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Top news stories of 2013?

January 4, 2014

I’ve scanned a number of lists of “top news of 2013,” but to my surprise, none of the ones I looked at included what was undoubtedly one of the most important stories of 2013:  the discovery of Richard III’s remains under a parking lot in Leicester. 

Seriously, this story will undoubtedly become a staple of books on British history.  How can any future history of the War of the Roses – or of British middle ages – not include the story of the discovery of his remains in Leicester

Now maybe this showed up on some “top stories of 2013” list, but how did it miss most of the lists?

Adon Olam: Lord of Eternity

January 1, 2014

This is a very familiar liturgical hymn for Jews, dating back to the 15th century liturgies, and supposed to be from the 11th century or perhaps much earlier. The first line has often been translated “Lord of the Universe” since olam can mean either “eternity” “a very long time” or “the universe/world.” The transition from “eternity” to “world” happened some time in the last two millennia. So, in modern terms, “Lord of the Universe” but in the biblical sense, and in the sense of the poem itself, “Lord of Eternity.” Update: This is a translation by Esther Hugenholtz.  And here it is in Hebrew script.

Adon olam asher malach
Lord of Eternity Who reigned

b’terem kol yetzir nivra
before anything was created

Le’et na’aseh b’cheftzo kol
In the hour of Creation, He willed all

azai melech shemo nikra
and so His Name is known as King

V’acharei kichlot hakol
And after all is completed

levado yimloch nora
only He will reign in awesomeness

V’hu hayah v’hu hoveh
He was, He is

v’hu yihyeh betifarah
and He will be in splendour

V’hu echad v’ein sheni
He is Alone, there is no second

lehamshil lo lehachbirah
to rule Him in fellowship

B’li reishit, b’li tachlit
Without beginning, without end

v’lo ha’oz v’hamisrah
and His power is not shared

V’hu eli v’chai go’ali
Yet He is my God, He is my life and my Redeemer

v’tzur chevli be’et tzarah
my rock in vanity in my hour of need

V’hu nisi u’manos li
He is my banner and my shelter

menat kosi beyom ekra
He is my Cup [of salvation] on the day I call

Beyado afkid ruchi
In His hand I place my spirit

be’et ishan v’a’ira
in the hour of my sleep and waking

V’im ruchi geviyati
And with my spirit and body

Adonai li, v’lo ira
the Eternal is with me, I shall not fear

Here are two arguments for “Master/Lord of the Universe.” There is a conservative/liberal split in Judaism on whether this prayer/hymn should open with “Lord of the Universe” or “Eternal Lord.” A bit complicated. I have my own issues with Artscroll.

However, we do know that in the Hebrew Bible El Olam means Everlasting/Eternal Lord. In French and German this was translated as “Eternel” and “Ewige” which are equivalent to “Eternal.” They morph easily into a name for God. In English, “Everlasting God” has not become a popular name for God. Here are various translations for El Olam in Genesis 21:33,

בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, אֵל עוֹלָם.

the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

το ονομα κυριου θεος αιωνιος

nomen Domini Dei aeterni

le nom du Seigneur, Dieu éternel

dem Namen des HERRN, des ewigen Gottes.

I can’t help feeling that in Greek, Latin, French and German, the use of the word for “eternal” lead to using this as a name for God, in a more popular way than in English. “Eternal” is easily abstracted to “eternity” and the quality of being “eternal” in a way that “everlasting” is not. In any case, I don’t think that Olivétan really brought about a paradigm shift in using “L’Eternel” for the name of God. He had access to a great deal of material, scholarly and rabbinical works for his translation.

In short, this poem emphasizes that God existed before matter, a Platonic position, rather than an Aristotelian one. God shares power with no one at all. God is one. God is represented by many metaphors that somewhat represent the nature of God, but none that exactly represent this eternal being who existed before matter. God cannot be anthropomorphized. God relates to humans today. God is redeemer and sustainer of life.

Positioning God before the creation of matter, outside of the beginnings of mortality, distances God from sex. Sex is created for the necessity of continuing the propogation of mortal species. God exists entirely outside of that. However, the Kabbalah, deeply dependent on this tradition, did develop a strong gender theology, sometimes very negative to women and sometimes not so much. It seems that there is a strong human tendency to anthropomorphize God, and to make God in the likeness of humans. Such is life.

