Skip to content

Atwood, and Christ, on the Cultures of Objectification and of Rape

December 3, 2018

First Margaret Atwood:

Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing

The world is full of women
who'd tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of 
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent 
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they'd say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I've a choice
of how, and I'll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it's all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything's for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads 
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge 
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can't. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape's been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there's only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it's the smiling
tires me out the most. 
This, and the pretence
that I can't hear them.
And I can't, because I'm after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don't let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I'll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner. 
That's what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body. 
They'd like to see through me, 
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look--my feet don't hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I'm rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I'm not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you'll burn.

From Morning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood. Copyright © 1995 by Margaret Atwood. Published in the United States by Houghton Mifflin Co., published in Canada by McClelland and Stewart, Inc.

And then Carol P. Christ:

Does Leda look like she is in the throes of ecstasy to you?

When I put myself in Leda’s place, mimicking her facial gestures, it seems to me that her eyes are wide open in expression of surprise, shock, or fear. To me she is not conveying: “wow, this is great,” but rather: “what the fuck is happening to me?”

I am not suggesting that the fresco artist had any real sympathy for a woman who was being raped. He (I assume the artist was a he) does not portray her as resisting, but rather as passively accepting her fate.

This is what rape culture looked like in ancient Pompeii.

But what about the twenty-first century archaeologists? They “ignore” the fact that they uncovered an image of rape and describe the look on the face of Leda as “sensual,” a term indicating that they view Leda as positively enjoying being raped. Did they also know that they would garner headlines by portraying the image as sexy, but might find their discovery ignored if they called it a rape fresco?

This is what rape culture looks like today.

Read the rest here:

This Is What Rape Culture Looks Like: Then and Now by Carol P. Christ



Suzanne McCarthy quoting Eugene Peterson quoting Pastor Evelyn Hoiland Peterson, his mother

October 22, 2018

Eugene Peterson, Bible translator, died today.

Some time ago, Suzanne McCarthy, linguist and Bible translation scholar, on one of her blogs extended encouragement to many by quoting him quoting his mother, Pastor Evelyn Hoiland Peterson:

Eugene Peterson on women preaching

TC has posted a rather nice quote from Eugene Peterson, on his mother’s preaching style.

Then she would preach. She was a wonderful storyteller, telling stories out of scripture and out of life. She elaborated and embellished the stories. Later in life when I was reading the Bible for myself, I was frequently surprised by glaring omissions in the text. The Holy Spirit left out some of the best parts. Occasionally she would slip into an incantatory style that I have heard since only in African American churches, catching a phrase at its crest, riding it like a surfer gathering momentum, and the receding into a quiet hush. The Pastor: A Memoir, p. 29

I remember listening to an audio file of a Regent forum with Peterson, Fee, Waltke, and Packer on women in ministry some time ago, but I don’t think it is available now. However, I have found an interview of Sandra Glahn with Peterson which suggests that his mother did go back to preaching after being silenced by a man citing 1 Tim 2:12 to her.

I grew up in the Pentecostal church where [women preaching] was not unusual. It was pretty common. But my mother struggled with it from time to time because sometimes somebody would come through and read her the verses from Corinthians or Timothy. At one point she quit preaching and teaching because somebody had done this to her. But then she just couldn’t quit. And she told me once, “I don’t feel disobedient when I’m doing this. I don’t feel like I’m grieving the Spirit. It’s when I’m quiet and silent and shut up that I feel like that.” So I don’t know. I have colleagues who are world-class exegetes. Some affirm equality of women in ministry and others don’t. They’re all master exegetes; they’re all working with the same text. So I have a lot of respect for these people in their attempt, their determination, to honor the Word. I can certainly respect them. For some, at least the ones I know, it comes out of no sense of male chauvinism or superiority or ego, but an honest attempt to honor the Word of God. I know not everybody comes out of this, but some do and I honor that. Yet my personal experience is so different, and the shaping of my life has been so different. I could read these verses I think just as accurately exegetically. So I guess it’s one of the things we’re involved with in [this] century that’s different.


How Women Sound – Luke 24:10-11

September 26, 2018

ἦσαν δὲ ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ Μαρία
καὶ Ἰωάνα
καὶ Μαρία ἡ Ἰακώβου·
καὶ αἱ λοιπαὶ σὺν αὐταῖς ἔλεγον πρὸς τοὺς ἀποστόλους ταῦτα.
καὶ ἐφάνησαν ἐνώπιον αὐτῶν ὡσεὶ λῆρος τὰ ῥήματα ταῦτα,
καὶ ἠπίστουν αὐταῖς.

They were the Miriam of Magdala
and Jo’Ana
and the Miriam of Jacob
and those left with them; they talked to the Commissioned about these very things,
and it seemed as they faced them like trashy, trifling, trumpery talk about these very things,
and they were untrustworthy to them.

It is in large part according to the sounds people make that we judge them sane or insane, male or female, good, evil, trustworthy, depressive, marriageable, moribund, likely or unlikely to make war on us, little better than animals, inspired by God. These judgments happen fast and can be brutal. Aristotle tells us that the highpitched voice of the female is one evidence of her evil disposition, for creatures who are brave or just (like lions, bulls, roosters and the human male) have large deep voices. If you hear a man talking in a gentle or high-pitched voice you know he is a kinaidos (“catamite”). The poet Aristophanes put a comic turn on this cliché in his Ekklesiazousai: as the women of Athens are about to infiltrate the Athenian assembly and take over political process, the feminist leader Praxagora reassures her fellow female activists that they have precisely the right kind of voices for this task. Because, as she says, “You know that among the young men the ones who turn out to be terrific talkers are the ones who get fucked a lot.” – Anne Carson

Sounds, of Luke 23:46

September 25, 2018

46 καὶ
μεγάλῃ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν·

Πάτερ, εἰς χεῖράς σου
παρατίθεμαι τὸ
πνεῦμά μου. τοῦτο δὲ εἰπὼν ἐξέ-

Hollering a
Thundering, so this J’Oshua spoke.

Pappa “Into Thine hand do I
Put it now this that
Puff of breath of mine.” That’s how he spoke, his final

Little Lady or Woesome Woman or Wiley Wife? Why Peter’s Γύναι in Luke 22?

September 21, 2018

In verse 56 of chapter 27 of the Greek gospel of Luke, we understand clearly enough that there’s somebody unmasking Peter as having been one of those “with” Jesus.

She’s not a credible witness, exactly, since she’s a female. She’s surely young. There may be other problems with her trustworthiness. And so we read the narrative as if she’s more or less another prop, a nameless one, there to irritate Peter, to provoke one of his three denials of Jesus before the cock crows.

Luke uses the Greek word παιδίσκη.

From Choeroboscus we get explicitly that the Greek phrase is the feminine counterpart for little boy and the the implication that it is indeed a diminutive.

