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Borges on Chesterton: forests, trees

December 12, 2013

Bilingual poets are just fascinating. They live in a world of ambiguities, two worlds. Jorge Luis Borges is one such individual. This week I’m a bit compelled to call him and his language(s) “optimistic.” At the very least, I think I want to make a case that Borges was not pessimistic about language. Yes, he quoted G. K. Chesterton, a lot, and was indebted to him frequently, for the Englishman’s use of and expressions about language.

What I’m pushing back against is a caricature of the view of language that Borges expresses and practices. This week on the Language Log, Mark Liberman quotes George Carlin on language followed by another quotation, “[a] less optimistic spin from G.K. Chesterton” followed by another quotation from “Jorge Luis Borges [who] used this quotation from Chesterton, in Spanish translation.” One commenter, then, asserts further: “It’s obvious that, as Chesterton and Borges said, language is a flawed and often inadequate tool for communicating the ineffability of life.” Well, I’d say from my own readings of Borges (and of his of Chesterton), that the translating poet sees language as much more powerful and positive than the blogger’s and commenter’s assertions would have him see it. Let’s take a second look at this.

If anything ought to be obvious it’s how carefully, and very very very precisely, Borges renders the English of Chesterton into his own Spanish, in this particular case:

He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest [...] Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.

El hombre sabe que hay en el alma tintes más desconcertantes, más innumerables y más anónimos que los colores de una selva otoñal… cree, sin embargo, que esos tintes, en todas sus fusiones y conversiones, son representables con precisión por un mecanismo arbitrario de gruñidos y de chillidos. Cree que del interior de un bolsista salen realmente ruidos que significan todos los misterios de la memoria y todas las agonias del anhelo.

Liberman does link to sources for the quotation, both in English and then in Spanish. When quoting the English from his linked source, nonetheless, he fails to capture what Alberto Manguel says about Chesterton’s quotation, and it is after all Manguel who is quoting Chesterton in his introduction to On Lying in Bed and Other Essays by G.K. Chesterton. Immediately following the quotation, Manguel asserts:

Paradoxically, in words like these, written against the power of words, Chesterton raises the reader’s trust in that same questioned power.

Both Liberman (saying Chesterton is making a “less optimistic spin” about language) and also the commenter (saying “as Chesterton … said, language is a flawed and often inadequate tool for communicating the ineffability of life”) fail to see Chesterton’s paradox.

Borges gets Chesterton and all of the nuance as well.

First, as I’ve said, he uses Spanish to say very very precisely, what Chesterton in the quotation has said. It’s not a translation with a “spin”; it’s not Spanish that is either flawed or inadequate for communicating the Englishman’s English. Liberman links to the Borges translation in his essay, “El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins.” I’ve also found Borges quoting Chesterton, in translation, in his essay, “De las alegorías a las novelas.” And to introduce and to make conclusions about this quotation, Borges begins: “Chesterton para vindicar lo alegorico.” He is noticing how Chesterton is vindicating allegorical language. Is there pessimism relative to what the comedian Carlin is saying? Is there some expression about flaws in language or its inadequacies for communication? Only if one fails to understand Chesterton’s language, or Borges’s.

Second, just to pick up on allegory and metaphor and so forth, I’d like to turn to how Chesterton (and Borges translating him) uses forest here, and elsewhere, tree.

For Chesterton, the image of “forest” here is a ground for radical variation. Language, in the believer in language that he’s talking about, is to “more” varied, the more being the adjective on the various variations “in the soul” of the language believer, which, are, supposed by this language believer to be “accurately represented” by his language, his words, his utterances, his “grunts and squeals.” The “forest” then is clearly inadequate, from the get go, as a complete analogy to the “soul.” And yet, this is exactly precisely the sort of powerful, optimistic, adequate point of what Chesterton’s astute readers, like Manguel and Borges, are beginning to get. As we all know, the “forest” need not be confused with the “trees.” :) In this particular paragraph, the metaphor is intended to be for the readers (and perhaps this imagined language believer) as something rather invariant (though full of variations upon variations). I’m not trying to run this explanation into the ground, to overexplain. But some the point of a metaphor is how inexhaustible it is, semantically speaking. In other words, to say something like, “A soul is a forest” is to introduce not just one possibility but several. The fun of this little paragraph is that it introduces an argument, as if there can be logic to expose the flaws in the metaphor: “A soul is NOT forest.” :)

This little paragraph somehow reminded me of a conversation that Willis Barnstone, also a multilingual poet, had with Borges (reported in several of Barnstone’s works). It was in English. It goes like this:

BORGES:  When you write down the images, those images may not mean anything to you. It’s what you get in the case of Poe and of Lovecraft. The images are awful but the feeling isn’t awful.

BARNSTONE:  And I suppose a good writer is one who comes up with the right images to correspond to the feeling.

BORGES:  To a feeling, yes. Or who may give you the nightmare feeling with common objects or things. I remember how I found a proof of that in Chesterton. He says that we might think that at the end of the world there is a tree whose very shape is evil. Now that’s a fine word, and I think that stands for that kind of feeling, no? Now, that tree could hardly be described. While, if you think of a tree, for example, made of skulls, of ghosts, that would be quite silly. But what we said, a tree whose very shape is evil. That show he really had a nightmare about that tree. No? If not, how would he know about that tree?

BARNSTONE:  I’ve always been puzzled why my tongue moves, why words come out of my mouth or from in my head. These words are like seconds of a clock happening, sounding almost by themselves.

In this conversation, there’s a similar sort of topic. Is language adequate, if representational? What about when I utter things with my mouth? What about when a poet writes?

And then there’s a quotation of Chesterton, by Borges.

Instead of a forest, there’s the mention of a tree. If you know Chesterton, then you know he uses the tree as an image quite a bit. But Borges is keying in on one little particular instance. The concern is whether Chesterton describes it right. There’s the mention of shape. There’s the metaphor of evil. It’s an apocalyptic, end of the world moment.

So, when and where does Chesterton say this? It’s the opener of Chapter VI of Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare -

Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world. Again and again Syme strove to pull together his common sense in their presence. Sometimes he saw for an instant that these notions were subjective, that he was only looking at ordinary men, one of whom was old, another nervous, another short-sighted. The sense of an unnatural symbolism always settled back on him again. Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought. He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something—say a tree—that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself—a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.

Notice the language here. “Fancy” and “as in” and “fable” and “that if” and the subjunctive “he would find something” and the supposition “say a tree” and the equivocations “was more or less” and the qualification / modification “possessed by a spirit.”