If you click on the tag “Eternal” at the top right of this post you should get all 7 posts in this series.

Books about Women: old and new

January 1, 2014

Here is a selection of books, old and new, that are about women, by women, and about participation in the world of ideas, institutions, wars, market economy, art, exegesis and life in general.

Elizabeth Gaskell – 19th century, any movies or books (Kindle Editions $2.00 or under some free)  “North and South” “Mary Barton” “Wives and Daughters.” “Cranford” and many more.

Middlemarch by George Elliot 19th century (Kindle Edition is $1.06)

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, 2013, an ingenious tale of moral and philosophical dilemmas, takes place in the Jewish and Syrian neighbourhoods of 19th century New York.

Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini, 2013- a true story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a woman who ran a spy network during the Civil War.

Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle, 1993, an adult novel, fully secular and fully exegetical, unique, – a woman writing exegesis by novel.

Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence by Jane Fortune, 2009

The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen, 2011, about Sofonisba Anguissola, Renaissance artist

The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, trans. by Marvin Lowenthal, 1987, a Jewish woman merchant of the 17th century

The Life of Christina of Markyate by Fanous, Leyser, Talbot, 2010 about an 11th century determined young women who becomes a spiritual director. Lots of plot twists in her true life.

Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox. 2013, The true story of deciphering Linear B, the Mycenean written language, with emphasis on Alice Kober’s ground breaking work.

The Age of Münter, Gontcharova, and Duchamp

December 31, 2013

On exhibit at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth is show of art called “The Age of …”; here, today I took a photo from the outside in (since photography isn’t permitted within).

Once inside, I studied carefully the 107 pieces, mostly paintings and some sculptures. I’d read the brochure, one paragraph of which I’ll also share with you:


Now, I guess you noticed that the one name I’ve highlighted for you is ambiguous: “Would that be, Marcel Duchamp?,” you ask. Well, yes, his works were there too.

But what if I told you this work was there (which I’ve copied from the webpage of the Art Institute of Chicago)?


Yes, you’re right. It’s by Marcel’s little sister, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti. And her piece was there with his pieces.

But the following is not one of his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his, or his either.


That one you may recognize is the single piece in the exhibit by Gabriele Münter.

Then there’s this one. Who’s it by? Well, I don’t blame you if it takes you a while given all those named on the brochure and those for whom the exhibit is prominently named. Yes, not one of those guys. Rather, this third piece of the one hundred and seven works of art shown is the one by Nathalija Gontcharova.


(I’d gone with my son to the exhibits at the Modern Art Museum across the street. Not much different. We saw two pieces by women, as I recall. All the other hundreds of pieces of modern art displayed were by men. Now, my son is a professional artist and one of my daughters is a painter and a college student, who, by the way, just did her own home improvement project last evening by tiling a bathroom floor. I’m just not sure what the implicit message by the art museums is here, are you? We pay money to see art, and we see art predominantly produced by men. There are token pieces by women, but don’t they belong to their age and to ours in equal measure?)

Writing in place

December 31, 2013

I read this with great interest and sympathy, China of my Mind . I to0 have many aunts and uncles, in laws and outlaws, who were in China, one being the first Brit to transverse China from ocean to India, another starting a boarding school, some incarcerated during the war and so on. We too had Chinese vases and embroideries. We had students from different parts of China living with us for many years, as well as a Chinese penpal from an orphanage in Hong Kong.

I also have a sister who lived in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing for years, writing letters home to Mother every week. She has published her autobiography and is a celebrated Sinologist. I have even been to China. But could I write about it?? I don’t think so. But I haven’t read this book so perhaps it is well done. I can’t say.

When I write, all senses are engaged. Here are the Beechwoods, and you can compare this with Fully Adam or Last Christmas.  Could I write this if I hadn’t been there?

I had never walked in a Beech Wood before,

The bright emerald green in the sunlight

And the rustling sound of the wind,

the large simple shape of the leaves

and the majesty of solid trunks and solidarity among the trees.


