. Despite most modern translations, the use of “adam” in Genesis 2 is not a personal name. The biblical text does not have “Adam”, but rather “the adam” (‏האדם), i.e., the human, or the like. And it is only in Gen 2:23 (after the building of the woman) that text text refers to humanity as “male” and “female” (‏אישׁ and ‏אשׁה).

Now, that being said, I don’t agree with Trible’s interpretation. It’s just that I don’t feel like I can dismiss it out of hand. The biggest problem with her interpretation is that throughout the entire narrative, “the human” is referred to as “the-adam” (‏האדם), Even after the creation of the woman in 2:23, the creature is still referred to as “the-adam.” It is only later that the human male is unambiguously referred to as “Adam” (i.e., as a proper name; without the definite article). So I guess I don’t really disagree with Mariottini’s ultimate conclusion, though I’m not sure I would be too dogmatic. When it comes right down to it, I’m not sure we should press the biblical text too much in this regard. The point of the narrative is not to comment on the original sexuality of the human, but rather to celebrate the creation of the woman as a suitable counterpart for the man.Richardson, Flame of Yahweh

While we are talking about the Bible and sex, I should note another fairly recent publication on sex and the Bible:  Richard M. Davidson‘s Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Hendrickson, 2007; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com).  This almost 850 page volume is the most extensive discussions of sexuality in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible available. Compared to  Coogan and Knust, this work is quite conservative, though it will probably remain unchallenged for a while in terms of comprehensiveness.  (In case you are wondering, the title of the volume is derived from Davidson’s somewhat unique understanding of Song of Songs 8:6).

You should check it out.


Posted in Bible, Creation, Genesis, History of Interpretation | Comments Off

History of the Daily Devotional Reading of the Bible

28th December 2008

I am curious if anyone in the blogosphere is familiar with when the notion of daily devotional reading of the Bible for average everyday Christians became popular? When did this become the cornerstone of individual piety and spirituality?

It was obviously after the Reformation and the appearance of Bible translations in the vernacular (quite a bit after, I would think), but more importantly it would have to do with socio-economic factors and literacy rates.

I am preaching on the devotional reading of Scripture in the near future and wanted to provide a historical perspective on Bible reading as a spiritual discipline. I want to emphasize that while personal reading of the Bible is important, reading in community is essential and is more in line with the history of the Church.

Any thoughts?


Posted in Bible, History of Interpretation | 12 Comments »

Jehovah, Adonai, LORD, Yahweh: What’s In a Name?

12th September 2008

The Vatican made the news recently with the barring of the pronunciation of the name “Yahweh” — the proper name used for Israel’s God in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament — in Catholic worship. It appears that the use of the name Yahweh has been creeping into the Catholic churches liturgy of late, as it has been in the Protestant tradition as well. Here are some excerpts from the Catholic News Service report:

Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, announced the new Vatican “directives on the use of ‘the name of God’ in the sacred liturgy” in an Aug. 8 letter to his fellow bishops.
….
His letter to bishops came with a two-page letter from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, dated June 29 and addressed to episcopal conferences around the world.

“By directive of the Holy Father, in accord with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this congregation … deems it convenient to communicate to the bishops’ conferences … as regards the translation and the pronunciation, in a liturgical setting, of the divine name signified in the sacred Tetragrammaton,” said the letter signed by Cardinal Francis Arinze and Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, congregation prefect and secretary, respectively.

The Tetragrammaton is YHWH, the four consonants of the ancient Hebrew name for God.

“As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: ‘Adonai,’ which means ‘Lord,’” the Vatican letter said. Similarly, Greek translations of the Bible used the word “Kyrios” and Latin scholars translated it to “Dominus”; both also mean Lord.

“Avoiding pronouncing the Tetragrammaton of the name of God on the part of the church has therefore its own grounds,” the letter said. “Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining faithful to the church’s tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred Tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated.”