What we don’t find here in Chesterton’s English is anything about a shape of a tree. Rather, the whole description has morphed, by the time we read the word shape, to “a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked.”  And so we find Borges doing more with Chesterton’s language. The “tree” is the “tower.” And “evil” really is “wicked.” And yet Borges is able to move his tongue with a system of grunts and squeals, with un mecanismo … de gruñidos y de chillidos. The imprecision, the arbitrariness, the wonder at whether there’s precise representation, is all beside the point. Or perhaps is the point. Language is image. Powerful imagery. Adequate. Optimistic. More or less. Forests. Trees. And so is the language of Borges on the language of Chesterton.

Buber – Rosenzweig on The Eternal

December 12, 2013

Just a few brief citations from Franz Rosenzweig regarding Mendelssohn’s choice of Der Ewige (The Eternal), first from here,  page 175  1923,

Rosenzweig congratulates Mendelssohn for capturing or attempting to capture, in one phrase God’s providence, eternity, and necessary existence. Yet identifying God with eternal being can be something of an evasion. Buber translates God’s proper name as ‘He-is-there’ (Images of Good and Evil, p. 67) and Rosenzweig translates … ICH BIN DA. … The Emphasis which Rosenzweig wishes to bring out here is not on the everlasting being of God but on his eternal presentness,

and from here, page 263, 1929,

[T]his interpretation of the divine name as “The Eternal” or, alternately, as “the eternal essence” was “austere, sublime,” and “genuinely ‘numinous.'” But its origins were Hellenistic, not Jewish.  … According to Rosenzweig, this fundamentally “Hellenistic” interpretation missed Judaism’s richly personalist and this-worldly understanding of God.

(Click on the tag “Eternal” in the top right corner for the other posts in this series.)

The Eternal vs the LORD

December 12, 2013

This will be a bit sketchy, a plane to catch this afternoon. But the problem with LORD is that it is anthropomorphic, and extension of a word for a certain type of human, a male boss, with sometimes unlimited rights. Almost all names for God are anthropomorphic except when He is called our rock and our shield, etc. Even putting the word in all caps doesn’t really make the word LORD non-anthropomorphic.

But another problem is that both “Lord” and “God” are semantically gendered words in English and are not semantically gendered words in Hebrew. That is, they have grammatical gender in Hebrew, they are referred to as “he.” But this is a function of the grammar of the language. A mother eagle can be a “he” or a table is a “he.” That’s just how it goes.

But in English “Lord” is semantically gendered because it is the opposite partner to “lady,” and “God” is semantically gendered because it has the opposite partner of “goddess.” Note the lower cap. They are not equal.

However, in Hebrew Elohim for God has no semantic gender. It is not male and cannot designate a human or indicate that God is male. It has no female contrasting equivalent. It is a plural word to begin with but takes a singular verb or pronoun. However, it has no semantic masculine content.

Yahweh, translated LORD, in the King James Bible, is the same. It has no feminine contrasting partner and no masculine content. Yahweh is the one who exists forever. Yahweh is also a personal being who relates to humans. Yahweh is not masculine or feminine, but Hebrew has only masculine and feminine grammatical categories, so grammatically it is masculine. This does not mean that Yahweh is masculine any more than a table is masculine. We are wrong to attribute to Yahweh Elohim attributes which we value in males over attributes which we value in females. Actually, humans are skewed in this. Overall, we value courage, honesty, loyalty, and a love of fun – for both men and women. We need to pull this one together and eliminate the great chasm dug between men and women.

Yahweh Elohim Shaddai, another name for God, can command armies and provide women with fertility. Yahweh exists forever as Itself. How shall we refer to Yahweh? As The Eternal? Next post will deal with Franz Rosenzweig’s opinion on this topic just preceding the Holocaust. Who is this Yahweh God?

LORD God in English marches to a masculine tune, but Yahweh Elohim does not. It doesn’t sound feminine, it sounds non-human but relating to humans.

Note: I snuck Shaddai in there and some want to call this the “Breasted God.” I find this icky, I don’t want a phallic God or a breasted God. Just silly. “The One who is sufficient” that is the possible meaning of this name.

Clicjk on the tag “Eternal” at the top to read all posts in this series.

Everlasting One

December 11, 2013

Kurk has noted that Everett Fox wrote, 1995, in his intro, remarks, on page xxix,

Historically, Jewish and Christian translations of the Bible into English have tended to use ‘Lord,’ with some exceptions (notably, Moffatt’s ‘The Eternal’).

But we know that Grace Aguilar, a very well known Jewish writer in her day (died 1847), used “The Eternal,” Benisch, 1852 used “The Eternal” in his translation, and Leeser, 1853, used “The Everlasting One.”

Exo 3:15 And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, The Everlasting One, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.

Buber and Rosenzweig used Ich Bin Da, “I am present” in German. But David E. Stein found that “The Eternal” was the most popular choice for a translation of Yahweh for the Gender Sensitive Jewish translation. However, for a variety of reasons it was not used. Stein writes,

The most favored rendering was as “the Eternal” — which is popular well beyond the bounds of the Reform movement, where it has appeared in Bible translations and liturgy for at least fifteen years.[3] Most informants involved in ritual settings gravitated toward the idea that the Name is related to the Hebrew verbal root for existence — a connection made by the Torah itself at the Burning Bush (Exod 3). This understanding commended renderings such as the Eternal, the Eternal One, The One Who Will Be There, the One, Being, Eternal Being, Becoming, Source of Being. Of these, “the Eternal” was most often named.

Some who suggested such renderings did so because they understood that for many contemporary Jews, God as a persona either makes no sense or is anathema. A few respondents mentioned der Ewige (a German coinage in 1783 by the Jewish philosopher and translator Moses Mendelssohn) or L’éternel (used in the most widely accepted French translation among Christians, by Louis Segond, 1874). Familiarity with those precedents seemed to make it more likely to find “the Eternal” unexceptional. However, a few respondents objected that such a term over interprets how the Torah presents its Deity; and another considers it “far too impersonal.”

Others focused less on the Name’s meaning than on its sound, finding it remarkable that the Name consists only of vowel-letters, such that its original pronunciation must have been unusually breathy. For Arthur Waskow, a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement, this warrants rendering the Name as “the Breath of Life.”