In winter the skeletons all show against the sky

and the leaves on the ground have rotted into the earth

I walk not on Beech leaves, but on the rough leather of

intermingled undecayed alder and oak leaves, red, white, pin,

and the smell of pungent balsam and fir is absent,

like a live thing that I had thought would walk through

these woods with me. But it isn’t there. I didn’t realize.

No needled scent from the ground rises up to my nostrils

and beckons me down to that rich aroma of dirt and duff


I lift my eyes instead to the sky

and float among the dark interlaced and spindled branches

thrown into relief against the dying lemon yellow sky

of a fast approaching winter night.

55 Canadianisms you may not know

December 31, 2013

HT  Challies. I had so many perplexing moments lining up for black tea with homo milk and a serviette, while wearing a tuque and my skookum boots! There seemed to be some suggestion that I was just making all these words up. But no, here it is on the internet. I honestly find living without the Robertson screw head a real pain. I am constantly shredding  threads and that just isn’t possible with a Robertson. Icing sugar. I can live without that. Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 8.03.30 AM

Marvel’s Zombies Christmas Carol (graphic novel)

December 30, 2013

zombiesCharles Dickens’s horror story, “A Christmas Carol,” has seen countless adaptations in movies, stage, television, and radio.  But inevitably, those adaptations focus on the heartwarming aspects of the Dickens tale, rather than the sheer fright of his masterful ghost story.

I recently came across Marvel’s graphic novel Zombies Christmas CarolThe hardcover edition was being remaindered at Half Price Books – if I recall correctly, I paid under $5 for it, suggesting that the publication was not particularly successful.  And if so, it was a pity, because this creative adaptation manages to bring horrific aspects of Dickens to the forefront through our age’s proxy for ghosts:  the zombie motif.  (Remember the opening paragraph of “A Christmas Carol”?  Here, that is turned on its head as Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the undead Jacob Marley)

While the idea of adapting 19th century stories to include zombies has become rather clichéd ever since the mechanical Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this graphic novel rises above the usual dross through the terrific (albeit gory) artwork by David Baldeon and Jeremy Treece, and the story is genuinely scary.  (From Daniel Kraus’s review at Booklist:  “The glossy, spectacle-laden art is uniformly fine and plenty disgusting. If you’ve ever wanted to see Tiny Tim devour his own father, you’re in luck.”) 

The book is clearly commercial art, and not particularly innovative, but if you want an easy read that is free of the typical maudlin presentations of the December season, this nasty little graphic novel may be a palate cleanser.

Happy birthday Pablo!

December 29, 2013

Today would be Pablo Casal’s 137th birthday.

David Oistrakh in China 1957

December 29, 2013

On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, launching the space race.   On the same day, the Jewish Odessa-born Soviet violinist David Oistrakh and his piano accompanist Vladimir Yampolsky arrived in rainy Beijing for a grand tour of the Chinese capital, Shanghai, and Tianjin.  This was the golden height of Sino-Soviet relations — Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter (and his mezzo-soprano wife, Nina Dorliak) were already in Beijing, and young Chinese musicians interested in Western music rushed to these performances of these musical giants.  The official Chinese government recording company (CRC:  中国唱片总公司) quickly issued a set of eight LP “reference records” of Oistrakh’s performances in China, and they sold like hotcakes.  Within a decade, at the height of the Chinese “Cultural Revolution,” those records would be destroyed as Soviets were denounced as revisionists and Western culture was forbidden.

Now, somewhat against all expectations, these recordings have been recovered, and restored in a deluxe 4CD set.  I just bought a copy of these CDs, while they are not the first recordings of Oistrakh that I might recommend, they are outstanding and a fine nostalgic look at what might be considered the twentieth century’s greatest violinist. 


Oistrakh’s tour was not without event (he was naturally upset when he learned that the Tupolev 104 he had flown in on crashed on its return flight to the Soviet Union, and he was “caught” listening to decadent Western jazz on Voice of America shortwave radio), it was a tremendous event that inspired an entire generation of Chinese musicians specializing in Western classical music.  The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post has an article reminiscing on Oistrakh’s tour.  Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai have a fascinating history of modern China and the effect of “classical music diplomacy” on the country entitled Rhapsody in Red:  How Classical Music Became Chinese.

