God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Sometimes “Believing the Bible” Means Believing That a Story in it Didn’t Happen

Some stories in the Bible were meant to be history, others fiction. But modernity has obscured the original distinction between the two kinds of biblical writing, depriving readers of the depth of the text.

One way to understand the difference between history and fiction in the Bible is through the Old Testament’s natural division into three parts:

  • The world and its nature (Adam to Terah).
  • The Israelites and their purpose (Abraham to Moses).
  • The Kingdom of Israel and life in Jerusalem (roughly from King David onward).

Even a cursory look reveals a clear and significant pattern.

In the first section, characters live many hundreds of years, and in the second, well into their second century. Only in the third section do biblical figures tend to live biologically reasonable lives.

For example, Adam, in the first section, lives to the symbolic age of 930, and Noah lives even twenty years longer than that. Abraham, from the second section, lives to be 175, his son Issac to 180, and Jacob “dies young” at the age of 147. But the lifespans from King David onward, in the third section, are in line with generally accepted human biology.

Furthermore, historians mostly agree that only the third section represents actual history.

The reasonable ages in the third section of the Bible, and, in particular, the wildly exaggerated ages in the first, suggest that the authors of the Old Testament intended only the third part as history. Underscoring this crucial difference, some of the lifespans in the first two sections are so absurd as to defy literal interpretation. These hugely advanced ages are central clues about the point of the stories. Continue reading

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March 15, 2016 Posted by | biblical interpretation, Uncategorized | , , , , | 5 Comments

Genesis 2:18 and Homosexuality

Genesis 2:18 sets the stage for (one account of) Eve’s creation. God declares that “it is not good for the man to be alone,” which is why God decides to make, as the NRSV translates, a “helper suitable for him”: Eve.

Because Adam and Eve are the paradigmatic married couple in the Bible — and more generally, because we are all Adam and Eve — one interpretation of this arrangement in Genesis is that men should only marry women and women men.

Buttressing this claim is an often-cited alternative translation for the Hebrew word k’negdo. While the NRSV renders this as “suitable,” some others focus on the root of the word, neged, and translate the word as “opposite” or “complementing.” If so, Eve’s purpose was to be different than Adam. More generally, a man’s spouse is supposed to be different than him, that is, a woman.

As it happens, k’negdo doesn’t mean “different than him.” It means “matching.” One way to match things is pairing things that are opposite, but certainly it’s not the only way. In spite of this nuance, however, the complementarian interpretation of Genesis is reasonable.

But it’s not the only reasonable interpretation.

It’s just as reasonable to focus on the point of Eve’s creation, namely, that Adam shouldn’t be alone. More generally, people shouldn’t be alone. If it then turns out — as certainly seems to be the case — that some men can only find partnership with other men and that some women can only find partnership with other women, then Genesis 2 might not only allow homosexual marriage but, in fact, demand it.

In other words, one way of looking at Genesis 2 is that people should behave like Adam and Eve, a man marrying a woman and woman marrying a man. Another equally valid way is that people should behave like Adam and Eve, finding a partner so they are not alone.

March 14, 2016 Posted by | biblical interpretation, translation practice, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 13 Comments