The editors opted for Yahweh written out in the Hebrew letters – a non-interpretive choice. There is a lot of philosophizing and theologizing  to be done on this topic, so more to follow.

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

“A” Grades for Him: Sexual Harrassment of Her

December 11, 2013

Here’s from a couple of pages of The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard:

      But if indeed there is now no body of moral knowledge in our culture, then a number of things highly positioned people express surprise about are not surprising at all.  Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard and a well-known researcher and commentator on matters social and moral, published a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on “The Disparity Between Intellect and Character.”  The piece is about “the task of connecting intellect to character.”  This task, he adds, “is daunting.”

His essay was occasioned by an encounter with one of his students over the moral insensitivity – is it hard for him to say “immoral behavior?” – of other students, some of the best and brightest at Harvard.  This student was a young woman of “a Midwestern, working class background” where, as is well known, things like “right answers” and “ideology” remain strong.  She cleaned student rooms to help pay her way through the university.

Again and again, she reported to Coles, people who were in classes with her treated her ungraciously because of her lower economic position, without simple courtesy and respect, and often were rude and sometimes crude to her.  She was repeatedly propositioned for sex by one young student in particular as she went about her work.  He was a man with whom she had had two “moral reasoning” courses, in which he excelled and received the highest of grades.

This pattern of treatment led her to quit her job and leave school – and to something like an exit interview with Coles.  After going over not only the behavior of her fellow students, but also the long list of highly educated people who have perpetrated the atrocities for which the twentieth century is famous, she concluded by saying to him, “I’ve been taking all these philosophy courses, and we talk about what is true, what’s important, what’s good.  Well, how do you teach people to be good?”  And, she added, “What’s the point of knowing good if you don’t try to become a good person?”

Professor Coles proceeds to comment on how ineffectual his efforts to respond to this young woman were.  He seems genuinely conscience stricken that he shrugged in response to her disappointment.  But he never confronts the fact that he certainly did not tell the students in his courses that they should not treat someone doing menial work with disdain, or that they should not proposition a classmate or anyone else who is cleaning their rooms.

There were no questions on his test about these matters.  He never deals with the fact that he could not use such questions because no one can claim to know about such matters.  The problem here is less one of connecting character to intellect than one of connecting intellectual to moral and spiritual realities.  The trouble is precisely that character is connected with the intellect.  The trouble is what is and is not in the intellect.

Indeed, in the current world of accepted knowledge one can’t even know the truth of a moral theory or principle, much less a specific rule.  You could never grade someone for holding Utilitarianism or Kantianism to be true or false.  One can only know about such theories or principles, and think about them in more or less clever ways.  You can brightly discuss them.  For that the young man got his A’s.  But that, of course, had no bearing on his character or behavior because it is only literary or historical or perhaps logical expertise, not moral knowledge.  And if you are already flying upside down and don’t know it, your cleverness will do you little good.

The Eternal

December 11, 2013

I have found “The Eternal” used in Jewish English Bible translations but it seems to have disappeared again. In the early 1800’s, the very successful Jewish author of fiction and non-fiction, Grace Aguilar, used the expression, The Eternal, in her writings. I found this in Let Her Speak for Herself. But Aguilar died in 1847, before a Jewish English Bible was published. She was, however, known and read by Benisch and encouraged him to produce a translation of the Hebrew Bible. He did this, and published it in 1852, several years after her death in 1847. We Know that both Aguilar and Benisch called God, The Eternal. We also know that this was lost in the JPS 1917 translation. We don’t know who brought “The Eternal” into English, but Aguilar spoke French and translated a book from French and Benisch spoke German. It may be useless to try to narrow this down further.

Women’s wine

December 10, 2013

I am happy to see that not only the Darbyites, but women too, have their own wine. Last night I enjoyed a meal cooked by a woman, wine distilled by women, over five generations, Les Chateau Doms wines, and reading sermons by women – Let Her Speak For Herself , by Heather Weir and Marion Ann Taylor – all in the congenial company of men and women. If you are committed to being aware, you can find women involved in anything and everything. Why do I need convincing? Brought up in a world where men do this and women do that. Anyway, it was a very good wine for those who like Merlot, very smooth and soft. Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 5.31.49 PM

Noting Abusive Theologians

December 9, 2013

Ekklesia reports that the publishing agency of the Mennonite Church (USA and Canada) has decided, after a discernment process with denominational leaders, to include the following statement at the beginning of all books by John Howard Yoder:

John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) was perhaps the most well-known Mennonite theologian in the twentieth century. While his work on Christian ethics helped define Anabaptism to an audience far outside the Mennonite Church, he is also remembered for his long-term sexual harassment and abuse of women.

At Herald Press we recognize the complex tensions involved in presenting work by someone who called Christians to reconciliation and yet used his position of power to abuse others. We believe that Yoder and those who write about his work deserve to be heard; we also believe readers should know that Yoder engaged in abusive behavior.

This book is published with the hope that those studying Yoder’s writings will not dismiss the complexity of these issues and will instead wrestle with, evaluate, and learn from Yoder’s work in the full context of his personal, scholarly, and churchly legacy.

I think this is an excellent approach. I commend the Mennonite church and press leaders for adopting it, and I hope it will set a precedent in the field.

In my class on the History of Systematic Theology, my classmates and I were shocked to learn from our professor (not from any of our books) that Paul Tillich had extramarital affairs, including sexual contacts with his students which certainly today would be considered sexual harassment at best, abusive at worst. It generated an important discussion about the extent to which we could rely on the intellectual work of a theologian whose life showed such serious failings in his ability to “walk the talk,” on the one hand; and the extent to which all of us are sinners, and thus all theologians are sinners, so why do we expect anything different, on the other.

(I do not recall whether the discussion broke out along gender lines; I do recall that another woman student and I were among the most vocally horrified, and that our professor, a man, was rather strongly making the case that we shouldn’t be surprised or concerned.)

