Friday, December 04, 2009

Blessed are the Pure in Interpretation



Recently, it has become known that a group of conservative Bible scholars are attempting to re-translate the Bible to fit a decidedly conservative spin. Calling themselves the Conservative Bible Project, the Wikipedia-inspired platform removes troublesome things like facts and original intent, instead softening the language of that original radical liberal Comrade Jesus. The problem among many, of course, is that the original Bible as rendered has no allegiance to Twenty-first century ideology, since it was written centuries before. The strength of the document is in its relative impartiality, at least as regards contemporary culture conflict. Much about this project troubles me, but my own red flags arise whenever revisionism without just cause and with a stated agenda are justified by excuse and rationalization. Apparently unable to stick to its own interpretation within the existent passages, this group must create its own scripture in the process, else those evil liberals continue their nefarious brainwashing.

If this were merely some over-reaching effort to put an ideological spin on Jesus and his words, that would be bad enough, but the project contains an element of prudishness to it as well. In researching for this piece, I came across a helpful column in America Magazine, written by John W. Martens.

There are numerous other issues on which one could raise substantial concerns. The CBP editors are unwilling to grant that Jesus is talking about wine, you know, the stuff with alcohol, in Mark 2: 22, and instead suggest "fresh grape juice" for oinos. It is hard to know how this ancient Welch’s will "burst the wineskins," thereby destroying the point of the parable, and even harder to know why there were prohibitions on drunkenness amongst early Christians if they were only drinking grape juice.


The project has chosen to address The Old Testament as well. I'd be curious to know how they're going to get around Noah's unfortunate David Hasselhoff-like bout of intoxication. Genesis 9 provides the story.

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father's nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father's nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." He also said, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem.


As I interpret it, I take the passage to mean that even the Godliest of the Godly have gaping flaws and make poor decisions at times, but it speaks far worse to those who seek to cover up these matters as a means of suiting their own purposes. The Canaanites mentioned in the passage were a Semetic peoples conquered by the Israelites and largely assimilated into their numbers. Conventional interpretation labels the sons and daughters of Canaan a wicked and evil people who were justifiably driven out of the Promised Land to make way for the Hebrews, as they were squatting on land not belonging to them. Rather than joining forces and entering the promised territory hard won by conflict, they were conquered by force.

Scholars have never completely come to a consensus agreement as to what the curse of Ham really entails, but in any case, the latter verses of the above passage have been variously used over time to justify racism and enslavement of Black Africans. It would be interesting to see how the Conservative Bible Project can reconcile this particularly troublesome situation, since words alone cannot defeat context and intent. So much of biblical understanding relies heavily on back story and correct framing, but taking words literally in isolation from the larger picture is where intolerance and rigidity of understanding find their nexus.

Ham is not directly cursed for his actions; instead the curse falls upon his youngest son Canaan. The curse seems unusually severe for merely observing Noah unclothed. An explanation sometimes offered notes that the phrase "exposing or uncovering nakedness" is used several times elsewhere in the Pentateuch as a euphemism for having sexual relations. See Leviticus 18:6-19 in which this phrase is mentioned in connection with a variety of women in the family--one's mother, stepmother, sister, half sister, granddaughter, aunt, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law-- as well as in certain relationships (during her menstrual period, sleeping with a mother and daughter, etc.)

Rashi, the main commentator on Torah, explains the harshness of the curse: "Some say Cham saw his father naked and either sodomized or castrated him. His thought was "Perhaps my father's drunkenness will lead to intercourse with our mother and I will have to share the inheritance of the world with another brother! I will prevent this by taking his manhood from him! When Noah awoke, and he realized what Cham had done, he said, "Because you prevented me from having a fourth son, your fourth son, Canaan, shall forever be a slave to his brothers, who showed respect to me!"


Greed combined with personal gain compels others to violence and brutality. Lessons like these are why the Scriptures never truly date, though I can almost certainly guarantee that the Conservative Bible Project's bastardization endeavor will need to go through several revisions. Political winds change at will, but human nature never does. Still, nothing sets conservative tongue a-waggling quicker than the fear of socialism.

What is most troubling, however, for the editors of the CBP is the socialism that is rife in modern translations. For instance, "volunteer" is a conservative word, and appears rarely in translations, while words such as "laborer" and "fellow-worker" appear numerous times. Apparently, "work" and labor" reflect socialism, which strikes me as a place that conservatives might not want to go. Are they truly opposed to work?


They themselves? Yes. Their loyal voting bloc of the easily deceived and educationally impoverished? No. Why unite when you can divide and conquer?

Martens concludes, quite devastatingly,

Best of all, though, is the new translation of Mark 3:27, where "the strong man" of the KJV (also in NRSV and NIV) becomes the "well-armed man" of the CBP. I can just see the "well-armed man" now, ancient rifle in hand, defending his turf, against wine, socialism, and co-workers. There is a little problem here for the CBP: in Jesus’ parable, the "strong man" is Satan. Hmmm…labor on my fellow-workers, labor on, we will disarm him yet.


The verse in Mark that Martens cites is prefaced by this one.

And if Satan is divided and fights against himself, how can he stand? He would never survive.


I used the larger parable from which these verses come in a column I wrote a week ago, where I set out a familiar turn of phrase widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln. The verse prior to that one reads,

If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.


Some translations render the passage,

Similarly, a family splintered by feuding will fall apart.


The Bible doesn't promise us what we want to hear. At times its wisdom is as sharp and cutting as it is inspiring and guiding, but wisdom as I understand it is not meant to be a pep talk. The idolatry of the Conservative Bible Project is no less damning than that of the Golden Calf or the pursuit of profit. Faith is not something that we can transform into our own image, lest it guide us towards places that make us uncomfortable or challenge our assumptions. Faith is not tunnel vision, either, which is something many Evangelical conservative groups and loyal conservatives are quick to adopt, since it promises nothing messy, incomplete, or inexact. Yet, conceding as so many do that faith guidance is outdated or would force us to adopt some singular uniform focus that would come at the expense of our independence is not a correct assumption, either.

Jesus concludes,

Let me illustrate this further. Who is powerful enough to enter the house of a strong man like Satan and plunder his goods? Only someone even stronger--someone who could tie him up and then plunder his house.

1 comment:

charlesabarca said...

Give a fool enough rope and he will hang himself........................................