From the old old Epidemics 2, 4-7 of Hippocrates we’re able to read a reference to the twelve years of age of such an unnamed young girl, παιδίσκη … δωδεκέτις.

From Menander’s old Heros (The Guardian Spirit) we’re able to see how sometimes such young girls, unnamed, were sex slaves of older men.

From Philo we get the contrast of phrases for females in this short set of sentences:

Σάρα δὲ ἡ γυνὴ Ἀβραὰμ οὐκ ἔτικτεν αὐτῷ. ἦν δὲ αὐτῇ παιδίσκη Αἰγυπτία, ᾗ ὄνομα Ἄγαρ. εἶπε δὲ Σάρα πρὸς Ἀβραάμ·

ἰδού, συνέκλεισέ με κύριος τοῦ μὴ τίκτειν, εἴσελθε πρὸς τὴν παιδίσκην μου, ἵνα τεκνοποιήσῃς ἐξ αὐτῆς.

Here the παιδίσκη is named (Hagar). She has a race or nationality (Egyptian, not Jewish), and she is the possession of another named female (Sarah), who is the wedded woman, or the wife, of a named male (Abraham), Σάρα … ἡ γυνὴ Ἀβραὰμ.

For the story Philo is relating, the contrast between παιδίσκη and γυνὴ is both appropriate and expected in the narrative.

For the story Luke is relating, the contrast is highly unexpected and perhaps inappropriate.

In verse 57 of chapter 27, we hear Peter calling this παιδίσκη Γύναι. Why?

Just for context we already know how odd this is in the whole of the New Testament. Elsewhere I’ve observed this:

Then comes the New Testament in Greek and its few odd uses of Γύναι /Gynai/ for direct speech to or at a woman:  the first Pauline epistle to the Korinthian readers has it once; Mark’s gospel does not have it; Matthew’s gospel puts it in the mouth of Jesus once; Luke’s gospel has it once in the mouth of Jesus and once in the mouth of Peter and no more; and, except for the odd gospel of John (which uses Γύναι [Gynai] six times), this odd Greek does not appear anywhere else in the post-LXX Christian scriptures.

And so what are we English translators to make of this?

Is Peter calling this unnamed little girl, “Little Lady”?

Is he saying at her, “Woesome Woman”?

Is pointing out that she’s some man’s “Wiley Wife”?


(cross posted here)

929 Project: Genesis 20 – Ba’al and ba’al

August 9, 2018

First, a quick thanks to Karen R. Keen for mentioning this series in Biblical Studies Carnival 149.  Much appreciated, Karen!

This is a bit of an insane day for me, and I am about to board an airplane, so for Genesis Chapter 20, I’d like to simply quote the (rather good) “Hebrew Corner” about this chapter.

בעל – Ba’al – Storm God, Master, Owner – Husband?

Gen 20:3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is בעולת בעל, be’ulat ba’al, a married woman.”

You’d think that linguistic vestiges of pagan gods would have been eradicated in monotheistic Judaism, and in its tribal language Hebrew, long ago. But Ba’al, the ancient Canaanite sky god (see eg I Kings 18, for the duel at high noon between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al), actually crops up in a number of surprising contexts.

For instance, given that the land of Canaan/Israel has no Nile or Tigris or Euphrates to depend on for water, Ba’al was a pretty significant god, a sort of Zeus-like head cheese of the Near Eastern pantheon. To this day in Israel, non-irrigated or rain-fed crops are called chaklaut ba’al – “baal agriculture.” So much for the eradication of paganism!

The word ba’al sometimes was used in combination, as in the demonic Beelzebub, from ba’al zevuv (see 2 Kings 1), meaning literally “Lord of the Flies,” which inspired the William Golding novel of that name.

What do gods do? They fight, conquer, take possession, and rule. And when the sky god is male (as most are), and the personification of earth is female (just think Mother Earth), it’s no coincidence that this image was taken for the title and role of the traditional husband, and more generally, an owner or master of anyone, or anything.

The act of בעילה be’ilah means “to have carnal relations with,” and it can have both positive connotations of love and devotion, or negative ones, of conquest.

For instance, in the following, be’ilah means redemption: “Nevermore shall you be called ‘Forsaken,’ Nor shall your land be called ‘Desolate’; But you shall be called cheftzi-bah ‘I delight in her,’ And your land be’ulah ‘Espoused.’ For the LORD takes delight in you, And your land shall be espoused” (Isaiah 62:4). This verse gives us the English given name Beulah.

On the other hand, while “espousal” is nice (certainly better than “forsaken” and “desolate”), the word ba’al is left both with its pagan connotations, and the idea of ownership. בעל הבית, ba’al habayit, is “owner of the house,” the lord of the manor, as it were. In Yiddish, pronounced balabus, this acquires the additional connotation of middle-class, bourgeois gentry. The woman of the house is the balabuste,”,” a strong, competent, often dominant, woman […].

Those looking for non-patriarchal terminology need go no further than the prophet Hosea. His version of redemption goes like this: “‘And in that day,’ declares the LORD: ‘You will call [Me] Ishi (i.e., “my man,”) And no more will you call Me Ba’ali (my lord). For I will remove the names of the Ba’alim from her mouth, And they shall nevermore be mentioned by name’” (Hosea 2: 18-19). This has been a great prooftext for reformers of contemporary Hebrew to use less sexist terminology.

Ba’al can also refer to possessing different qualities or attributes. For instance, a newly-religious Jew is known as a ba’al teshuvah, a “master of repentance,” or “BT” for short. The founder of the 18th century movement of Hasidism was the Ba’al Shem Tov, “master of the Good Name,” probably meaning that he knew how to magically use God’s name in working miracles. 

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 19 – told from the man’s point of view

August 8, 2018

After offering up his daughters for rape to his fellow townsmen (Genesis 18:6-8), Lot commits incest, impregnating his daughters.  The story is told in a strangely morally neutral tone – and definitely from the man’s point of view:

ויהי בשחת אלהים את ערי הככר ויזכר אלהים את אברהם וישלח את לוט מתוך ההפכה בהפך את הערים אשר ישב בהן לוט

‏ ויעל לוט מצוער וישב בהר ושתי בנתיו עמו כי ירא לשבת בצוער וישב במערה הוא ושתי בנתיו

‏ ותאמר הבכירה אל הצעירה אבינו זקן ואיש אין בארץ לבוא עלינו כדרך כל הארץ

‏ לכה נשקה את אבינו יין ונשכבה עמו ונחיה מאבינו זרע

‏ ותשקין את אביהן יין בלילה הוא ותבא הבכירה ותשכב את אביה ולא ידע בשכבה ובקומה

‏ ויהי ממחרת ותאמר הבכירה אל הצעירה הן שכבתי אמש את אבי נשקנו יין גם הלילה ובאי שכבי עמו ונחיה מאבינו זרע

‏ ותשקין גם בלילה ההוא את אביהן יין ותקם הצעירה ותשכב עמו ולא ידע בשכבה ובקמה

‏ ותהרין שתי בנות לוט מאביהן

‏ ותלד הבכירה בן ותקרא שמו מואב הוא אבי מואב עד היום

‏ והצעירה גם הוא ילדה בן ותקרא שמו בן עמי הוא אבי בני עמון עד היום

And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew the cities in the which Lot dwelt.  And Lot went up out of Zoar, and dwelt in the mountain, and his two daughters with him; for he feared to dwell in Zoar: and he dwelt in a cave, he and his two daughters. 