In Tracy Fessenden’s 1998 paper[1], she tells of a 1993 AAR panel in which she presented a paper that included biographical sources:

against what appeared to be a quiet consensus that, as Tom Driver puts it, the “lurid details” of Paul Tillich s “secret sexual life” given in Hannah Tillich’s From Time to Time had “no place in his theology,” I argued that Tillich the connoisseur of prostitutes and pornography and Tillich the systematic theologian might be seen to converge in, for example, the musings on the erotic resonance of “woman” in The Socialist Decision, the image of the ground of being as life-giving and life-extinguishing womb in Systematic Theology, or the sexualizing of primitive ritual and art in “The Demonic.”

and was met with “a spirited and mixed response,” including

A number of comments [which] suggested that while my paper was colorful, entertaining, or “interesting,” the concerns it raised remained outside the scope of theological discussion. One listener upbraided me for taking Hannah Tillich’s account of Paul Tillich’s sexual exploits at face value. Another asked what all of this had to do, finally, with Tillich s theology. An anonymous respondent to whom the paper was later circulated questioned “the cash value of references to Tillich’s own personal interest in sexuality—is it merely to elicit our interest? What is the point?” … Or as a professional acquaintance asked me privately after the panel, “What, exactly, is bothering you?”

That was twenty years ago; I certainly hope that times have changed.

One of the differences between “theology” and “religious studies” is that theology is carried out from within the perspective of the believer, while religious studies takes a strictly historical/sociological perspective. I am enrolled in a theological program: perhaps this is why my immediate response to learning of this theologian’s persistent sinful patterns of behavior was to question whether and how it reflected on the value of his theology. It seems a screamingly obvious question to me.

Inserting statements like the one that MennoMedia will be printing in Yoder’s work would at least raise the question for discussion, which I see as valuable in and of itself.

It’s important to note, however, that the MennoMedia decision is prompted specifically by concern for the victims of Yoder’s abuse:

Amy Gingerich, editorial director, said: “John Howard Yoder’s legacy remains painful and complex. Many have found Anabaptism because of his writings. At the same time, we cannot gloss over his continued abuse of power. By including this statement in our books we are signaling that Herald Press wants to be about reconciliation and healing, not masking abuses of power.”

By acknowledging the reality that Yoder’s victims experienced, by creating the space for their experiences to be real, this Mennonite publisher is standing with the victim even though it requires acknowledging that one of the best-known Mennonite theologians committed sexual abuse. This is a courageous decision, and I hope and pray that it will set an example for others.


[1]1. Tracy Fessenden, “‘Woman’ and the ‘Primitive’ in Paul Tillich’s Life and Thought : Some Implications for the Study of Religion,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 14, no. 2 (September 1, 1998): 45–76.

One more excerpt from this paper notes an instance of Tillich’s sexual abuse of students:

According to Richard Fox’s 1985 biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, Tillich was “not just unfaithful to his wife, Hannah; he was exuberantly, compulsively promiscuous. Niebuhr once sent one of his female students to see Tillich during his office hours. He welcomed her warmly, closed the door, and began fondling her. She reported the episode to Niebuhr, who never forgave Tillich.”

Conceiving Moses: Birth Mother, Wet Nurse, Author, Translator

December 9, 2013

Marg Mowczko quotes the NIV and adds a little interpolation in brackets, when she says the following:

Numbers 11:12 indicates that God wanted Moses to lead in a maternal way.
Moses complains and says: “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse [i.e. a breast feeding woman] carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors?”

I mention this here: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/masculine-and-feminine-leadership/

Reading her comment now, I can hardly stop imagining Moses himself writing this. It is in the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch, or “The Five Books of Moses“).

And don’t we also imagine him writing down, in the Hebrew language, the story of his own name. It’s right there in what we refer to as the second chapter of שמות‎, Sh’mot, “Names,” or from the Greek translation of it, in the second chapter of ἔξοδος, Exodos, “the birthed-way out.”

His name is an Egyptian woman’s Egyptian language for something like “delivered.” She’s one of his surrogate mothers, who delivers him out of the waters of the Nile and who calls on his sister to find a wet nurse for him. And we know the story. The three women conspire to deliver this little baby from death, his surrogate mother, his sister, and his wet-nurse, his very own birth mother.

We must imagine, then, that Moses is a translator. He’s clearly bilingual. He’s clearly literate in Hebrew too. So he’s able to write down for his readers, even for you and for me, we might suppose, what his surrogate mother called him. We think of his name usually as the most Hebrew of Hebrew names, but he somehow gets in a play on his Egyptian name and the Hebrew verb meaning “pulled out,” “rescued,” or even perhaps “delivered as a baby is delivered.” And so his name is motherly from the get go. And it goes into Greek then and now into English as a transliteration that sounds something like Moshe(h) or Moses or Μωυσῆς.

The passage Exodus 2:6-10, with the bit of Egyptian language translated presumably, provides some of the Hebrew language, and then the Greek language for Numbers 11:12. Perhaps you can look at your Hebrew Bible and then at your Septuagint translation for all of that.

I imagine Moses himself having fun writing all of this. I imagine, then, the Septuagint translator in Egypt having fun with the Greek. I, then, imagine NETS translator Peter W. Flint having fun making the Hellene rendered Hebrew of Moses into English:

Was it I who carried in the womb all this people, or was it I who gave birth to them, that you are saying to me, ‘Take them to your bosom, as a nurse might take up the sucking child,’ into the land, which you swore to their fathers?
The hyperbolic phrase ἐν γαστρὶ / en gastri / (which Flint makes “in the womb”) is the one bit in Numbers 11 that does not appear in Exodus 2. It’s as if Moses is saying to God, and is writing down for all his readers, the fact that his motherliness is a bit more explicit than that of the team of three women it took to deliver and to nurse him. Conceiving Moses may have been easier than the conceiving Moses. Either way, the Bible in these passages sure seems to give birth to some wonderful wordplay.
 

biblical warning vs gentile Christmas Trees

December 9, 2013

Thus says the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
Jeremiah 10:2-4 (ESV)

HT James F. McGrath, who gets us looking at “what is problematic about prooftexting – whether carried out by the Bible’s authors or by modern apologists.”

HT J. M. Green, who wants to revisit the ESV “virgin” in Matthew (not necessarily the “young woman” in Willis Barnstone’s Restored New Testament).

The points made are worth exploring.

Brethren Beer

December 8, 2013

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren or the Darbyites, as outsiders might call us, to identify us with John Nelson Darby. In French this group was called the Darbystes. I was researching the Darbystes and the first hits were the name of a Belgium beer. I did not at first think that there was any connection. But apparently there is! Our family and our religious group, in North America, were complete teetotallers. We did not touch alcohol or allow a bottle of any alcoholic drink in our house – ever.

This beer seems to have had fig juice in it, so you could say you were drinking fig juice – with 5.8 % alcohol – so it was better than whatever else these people were used to. The ad says, “Recipe of our grandmothers who, considering the low alcohol content, would have attributed this drink to the Darbystes (disciples of pastor Darby) still existing in the Borinage.  [an area of Belgium.]

