The best things are free

the-old-testament-library-series-isaiahI thought it was an April Fool’s joke, they are always a bit behind the times in the USA, Logos is giving away Childs’ massive Isaiah commentary for free!

It’s no joke, they are! Sorry about the exclamation marks, but Childs’ is a fine and useful commentary, and to get a digital edition (more useful in many ways than my print copy) freely is a real blessing.

Whatever you think of Childs’ canonical reading strategy, his masterly and encyclopedic summaries of previous scholarship are brilliant. Personally I am a real fan of his reading too, it seems to me the “right” way to approach a text that is both complex and canonical,

Camouflage Equivalence: another example

Back in April I somehow missed Bryan Bibb’s interesting post Camouflage Equivalence 1 I had also missed Douglas Robinson’s book, Translation and the Problem of Sway, from which he apparently got the fine phrase. 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.

Notes   [ + ]

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

Launching two books

Twin colloquia in 2011, held only days apart, gave birth to twin books, only weeks apart in 2013. My task at the launch last night was to bridge between the two. The model of a small, sociable gathering of scholars at various stages of their careers around a focused topic which leads (after a period of editing and polishing) to the publication of a book has been very productive for Laidlaw and Carey with several such works appearing over the last few years.

Spiritual Complaint

We live in a society that has chosen only to see what is desirable. The sick and disabled are hidden away from public sight in hospitals. Poverty, famine and epidemic are kept at bay and viewed through glass on screens of our choosing or through the windows of the vehicles in which we travel. Lament is privatised, locked away behind closed doors, or in hearts that are carefully cloistered from the view of others. Except on rare occasions when lament briefly invades the public sphere and the pain or loss are experienced (perhaps vicariously) by many in the public tragedies that Elizabeth Boase, Steve Taylor and Stephen Garner explored in the book Spiritual Complaint. Several contributors to this volume considered what has been called the “loss of lament”. For this privatising of lament happens even in church, and it is a loss.

In a similar way our society, that worships success and consumption, cannot deal well with lament’s sibling, complaint. To complain is seen as enmity. In church, ideologies which reduce the maker of heaven and earth to a convenient charm pulled out and stroked when help is needed, like a superior sort of rabbit’s foot, and theologies which urge us to “name it and claim it”, while “marching into the land”, reduce the Mysterium Tremendum to a glorified 24/7 Santa Claus. Yet other, more “liberal”, theologies reduce God to an impotent watcher. Each of these, in their own way, reject complaint – the godlings that we invent must be praised, and their pride might be hurt by complaint.

So, in our world, and in our churches, lament and complaint are hidden away or stifled. What this means is that we have no room also for confession in either of its guises. For if we cannot lament the wrong, and complain – appealing for redress – then neither can we acknowledge (confess) our part in ruining the world. If we cannot bring, before its creator, the pain and suffering endured by creatures, nor complain at the sovereign’s inactivity, how can we truly acknowledge (confess) God’s nature and power?

So the first colloquium was titled Spiritual Complaint. For the movement from recognising wrongness (lament), to demanding that something be done (complaint), till – at the end – we can also acknowledge our part in the wrong, and celebrate the God who is beyond the wrongness (confession), is deeply and fundamentally spiritual.


Isaiah and Imperial Context

The second book Isaiah and Imperial Context has a tighter academic focus. Unlike the first it did not blend biblical scholars, pastors, liturgists and practical theologians but gathered only scholars working on the prophetic books of the Old Testament.

This book also however seeks to open a window on the sad and suffering world we inhabit. As we learn to recognise and perhaps heal the wounds of past empires, we are also learning to recognise, and must seek to heal, the wounds caused by present-day imperialism. If those glass panels keep lament safely at bay, they also give us a view of the otherwise distant bombs, drones and rioting crowds that are the signs of empire.


The book of Isaiah with its so distinct and different imperial contexts, as the book Isaiah and Imperial Context seeks to reveal, offers resources for life and spirituality in a post-colonial and yet at the same time newly imperial world.

A worthwhile Lent?

Vinoth Ramachandra does it again. In Food for Thought he points up several matters of real significance, and suggests if “Lent” is to be a real and worthwhile fast (cf. Isaiah 58: 6-7) rather than e.g. giving up coffee it would be better to spend time researching the coffee trade…

Amen, amen, amen!

Now that would make a sensible exercise in penitence and justice, or if coffee is too overdone, choose another aspect of his list… doing it as a group would be even better…

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 H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009. .

Device Motive Province Method Audience
Humour Discovery Human nature Observation The sympathetic
Wit Throwing light Words and ideas Surprise The intelligent
Satire Amendment Morals and manners Accentuation The self-satisfied
Sarcasm Inflicting pain Faults and foibles Inversion Victim and bystander
Invective Discredit Misconduct Direct statement The public
Irony Exclusiveness Statement of facts Mystification An inner circle
Cynicism Self-justification Morals Exposure of nakedness The respectable
Sardonic Self-relief Adversity Pessimism The 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:


Device Motive or aim Province Method or means Audience Bible example
Humour Discovery Human nature Observation The sympathetic Ruth 2
Wit Throwing light Words and ideas Surprise The intelligent Is 5:7
Satire Amendment Morals and manners Accentuation The self-satisfied Is 5:22
Sarcasm Inflicting pain Faults and foibles Inversion Victim and bystander Jer 22:14
Invective Discredit Misconduct Direct statement The public Judges 5?
Irony Exclusiveness Statement of facts Mystification An inner circle Jon 2 esp. v.8
Cynicism Self-justification Morals Exposure of nakedness The respectable XXX
Sardonic Self-relief Adversity Pessimism The self XXX

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 I address the passage here  Humour in the Bible Book 7 Judges: Gender Bending. 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?

