Camouflage Equivalence: another example

Back in April I somehow missed Bryan Bibb’s interesting post Camouflage Equivalence1 it focuses on places where translators:

…seek to obscure rather than reveal the meaning of the original. He [Robinson] defines the term as “rearranging the semantic elements of the original… in a plausible way that disguises their dynamic meaning” (p. 6).

The idea, like the term used to describe it is really helpful. It neatly describes those places where translators soften the offense inherent in Scripture. The NIV regularly does this when a more “literal” translation leads to theological difficulties. One example is the rendering of ha’almah in Is 7:14 as “virgin”. Whether ‘almah can carry this meaning is at least debatable. As far as I can see the logic of Isaiah’s speech however demands a present focus and a translation like “young woman”. NIV has exercised camouflage equivalence.

I am less convinced by Bryan’s example. He claims that the ambiguous language (full of sexual double entendres) in Ruth 3 contains at least one such camouflage equivalence translation in almost all English Bibles. “Uncover his feet” in Ruth 3:4 is (Bryan thinks evidently, I’d say possibly) a euphemism. While most translations diminish the sexual tension in Ruth 3, where there are a string of words and phrases like this one that might carry sexual connotations, sometimes a foot is just a foot! The whole point (I think) of using that concatenation of ambiguous, possibly sexual, terms in Ruth 3 is surely to remain ambiguous. To uncover what the text deliberately leaves veiled but suggested is as “bad” as to cover what the text reveals…. So, “uncover his feet” (NIV, NAS, NRSV) gets it right neither camouflage, nor sex for the sake of shocking the horses, but a good serviceable translation.

On the other hand in Psalm 90:2 common translations are split, some opt for camouflage equivalence:

NET Psalm 90:2 Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God.
NRS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

While others dare to reveal the clear implication of the Hebrew:

NAS Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born, Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.
NIV Psalm 90:2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

For both verbs yalad and hul speak of procreation and birthing, and though yalad might refer to the father’s role hul cannot, but clearly refers to birthing.

  1. I had also missed Douglas Robinson’s book, Translation and the Problem of Sway, from which he apparently got the fine phrase. []

Different sorts of “humour” in the Hebrew Bible: Appeal for help

In my previous post I quoted a table from Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage1.

HumourDiscoveryHuman natureObservationThe sympathetic
WitThrowing lightWords and ideasSurpriseThe intelligent
SatireAmendmentMorals and mannersAccentuationThe self-satisfied
SarcasmInflicting painFaults and foiblesInversionVictim and bystander
InvectiveDiscreditMisconductDirect statementThe public
IronyExclusivenessStatement of factsMystificationAn inner circle
CynicismSelf-justificationMoralsExposure of nakednessThe respectable
SardonicSelf-reliefAdversityPessimismThe self

In this post I’d like to add to Fowler’s table with some suggested (Hebrew) Bible passages that (I suggest) reflect that sort of humour:


DeviceMotive or aimProvinceMethod or meansAudienceBible example
HumourDiscoveryHuman natureObservationThe sympatheticRuth 2
WitThrowing lightWords and ideasSurpriseThe intelligentIs 5:7
SatireAmendmentMorals and mannersAccentuationThe self-satisfiedIs 5:22
SarcasmInflicting painFaults and foiblesInversionVictim and bystanderJer 22:14
InvectiveDiscreditMisconductDirect statementThe publicJudges 5?
IronyExclusivenessStatement of factsMystificationAn inner circleJon 2 esp. v.8
CynicismSelf-justificationMoralsExposure of nakednessThe respectableXXX
SardonicSelf-reliefAdversityPessimismThe selfXXX

Some are fairly straightforward like Ruth 2 as I suggest in Humour in the Bible: 8 Ruth: Ruth is from Moab, Boaz is from Bethlehem. Here gentle pointing out of the social and cultural differences between semi-nomadic Ruth and peasant farmer Boaz leads to some smiles and a richer sense of the characters involved in the story. I think this example fits Fowler’s “humour” category neatly, through the observation of human nature our sympathy with the characters is enhanced.

But is Isaiah’s punning  “he expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (sedaqah), but heard a cry (sea’qah)!” (Is 5:7 NRSV) wit, for there is certainly surprise and light thrown by words and ideas, but the aim is surely amendment (the goal of “satire”).

Though Is 5:22  “Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink…” (Is 5:22 NRSV) is fairly straightforwardly satire.Yet goals are tricky, if the goal here is arguably change in Jer 22:15  “Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him.” One doubts the intent is a change of behaviour, and so suspects sarcasm…

In Jonah’s psalm (Jonah 2)  there is plenty of irony, note especially “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.” (Jon 2:8 NRSV) on the lips of a prophet fleeing God while pagan sailors offer sacrifices to Yahweh above him in the ship. But is there any exclusiveness or mystification here?

This post has taken too long, and anyway its goal is to encourage you to comment and enter a conversation on the topic so I will leave it to you to either propose answers to my questions, or candidates for cynicism and the sardonic (I suspect Job and Ecclesiastes might be fertile hunting grounds…).