This links to Challies post about Arthur Guinness.   I had never really associated beer with Christianity before.

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Whose Baby Jesus?

December 8, 2013

Here’s from a couple of pages of Standing in the Shoes My Mother Made: A Womanist Theology by Diana L. Hayes:

With the violent rebellion of Nat Turner, a black slave minister, and the growing Northern agitation against slavery, much of the slaves’ freedom to worship was abruptly ended. In a matter of weeks, harsh and oppressive Black Codes were passed in the Southern states that forbade the teaching of reading and writing and stripped black ministers of their right to preach and gather a church. These restrictions severely crippled religious freedom and activity for blacks in the South until after the Civil War. Once-thriving churches were closed, often violently, and religion in the South became white-dominated and white-oriented. The observance of black religious services took place out of sight of the masters, at night, in the fields or not at all.

What type of religious beliefs were the outgrowth of this mixture of freedom and oppression? They were beliefs expressed in terms of the paradox and mystery of God’s dealings with humankind. There was an intertwining of emotion with perception that led to a unique theology of hope. It was not a religion of complacency or compensation. Nor was it a religion that looked only to “pie in the sky when I die.” Rather, it was a faith rooted in an encounter with injustice from which sprang a theology of God’s mysterious exercise of sovereignty over human history expressed in judgment or forgiveness, but most of all, in love.

Blacks took the stories of the fall of Adam and Eve, of Moses, of Mary, and of the cross and interpreted them in the light of their own encounters with despair and hope.

Moses became the deliverer of an enslaved people as well as the bearer of the Ten Commandments. Jonah’s trembling denunciation of the sin of the Ninevites affirmed their suspicion that the rich and powerful were not necessarily God’s chosen. Biblical accounts of the conduct of believing Jews during the Babylonian exile — of Daniel, of the three who would not bow down, and of Esther the Queen — seemed to Christian Blacks, as to generations of Jews, to be allegories of promise to the oppressed. The baby Jesus, needing tenderness and care, revealed a God whose love made him somehow vulnerable and dependent, and weakness of human faith joined him forever with the meek who would inherit the earth. [quoted from "Slavery and Theology: The Emergence of Black Christian Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century America" by Timothy L. Smith in Church History]

Questionnaire for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family: A Close Read

December 7, 2013

Over at Gaudete Theology, I’ve done a fairly close read of the questionnaire that is part of the Preparatory Document for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that Pope Francis has called for October 2014. This is the questionnaire that caused

a flurry of media and blog coverage about whether this was the first time such a thing had ever been done, whether it amounted to a survey on church doctrine, which bishops’ conferences and individual bishops were posting the survey online for easy lay participation, which were not, which were posting something kind of like the survey but simplified (and possibly slanted), and which lay groups were doing the same.

I discuss these issues, and go through the questionnaire in some detail, providing commentary and interpretation of the questions and the overall effort.

Although the blog post is oriented towards, and contains some advice for, Catholics who are encouraged to respond to the questionnaire, it may be of interest to anyone who would like to follow what the Catholic church is doing in this area.

The blog post is titled

Advise the Bishops about Marriage and Family Life

because that is what Catholics are being asked to do by means of this document. If you’re interested, please click through to read and discuss it there.

The Spymistress

December 5, 2013

There seems to be an ongoing dearth of good books about women of faith who are dynamic leaders in stereotypic male domains. The women exist, the books exist, so here are a few of my recent favourites. I already mentioned (I think):

The Creation of Eve about Sofonisba Anguissola, an Italian portrait painter in the Renaissance. Of further interest is this book, Invisible Women, about approximately 100 women painters of the renaissance. I have always loved women artists of this time for the touching portrayal of mother love, of female agency, of human beauty, and the great innovation of painting people with their mouths sometimes open. Such a novelty! It is clear that women were recognized, contributed, innovated, earned a living and supported their families by painting.

The next book which honours women is The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible by Alan Levenson. Yup. There is a great chapter on Nehama Leibowitz, who is called “the most influential Bible teacher of the twentieth century.” Yes, a woman.   (Theophrastus introduced me to her on the blog – somewhere – a few years ago.) Also some discussion about feminist approaches  to the Bible and especially that of Tivka Frymer-Kensky, whose book Reading the Women of the Bible, is a model of interpretation for me.

Now I am reading the recently published book, The Spymistress, about Elizabeth Van Lew, a 45 year old single women, who with her widowed mother, of a wealthy class, started a Union spy ring in Richmond,  Virginia. Elizabeth Van Lew was recently inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. These women were not supported or lead by any man or men, or males of any species. They were single independent women who decided to remain loyal to the Union and spy for the North. They defied all men in their social circle and deceived the Confederates that they dealt with. Their main mission was to bring aid to Union prisoners of war held in the south, and to pass military information to the north in order to shorten the war. Another woman of the same type is Clara Barton who founded the American Red Cross.

Then I also read Song of Songs by Tremper Longman, about a book, perhaps written by a woman, where the woman initiates lovemaking. This reminds me, funnily enough, of Daniel Silva’s thriller series, which I enjoy, about an Israeli assassin. The women, various lovers, usually initiate the lovemaking, and contrary to conservative rhetoric, it is she who embraces and takes her lover into herself. Funny this, because Grudem likes these books, books of strong women who initiate lovemaking. Who knew? Of course, the main character is emotionally loyal to his wife who lives on in a catatonic state in a nursing home after a terrorist bombing. She is the perfect silent woman. (I shake my head in puzzlement. Having it both ways?)

Anyway, the mainstream Christian blogs have got to get their butt in gear and write about women of faith as exegetes, innovators and creators of important trends and organizations. These are all books about women moving in the mainstream, not on the margins. No mamby pamby stuff here.  Of course, for Christmas, I will buy my daughter-in-law a baby book for her growing baby bump. I am not an unregenerate feminist. And a tie dye onesie in a tiny size.

Latin LOLCats!

December 4, 2013

Well, sort of: pictures of cats with Latin captions on them. No LOLSpeak involved, thank goodness. (I get a kick out of LOLspeak in English, but in Latin it would be… just wrong.)

This one made me laugh out loud:
Cat pulling toilet paper off the roll, with Latin caption: Peccavimus omnes, alii gravia, alii leviora

(Translation: We have all sinned: some of us gravely, some of us lightly)

But there are plenty more over at the Go Proverbs! Proverb Laboratory – check them out.