For me, there is another type of nostalgia associated this release – a memory of when communist governments, despite their restrictions on freedom of expression, still considered excellence in culture to be a central mission of the government.   It is not a time to which I would wish to return, but it did leave us some monumental cultural achievements.

my favorite BLT posts of 9/2013

December 29, 2013

Some of my favorite bloggers are looking back at this past year on the Gregorian calendar and noting their top-read posts. I enjoy this sort of marking of superlatives, somehow aggregated as if objectively, in such a subjective way.

So maybe you’ll enjoy somewhat my little look back here at BLT blogging. I’ve compiled, in chronological order, below a very short list of posts, written in September, of 2013. I like that particular month of blogging here, most, because each and every one of us co-bloggers found the time and the inclination, then, to post:


Amos 6:1 in the LXX


Untranslatable Words which have no precise English equivalents


“Farewell NIV”?


Yom Kippur as Manifest in an Approaching Dorsal Fin


Lattimore’s Sappho, Homer, & St. Paul


Is the new Booker Prize inclusiveness a Trojan Horse?

Slight amusements

December 29, 2013

If you find yourself with a few minutes with nothing to amuse you, you may wish to try Classical FM’s “composer or pasta” quiz.

Faith, Trust, and “Miracle on 34th Street”

December 28, 2013

“Miracle on 34th Street,” as most Americans know, is a Christmas classic movie from 1947 about a department-store Santa who claims to be the real thing.  I watched it again this year on Christmas night, after all the presents were opened, Christmas dinner eaten and the dishes washed.

As often happens with the best movies, something jumped out at me in this viewing that I hadn’t seen before.  “Miracle on 34th Street,” with its story of a disillusioned single mother who learns to trust again, and her pragmatic little girl who discovers the joys of imagination, illustrates beautifully the nature of faith.I have felt for a long time that when it comes to faith, both Christians and non-Christians* often seem to miss the point.  This blog post on Counter Apologist, which asserts that “faith is belief without good evidence” encapsulates the usual atheistic understanding of faith:

My main contention is that defining faith as “belief without good evidence” is not only defensible in the religious context, but it’s actually implied that this is what is meant in the Christian bible, at least in some cases. . . The primary piece of scripture that an atheist appeals to which defines faith as “belief without evidence” is Hebrews 11:1 – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Christians, of course, generally deny that this verse is talking about “belief without evidence.”  Their problem with understanding faith is a different one.  As I discussed a few months ago in my post Saved by Being Right: Christianity and Dogmatism, Christians often approach faith as belief in the “right” doctrines — those that constitute foundational, orthodox Christianity.  The ancient Athanasian Creed illustrates this approach when it says:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. . . He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity . . . This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.

Though I do hold to the Athanasian Creed, I believe it is to be read as a definitive statement of orthodox doctrine and not as a definition of faith, as faith.  (And I think even the writers of this Creed would have acknowledged, when pressed, that the thief on the cross in Luke 23 was saved without believing, or even understanding, any of these things.)  Despite what Counter Apologist says above about the Bible itself defining faith in terms of belief, faith is actually shown throughout the Bible to be trust in Christ, trust in God, and it is on this trust that belief is based. 

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian puts it pretty well when he quotes the Holman Bible Dictionary:

Faith in the Greek is pistis, trust. The Holman Bible Dictionary’s entry on faith (as found in Accordance 10.2) indicates that “throughout the Scriptures faith is the trustful human response to God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions.”

In other words, when Hebrews 11:1 says “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” this isn’t a complete definition of faith, but a continuation of the understanding of faith as trust set forth in Hebrews 10:22-23:

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.[Emphasis added.]

Faith, then, is not simply belief in certain assertions, but the assurance that those assertions can be believed, based on trust in the faithfulness of the one making the assertions.  This is why the word “faith” also applies to human interactions.  “Have faith in me,” a father says to his child, or a leader to her people, or a wife or husband to their spouse. “Have faith in me, and I’ll make good.  Have faith in me, and I’ll keep my promise.”

So what does “Miracle on 34th Street” have to do with all this?