My conclusion so far is that these characteristics of different varieties of humour will be helpful in discussing biblical humour, but that they are far from the neat and clear classification that they seemed at first glance!

Into what category though does something like the ironic presentation of Sisera’s mother and her ladies gloating over Sisera and his men enjoying the Israelite women they capture as booty in Judges 5 fall?2 There IS irony, since at the time elsewhere Sisera is lying dead struck through the head by a tent peg driven by Jael. Yet there is no mystification or exclusiveness to the telling… Nor does it fit “satire” since the goal is hardly amendment, or sarcasm since the Canaanites wil hardly hear the song… Perhaps “invective fits best?

  1. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009. []
  2. I address the passage here  Humour in the Bible Book 7 Judges: Gender Bending. []

Why Marry?

The Fellowship of the Ring by Dunechaser

My previous post only addressed the title question in passing. It is interesting though to think a little more about the reasons for getting married, rather than other forms of close ongoing relationship for a couple living together. Why do, or “should” a couple prefer marriage to e.g. a civil union, or simply doing their own thing?

In purely instrumental practical terms the evidence is strong. Married people are healthier and happier. Yet it is seldom such pragmatism that drives people to “pop the question” or respond “I do” in a formal ceremony. Marriage is a mater of the heart, they say, yet the alternative forms of cohabitation allow just as much romance, so why would someone choose to marry?

The key perceived1 difference between marriage and other forms of cohabitation (e.g. civil unions and “living together”) is the level of commitment. Cohabitation (without some form of “contract”, other than the promises and hopes each partner may make to the other) is by its nature impermanent, while it may last “until death do us part” there is no formal or structural reason why it should. Marriage by contrast makes a central feature of the promises made by the couple to each other, but in public with a written record (in the form of the marriage certificate). This public vow is one of the strongest forms of voluntary commitment which people can make. It is all encompassing: “for richer for poorer”, “in sickness and in health”, and permanent: “until death parts us”. Whatever the legal niceties, and in fact in most Western countries today marriages can be dissolved pretty much at will and for no other reason than “we want to separate”, this publicly vowed commitment is perceived as being stronger in marriage than in a civil union.

This near absolute commitment one to another may be the ideal of friendship and family, it is the dream on which communes are often founded, and yet it is seldom found to such a degree except in the family relationships of parents and children, sometimes siblings, and marriage partners. When it is found elsewhere we celebrate it as a rare and wonderful thing. The story in Scripture that best expresses this commitment (which is the heart of marriage) is interestingly not of a marriage relationship2 but that or Ruth and Naomi (her mother-in-law)3 see esp. Ruth 1:16-17.

Humans “do” poorly in isolation, on our own we are weak and fragile. Mutual support enables us to exceed our normal capacities. It is not strange that war stories and indeed much other fiction often revolves around tales of deep companionship. Marriage offers such mutual support and commitment that is not attenuated (at least in intent and ideal) by time and distance (as most sibling relationships are) nor dependent on some exterior goal (as most “fellowships” are) but thrives on difference and demands to be unconditional.

“Unconditional positive regard” may be an ideal of therapy, though surely few therapists manage more than a pretense, and it is indeed probably an impossible ideal. Yet of all human relationships marriage comes closest to offering us this benefit, and thus the way in which our husband or wife “loves, honours and cherishes” us despite being well aware of our weaknesses and failings comes as close as is humanly possible (along with the parent child relationship?) to mirroring our relationship to God. Truely, marriage is a spiritual phenomenon. And the answer to the question: Why marry? is that we want to give and receive this level of commitment.4


  1. I write “perceived” because as will become apparent at least in formal and legal terms the difference may not be enforceable! []
  2. A reminder that commitment is not unique to marriage. []
  3. So produced by a marriage relationship. []
  4. BTW in Hebrew this voluntary yet unbreakable  “commitment” is called hesed. A word with only poor glosses in English. []

Ruth 3: an indecent proposal?

Charles Halton in his post: Free Download: An Indecent Proposal: The Theological Core of the Book of Ruth offers a prepublication version of his fine article from the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, “An Indecent Proposal: The Theological Core of the Book of Ruth.”

This is an excellent article, straightforward and clearly argued, and I think convincing. Now, when I have time to read it more carefully, and to revise my Ruth Notes I’ll have to decide how far to accommodate my reading to his. At present I think they are close enough that the rewrite will be small ;) and beneficial :)

Review copies

If you would like a review copy of the print version of my new book:

Tim Bulkeley, Not Only a Father: Talk of God as Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition (Signs) Auckland: Archer Press, 2011 ISBN: 978-1468091373

Please contact me, please say both where you expect to publish the review (blogs are quite acceptable though a full review rather than a short note would be good) and when you are expect to write it. There are no conditions and you should be as critical as you normally would.

Biblical sense and sensibility

Open Bible has a fascinating on post Applying Sentiment Analysis to the Bible.

Sentiment analysis involves algorithmically determining if a piece of text is positive (“I like cheese”) or negative (“I hate cheese”). Think of it as Kurt Vonnegut’s story shapes backed by quantitative data.