And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth:  Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.  And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.

And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.  And they made their father drink wine that night also: and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.

Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father.  And the first born bare a son, and called his name Moab: the same is the father of the Moabites unto this day.  And the younger, she also bare a son, and called his name Benammi: the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day. (KJV)

What a strange account.  The text suggests that Lot bears no responsibility at all for this sexual union.  He was forced to drink wine and forced to have sexual intercourse. 

A rather different tradition is related in the Midrash Rabbah, as related by Shayna Sheinfeld, a visiting assistant professor at Centre College:sheinfeld_shayna_news_body-1

Lot Was Less Drunk than He Appeared
According to the midrash, Lot is not without fault in the situation, even though Gen 19:33, especially through the use of the verb שקה, literally “irrigate,” seems to remove any blame that may be placed on Lot based on his drunkenness. However, Genesis Rabbah 51:8 states that while Lot was drunk when his first daughter lay with him, he was sober enough to know when she got up. This is based on a peculiarity in the Hebrew text of v. 33, which includes a supralinear dot, on top of the vav in the word
ובקומה (when she arose).

In general, the inclusion of such a dot—called puncta extraordinaria in academic parlance—was a sign that the scribe believed the letter should be erased.  Although the simple intent of the scribe in this case could merely have been to remove a mater lectionis (the vav that functions as a vowel), i.e., to advocate for the defective spelling (ובקמה) over the plene (ובקומה), Genesis Rabbah believed that the dot in this case was meant to cast doubt on the word itself. According to the midrash:

נקוד על ויו של ובקומה שבשכבה לא ידע בקומה ידע

There is a dot written over the letter vav in the word ‘when she arose,’ meaning that while he did not know when she lay down, he did know when she got up.

According to the midrash, while Lot did not know what was going to happen when he drank the wine, he was aware of the fact that he had sex with his eldest daughter by the time she left his bed. This would also suggest that his willingness to drink the wine on the second night means that he was complicit in the sexual relations that he subsequently had with his younger daughter.

Lot Desired His Daughters
In theory, this erasure might reflect Lot’s passiveness; he understood why his daughters wanted him to impregnate them, but could not bring himself to take an active, sober role in the plan. Genesis Rabbah 51:9, however, takes a much more negative view of the matter, suggesting that Lot actually desired his daughters:

א”ר נחמן בר חנין כל מי שהוא להוטאחר בולמוס של עריות סוף שמאכילין אותו מבשרו רבי יודן דמן גלוי ורבי שמואל בר נחמן תרויהון אמרי משום רבי אליהו עיני אין אנו יודעים אם לוט נתאוה לבנותיו אם בנותיו נתאוו לו מן מה דכתיב לתאוה יבקש נפרד הוי לוט נתאוה לבנותיו ובנותיו לא נתאוו לו

Said R. Nahman bar Hanan, “Whoever lusts after fornication in the end will be fed with his own flesh.” R. Yudan of Galliah and R. Samuel bar Nahman, both in the name of R. Elijah Ene: “We do not know whether Lot lusted for his daughters, or his daughters lusted for him. On the basis of what is said in the following verse: ‘He who separates himself seeks desire’ (Prov. 18:1), it is clear that Lot lusted after his daughter.”

Thus, while the narrative in Genesis absolves Lot of any choice by describing him as completely intoxicated and totally unaware, Genesis Rabbah puts negative agency in Lot’s hands, accusing him of desiring and even bringing about the situation which led his daughters to seduce him.

The sages justify their interpretation through the obscure verse from Proverbs 18:1, “He who separates himself seeks desire,” understanding it to refer to Lot’s (poor) choice to live in the cave rather than to remain in the city of Zoar. This interpretation goes against the plain sense of the passage in Genesis, redeeming Lot’s daughters and placing blame into Lot’s hands.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 18 – menopausal language

August 7, 2018

Genesis 18:11-12:

ואברהם ושרה זקנים באים בימים חדל להיות לשרה ארח כנשים

ותצחק שרה בקרבה לאמר אחרי בלתי היתה לי עדנה ואדני זקן

In Biblical Hebrew, this is fairly explicit language about the effects of menopause on a woman’s anatomy.  Consider how various English translations have tackled it:

Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?  (KJV)

Now they were both old, and far advanced in years, and it had ceased to be with Sara after the manner of women.  And she laughed secretly, saying: After I am grown old and my lord is an old man, shall I give myself to pleasure?  (DRC)

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (NRSV)

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.  And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (NJPS)

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, and Sarah had stopped having her menstrual periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?”  (NABRE)

And Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, Sarah no longer had her woman’s flow.  And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying “After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, and my husband is old?” (HB-A) [see also extended note below]

And Avraham and Sara were old, advanced in days,
the way of women
[footnote:  the menstrual period] had ceased for Sara.
Sara laughed within herself, saying:
After I have become worn, is there to be pleasure
[footnote:  sexual]  for me? And my lord is old!  (Shoc)

Abraham and Sarah were old by this time, very old. Sarah was far past the age for having babies. Sarah laughed within herself, “An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?” (MSG)

Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”  (NIV11)

Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. So she laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” (NLT15)

Notice how recent Evangelical translations (MSG, NIV11, NLT15)  try to clean up the text by removing the explicit reference to menstrual periods and downplay (or in the case of MSG, eliminate) the reference to sexual pleasure (as opposed to the pleasure of having a child.)