“Miracle on 34th Street” opens with a round, jolly, white-bearded old man correcting a department-store window decorator on his rendition of Santa’s reindeer.  The old man speaks in the full confidence of apparent first-hand knowledge.  His words and actions throughout the rest of the movie consistently show that he firmly believes himself to be “the one and only Santa Claus.”  The mother and daughter in the movie, caught between their own pragmatic disbelief that Santa could possibly be a real person, and their face-to-face encounters with the sheer believeability of this man as Santa, eventually embrace his Claus-ness.

It isn’t that they believe without good evidence.  If they are willing to see and accept it, there is good evidence that this man is who he claims to be.  He says and does a number of things which are much more consistent with his being the real Santa than with him being simply a delusional old mental patient.  But if they do believe, they must do so against their own common sense, against the prevailing mindset of adult society that Santa simply cannot be real.  The evidence is never overwhelming, to where anyone is forced to accept him as Santa.  Rather than conclusive proof, the standard of the evidence amounts to a “rational warrant.”  My respected scholarly friend Metacrock describes rational warrant as follows:

Rational warrant is any logical argument that warrants a belief, or a sense of placing confidence in a proposition. Being “rational” means there are logical reasons to support it, being a “warrant” means it’s a reason to believe something. . . So the aspect of an argument that logically demonstrates a reason to believe something is a warrant. Rationally warranted belief is confidence placed in a proposition (the belief) that is well placed as demonstrated by the warrant. . . This means one [does not] need to demonstrate beyond all doubt. . . but in demonstrating the rational warrant for belief one has shown that good logical reasons allow for belief.

“Rational warrant” is the difference between belief and knowledge.  No one speaks of “believing” in things that are incontrovertible fact.  No one says, “I believe chickens lay eggs” or “I believe snow is cold.”  Neither the audience nor the characters in the story are able to say, “I know Santa is real and this man is he.”  They can only believe– or disbelieve.  But we are still talking about belief, not faith.  The characters have a rational warrant for belief, but they also have the contradictory force of their own pragmatism and common sense.  How do they move, then, from doubt to conviction?

Their conviction comes from faith.  Faith in this old man who calls himself Kris Kringle, who says he is Santa Claus.  It makes no sense to them, but there is something deeply trustworthy about Mr. Kringle, and as time goes on and they get to know him better and better, they find it more and more difficult to believe that he is lying or delusional.  The child finds her world opening up as she accepts Kris’s teaching in how to be imaginative and open to new possibilities.  The mother finds it within herself to hope again in ideals which she had thought permanently driven out of herself by past disappointment and betrayal.  And the mother’s new boyfriend finds it worth risking his career to defend Kris Kringle’s sanity to a disbelieving tribunal.  In the end they all tell Kris, in one way or another, “I have faith in you.”

It is at the point of triumph that the little girl’s newfound faith is tested.  It appears that Santa has not managed to get her the difficult Christmas gift she had asked for.  Now, against all apparent evidence otherwise, she whispers to herself, “I believe, I believe.” Is this, then, faith showing its true colors after all?  When push comes to shove, is faith really just “belief without good evidence?”

C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Obstinacy in Belief,” published in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, addresses this issue.

To believe that God . . . exists is to believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a Person. . . You are no longer faced with an argument that demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence.  A faint analogy would be this.  It is one thing to ask in vacuo whether So-and-So will join us tonight, and another to discuss this when So-and-So’s honour is pledged to come and some great matter depends on his coming.  In the first case it would be merely reasonable, as the clock ticked on and on, to expect him less and less.  In the second, a continued expectation far into the night would be due to our friend’s character if we had found him reliable before.  Which of us would not feel slightly ashamed if, one moment after we  had given him up, he arrived with a full explanation of his delay?  We should feel that we ought to have known him better.

Once she had come to know Kris Kringle, little Susan felt that it was due to her friend Mr. Kringle’s character to continue to believe that he would send her the Christmas present she asked for.  It should not be considered (as Lewis puts it) “sheer insanity” that her belief was “no longer proportioned to every fluctuation of the apparent evidence.”  This is because her belief was based in faith, or trust in the person of Kris Kringle– not upon a set of propositions about him, but in the man himself.