The post started with a plot of the data for the whole Bible, which for anyone interested in the “big picture” of the Bible’s story is fascinating. But the data, calculated using available software on an English translation based on the calculated probability of a verse being positive or negative in sentiment, allows a closer look, and running a five verse running average gives really striking and thought provoking “pictures” of each Bible book.

While Jonah goes from bad to worse ;)

Ruth moves from negative to positive

Which both seem intuitively “right”. However, Esther needs some thought:

Esther: is the beginning really the happiest part?

I’m currently teaching the Song of Songs, and last week was Ecclesiastes, so these are interesting:

They both fit common preconceptions pretty well...

…but is it as simple as that? ;)

Ruth and romance

копия гравюры В. Фаворского. Фронтиспис 3-й главы Книги Руфь. Ксилография. 1924 WikiMedia

This post is stimulated by two things:

  • last night I was interviewed before I preached on the Song of Songs, and was asked the interesting question of how experience crossing cultures (which has been a feature of my life into Congo, then New Zealand and more recently the Karen people in the refugee camp in Thailand) influences how I read the Song
  • Claude’s post on a neat little textual issue in Ruth 3:15 Who Went Back to the City?

It’s not Claude’s text criticism I want to discuss, but things he says, or that I assume he implies, or fear his readers will infer, earlier in introducing the question:

It is phrases like: “The love affair between Ruth and Boaz began…” that I want to investigate. Now, before I start I’d better say I do think Ruth (the book) tells of love between Ruth and Boaz, and Boaz and Ruth. I see signs of it in chapter 2 and stronger signs in ch.3. But read in my cultural context, phrases like the one I have quoted suggest that Ruth (the book) is at least in part (and possibly among other things) a “love story”. We Westerners have been, throughout our history suckers for a good love story.

[Yes, I know, “real men” only watch “chick flicks” because their wives, sisters, girlfriends… give them an excuse to, but facts are facts, and men – at least in our Western culture – are actually more “romantic” than women. So I’ll stick with tarring both genders of Westerner with the same brush.]

However, I do not think the book of Ruth is about love. It’s about חֶסֶד hesed (an amalgam of faithfulness to family or covenant relationships and great kindness). This virtue was a primary family and social value in Ancient Israel. Love was a luxury, but חֶסֶד hesed was what made the world go round.

So, did Boaz “fancy” Ruth? Probably – notice how he assumes that any of the young (and he is not young, so appreciates the value of youth) men of the village would have wanted to marry her (Rt 3:10). Why? She was a foreign (strike one) widow (strike two) who was childless after ten years of marriage (strike three). Boaz has to be imputing his own motives to them ;) Did Ruth “fancy” Boaz? Perhaps – notice how she teases him in the field (Rt 2:10,13)! But that’s not what the story is about, it is about the much more significant issues of חֶסֶד hesed.

There is a love story in the Bible (at least in the Song), but Rutrh is not it, even though it may allow its heroes to experience love as well.

Once were couples

Edited repost from Sept 2004

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab.

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab. By William Blake, 1795

The world has changed… My parents’ generation made legal divorce a less painful process. My generation has ran behind, and overtook them – the statistics are terrible. Marriages don’t last (at least not in the affluent egotistical West). Among our kids’ friends from school there were always more “broken” or “blended” homes, than those with parents still till-death-do-us-parting. Churches too, seldom slow to learn bad ways from the world around, are full of separated and divorced halves of what once were couples. And one has to admit, people concerned are often the better for it.

Daya Willis had an op ed piece in the Herald back in 2004, which summed the social context up nicely:

Clearly, the baby boomers cocked up the whole marriage thing. They got hitched too young, felt unfulfilled en masse, split up and occasionally repeated the process.

Later she continued:

My beloved and I will get married when we’re good and ready – and only because we can see the value in celebrating our commitment to each other with all the people who matter to us.
What’s more we’ve already taken the ultimate leap of faith – we had a baby together. Having both emerged (slightly dented) from broken homes, it’s our sworn mission to maintain a happy whole family for the sake of our son.

From other things she wrote it’s clear she saw this as totally different from the dreams and ideals of the generation before. Perhaps it is. Though, it shares with the boomers’ the belief that a couple “should stick together for the sake of the kids”. And like theirs it is also, in its own way, totally different from the Christian view of marriage.

When a couple promise each other (however they word it) to love, and cherish, and share their lives, till death alone parts them – it’s not “for the children”, it’s for each other. It’s all about the big C, the word neither the boomers nor their successors can say: commitment.

Oddly (in a time of “Civil Unions”) it is the story of two women that best illustrates what it means. Ruth and Naomi:

Don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home.
Where you go, I go;
and where you live, I’ll live.
Your people are my people,
your God is my god;
where you die, I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried,
so help me GOD–not even death itself is going to come between us! (Ruth 1:16-17)

Isn’t that what Gen 1 and 2 tell us the Creator planned for marriage – partnership with no holds barred. I hope and pray, that when Thomas and Melissa watch Barbara and me locked in fiery argument, they see the for-richer-for-poorer-in-sickness-and-in-health commitment that undergirds our lives and even feeds the flames!

Marriage isn’t about “a perfect match”, it’s about commitment – promises that you’ll keep, and those that you can rely on.