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. []

Fascinating work on the book of psalms

Bob linked to a presentation he’s prepared: New presentation available on Seeing the Psalter If like me you have been too preoccupied over recent years to really follow his project, or if you have not heard of it, this half hour (or less if the technical stuff at the end does not interest you) makes it all clear.

I’ve now bought the book, despite being “retired” and having no allowance for such things any more, and expect to draw interesting and useful ideas from it over months to come. If you are interested in patterns and structures of repetition in biblical texts this seems like a must read… but see the presentation for your self :)

The heresy of exhortation

Photo from Spacemakers

Marking a lot of assignments where students examine different Bible passages, in an institution that seeks to prepare people in Applied Theology, and so expects exegesis to find its natural outworking in application, submits me to a great deal of exhortation.

The vast majority of students reach the application stage of the process, and promptly start telling me how I should try harder. If the passage is Psalm 113 then I should praise God more often, if it is Luke 9:1-6 then I should evangelise more…

Isn’t it strange. Neither passage seems to me to be primarily an exhortation to try harder.

The gospel passage tells how, having himself gone from place to place telling and showing people that the reign of God was breaking into this tired old world, Jesus sent his disciples to do the same with power and authority – there’s nothing about trying harder, and little that sounds like “evangelism”.

It’s true the psalm starts and ends with imperatives: Praise Yah! but the content between is focused on God and on the claim that we have so many reasons to praise God, not least that raising the needy from the ash heap is what God does all the time…

The exhortation to try harder is the preacher’s curse. Not gospel, not even good theology, yet the almost invariable default response to a Bible passage. If “Jesus” is the expected answer to questions asked by Sunday School teachers,1 then “try harder” is the gospel preachers find in every Bible passage.


  1. Teacher: “What is fury, and hops along with a fluffy white tail.” Students: Silence, till one brave lad says, “Well, I know the answer is Jesus, but I’m sorry I can’t work out how!” []

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.

Psalm for a new year

Psalm 90 makes a fine reading for a new year. Through the psalm, time (and especially the haunting disparity between short brutish human time and the timeless divine reality) is a strong theme. The psalm is peppered with time words:

  • dor generation in v.1 (x2)
  • b’terem before in v.2
  • shanah year in vv.4, 5, 9, 10 (x3), 15
  • yom day in vv.4, 9, 10, 12, 14, 15
  • ashmorah night watch in v.4
  • boqer morning in v.5, 6, 14
  • ereb evening in v.6
  • chish quickly in v.10

The psalm opens in the distant past with a heading associating it with Moses the great leader from Israel’s pre-monarchic origins.1

The rest of the first verse forefronts the two key ideas of the psalm, time and our relationship with God. The wording of the opening stresses the persons involved. Very literally it would read: “Lord, a dwelling, you, you have been for us from generation to generation.

This attention to time carries on through the psalm, and is straightaway extended in the next verse from a human timescale from “generation to generation” to extend from before the birth of the world into the “age”2  to come:

Before the mountains were born
or ever you had given birth to the earth and the world,
from age to age you are God.

From verse 3 to 11 the focus on time stresses time and again that the human and the divine timescales are incommensurable, and that humans suffer the divine wrath. This is not a psalm for the faint hearted, or for people living the comfortable smooth lives our TVs and magazines tell us should be ours. This psalm is not compatible with the Western dream.

But it “works” in a world full of natural disaster: earthquakes (still going on in Christchurch after over a year), floods (and even the minor ones in the Bay of Plenty yesterday cause pain and disruption), and all of man’s inhumanity to man (although 2011 was a year with more glimpses of hope for Burma that anyone expected as 2012 begins the Army is still attacking ethnic villages and destroying their crops, the political prisoners kept in inhuman conditions in the jails can still be counted as over a thousand).

Ps 90:10 is often quoted in something approximating to the fairly literal KJV: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years” this with its mention of strength suggests (or in the last few generations reminds us) that we might even live longer. However, in the psalm the effect is quite different, to quote the whole verse:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labour and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

The whole point of the verse is that even if our life is long it is marked (sooner or later) by toil and trouble, and in any case (by any measure but our own pitifully brief one) are so short. Anyone who has reached “a certain age”3 will recognise how the years begin to fly away faster and faster.

So far, if I have presented it as I think it should be read, Psalm 90 is as far from contemporary cheery upbeat “worship songs” as it is possible to be ;)

Yet, it was my grandmother’s favourite psalm. Perhaps because the hymn based on it “Our God, our help in ages past…” used to be sung every “Remembrance Sunday”, and she had cause to remember. Her groom, my father’s father, was killed in the first world war leaving his new wife and toddler. Psalm 90 is a good new year reading in such circumstances. For as well as human mortality it reminds us of the divine author and finisher of our lives. “…our hope for years to come!