Soren Kierkegaard, who coined the term “leap of faith,” did not see it as a leap into an evidentiary abyss, or into a set of doctrines.  He said:

[A]ll the individuals who are saved will receive the specific weight of religion, its essence at first hand, from God himself. Then it will be said: ‘behold, all is in readiness, see how the cruelty of abstraction makes the true form of worldliness only too evident, the abyss of eternity opens before you, the sharp scythe of the leveller makes it possible for every one individually to leap over the blade–and behold, it is God who waits. Leap, then, into the arms of God’.

Faith is a leap, yes– but it is a leap of trust.  It is like a child on the edge of a swimming pool responding when her mother, in the water with arms outstretched, calls “Jump!”  God is not like that mother in having a voice we can hear or arms we can see, but countless Christians through the ages, like Lewis, like Kierkegaard, have understood faith in terms of trust in Someone they have directly and personally encountered.

Faith isn’t rocket science.  It doesn’t have to be.  It’s more like a child meeting Santa Claus.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a story is worth a thousand pictures.

Thanks, writers of “Miracle on 34th Street.”


Cross-posted from Wordgazer’s Words

*Disclaimer:  I recognize that the viewpoint of this blog post is limited to the question of faith as it is set forth in Western Christianity and the secular response to the same, and doesn’t take into account the viewpoints of non-Christian religions.  This should not be construed as intentional disregard of such viewpoints, but rather as simply a recognition of the limitations of my own education, understanding and perspective in dealing with this topic.  Readers of other faiths are welcome to give input on their own definitions of faith in the comments. 

The First “First Noel” Poem

December 25, 2013

In the Greek gospel of Luke there’s intended or unintended wordplay that hearkens to the literatures of Hesiod’s Theo-GON-y, Aristotle’s GENE-eration of Animals, and the Septuagint’s GENE-sis. The language is poetic, rhetorical, political, historical. Above all it’s Generative, GYNakatic, Birth-Womb-Earth-ish, sometimes Male-on-top sexist, other times subversively feminist.

A while back some of us looked at just Luke 2:14 (and some of us as Glorious Wordplay). This morning mainly to read aloud with my family, I had a go at more:


Dolls and train sets

December 22, 2013

I was floored to discover that little girls really do prefer dolls and pretty dresses, even if you clothe them in blue jeans and keep giving them toy trucks in their hand. There was something deeper, more ancient, more body-based in gender roles than I had realized.

I read this paragraph by a notable woman theologian and cringed. I have been reminiscing a lot about past Christmases, toys and gender. My kids seem very stereotypically their own gender to others. But I remember the little boy who stopped playing blocks to attend to his dolly, and the little girl in love with her kiddy car. I remember the years of buying Brio train sets for both children to build a bigger inventory. I remember the inclusive non-gendered toys, as well as the pretty dresses and Tonka trucks.

I remember how as a child, I spent hours lying on the floor watching my brother play with his electric train set. My sister and I spent hours with out Tinker Toy set. I remember my brothers knitting, my own children working on crafts together. Today we all hunched over a new Puzz 3D.

Let’s rewrite the quote above, “I was floored to discover that MY little girl really did prefer dolls and pretty dresses.” Well, have your own private crises, but don’t make them mine.

I won’t deny your experience of reality, but by generalizing, you deny mine. You exclude me from the group of “acceptable women.” Piffle on statements like these. Don’t deny my humanity, and I won’t deny yours. I have had enough of exclusion and shunning.

Was David a Virgin when his soul was pregnant?

December 22, 2013

Was David a Virgin when his soul was pregnant?

This is, of course, as we all would agree just a silly little question. And yet it is seriously my attempt to bring some attention to the way in Bible reading and translation we highlight gender and sex and motherliness so dogmatically. Some of my facebook friends in a particular theology group have gone on and on for hours and literally days arguing this one:

“The virgin birth, is it essential?”

Galileo said that the heart cannot rejoice in what the mind rejects. I think that millennials are going to have a harder time accepting the previous generations’ obstinate views of a faith that is contrary to science. Pew reports that 76% of Americans believe in it but only 66% of young people 18 and below.

I accept the virgin birth but I don’t think it would be a deal breaker for me if it turns out that he had an earthly father. If he did, so what? (There is that matter of NT scripture though…) Nor do I think that assent to the view is an essential part of coming to faith in God.

So, “So what?”

