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. []

Jacob Wright’s course, week two

Last week I offered some first impressions of Jacob Wright’s excellent MOOC The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future.

The second week’s lecture material has been interesting for two strikingly different reasons. Jacob presents a mediating view between “Minimalists” and “Maximalists”, sensibly taking the best ideas and arguments from both “sides”. Though many conservative viewers will feel in this week’s that he is too ready to ditch the Bible’s account in favour of alternative ways to explain the archaeological data. And therein lies the rub, for although usually careful to present the evidence and arguments that underlie his presentation [my impression was that] here and there at key points the viewer is asked to accept a scholarly consensus or the views of a few named scholars without the evidence being presented. [ Inaccurate example deleted, see comments below.]

The interviews with three scholars about their work on Assyrian imperial intentions, the lemelek seals and the Judean Pillar Figures were excellent at presenting data and reasoning.

I understand that in such a brief course one cannot argue and present evidence for every point, but I suspect that the lectures would carry more people with them if there had been time to lay the foundations more solidly.

For me the formal issue raises questions about my own teaching.

The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future: First Impressions

Since this session concerns the background to the emergence of “Israel” in Canaan the Mereneptah Stele is mentioned and shown several times, photo from Wikipedia

When Jacob Wright’s MOOC “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” was announced and promoted I posted about it on Facebook.

I’ve enrolled and have begun the first week (the course started on Monday, but my first criticism is that I did not get an email reminder until I visited the course site again today – one of the biggest problems with MOOCs in my experience is lack of feedback for the student1 ).

Jacob is a fine teacher he keeps his material lively, and has an engaging presence and voice. The video “lectures” are broken into convenient chunks (of varied size from a couple of minutes to nearly a quarter of an hour2 which for me works well (as someone who as a teen would have been diagnosed ADHD, if the designation existed in those far off days, I have a short attention span and lectures bore me). Each is closed by one or two simple multichoice questions. This is brilliant, it gives the student instant feedback, and if we get them right instant reward and the sense that we are learning something. (Or if we are ourselves Hebrew Bible teachers at least the sense that we listened closely enough ;)

The videos make very skillful use of animated still shots of artifacts and places with the occasional video clip thrown in to create the sense of a video production. The technical values are as one would expect from an official university production.

That’s the good news, and if you are thinking of enrolling, do! The list is not yet closed, and if I have not yet learned much that is (to me) new, I have gained some interesting perspectives and ideas on how to put the material together. This is a MOOC for beginners that specialists can learn from! A fine achievement.

The bad news is that the videos are not optimised for viewing on tablets or phones. On my Phablet the screen resolution is small enough that the video (if played in the browser) overlaps the screen. I have tried the two different formats, and turning my screen around etc. but so far have not found a comfortable way to use the mobile device. (On a PC, even a netbook, all is fine, I guess university testers unlike poor adjunct faculty and students use phones with hi-res screens!)

At this stage I’ll also add a comment that perhaps reflects my context. Jacob uses a lot of Latin expressions, more than my usual audience of Kiwis, Pacific and Asian people would be comfortable with. I am not sure why, as usually the Latin expression is less familiar to me than kit’s English equivalent (like “divide and rule”) perhaps US audiences need “long words” to demonstrate academic credentials? It’s odd because in most ways the presentation is very simple and accessible with the few technical terms explained…

  1. see below. []
  2. so far. []

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.

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 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. []

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? ;)

How could Jo(e) in the pew deal with the Canaanites? (Part Two) 1 Sam 15

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) via Wikimedia Commons

In comments on the previous post Jeremy raises the question of 1 Sam 15. Which seems a worse problem. There (1 Sam 15:2-3 ) Samuel, in God’s name, instructs the newly anointed king, Saul, to slaughter all the Amalekites. He explicitly orders that non-combatants like women, small children and babies be included in the massacre. Saul then wages war on the Amalekites, successfully, but takes spares Agag the Amalekite king and the best of the flocks and herds (1 Sam 15:9) keeping the best and slaughtering what was not “good”.

Samuel then chases after Saul and is greeted by the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cattle, which Saul claims that “the people” have “spared” (1 Sam 15:14-15). It becomes clear that Saul’s sin is twofold, first he has become so great in his own estimation that he not God is the arbiter of his actions (1 Sam 15:17), secondly he has “swooped on the spoil” (1 Sam 15:19).