There are two more reasons why this psalm is a favourite of mine. It is one of the few passages in Scripture to deal seriously and in any depth with human aging. And it contains one of the Bible’s few descriptions of creation as birthing:

Before the mountains were born
or ever you had given birth to the earth and the world,
from age to age you are God. (Ps 90:2)

As a result it gets a brief appearance in my new book Not Only a Father,4 and will deserve much fuller treatment in the one on human aging, if I ever write it ;)

  1. Although there is considerable evidence that the headings may have been added to psalms after they were first written and used, there is no textual evidence for them being absent from the psalms that have them in most modern translations. Rather the reverse the early Greek  translation and the Qumran psalms scrolls seem to have more of these headings, suggesting that they were later additions. []
  2. Whatever exactly ‘olam means. []
  3. 50, 40, 30…? []
  4. I will add a link to the print version soon, for now the text is already available online in discussable format. []

Psalms today: call for ideas

For a course I am teaching next semester I need some examples of Christians using psalms in the contemporary world. I’ve been searching YouTube and TextWeek. Frankly I’m less than impressed that what I’m finding will really stimulate my students to themselves be creative and effective in using psalms :(

Can any of you point me to interesting and/or stimulating examples?

BTW here’s one student’s own attempt from a previous year:



Philip Davies on Psalm 137

Philip Davies is a hugely entertaining and lively speaker and always a provocative writer. I don’t agree with much that he has written, no one agrees with everything he writes, not even Philip agrees with everything he writes. (Perhaps?) But he has written one of the best interpretations of that horrible Psalm (137) that I have read: By the Rivers of Babylon. You should read it!

HT: Zwinglius Redivivus

Psalm 23 in context

Shepherd and flock (American Colony Photo Department, Jerusalem)

The best loved Psalm is also one which comes alive the most when a little contextual light is shone upon it.

<A Psalm of David.>

Yhwh is my shepherd, I shall not be needy.

Shepherds did not drive their flocks, or leave them out on the hills to fend for themselves. Because of the protection and care flocks needed “shepherd” was a common metaphor for leadership, especially kingship. In the Bible and the ANE more generally.

Car wreck washed away in a flash flood in a Negev wadi photo by urish

He causes me to lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my life.

He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

The fertile Wadi Qilt near the Greek Orthodox Saint George of Koziba Monastery. The wadi is located in the Judean Mountains near Jericho Photo by Exothermic

“Green” is a relative term! Except after rains, pasture land in the Judean Desert or the northern Negev is seldom lush. Cf. “I shall not be needy” (v.1). Shepherding country in Palestine is in drier areas (east of the hills or in the south) where surface water is found at the bottom of “Wadis”, steep gorges cut by torrential flooding as water runs quickly off the hills in the rainy season. Such water was life-giving, but potentially dangerous, if run-off from a storm far away in the hills was approaching as a flash flood.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff– they comfort me.

Rods are often thought of a sticks for beating people, but here the thought is of a shepherds crook, used to guide, protect and sometimes rescue…

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Egyptians wearing perfume cones, painting from Tomb at Thebes c1275 BCE by in pastel

Anointing could be a reference to the consecration of kings and priests, but it could simply be continuing the theme of a host and guests, in Egypt for example perfumed wax cones were given to guests to place on their heads, so that as they melted the perfume was released.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall live in the Yhwh’s house my whole life long.

Yhwh’s house here is not the temple, the psalmist is not envisaging a life in temple service, but rather Yhwh’s household, as a member of the “family of God”.

NB: This post is a companion to my E100 podcast at 5 Minute Bible.

The censored Bible: translating Psalm 90

Psalm 90 speaks of a God who gives birth. This is a powerful picture the creator God yet several English translations miss it. The Hebrew is quite clear.

Aristotle’s Feminist Subject has a post in which various translations of Psalm 90 are compared. As always I’m astounded by the way most treat verse 2:

בְּטֶרֶם׀  הָרִים  יֻלָּדוּ
וַתְּחֹולֵל  אֶרֶץ  וְתֵבֵל וּמֵעֹולָם
עַד־עֹולָם  אַתָּה  אֵל׃

Before the mountains were born
or you gave birth to the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

It seems quite clear to me. I cannot see how else to render the words!

The nearest to this explicitly (I think) maternal imagery for the creation of our world (among the translations in front of me here) comes from the NASB:

Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting,
You are God.

though the NIV comes close:

Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

But the rest fudge it. Why? (There is a fuller, though still aimed at non specialist readers version of my take on it in chapter two of my Not Only a Father. Since the format of that work invites, needs, discussion, please go there and discuss either this or one of the other things I say!)

[PS the discussion feature was little used and because of hack attacks I have had to remove the site.]