This story was also picked up today by Christianity Today. The CT article surveyed a variety of opinions by evangelical leaders, some who agree with the Vatican ban and others who disagreed. Carol Bechtel, professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan is quoted as saying:

It’s always left me baffled and perplexed and embarrassed that we sprinkle our hymns with that name. Whether or not there are Jewish brothers and sisters in earshot, the most obvious reason to avoid using the proper and more personal name of God in the Old Testament is simply respect for God.

I’m not  sure if I entirely agree. I do agree that we should not use the name if it is going to offend someone. When I teach Hebrew at the University of Alberta we discuss this issue in one of the first classes. I explain a bit about the name and how it has been preserved in the various textual traditions and versions, the early practice of avoiding the pronouncing the name, and current practices. Then we decide as a class what we want to do. Typically there are some Jews in the class who are uncomfortable pronouncing the name and we decide to read either “Adonai” or “haShem” (“the Name”) when we encounter the Tetragram (i.e., the four-letter name for God, YHWH or יהוה).  At Taylor, however, where my students are all Christians, no one typically has any strong opinions either way.

Part of me wants to assert that if God didn’t want us to use the name, he wouldn’t have given it to the ancient Israelites. And I’m not sure if it is a matter of respecting God. I don’t like the practice of substituting a title (e.g., LORD) for a proper name, since it makes God rather impersonal.

On the other hand, the tradition of avoiding the pronunciation of the name is ancient. The Greek translators of the Septuagint — with some exceptions such as P. Fouad 266 (Rahlfs 848) — used the Greek word for “Lord,” kyrios (κυριος) to represent the divine name. While there are some scholars who maintain the original Septuagint (LXX) wrote out the Tetragram in Aramaic or paleoHebrew letters akin to the the Minor Prophets scroll (8 HevXIIgr), these manuscripts represent more of an archaizing tendency than anything original (see Al Pietersma’s 1984 article “Kyrios or Tetragram: A Renewed Quest for the Original LXX”). Thus as early as the third century BCE, a surrogate was used for the Tetragram.

Setting the divine name apart was also reflected in the practice of some Dead Sea Scrolls writing the Tetragram with paleoHebrew letters. And the early Christians continued the tradition started in the LXX of substituting kyrios (κυριος) for Yahweh. Thus, this practice is found in early Christian tradition as well as most of the versions and translations throughout Christian history — which the exception of the KJV employing “Jehovah” in a handful of passages. Speaking of Jehovah… and yes, this is one of my pet peeves… I think it should be stricken from all hymn books and choruses! While we may not know exactly how the Tetragram was pronounced in antiquity (in this regard “Yahweh” is the best scholarly guess), we know for sure that it was NOT pronounced as “Jehovah”!

Jewish tradition is also pretty clear: pronouncing the divine name was avoided in order to ensure it is never misused (putting a hedge around the Torah) and also for respect. Manuscripts in the Masoretic tradition  point the Tetragram with the vowels of title like Adonai as a perpetual ketiv-qere (interestingly, the Leningrad Codex is not consistent with what vowels are found with YHWH).

So when it comes right down to it, there is a long tradition of avoiding the pronunciation of the Tetragram, so perhaps we should follow suit.

What do you think? And what do you think is an appropriate surrogate?


Posted in Biblical Teaching, Hebrew, History of Interpretation, News, Old Testament | 8 Comments »

The Uncensored Bible: The Bawdy and Naughty Bits of the Good Book

19th July 2008

One of my summer reads that I just finished is a new book that takes a lighter — and somewhat irreverent and certainly risqué — look at the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament:

  • The Uncensored Bible: The Bawdy and Naughty Bits of the Good Book by John Kaltner, Steven L. McKenzie, and Joel Kilpatrick (HarperCollins, 2008; Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com).

Written by two biblical scholars and one satirist (I’ll let you decide who’s who!), this book is an entertaining examination of some provocative and downright outrageous interpretations of passages in the Holy Bible. The subtitle is a bit misleading in that the authors are only interested in certain “bawdy and naughty bits” of the Old Testament.