A Karen family after their home and paddy rice burned by Burma Army troops (photo Free Burma Rangers)

Saul’s wrong, which seems to be the point of the story, the reason it is told, is that he places himself over God, and that he is greedy for spoil.

Saul’s sin then is unexceptionable, pride in one’s own authority or  greed for spoil and self-advantage1 are wrong. What is left totally unacceptable in the story is Samuel’s claim that God orders the killing of a whole people.

There are a number of possible approaches here:

Firstly one might claim that this again is hyperbole. Despite the specifications this might be an extreme case of Ancient Near Eastern war language. This is probably true, but the specification not to spare babies makes it an unsatisfactory answer as this draws attention to the claim that God commands war, and war does inevitably involve innocent suffering.

Secondly, one might consider the possibility of God’s commanding warfare. Here I can only say that while in comfortable, middle class Western contexts a God who takes sides and even commands war may seem “uncivilised”, if thought of from the perspective of the brutally oppressed in many other contexts such a God would be considered a saviour. Such people pray that God will intervene to protect them from the physical and economic violence of the oppressor.

Thirdly, and more radically one might notice that here we have a narrative. In this narrative it is Samuel who repeats to us (and to Saul) God’s commands. Clearly we must not always take the words of  characters in biblical narratives as truth. Characters often lie. They can even lie about what God has said (see 1 Kings 22) where on one of the two occasions (1 Kgs 22:15b cf. 1 Kgs 22:14; or 1 Kgs 22:17) Micaiah does not tell accurately what God has said.

Perhaps most radically one might ask whether the biblical writers have correctly understood and interpreted what they tell us. This option is not open to an American fundamentalist, who needs to assert that Scripture is inerrant. It is a possibility to be considered on other views of Scripture. Or equally ask whether we have perhaps not understood and interpreted correctly! The details of Scripture are often difficult and complex, what matters is perspicuous. It is perspicuous throughout the Bible that God is loving and merciful. Can such a loving and merciful God command desperate warfare? Given the broken, spoiled and desperate world that we see around us, probably. Was this such a case? I do not know!

In the light of all this, what also seems perspicuous to me is that the message of this story is NOT murder babies and commit genocide, but do not claim absolute authority and do not be greedy for advantage. Messages like that were the reason this story was told, to take other messages from it is to abuse the story.

  1. Especially when, as the commander, one seeks to transfer the blame to others? []

Ancestry and prostitution

I was asked an interesting question: How did Jewish people feel about having Rahab (the foreign prostitute) in their family tree?

My suspicion is that the question itself presupposes bourgeois attitudes. Members of the underclasses surely have a better understanding of the economic and social pressures that cause women to become prostitutes. One should not despise an ugly bastard, rather his even uglier1 father…

One clue to this may be Jesus’ genealogy in Mat 1, where Rahab is the second woman named, and Tamar (another foreigner) who we are told in the biblical narrative (Gen 38) was forced into (temporary and selective) prostitution by the wrong done by Judah. Matthew seems to have expected no prudish revulsion from his readers!

Then there’s Rashi (one of the best-known and best of the traditional Jewish Bible readers) who commenting on Rahab’s profession in Josh 2:1 follows an even older Aramaic paraphrase of Joshua and translates Rabab’s profession: “Innkeeper: זונה. Targum Jon. renders: Innkeeper, one who sells various foodstuffs (מזונות).” Which might suggest the medieval scholar felt some embarrassment at the thought of Rahab the prostitute. Except a few verses later he comments: “as the Rabbis said: There was neither prince or ruler who had no relations with Rahab the harlot. She was ten years old when the Israelites departed from Egypt, and she practiced harlotry for forty years.

Rashi recognises her as a harlot, but seems also to recognise the power relationship operating “There was not a prince or ruler who had not had relations with Rahab the harlot.” And so does not seem embarrassed by her past. Perhaps the fact that Christians today are embarrassed is a sign of the “gentrification” of the church?2

recognising either (or perhaps both of) people change, and/or women don’t choose to be prostitutes… either way she would be an ancestor to be proud of!

  1. Since surely if the man was not an ugly person he would stay around to care for his child. []
  2. Which reminds me of a Facebook status update I read earlier: “If you want to catch fish don’t throw your net into the bath tub!” to which I replied “I will make you fishers of cute little yellow ducks ;) []