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah

November 29, 2013

We celebrated Hanukkah and Thanksgiving at the same time yesterday, and it will not happen again for 80,000 years!  We were trying to figure out how to say Thanksgiving in Hebrew without much luck. We do know that “thank you” is תודה (todah) and “many thanks” is רב תודות (rav todot) or תודה רבה (toda rabah). You can see to todot תודות at the end of line 3 and line 5 in this passage from 2 Chronicles 29:31 referring to the “thank offerings.”

וַיַּעַן יְחִזְקִיָּהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר

עַתָּה מִלֵּאתֶם יֶדְכֶם לַיהוָה,

גֹּשׁוּ וְהָבִיאוּ זְבָחִים וְתוֹדוֹת,

לְבֵית יְהוָה;

וַיָּבִיאוּ הַקָּהָל זְבָחִים וְתוֹדוֹת,

וְכָל-נְדִיב לֵב עֹלוֹת.

καὶ ἀπεκρίθη Εζεκιας καὶ εἶπεν

νῦν ἐπληρώσατε τὰς χεῖρας ὑμῶν κυρίῳ

προσαγάγετε καὶ φέρετε θυσίας καὶ αἰνέσεως

εἰς οἶκον κυρίου

καὶ ἀνήνεγκεν ἡ ἐκκλησία θυσίας καὶ αἰνέσεως

καὶ πᾶς πρόθυμος τῇ καρδίᾳ ὁλοκαυτώσεις

Then Hezekiah said,

“You have now consecrated yourselves to the Lord.

Come near; bring sacrifices and thank offerings

to the house of the Lord.”

And the assembly brought sacrifices and thank offerings,

and all who wereof a willing heart brought burnt offerings.

One thing really shocked me. For North Americans, Thanksgiving usually means giving thanks for the abundance of food and things that we have. But in this blogpost, there is a different Jewish slant. Wouldn’t it be lovely to think of liberty and religious freedom for all, not just for ourselves,

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah share the emphasis on gratitude for life, liberty, family and religious freedom, Zalmanov said.

What Americans call “the first Thanksgiving” was celebrated in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation by the 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans after their first harvest in the New World, said Rabbi Emeritus Michael Stevens, of Temple-Beth El in Munster.

The New England colonists celebrated “thanksgivings” regularly, Stevens said. These days of prayer thanked God for such blessings as a military victory, the end of drought or a good harvest.

The notion of liberality in thanksgiving comes into the passage above. At the end of this passage, the word translated as “willing” is also sometimes translated as “noble” or “liberal.” Let’s have noble hearts.

Are you Catholic? Did you know…? : a new blog project

November 29, 2013

I’ve started a new blog project, devoted to the little things that every Catholic should know, but often don’t. Every week or so I’ll put up a brief post about one of those little things, along with a poll where you can vote on whether or not you knew that — and of course, use the comments to expand on your answer, share your thoughts, reactions, stories about the topic, or further related questions. There’s also a suggestion box where people can ask questions and suggest topics.

Current and former Catholics, and interested non-Catholics, are all welcome.

I’m hoping this will be a fun way to share some information about Catholicism, and also gather information that can be used by catechists and preachers about gaps in Catholic education.

Please join us over at http://areyoucatholicdidyouknow.wordpress.com, and pass the link around to your current and former Catholic friends and relations. Thanks!

WWJD on Hanukkah? – Odd Gospel Greek

November 27, 2013

The gospel of John seems to have Jesus observing the feast but in a dispute on Hanukkah.

Verses 22 & 22 of Chapter 10 in the New Revised Standard Version in the Jewish Annotated New Testament read as follows:

22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.

The footnote reads this way:

22: Festival of the Dedication, Hanukkah (beginning on 25 Chislev, a date that [usually] falls in December), commemorating the rededication of the Temple (164 BCE), after it had been desecrated by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (1 Macc 4.52-59). It is unclear clear [sic] how this feast was observed in the first century.

If we flash back to read 1 Maccabees 4 (also in the New Revised Standard Version), then we find what follows here:

1 Now Gorgias took five thousand infantry and a thousand picked cavalry, and this division moved out by night 2 to fall upon the camp of the Jews and attack them suddenly. Men from the citadel were his guides. 3 But Judas heard of it, and he and his mighty men moved out to attack the king’s force in Emmaus…. 58 There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed. 59 Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.

There’s some odd gospel Greek here that seems to be lifted from the Greek of the Septuagint, of Maccabees. What the NRSV translators make “the festival of the Dedication” in the gospel is their rendering of ἐγκαίνια; and what the translators make the days “of dedication” in 1 Maccabess is their rendering of ἐγκαινισμοῦ. In the entire New Testament, and in the gospel of John, the phrase never appears again.

There are a number of odd Greeky things here. And without ado let’s get to them.

First, Greek readers see how Jesus is in a dispute with οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι as if he’s not one of them. We notice this in particular because in 1 Maccabees 4.2, we read that Ιουδας is leading those in the camp “of the Jews,” or τῶν Ιουδαίων, as opposed to the others of “the Gentiles,” or ἐθνῶν. The NRSV translators make him into the English transliteration Judas, when we all know it refers rather to יהודה המכבי, which could be instead transliterated Y’hudhah HaMakabi or Judah Maccabeus. In the gospel, it would seem that Jesus and the Jews are in opposition, and there’s a different Judas, and not a hero, who ends up betraying him. And who knows where that leaves Jesus in the end, among the Jews or the Gentiles?