In order to make the cut (which they humorously refer to as the “Zevit Standard” since their first example was proposed by noted biblical scholar Ziony Zevit) the interpretation has to be (1) innovative and outrageous, (2) a new take on a familiar Bible passage, (3) plausible, and (4) proposed by a bona-fide biblical scholar.  So what you don’t find in the book are all of the “bawdy and naughty” passages of the Bible which are clear and don’t require strange interpretations (like, for instance, the virtually pornographic/obscene  descriptions of the Egyptians in Ezekiel 16:26 and 23:20 or the erotic physical descriptions in the Song of Songs. Of course, many of these “bawdy and naughty bits” are obscured by the prudish nature of modern English translations — but that’s another post!).

Some of the more outrageous interpretations from The Uncensored Bible include the following [SPOILER ALERT: skip this section if you want to be shocked when you read it for yourself]:

  • The “rib/bone” which God makes the woman in Gen 2:21-22 was Adam’s penis bone
  • The admonition to “casting your bread upon the waters” in Ecclesiastes 11:1 is a reference to ancient beer making (this suggestion comes from an article by fellow blogger Michael Homan)
  • Ehud escaped after killing Eglon unnoticed by the Moabites by literally going down the poop chute in Judges 3:23 (not the “porch” or “vestibule” as most modern translations render misdaron)
  • Isaac may have been  “taking a whiz” in the field when Rebekah first saw him, according to Genesis 24:63.
  • The “ish” (man/angel/God) in Genesis … touched Jacob’s, er… “johnson” during the wrestling match in Genesis 38? (and this was apparently some supernatural tit for tat since when Jacob was born, he was not clutching Esau’s heel, but his wiener!)
  • The punishment for a wife grabbing another man’s genitals when he is fighting with her husband is not cutting off her hand (Deut 25:11-12), but giving her a Brazilian bikini wax!

[END SPOILER ALERT: Read on from here] Most of these interpretations I have encountered before, though not all of them. And while some of them are plausible and even convincing, others are a bit whacked out. The authors themselves do not agree with all of the interpretations they present; they consider some convincing while they (rightfully) reject others. There were a number of passages/interpretations that I expected to find in the book but didn’t (perhaps they are worth a blog post or two, or even a recurring series). In their conclusion the authors leave open the possibility of a sequel or two.

In case you are concerned, the authors did not write this book to bash the Bible or biblical scholarship. They are biblical scholars who “love the Bible” (p. xiii)  and hope to increase their readers’ “appreciation for the richness and diversity of the Bible’s contents” (p. xiv). While this book will not be for everyone, I personally laud Kaltner and McKenzie for writing it (I wish I would have beat them to it). The value I see in a book such as this (besides its value as an entertaining read) is that it presents the Bible in a more down to earth and real way than many Sunday sermons. I think sometimes we Christians have an unrealistic (and unhelpful) view of the Bible. Pastors and teachers try to mine these ancient texts for modern-day role models or parenting tips, and I am not sure that is what the purpose of the good book is! Check out this quote from the Uncensored Bible:

Many people try to follow the Bible’s teachings so they can have a happy home. But the truth is, there aren’t many happy homes depicted in the Bible. The real inheritors of the Bible example are families who have experienced divorce, deception, adultery, and incest or have a murderer or rapist in the family. The Good Book is simply loaded with bad kin. And it’s a virtual handbook for how not to raise children. Most of us are better off doing as the Bible says, not as it shows (p. 153).

Amen and Amen! As I say to my students, one of the first steps to interpreting the Bible is to recognize that it comes from a world very different from ours. And this book helps us recognize that in a rather off-the-wall and quirky way.

In sum, I give this book two thumbs way up. If you have a slightly off-kilter sense of humor, then I highly recommend it (And if you don’t, then buy it for someone who does!)

(And, by the way, I hope the authors get their guest spot on the Daily Show; see p. xv).


Posted in Bible, History of Interpretation, Humour, Reviews & Notices | 4 Comments »