And look at the erudite and frank note that Robert Alter includes in his HB-A translation:

[Verses] 11-13.  This sequence of three utterances is a brilliant example of how much fine definition of position and character can be achieved in biblical narrative through variation in repetition.  First, the narrator informs us, objectively and neutrally, of Abraham’s and Sarah’s advanced age, stating the fact, repeating it with the emphasis of a synonym, and reserving for last Sarah’s postmenopausal condition, which would appear to make conception a biological impossibility.  When Sarah repeats this information in her interior monologue, it is given new meaning from her bodily perspective as an old and barren woman:  her flesh is shriveled, she cannot imagin having pleasure again (the term ‘ednah is cognate with Eden probably suggests sexual pleasure, or perhaps sexual moistness), and besides – her husband is old.  The dangling third clause hangs on the verge of a conjugal complaint:  how could she expect pleasure, or a child, when her husband is so old? […]

I simply find it hard to understand why recent Evangelical translations such as MSG, NIV11, NLT15 are so widely used when there are so many clear examples of mistranslation.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 17 – seeds

August 6, 2018

This chapter appears is all about זרע (zera’) “seeds.”  The word appears frequently in this chapter:

The word זרע, zera’, “seed” or “progeny” appears in this chapter seven times (vv. 7 twice, 8, 9, 10, 12 and 19). Six of those times it is followed by the word אחרי, acharei, “following” or “after,” emphasizing that “era’,’’ or seed, or what grows from the seed, is continuity.

Robert Alter opines on word זרע in the introduction to his Five Books of Moses.  (Alter’s Five Books of Moses is scheduled to be incorporated into the HB-A.)

The Hebrew noun zera’ has the general meaning of “seed,” which can be applied either in the agricultural sense or to human beings, as the term for semen.  By metaphorical extension, semen becomes the established designation for what it produces, progeny.  Modern translators, evidently unwilling to trust the ability of adult readers to understand that “seed” – as regularly in the King James Version – may mean progeny, repeatedly render it as offspring, descendants, heirs, progeny, posterity.  But I think there is convincing evidence in the texts themselves that the biblical writers never entirely forgot that their term for offspring also meant semen and had a precise equivalent in the vegetable world.  To cite a distinctly physical example, when Onan “knew that the seed would not be his,” that is, the progeny of his brother’s widow should he impregnate her, “he would waste his seed on the ground, so to give no seed to his brother” (Genesis 38:9).  Modern translators, despite their discomfort with body terms, can scarcely avoid the wasted “seed” here because without it the representation of spilling semen on the ground in coitus interruptus becomes unintelligible.  E. A. Speiser substitutes “offspring” for “seed” at the end of the verse, however, and the Revised English Bible goes him one better by putting “offspring” at the beginning as well (“Onan knew that the offspring would not count as his”) and introducing “seed” in the middle as object of the verb “to spill” and scuttling back to the decorousness of “offspring” at the end – a prime example of explanation under the guise of translation.  But the biblical writer is referring to “seed” as much at the end of the verse as at the beginning.  Onan adopts the strategem of coitus interruptus in order not to “give seed” – that is, semen – to Tamar, and , as a necessary consequence of this contraceptive act, he avoids providing her with offspring.  The thematic point of this moment, anchored in sexual practice, law, and human interaction, is blunted by not preserving “seed” throughout.

Even in contexts not directly related to sexuality, the concreteness of this term often amplifies the meaning of the utterance.  when, for example, at the end of the story of the binding of Isaac, God reiterates His promise to Abraham, the multiplication of seed is strongly linked with cosmic imagery – harking back to the Creation story – of heaven and earth:  “I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea” (Genesis 22:17).  If “seed” here is rendered as “offspring” or “descendants,” what we get are two essentially mathematical similes of numerical increase.  That is, in fact, the primary burden of the language God addresses to Abraham, but as figurative language it also imposes itself visually on the retina of imagination, and so underlying the idea of a single late-born son whose progeny will countless millions is an image of human seed (perhaps reinforced by the shared white color of semen and stars) scattered across the vast expanses of the starry skies and through the innumerable particles of sand on the shore of the sea.  To substitute “offspring” for “seed” here may not fundamentally alter the meaning but it diminishes the vividness of the statement, making it just a little harder for readers to sense why these ancient texts have been so compelling down through the ages.

This is one of Alter’s most persuasive arguments for his translation style.

Going back to the 929 description of zera’, the explanation continues:

Zera’ represents the next generation both for plants and for people. One of the six orders of the Mishnah (who knows six?  I know 6…) is called Zera’im, or “seeds” as it deals primarily with laws pertaining to agriculture.

Thus, a zera’ is both what a farmer puts in the ground, and what Onan spilled on the ground (see Gen. 38 – giving us the English term “onanism”, even though technically what he did is better labeled coitus interruptus), and what can grow from both types.

Bringing forth new generations sounds like it should always have happy and optimistic connotations, but the act of zrei’ah / hazra’ah (planting/insemination) can be a very apprehensive time, not knowing if everything will come to term. Psalm 126 expresses this well: “הזורעים hazor’im They who sow in tears, shall reap with songs of joy. Though he goes along weeping, carrying משך הזרע, meshech hazara’ the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.”

And in Hebrew, it’s not only seeds that can be sown, but as in Psalm 97: or zaru’a latzadik, even light is sown, as a reward for the righteous, and happiness for the straight of heart.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 16 – Genesis 16 from an Islamic viewpoint

August 5, 2018


From Samir Assi (“Sheikh Samir Assi is a leading Muslim cleric the imam and central preacher of the El-Jazzar Mosque, the main mosque of Acre”) comes this 929 contribution:

Abraham Father of Us All

A Muslim view of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael

We Muslims revere the Prophet Abraham: “Ibrahim Abuna,” Abraham our Father. For us, he is the father of all prophets. For that reason we mention his name in all five daily prayers. As everyone knows, he was born and lived much of his life in present-day Iraq, and called to cease the worship of statues and stars, and believe solely in the one God.

Nimrod, the king of Iraq, commanded that our Prophet Abraham of blessed memory, be burned, but God saved him from the furnace. King Nimrod released him, and Abraham left Iraq for the holy blessed soil of the Holy Land (Israel-Palestine). His wife Sarah accompanied him on the journey.

From there Abraham went down to Egypt, and there confronted Pharaoh who tried to molest Sarah. God saved Sarah from Pharaoh, who released the two of them, and gave Sarah Hagar as a handmaiden. The three of them then returned to the Holy Land.

Since Abraham was old, and Sarah was beyond child-bearing years, Sarah allowed Abraham to marry Hagar. When Hagar became pregnant and gave birth to a son named Ishmael, Sarah became jealous of Hagar. God commanded Abraham our Father to take Hagar and her son Ishmael to the desert. There he left them, because God wanted to bless Ishmael and make him the leader of a very great nation. Abraham our Father fulfilled God’s wishes. He would visit them frequently there in the desert, concerning himself with their well-being, until he died and was buried in Hebron.


Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 15 – shalom

August 2, 2018

Genesis 15:15

ואתה תבוא אל אבתיך בשלום תקבר בשיבה טובה

As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. (NRSV)

This is the first mention of שלום (shalom) in Hebrew Bible.  Shalom can mean peace, hello, or goodbye, and the 929 web site asks the question of how one translates the Beatles:  “You say shalom, and I say shalom. Shalom, shalom! I don’t know why you say shalom, I say shalom….”