At any rate, second, on Hanukkah, as the odd Greek here of the odd gospel might suggest, Jesus and the Jews are doing something interesting. He appears to be engaged in a kind of teaching that is as much Greeky Aristotelian as it is Jewish Messianic. The Greek goes like this:

23 καὶ περιεπάτει ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ ἐν τῇ στοᾷ τοῦ Σολομῶνος. 24 ἐκύκλωσαν οὖν αὐτὸν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι καὶ ἔλεγον αὐτῷ·

A particular pedagogy here is suggested by the verb peripatei. And a particular learning engagement is connoted by the verb ekyklosan. Jesus is the teacher, the one walking about in the stoa. The Jews are following him around, encircling him there and asking him things somewhat socratically. It’s all, in Greek, rather reminiscent of the Peripatetic school. Now the prologue to this gospel comes right out with this Greeky-Jewish mix of Septuagint Genesis and logos, calling Jesus that right in the Beginning [Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος]. Readers this far into the gospel would have already been impressed by the rhetoric, the Hellenistic rhetoric, with words such as pisteis, which were components of rhetorical enthymemes, or the body of a “proof.” (The Greek of the gospel of Matthew seems to reflect such a reading of enthymeme and of pisteis too.) John’s Jesus has him asking his opponents where their pisteis is, exclaiming and countering twice that there is none in them: οὐ πιστεύετε. This is all beginning to sound rather technical. And so most translators, trying to help readers of English who really don’t bother with all of that Greeky and all of that rhetorical stuff, will just have Jesus talking about “faith” and about “belief” as if that’s the key here. The Greek key in this short Hanukkah context seems to be on Jesus as the teacher here. He’s insisting on good listening [ταῦτα μαρτυρεῖ περὶ ἐμοῦ], on workings of creativity or of poetry [τὰ ἔργα ἃ ἐγὼ ποιῶ], on good retorts [ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς], on good vocals [τῆς φωνῆς μου ἀκούουσιν], on good follow-ship [ἀκολουθοῦσίν μοι], on good epistemology [κἀγὼ γινώσκω αὐτά], on the proper sort of circling [ἐκύκλωσαν οὖν αὐτὸν] around the pedagogue. And so most translators lose all of that and get distracted just by the dispute itself. This is “the Jews” who are opposing Jesus. Hanukkah, of course, is rather inconsequential, especially to Jesus opposed there and then by “the Jews.”

What an odd mix. The Greek is odd. The Greek lifts from the Septuagint. That Greeky older bit is purely a Jewish account, whosoever’s canon might tolerate it. And much of the Hebraic and Jewish nature of the text, of the odd gospel Greek, gets lost.

There are a few translators who have tried, nonetheless, to restore what others have lost.

David H. Stern, “an American-born Messianic Jewish theologian of Israeli residence,” offers one. Another is offered by another Messianic group in America. Biblegateway.com posts both of these, and you can click here to view them.

The best and most complete work to show what mainly Christian translators of the New Testament have lost and covered over is by Willis Barnstone. Barnstone is a polygot, is Jewish, is a poet, is a translator, is a classicist. Click here to find his New Testament. The rhetorical Hebraic Hellene restored by Barnstone’s English is much beyond any Christianish WWJD affair. Notice the emphasis on the odd gospel Greek rhetoric. Follow his translation that offers how, on “Hanukkah in Yerushalayim,” “[s]ince Yeshua is a Jew … Yeshua argues … as a Jew, [and] he uses the Jews’ common law to prove his point” -

Barnstone.John.10.22

Barnstone.John.10.footnote

Reading The Dark Is Rising as an Adult Christian

November 23, 2013

[Reposted from Wordgazer's Words]

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back,
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, stone;
Five shall return, and one go alone.

- Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising, 1973

I first read The Dark is Rising (a children’s book series written by Susan Cooper, and also the title of one of the books in that series) when I was 12 or 13.  I can’t remember exactly how old I was.  What I can remember is how completely I was enthralled; it was one of those books that I lost myself in, so completely within that world that I forgot who and where I was and simply lived in the book, emerging for a gasp of real-world air and a snack every now and then, or when my parents annoyingly required something mundane of me, like setting the table or going to sleep.  The Dark Is Rising series is about a young English boy named Will who finds he has a special destiny related to the myths and legends of ancient Britain, about three other children named Simon, Jane and Barney who help him, and about a mysterious old man named Merriman who guides the plot towards its ultimate end.

When I was 15 I became a Christian.  I described that experience earlier in this blog– but one thing that happened as I became more involved in the church and more enmeshed in evangelical Christian counter-culture was that I learned to be wary and suspicious of all forms of literature, music and art that were not overtly Christian.  I remember pulling my copy of The Dark Is Rising off a bookshelf at my parents’ house when I was temporarily home from college, and shuddering at a scene where the forces of evil (“the Dark”) attack during a Christmas service at the village Anglican church:

Farmer Dawson said very quietly but clearly from the group beside the door, “No, Rector.”

The rector seemed not to hearing him.  His eyes were wide, staring out at the snow. . . He managed to half-raise one arm and point behind him: “. . . vestry. . .” he gasped out. “. . . book, on table. . . exorcise. . . “

“Poor brave fellow,” said John Smith in the Old Speech.  “This battle is not for his fighting.”

And then the Old Ones, the more-than-human beings whose destiny it is to war for the Light, place the rector in an oblivious trance and then fight off the forces of the Dark and restore peace.  The rector and his Christianity are neither friends nor enemies; they are simply irrelevant.  Later Will explains to the rector that

“Everything that matters is outside Time.  And comes from there and can go there. . the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or today or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level. . . . And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for.  And the opposite, too.”

The college-age me got rid of the entire set of books and decided never to read them again.

But I always remembered the effect this series had had on me when I was younger.  The sheer beauty of the settings and descriptions, the honesty and loyalty of the characters, the poetic justice and fulfillment of the exciting conclusion to each segment.  Still, good Christians didn’t read neo-pagan books, and there seemed little doubt that The Dark Is Rising was neo-pagan.

This year, though, in the spirit of “testing everything and holding fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21), I decided to pick up the books again.  I know the context of that 1 Thessalonians passage is about “not despising prophetic utterances” and “staying away from every form of evil,” but I think the principle can be applied to many things.  I don’t actually know, now, whether Susan Cooper is neo-pagan or not; she is reticent about her beliefs on her website and in her interviews.  But she does say in The Camelot Project interview that in The Dark is Rising series

I had to move away from [too close a parallel to King Arthur] because it seems to me that the Arthurian legend is parallel to the Christian story of the leader who dies for our salvation. Whereas what my books were trying to say is that nobody else can save us. We have to save ourselves.

Still, is there really nothing such an author can say to me, nothing in her books worth reading?   Especially if the author is a critically acclaimed, award-winning writer, for obvious reasons?

I can no longer accept such a simplistic view of reality.

The thing is that, both now and when I was a child, I could recognize that these books are not a “form of evil” to be avoided per 1 Thess. 5:21.  There is the homely goodness of a scene like this:

On Christmas night, Will always slept with [his brother] James. The twin beds were still in James’s room from the time before Will had moved [upstairs]. . . There was something about Christmas Eve, they felt, that demanded company; one needed somebody to whisper to, during the warm beautiful dream-taut moments between hanging the empty stocking at the end of the bed, and dropping into the cosy oblivion that would flower into the marvel of Christmas morning.