As Christians around the world on this fourth advent Sunday, the one before Christmas, focus on the Magnificat of the Virgin Mother Mary, I myself also recall the Magnificat in the Greek Psalms.

Here’s a bit on that from a post at another blog:

How, really, can one compare King David’s Psalm 34:1-3 and this bit of Mother Mary’s Magnificat found in Luke 1:47-49?

Well, let’s assume we really want to do that first. Okay, well then, we go to Luke’s Greek. He has her starting in like this:

ἡ ψυχή μου
τὸν Κύριον

Yes, her words have gender, and her words for herself and to herself and about herself are female.

My dear feminine motherly soul
the LORD

And yes, yes, the Roman Clementine Vulgate only makes this femininity abundantly clear, which is important, since, as we all know, Latin, like Greek, has other gender options, not only the feminine. So we hear Mary begin this way:

anima mea

Mary the wo-man, of course, is not a man. S-he’s not a he. S-he, this wo-man is a fe-male, not a male.

David, of course, is a man. So let’s hear his language. In Hebrew, he starts in this way:


The Alexandrian Jewish translator for his Septuagint renders him starting in in Greek this way:

ἐν τῷ κυρίῳ
ἡ ψυχή μου

Well, hmm. Well, sure. David’s word for himself, the nephesh, is a feminine noun. This is not his sex. It’s the gender of his grammar. Let’s not get carried away here. Everybody knows he has something, some body part, that Mary lacks. Maybe Luke is making his singing Mary mimic the Septuagint translator’s psalmist David. Well, hmm. They’re both feminine, the nouns that is. Psyche just does what nephesh does. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that David’s soul, like Mary’s must be, is fe-male.

Never mind that the Roman Clementine Vulgate with its Versio Gallicana makes him saying:

In Domino
anima mea

Jerome is just trying to follow that Alexandrian Jewish fellow with his fancy Hellene. Yes, that’s true. They both have David continuing by saying:

Magnificate Dominum mecum

μεγαλύνατε τὸν κύριον σὺν ἐμοί

See how unclear this is? And, besides, Jerome makes David compel his fellow singers, real men of biblical manhood, to taste and see that the LORD “sweet

When it’s a man and we know its a man in the context, then we read the words differently. When it’s a woman and we know she is a virgin and is pregnant – an anomaly – so Mark-Ed and Un-Usual and Ab-Normal and Fe-male-ish and Wo-man-ish, then we read her OOOh So differently.
Read the rest here.

know your biblical sex verbs

December 19, 2013

The writer of the Greek gospel of Matthew knew his biblical sex verbs. His intended Jewish audience knew them too. Their shared biblical knowledge signaled a sort of insider intimacy.

This worked somewhat like I’m trying to make this English blogpost work. My intended American pop culture readers will get the fact that I’m having fun. Like tv talk show host David Letterman’s “Know Your Cuts of Meat” is intended to get people involved and chuckling. My title itself is pun-funny in other ways that I won’t give away in explanation here.

I may be pretending, even, to be convicted by that thing that Robert Alter would avoid, what we all know, because of his coinage of it, as “the heresy of explanation”: “the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible rather than representing it in another language, [which] in the most egregious instances . . . amounts to explaining away the Bible.”

Alter translates Genesis 4:1 from the Hebrew to the English, as follows:

And the human knew Eve his woman and she conceived and bore Cain, and she said, “I have got me a man with the LORD.”

An earlier translator translated Genesis 4:1 from the Hebrew to the Hellene, as follows:

Αδαμ δὲ ἔγνω Ευαν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ καὶ συλλαβοῦσα ἔτεκεν τὸν Καιν καὶ εἶπεν ἐκτησάμην ἄνθρωπον διὰ τοῦ θεοῦ

And now I’m beginning to engage with the “all kinds of questions” that Victoria (Gaudete Theology blogger and my BLT co-blogger) has raised, beginning with just these:

Kurk, how would you translate that key word ἐγίνωσκεν [in the Greek sentence of the nativity episode of the gospel of Matthew, aka Mt 1:25 – καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν· καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν]?
Can we tell anything about it from its use in non-Biblical texts? What about its etymology? Is it a verb that is only ever used with a male subject, or could it equally well be used with a female subject?