A possible translation of Judges 6:24 has Gideon calling God “LORD shalom,” and from this arose a tradition that Shalom is a name for God (see BT Shabbos 10b).  (Another possible translations has Gideon calling the altar “LORD shalom” – which raises monotheistic issues; or calling the altar “the LORD is shalom” or “the LORD is at shalom,” which are compatible with shalom being a Divine name.)

But shalom as a Divine name is a truly beautiful idea.  It means that we greet others and part from others with a name of God, and helps build on the idea that God is peace.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 14 – war, and a political world

August 1, 2018

Genesis 14 dramatically shifts perspective. 

In Genesis 13, the focus is on the eloquence and piety of Abram, and the greediness of his nephew Lot.  There is mention of the Canaanites and Perizzites (Genesis 13:7), and of the wicked dwellers of Sodom (Genesis 13:13), but they play almost no role in the story of Genesis 13.  Abram and Lot both have herdsmen, who fight amongst their camps (Genesis 13:7) but the rhetorical energy of Genesis is dedicated to Abram’s eloquent speech (Genesis 13:9).

And in Genesis 14, chaos erupts.  The text is difficult to follow in parts, and the 929 chapter summary helps:

Chapter 14: The First World War

This is the first World War, at least the first in the Bible. A coalition of four northern kings (mainly from Mesopotamia) embarks on a military expedition to the Dead Sea area (the Plains of Jordan). Why? Because five kings from the Plains of Jordan had made an alliance with each other and after twelve years of enslavement to the northern kingdom of Elam they rebelled. On the way to suppressing the rebellion, Chedarlaomer, the king of Elam, and his northern allies, conquer an impressive list of other nations (Genesis 14: 5-7). When they reach the Valley of Siddim, which is in the area of ​​the Dead Sea, they suppress the rebels, conquer and loot them, and take captives.

At this point, general  history meets our story. Among the prisoners was Lot, Abram’s nephew, who, in the previous chapter, separated from him and chose to settle in Sodom. Abram and his local allies pursue the invading force, subdue them, release the captives, and return all the looted property. That is, almost all the property. A tithe from this was given to Melchizedek, the Priest of Salem (Jerusalem); some of the property was given to Abram’s allies. Abram, however, did not take any of the spoils as he says, “I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours” (verse 23).

Big Ideas:

  1. The prophet Jeremiah (1:14) once said “From the north shall disaster break loose.”  This the first time in the Bible, but not the last, that a kingdom from the north is the dominant imperial factor in Canaan. This will occur  throughout most of the monarchy.
  2. Abram, who chases after the invading force, not only releases Lot, but also determines the nature of the northern border to Canaan. This border, incidentally, is quite similar to the border that is recorded in the Book of Samuel during the reign of King David (Samuel 1: 30).
  3. Abram is referred to in the chapter “Abram the Hebrew” (verse 13).
  4. In this chapter we discover that Abram is not a lone wolf.  He has local allies (Eshkol and Aner) and even a connection to the local priest:  “And King Melchizedek of Salem…was a priest of God Most High” (verse 18).
  5. This is the first time in Tanach that Jerusalem is mentioned. It appears in its early and abbreviated name – “Salem”, and it already has a connection to the ritual, priesthood, faith and the giving of tithes.

Notice how carefully the text redirects Canaanite religion to monotheistic religion.  Here is Melchizedek’s blessing to Abram (Genesis 14:19-20):

ויברכהו ויאמר ברוך אברם לאל עליון קנה שמים וארץ

וברוך אל עליון אשר מגן צריך בידך ויתן לו מעשר מכל

And he blessed him, and he said

“Blessed be Abram to El Elyon,
possessor of heaven and earth,
and blessed be El Elyon
who delivered your foes into your hand.” 

and here is Abram’s response (Genesis 14:22)

ויאמר אברם אל מלך סדם הרמתי ידי אל חי אל עליון קנה שמים וארץ

And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I raise my hand in oath to the LORD, the Most High God, possessor of heaven and earth, […].  (HB-A)

Robert Alter notes in HB-A, “El is the proper name of the sky god in the Canaanite pantheon, and Elyon is evidently a distinct, associated deity, though here the two appear as a compound name.  But the two terms are also plain Hebrew words that mean “God the Most High,” and elsewhere are used separately or (once) together as designations of the God of Israel.  Whatever Melchizedek’s theology, Abram elegantly co-opts him for monotheism by using El Elyon in its orthodox Israelite sense when he addresses the king of Sodom.”

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 13 – a chilling foreshadowing

July 31, 2018

Genesis 13 is a chilling read.  It foreshadows the horrible fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Even if somehow the reader does not know what will happen, the text explicitly references it:

וישא לוט את עיניו וירא את כל ככר הירדן כי כלה משקה לפני שחת חי את סדם ואת עמרה כגן חי כארץ מצרים באכה צער

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it —t his was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah — all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. (NJPS)

At the same time, the text reminds us that the land that Abram and Lot are to divide is already populated.  Genesis 13:7b:

והכנעני והפרזי אז ישב בארץ

[A]nd the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelled then in the land. (KJV)

Robert Alter notes in HB-A:

This second notation of the indigenous population of Canaan, at the moment of friction between the two immigrants from Mesopotamia, suggests that they can scarcely afford such divisiveness when they are surrounded by potential enemies.  (In the next episode, Abram will be obliged to bring military aid to his nephew.)  There may also be a hint of irony in their dividing up a land here that already has inhabitants.

In light of what happens in the next chapter – as well as in the book of Joshua, this too is a chilling foreshadowing.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 12 – mandatory and voluntary

July 30, 2018

Genesis 12:10:

ויהי רעב בארץ וירד אברם מצרימה לגור שם כי כבד הרעב בארץ

And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.  (KJV)

The commentary on the 929 website by Matthew Kritz on this passage is quite good:

The (In)consequential in Genesis

Should Avraham have gone to Egypt? Was his decision righteous,wicked, or neutral? Throughout the biblical text, we have two clear indicators of when someone has done right or wrong: God can give a directive prior to the act, and God can bestow a reward or a punishment upon the doer following the act. Clear examples in Avraham’s life include the journey to Canaan (12:1-9) and the binding of Yitzchak ([22]:1-18); in both cases, God gives an instruction, Avraham (mostly) follows through, and God bestows a reward.  We could read much of Genesis this way, and using these indicators, we could determine who has acted well in the stories, and hence what it would mean for us to act well.

Neither of these indicators is present, though, when Avraham descends to Egypt. We are simply told that he chose to journey south due to a famine. But if a purported goal of Genesis is to teach us how to live, by providing examples of right and wrong, how shall we read an account of a key character taking action with neither divine directive nor divine response?