Or the ethereal grace of this:

The mare wheeled towards him, snuffling a greeting, and in the same enchanted, music-haunted moment as before, Will was up on the white horse of the Light, sitting in front of Merriman.  The ship tilted and swung, fully afloat now, and the white horse wheeled out of its way to stand nearby. . . So the mysterious king lay in dignity still, among his weapons and gleaming tribute, and Will had a glimpse of the mask-like white face as the great ship moved away downstream. . . watching the light glimmer on the golden stag of the prow.

And there is the uncompromising commitment to preserving the dignity and freedom of the ordinary individual in the face of dark forces that seek to control and enslave– a theme arising out of Cooper’s childhood in beleaguered England in the midst of the Second World War.  There is a quiet celebration of the love of family and the friendship of dogs, of the small English village and the rocky Cornish coastlands.  And finally, there is the humor mixed into the magic like salt into soup:

“Too much punch,” said James, as his tall brother stretched gaping [yawning] in an armchair.
“Get lost,” said Robin amiably.
“Who’d like a mince pie?” said Mrs. Stanton, coming in with a vast tray of cocoa mugs.
“James has had six already,” said Mary in prim disapproval. “At the Manor.”
“Now it’s eight,” said James, with a mince pie in each hand. “Yah.”. . .
“Ho-ho-ho,” said Will sepulchrally from the floor.  “Good little children never fight at Christmas.” And since Mary was irresistably close to him, he grabbed her by the ankle. She collapsed on top of him, howling cheerfully.
“Mind the fire,” said Mrs. Stanton, from years of habit.

It turns out that my Christianity is not as fragile as the church once led me to believe.  I’m not going to leave the faith because I read a book by an author who doesn’t share it.  And my disagreement with some of her premises need not negate my enjoyment of, and even edification from, the joys of life and love and the beauties of courage and hope which she depicts so well.

The Protestant doctrine of common grace says that God’s mercies are over all the world and that God’s gifts and talents are spread generously among all people.  There is nothing to fear from a manifestation of that grace in any person, whether they agree with my theology or not.  The world is wider– and God is bigger!– than the narrow conceptions I had in the youth of my faith.

So I’m happy to once again call myself a fan of Susan Cooper and The Dark is Rising.  To have come full circle back to the pleasure I had as a child in a really good story.

And to find the footprints of Christ there, as I may find them anywhere.

I really don’t think Ms. Cooper would mind.

The end of time and space …

November 18, 2013

When I was little, I was asked a riddle, “What is the beginning of eternity, and the end of time and space?” See the end of the post for the answer. I also noticed that the LORD was L’Éternel in French, my grandfather’s language. In German, the LORD is Der Ewige.

I finally decided to track this down. Here is Exodus 3:13-15 in several different translations, Hebrew, Olivétan 1535, Luther, 1545, and Mendelssohn, 1780 and finally Buber-Rosenzweig.

Hebrew 

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים
הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם, אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם;
וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ,
מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה,
אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה;
וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל,
אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.

וַיֹּאמֶר עוֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה,
כֹּה-תֹאמַר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל,
יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם
אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב,
שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם;
זֶה-שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם,
וְזֶה זִכְרִי לְדֹר דֹּר.

Olivétan

Et Moseh dit à Dieu:
Voici, j’irai aux enfants d’Israël et leur dirai:
Le Dieu de vos pères m’a envoyé vers vous;
et s’ils me répondent:
Qui est son nom? Que leur dirai–je?

Et Dieu dit à Moseh:
Je suis qui suis Puis il dit:
Tu diras ainsi aux enfants d’Israël:
Je suis m’a envoyé vers vous.

Et Dieu dit encore à Moseh:
Tu diras ainsi aux enfants d’Israël:
L’Eternel, le Dieu de vos pères,
le Dieu d’Abraham, le Dieu d’Izahak, le Dieu de Jakob,
m’a envoyé vers vous.
C’est mon nom éternellement
et le mémorial de moi au siècle des siècles.

Luther

Mose sprach zu Gott:
Siehe, wenn ich zu den Kindern Israel komme
und spreche zu ihnen:
Der Gott eurer Väter hat mich zu euch gesandt,
und sie mir sagen werden:
Wie heißt sein Name?
was soll ich ihnen sagen?

Gott sprach zu Mose:
ICH WERDE SEIN,
DER ICH SEIN WERDE.
Und sprach: Also sollst du den Kindern Israel sagen:
ICH WERDE SEIN hat mich zu euch gesandt.

Und Gott sprach weiter zu Mose:
Also sollst du den Kindern Israel sagen:
Der HERR, eurer Väter Gott, der Gott Abrahams, der Gott Isaaks, der Gott Jakobs,
hat mich zu euch gesandt.
Das ist mein Name ewiglich,
dabei soll man mein Gedenken für und für.

Mendelssohn

Mosche sprach zu Gott:
wenn ich nun zu den Kindern Israels comme,
und sage ihnen
Der Gott eurer Väter sendet mich
und sie sprechen
Wie ist sein Name
was soll ich ihnen sagen?

Gott sprach zu Mosche :
Ich bin das Wesen, welches ewig ist !
Er sprach nämlich, so sollst du
zu den Kindern Israels sprechen, das Ewige
Wesen, welches sich nennt, ich bin ewig,
hat mich zu euch gesendet.

Gott sprach ferner zu Mosche
So sollst du zu den Kindern Israels sprechen
Das ewige Wesen welches sich nennt, ich bin ewig
Der Gott eurer Voraltern
der Gott Abrahams, der Gott Isaschs, der Gott Jakobs
sendet mich zu euch
Dieses ist immer meine Name,
und dieses soll mein Denkwort
sein in  zukünftigen Zeiten

It seems that Olivétan was the first to use “L’Éternel” in a Bible translation and Mendelssohn followed that. However, he also wrote about the expression ho Aionios in the the Letter of Baruch. Here is a discussion of Rozenzweig’s response to the use of Der Ewige for God.

Ewig 1

2

3

4 PM

I am not sure if anyone else is interested in these things, but I am. It’s nice to have so many early Bibles online. I know the commentary mentions Calvin and not Olivétan, but Calvin did not produce a Bible translation. He did later write about l’Éternel in a commentary. I don’t know which influenced Mendelssohn. PS. And the answer to the riddle is “E.”

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