Linguistically, did it function as a euphemism for sex, like the English phrase “sleeping together”? Or is it a more direct word that might be used of animals as well as of people?

She asks more, and I’ll think about them for a long time. Let’s just look at these five or so.

I would translate ἐγίνωσκεν into English with scare quotes:  “and he didn’t ‘know’ her until . . . ” I’d also give the readers a long footnote (to explain, like one might explain an inside joke):

The writer of the Greek gospel of Matthew knew his biblical sex verbs. (The gospel opener is political, and see this blogpost on that). The verb γινώσκω /ginóskó/ is not used for human sex or animal “generation” before its use in the Septuagint, where the Hebrew verb יָדַע /yada/ is an ambiguous verb for human sex between two individuals. If you’ll pardon my Greeky English, it’s probably a euphemism. And yet it seems to function more as a play on words. There were other Hebrew words that are biblical sex verbs. The King James translators translated this one as “know.”

(Those other phrases, different Hebrew verbs for “sex,” the KJV Englishers translated as “to lie with” and “to force” and “to love” – as in the narrative of the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13. And they rendered other Hebrew phrases for sex as “to give [a daughter to]” and “to take [a wife]” and “to go into” – as in Deuteronomy 22, in the instructions regarding a virgin who’d been had sexually. Some of these biblical sex Hebrew verbs are used in combination, and so the KJV has English translations like this one for 2 Samuel 12:24 –

And David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bare a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him.

And there are other verses with two Hebrew verbs for sex, like this one, Numbers 31:17 / 18 –

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known [ginóskó – LXX, yada – MT] man by lying with [koité – LXX, mishkav – MT] him.

But all the women children, that have not known [eido – LXX, yada – MT] a man by lying with [koité – LXX, mishkav – MT] him, keep alive for yourselves.

The second Greek phrase there in the verse in Numbers – κοίτη or koité – refers metaphorically to a “bed,” and its Hebrew equivalent does too. Outside of the LXX, before the Septuagint, this phrase does show up in Greek literature as a euphemism or metaphor for human sex.

But that first verb in the first verse above [i.e., in Numbers 31:17], as a Greek verb, is really Hebraic Hellene. It shows how – at least in Greek translationese – it is a verb that is not only always used with a male subject, but it could also sometimes also be more or less “equally” used with a female subject. In the verse, the female subject has “known” a male object and earns capital punishment, death.)

So this Greek verb γινώσκω /ginóskó/is a Pentateuch word. It appears in Greek Torah. It is something the writer of the gospel of Matthew would have known, and so would his readers. He includes a Tamar in his genealogy of the baby Jesus. And in the LXX Greek Genesis 38:26, there’s this Hebraic Hellene for sex –

And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She [Tamar] hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew [γνῶναι – gnonoai] her again no more.

Early in the Five Books of Moses translated into Hebraic Hellene, there’s Adam “knowing” Eve (and having the baby that may have been prophesied about, a foreshadowing Matthew’s readers might assume). There’s this baby, Cain, growing up and saying as an adult – in answer to where his dead murdered brother his – “I know not; Am I my brother’s keeper.” There’s Cain “knowing” his wife, and Adam “knowing” his wife again, (and the boy born may be another baby prophesied about, another foreshadowing perhaps of a second adam.)

Greek readers who didn’t know the Greek Pentateuch, the LXX, or the various Jewish Hebraic Hellene literature that grew up around it would not have really understood, wouldn’t know,  all the wordplay in Matthew 1:25’s Greek verb for biblical knowing, for sex.

That’s why I’d translate ἐγίνωσκεν in Matthew 1:25 into English with scare quotes:  “and he didn’t ‘know’ her until . . . “

Last Christmas

December 18, 2013

Card perfect view

From the bridge

Of the tumbling creek

between loaves of snow

But walk in those woods

Under the branches

heavy with snow

where the low grey stripped

limbs of hemlock

curl up toward

the overhanging branches

still needled and green

under their winter burden

Lichen dangles down

like grey green yarn

twisted and ready to skein

Filaments of frosted web

Hang like threads

Without ornaments

Alder cones cluster

on low bushes

orange red ash berries

pucker in the cold

The lake stretches

white with solid ice

to the other side

but open black water ripples

by the rush grown shore.


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