Later interpreters find a reward, such as the wealth Avraham earns (Tanchuma), or a punishment, such as the descent of Avraham’s children to Egypt, leading to their servitude (Ramban), lurking within the story, allowing them to judge Avraham favorably or harshly.

On the surface, however, Avraham simply goes, leaving no clear indication of whether he made the right choice, as the telling of a story does not, on its own, tell us whether the characters are positive or negative role models.

This suggests that some stories in Genesis (namely, those that lack both of the evaluative components) are not recorded in order to teach an actionable lesson,  but for some other reason. So at the core of this exegetical exploration of a brief step in Avraham’s journey lies an essential question in reading Genesis specifically, and narrative components of the Torah in general. Need there be a message? If there are stories that aren’t trying to teach lessons, then what are they trying to do? And what bearing does this have on how we understand the function of Genesis, and the Torah, as a whole?

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project Genesis 11 – the number 365

July 29, 2018

Robert Alter’s commentary to Genesis 11:10-26:

There are ten generations from Shem to Abraham (as the universal history begins to focus down to a national history) as there are ten from Adam to Noah.  In another formal symmetry, the ten antediluvian generations end with a father who begets three sons, just as this series of ten will end with Terah begetting Abram, Nahor, and Haran.  This genealogy, which constitutes the bridge from the Flood to the beginning of the Patriarchal Tales, uses formulas identical with those of the antediluvian genealogy in Chapter 5, omitting the summarizing indication of life span and the report of death of each begetter.  Longevity is now cut in half, and then halved again in the latter part of the list, as we approach Abram  From this point, men will have merely the extraordinary life spans of modern Caucasian mountain dwellers and not legendary life spans.  The narrative in this way is preparing to enter recognizable human time and family life.  There is one hidden number-game here, as the Israeli Bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld has observed:  the number of years from the birth of Shem’s son to Abram’s migration to Canaan is exactly a solar 365.

When I was a child, I was looking for a way to remember that a year was 365 days long.  Finally, I hit on the following formula:  365 = 142+132=122+112+102.  Indeed, 365 is the smallest number that has more than one expression as the sum of consecutive squares.

Another way I might have (but did not) remember it would have involved recalling a standard 52-card deck of cards.  Count the one through ten cards as having one through ten pips, and assign eleven pips to a jack, twelve pips to a queen, and thirteen pips to a king.

Then the average number of pips on a card is seven – the number of days in a week.

The number of cards in the deck is 52 – the number of weeks in a year.

Computing the total number of kips in a hand, if we calculate 4 x ( 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13) we get 364, and adding in one pip for the joker, we get 3655 – the total number of days in a standard year.

365 is the traditional value assigned to the number of negative commandments (“thou shalt not”) in the Bible (although if you actually count the number of verses with negative commandments, the number is greater!)  According to a popular tradition recorded both in Targum Jonathan (Targ. Yonasan) to Genesis 1:27 and the Kabbalistic works, there 365 sinews in the body (although this calculation does not necessarily agree with modern medical anatomy).  Genesis 5:23 says that Enoch was 365 (and in Genesis 5:24, God takes Enoch.)

These sorts of numerical games are endless fun play.  Since Hebrew uses the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet to record numbers, there is a numerical value to every Hebrew word, leading to a type of numerical wordplay called gematria.

But in truth, it should be said that if the the number had been different, there would have been no problem finding many interesting coincidences.  Indeed, here is a pseudo-mathematical proof that there are no boring whole numbers (non-negative integers):  Let S be the set of all such boring whole numbers.  Suppose that S is non-empty.  Then S must have an element with minimum value, call that value x. Then x is boring; but x is also the smallest boring number, which is pretty interesting.  This gives us a contradiction, so our assumption that S is non-empty must be wrong.  Therefore no whole numbers are boring.  Quod erat demonstrandum.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 10 – gotta catch ‘em all

July 26, 2018

Genesis 10 contains “The Table of Nation” – a remarkable list to enumerate all of the cultures known to Ancient Israel.  Robert Alter writes in his notes to Genesis 10 in HB-A:

As elsewhere, genealogy is adopted as a mean of schematizing complex historical evolution, and thus the terms “father of” and “begot” are essentially metaphors for historical concatenation.  The total number of figures in the Table of Nations (excluding Nimrod) comes to seventy, the biblical formulatic number for a sizeable and complete contingent of any sort.  It should be observed that representing the origins of nations as a genealogical scheme preserves a thematic continuity with the divine injunction after creation to be fruitful and multiply and sets the stage for the history of the one people whose propagation is repeatedly promised but continually threatened. 

In keeping with the universalist perspective of Genesis, the Table of Nations is a serious attempt, unprecedented in the ancient Near East, to sketch a panorama of all known human cultures – from Greece and Crete in the west through Asia Minor and Iran and down through Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula to northwestern Africa.  This chapter has been a happy hunting ground for scholars armed with the tools of archeology, and in fact an impressive proportion of these names have analogues in inscriptions and tablets in other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  The Table mingles geographic, ethnic, and linguistic criteria for defining nations, and the list intersperses place-names and gentilic designations (the latter appearing first in plural forms and beginning with verse 16 in singular forms).  Some analysts have argued for a splicing together of two different lists of nations.  One may infer that the Table assumes a natural evolutionary explanation for the multiplicity of languages that does not involve an act of divine intervention of the sort that will be narrated in the next episode, the Tower of Babel.


It is a deep human characteristic to categorize all things – whether it be biological taxonomy (than you Carl Linnaeus) or a dictionary (thank you Samuel Johnson) or a classification system for books and knowledge (than you Melvil Dewey). 

This tendency was satirized by Jorge Luis Borges in in his “El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins” (“The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”) in which Borges writes:

Esas ambigüedades, redundancias y deficiencias recuerdan las que el doctor Franz Kuhn atribuye a cierta enciclopedia china que se titula Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos. En sus remotas páginas está escrito que los animales se dividen en (a) pertenecientes al Emperador, (b) embalsamados, (c) amaestrados, (d) lechones, (e) sirenas, (f) fabulosos, (g) perros sueltos, (h) incluidos en esta clasificación, (i) que se agitan como locos, (j) innumerables, (k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello, (l) etcétera, (m) que acaban de romper el jarrón, (n) que de lejos parecen moscas.

[These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.]

Systematization is the probable parent of another very human tendency:  the urge to collect.  By enumeration, one tickles the human desire to collect.  Here is a list of desirable objects. 

Do you want to sell twenty books?  Number them and sell them in a series. They will prove irresistible to collectors (like me!).

In a sense, this helps explain the collection that forms the Bible itself (“anything you can do, I can do meta”).  We enumerate these books as being canonical, and before you know it, they are all bundled together in a collection that makes very clear what is inside the collection and what is outside the collection.  Thus, one has the remarkable phenomenon of certain Roman Catholics on the Internet damming seemingly worthy books (such as the Apostolic Letters) merely because they are apocrypha outside Scripture.  (I merely mention this example because it is the last one I saw – one could even more easily taunt certain Protestants or Muslims or Jews.)