Notes   [ + ]

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.

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.

Isaiah and Jeremiah: Made for each other?

Reading a master’s thesis reminded me of Robert Alter’s bold suggestion:

Let me risk a large conjecture, … It may be that a sense of some adequate dialectical tension between these antitheses of divine plan and the sundry disorders of human performance in history served as an implicit criterion for deciding which narratives were to be regarded as canonical.

Alter, Robert. The art of Biblical narrative. Basic Books, 1983, 34.

To someone studying alternately roughly week about:

  • assertions of YHWH’s sovereignty in Isaiah
  • Jeremiah’s laments

Alter’s conjecture is highly suggestive, whatever else the book of Isaiah is “about” it is concerned to explore what it means to declare the sovereignty of God in three different imperial contexts, whatever else the book (or books if we count the LXX as a different work) of Jeremiah is about it is concerned with the tempestuous and troubled relationship of God and prophet. These two works epitomise Alter’s two tendencies rather well, and they follow each other in the canon :)

The fact that both works are among the longest and most complex in the Bible should not interfere with your enjoyment of such a bold oversimplification built upon such a conjectural foundation ;) But do rip it to shreds, or admit its fascination, or just ask for clarification… I need distraction from my writer’s block…

Facebook time or face time?

FacebookThis is a first response to Vinoth Ramachandra’s post Network Selves. Ironically, but quite properly, it was thought through first as I was “doing Facebook” this morning. There was a lot to do as I have hardly looked at Facebook since before Christmas.

One of the things I did was to drop comments on some of my friends status messages. Usually when one does this it is responding to something someone else has already written. In one way it is a nice example of Vinoth’s trivialisation that FB encourages. Few of the comments were deep or challenging – maybe none of them were though I’d like to dream I am better than that, and that some actually cause people to think. They represent a very minimal form of human contact. Sharing a coffee would be so much deeper, richer and fulfilling! And yet… most of the friends I “visited” in this way are in different cities from me, none of them is within half an hour’s drive, some are hours away by ‘plane. This contact may be fleeting and trivial, but it is contact. When we meet (perhaps at next year’s Baptist “Gathering”, perhaps in the next life) we will still be (at least a little bit) in touch. Contrast this with what happened when we left Zaïre. Then too people we had been close to became far away, but then there was no Facebook, no email, telephone was horribly expensive and mail (carried by aircraft or ships, not by real snails ;) was haphazard. As a result when I meet my Congolese (yes, same country, just a different name) friends again (most likely in the next life, as no more local meetings are planned) we will have been “out of touch” for so much longer. This trivial contact through Facebook is better, more “incarnate” than none.

In my Facebook time this morning I also cross posted some of my blog posts. This makes them accessible to people who don’t use RSS feed readers or live otherwise technologically impaired lives ;) One of the items I put onto Facebook points to Vinoth’s post. While you may legitimately argue that increasing the audience for Tim’s blogging is trivialising, you can hardly say the same for Vinoth’s blog. More people, especially people outside Sri Lanka should read him. Facebook allows me to encourage that… If only one of my friends becomes a reader of his posts they will be enriched, become (if only a little) deeper thinking and more broadly experienced (since he writes from a different “place”) people and their faith will be nourished. Without FB and blogging this would not be possible

But enough of my knee jerk technophilic response. What of the dark side? One of my friends linked to a disquieting article that told of the mass deaths of doves (not mere pigeons but admirable turtledoves) another two friends had “liked” this link. In jest I commented on the strangeness of “liking” such news. But the linguistic oddity apart, this is FB at its trivial worst. TV on steroids. We barely see the news, probably (like me) the two who “liked” the link had not followed it up and read the article. We fail to respond adequately to the news, none of us will change our behaviour as a result of seeing the post. Facebook, in making “information” even more accessible, indeed in throwing great heaps of the stuff at us, adds to the numbing that TV, and before that Radio, and before that print, had begun. The more we “see” the less we perceive. We are the people of whom the prophet spoke long ago (Is 6:9b-10).

The gentle art of the abstract

Taking notes by @boetter Jacob Bøtter

I have abstracts on my mind, we are collecting the hoard submitted for the Spiritual | Complaint colloquium, and arranging them into possible sections for the book, while hoping for more for the Isaiah and Empire colloquium which otherwise looks like requiring each participant to write two chapters ;)

In the meanwhile I was writing to a nervous postgraduate researcher who has to produce an abstract for a presentation to our research seminar. I had commented that the function of an abstract was to “sell” your paper as interesting and something the reader might want to hear. She suggested mentioning chocolate, so I replied:

“I think outright bribery is frowned upon, but massaging the abstract, or filling it with wishful thinking is normal.

This paper will explore...” means “I really hope that this line of approach, that I have not tried yet, sounds really interesting to me, and I hope that maybe it will allow me to have something worthwhile to say by the time the event comes round.
Previous research has shown...” either means “I think I read somewhere, but can’t for the life of me be sure, that…” or possibly “This current paper is a rehash of work I did last year which I am tarting up in the hopes of another publication, because I am too busy to think of new ideas.”

Do you have suggested “translations” for similar stock phrases from abstracts? (Not phrases you have used, of course, but ones that others might use that have a similar split between surface and deep meanings ;)