Such a remarkable world that we live in, that embraces so many cultures, and so many ideas, and so many books – and still finds it worthy to classify certain ones as being inside and others as being outside.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

929 Project: Genesis 9 – the vegetarian diet

July 25, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Genesis 9:3:

כל רמש אשר הוא חי לכם יהיה לאכלה כירק עשב נתתי לכם את כל

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. (NRSV)

Sometimes I meet a Bible quoter who cites Genesis 9:3 to criticize vegetarians. 

When this happens, I cite Daniel 1:11-16:

Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink.  You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.”  So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days.  At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations.  So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.  (NRSV, emphasis added)

(NB this blog entry was posted on August 1, 2018, and backdated to July 25 for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 8 – two poems

July 24, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

For today’s post, I present two poems related to Genesis 8.  The first is by the person many consider to be the greatest living Arabic poet; the second is by a celebrated Cuban-American poet.


The New Noah (with translator’s notes)

By Adonis (see also here and here and especially here)

Translated by Shawkat M. Toorama


We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain,
Our oars promises from God.   
We live — and the rest of Humanity dies.
We travel upon the waves, fastening
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies.
But between Heaven and us is an opening,
A porthole for a supplication.

“Why, Lord, have you saved us alone
From among all the people and creatures?
And where are you casting us now?
To your other Land, to our First Home?
Into the leaves of Death, into the wind of Life?
In us, in our arteries, flows a fear of the Sun.
We despair of the Light,
We despair, Lord, of a tomorrow
In which to start Life anew.

“If only we were not that seedling of Creation,
Of Earth and its generations,
If only we had remained simple Clay or Ember,
Or something in between,
Then we would not have to see   
This World, its Lord, and its Hell, twice over.”


If time started anew,
and waters submerged the face of life,
and the earth convulsed, and that god
rushed to me, beseeching, “Noah, save the living!”
I would not concern myself with his request.
I would travel upon my ark, removing   
clay and pebbles from the eyes of the dead.
I would open the depths of their being to the flood,
and whisper in their veins   
that we have returned from the wilderness,
that we have emerged from the cave,
that we have changed the sky of years,
that we sail without giving in to our fears—
that we do not heed the word of that god.
Our appointment is with death.   
Our shores are a familiar and pleasing despair,
a gelid sea of iron water that we ford   
to its very ends, undeterred,
heedless of that god and his word,
longing for a different, a new, lord.

Translator’s note

“The New Noah” is a poem I first encountered in my twenties, a poem Adonis wrote in his twenties. The poem’s content is simple enough. In the first part, Noah is saved from the flood and wonders why he and his people alone have been saved; despairing, he asks the Lord what He has in store for them. In the second part, Noah describes what he would do if he could turn back time, describes how he and his people would ignore God and sail to a different kind of salvation. Meditation on the relationship between the poetic persona and the prophet I leave to the reader.

In Adonis’s long poems, with which I have more experience, the language can at times be opaque, dense with allusion, and grammatically complex, what some admirers term al-sahl al-mumtani‘, the (apparently) easy (but effectively sublimely) elusive. “The New Noah” is in a straightforward Arabic, plaintive and mournful in the first part, aggrieved and assertive in the second, but translating proved difficult indeed. To begin with, there is the irregular but insistent rhyme at the ends of quite short lines (most are only five or six words long), something I have tried to convey. There is the playful and daunting use of classical Arabic meters, which I have brazenly ignored. And there is the careful deployment – I cannot think of another way of describing this – of the words allâh (“God,” line 2), rabb (“Lord,” lines 8, I5, 22, 42), and ilâh ("god," lines 25, 36, 41). Unlike English, Arabic does not have uppercase and lowercase letters: the distinction between “God” and “god” is, consequently, made by using two different, though admittedly related, words: allâh and ilâh . I have paid special attention to this. Overall, I am at peace with the translation, though rhyming the final four lines was difficult: “undeterred,” however implied, is my own intervention; and I still waver between “A New Noah” and “The New Noah.” There are certainly small successes: “fastening” and “opening” in lines four and six happily rhyme; the resonance of “porthole” in line seven; the possibility in English of using uppercase in the first part of the poem to underscore the difference in tenor between it and the second part; and that rarest of creatures, a cognate, in “gelid” in line 39. – S.M.T.


A Dove Is Not a Bird

By Dionisio D. Martínez (see also here)

For Lynda Hull (1954-1994)

A dove is not a bird. You can make the argument in reverse, but it’s not
as convincing because it lacks those tangible elements by which we

measure the veracity of anything. An argument is not a dove, but you
can make a case for it – as if you were building a cage with gaps much

wider than the birds you intend to catch and keep. Even if you can argue
the large bones of night into submission, the city will follow you every-

where: the city is a loop of darkness. Even at dawn – the throat parched
and the repetition of the last few thoughts dulled – city streets are the halls

of the great indoors: this island-as-idea shining inside you. That’s what
you’ve come for. That’s why the myth became a theory dovetailing into

fact. You can say a bird will not fly without air, all the conviction in your
breath leaving you the way the soul might leave those who still believe

in the possibility of a soul. Like a muddy fact. I make my way to the place
where you’re no longer necessary, but the matchbook of memory strikes

another one and you’re still holding your essential smile. If you trust my
reconstruction of the scene, I can prove that you looked away each time

you smiled – as if something in your mouth had taken flight. If you trust
your eyes, you know we never look away: our gaze is always fixed on

a target; it’s the night of this anonymous city that shifts incessantly. This
new bandit making tracks with one foot, covering them with the other.

(NB this blog entry was posted on August 1, 2018, and backdated to July 24 for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 7 – charity and disaster

July 23, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Genesis 7:1:

יאמר ה׳ לנח בא אתה וכל ביתך אל התבה כי אתך ראיתי צדיק לפני בדור הזה

And the Lord said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation.  (KJV)

Noah is a tzadik צדיק (righteous one) of his generation.  That root is צ-ד-ק tz-d-k, giving us tzedakah צדקה (charity) and tzedek צדק (justice).  Being righteous, seeking justice, giving charity – these are all different aspects of the same word-root in Hebrew.

(The 929 Hebrew Corner for this day includes a fascinating mention:  “The family name of the popular singer Neil Sedaka really is tzedakah. His family is Lebanese, with Sephardi roots, and the word is the same in Arabic as well".”)

What was your response to the 2010 Haitian earthquake, or the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, or the 2017 North Bay (Sonoma-Napa) fires, or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, or the many other disasters that have struck in our lifetime?  Did you give tzedakah/charity?  If so, then you too are are at least a bit like Noah, who followed the command given to him to try to save life on the earth.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 31, 2018, and backdated to July 23 for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 6 – Nephilim and the Trojan War

July 22, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

Genesis 6:1-4:

ויהי כי החל האדם לרב על פני האדמה ובנות ילדו להם

ויראו בני האלהים את בנות האדם כי טבת הנה ויקחו להם נשים מכל אשר בחרו

‏ ויאמר ה׳ לא ידון רוחי באדם לעלם בשגם הוא בשר והיו ימיו מאה ועשרים שנה

‏ הנפלים היו בארץ בימים ההם וגם אחרי כן אשר יבאו בני האלהים אל בנות האדם וילדו להם המה הגברים אשר מעולם אנשי השם

And it happened as humankind began to multiple over the earth and daughters were born to them, that the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were comely, and they took themselves wives howsoever they chose.  And the LORD said, “My breath shall not abide in the human forever, for he is but flesh.  Let his days be a hundred and twenty years.  The Nephilim were then on the earth, and afterward as well, the sons of God having come to bed with the daughter of man who bore them children:  they are the heroes of yore, the men of renown.  (HB-A)

[HB-A has extensive notes on this passage which I do not reproduce here.]

In 1987, a paper appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature from the young Ron Hendel, a scholar then in his twenties, entitled Of Demigods and the Deluge: Toward an Interpretation of Genesis 6:1-4 that discussed the connections of the Nephilim with both Mesopotamian mythology and the legends of the Trojan war.  I recommend reading the full paper, but here is an excerpt with part of Hendel’s argument:

[… Where] did Gen 6:1-4 come from? I submit that the story of the mingling of gods and mortals and the procreation of the demigods was originally connected to the flood narrative and functioned as its motivation. [The story detaches the] demigods from the myth of the deluge in order to preface the flood with a more purely ethical motive:  [Divine] anger at the evil behavior of humanity. This would explain why Gen 6:1-4 directly precedes the flood narrative, and, simultaneously, why it is unconnected from its context. In order to support my surmise I will range from the Babylonian motive for the flood story in the myth of Atrahasis to the mythological motives for the Trojan War in the Greek tradition. Somewhere between Babylon and Greece, in a peculiar twist of tradition, the connection between demigods and the deluge was generated, only to survive in fragments.

The Mesopotamian motive for the deluge is an imbalance in the cosmos, namely, the overpopulation of humanity on the earth.  The noise of mankind disturbs Enlil’s sleep, so he decrees destruction for humanity, first in the form of several plagues and drought and finally in the form of the flood. The crucial passage in the Atrahasis myth reads:

The land grew extensive, the people multiplied,
The land was bellowing like a bull.
At their uproar the god became angry;
Enlil heard their noise.
He addressed the great gods,
”The noise of mankind has become oppressive to me.
Because of their uproar I am deprived of sleep.”

Like the action in the later Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, the chief god is disturbed by the noise of overabundant activity; he decrees destruction and is finally thwarted by the actions of the wily god Enki/Ea […] In the Atrahasis myth, Enki saves Atrahasis and family, so that life may be preserved. To prevent future overpopulation, the gods take several measures: they create several categories of women who do not bear children; they create demons who snatch away babies; and […], they institute a fixed mortality for mankind. […] Death, barren women, celibate women, and infant mortality are the solutions for the problem of imbalance that precipitated the flood.

In Greek tradition a different kind of imbalance appears in several of the mythological motives for the Trojan War. In order to make my comparison precise, I should emphasize that although the Trojan War is a military encounter rather than a flood, it functions in a way similar to the Babylonian deluge: it serves as the great destruction which divides the prior age from the present age, just as does the flood in the Atrahasis myth and in other Mesopotamian traditions. […] [In] Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women […]:

All the gods were divided in spirit through strife, for at that time high-thundering Zeus was planning wondrous deeds, to mingle disorder on the boundless earth, for he already was hastening to annihilate the race of mortal men, as a pretext to destroy the lives of the demigods, (so that) the children of the gods (would not mate with wretched) mortals, seeing [fate] with their own eyes, but that the blessed gods [henceforth], as before, should have their way of life and their accustomed places apart from mortal men.

The point of this fragment is to motivate Zeus’s decision to bring on the Trojan War by reference to the unseemly mingling of gods and mortals and the resulting procreation of the heroic demigods. Zeus decides to send a war “to destroy the lives of the demigods,” so that the gods would desist from mating with mortals and so that gods and mortals might live separately.  The imbalance in this case is not a general overpopulation but rather the procreation of a specific mixed category of beings, the demigods.  Zeus brings on the Trojan War to destroy the heroic demigods, so that the proper division of realms between gods and humans might be secured.

The theme of the separation of gods and mortals is prominent in another Hesiodic myth, the story of Prometheus’s sacrifice and the subsequent creation of Pandora, so it appears that the Greek pedigree of this theme is secure. The Hesiodic myth of the five ages pursues similar themes and reflects a common formulaic diction in the description of the separation of the heroic demigods from mortal men. The word used of the demigods, hemitheoi, rare in Hesiod, […] occurs only once in Homer, in a passage that describes the destruction by flood of the Achaean wall. It is interesting that the destruction is to occur after the fall of Troy. Scodel has argued that this small destruction may be a vestige of an older flood tradition which the Trojan War has largely displaced.  In support of Scodel’s argument, I would note that Poseidon, the god partly responsible for the flood of the Achaean wall, is elsewhere in the epic decidedly pro-Achaean (e.g., Iliad 13-14). The contradiction in Poseidon’s role in bringing on the destruction by flood of the Achaean wall when elsewhere in the epic he is pro-Achaean points up the anomaly of the episode and supports its likely status as a vestige of a variant pre-Homeric flood tradition.

In sum, I suggest that the Trojan War functions in a manner similar to the Semitic flood tradition and may indeed be related by way of oral tradition to the older Semitic myths.  One of the mythic motives of the Trojan War sounds very similar to Gen 6:1-4, although it retains more context. In the Greek text, the mixing of gods and mortals and the existence of the mixed-breed demigods are the direct motive for the Trojan War.  Zeus wished to separate gods from mortals and to destroy the demigods, so he decrees the Trojan War. There are other mythical motives in the Greek Trojan War tradition, including the abduction of Helen, found in both the Homeric and Hesiodic traditions and in an interesting fragment of the Cypria which describes Zeus’s decision to bring about the Trojan War as a result of human overpopulation. The similarity between this fragment and the Atrahasis myth has been often noted, though its similarity with an Indian myth in the Mahabharata raises the possibility of Indo-European origins. In any case, complexity of themes is what we should expect in a tradition of oral mythology.  […]

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 31, 2018, and backdated to July 22 for reasons explained here.)