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929 Project: Genesis 4 – Cain the wisecracker

July 18, 2018

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

The story goes that at a synagogue a kid once asked a famous visiting rabbi whether there were any jokes in the Hebrew Bible. 

Without blinking, the rabbi replied, “Yes, but they’re all old.”

Arguably, the first joke in the Hebrew Bible is Genesis 4:9:

ויאמר ה׳ אל קין אי הבל אחיך ויאמר לא ידעתי השמר אחי


And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? (KJV)

Is it fair to call this humor? 

The question of whether to read Genesis 4:9 as humor reminds of a similar challenge of presenting Falstaff in Shakespeare’s King Henry IV (both parts).  Do we show Falstaff as being funny, or being decrepit and foul?

On the one hand, Falstaff is presented as a center of wit in the King Henry IV plays (becoming so beloved that according to legend Queen Elizabeth asked Shakespeare to write more about Falstaff, resulting in Merry Wives of Windsor.)  On the other hand, a central arc of these plays is Prince Hal maturing and abandoning his roguish friends as he prepare to assume the throne.  In Part 1 Act 1 Scene 2 (starting at line 186) Hal explicitly predicts this maturation in his surprising monologue to the audience announcing his intention to abandon friends:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.


These questions came to the fore to me as I watched The Hollow Crown, the (terrific) BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad (the Richard II/King Henry IV parts 1&2/King Henry V tetralogy).  The Hollow Crown portrays Falstaff in a constantly negative fashion, unlike many earlier treatments (consider Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight or Harold Bloom’s book length treatment of Falstaff).   Ada Palmer (an acquaintance who is also a history professor at U. Chicago, a successful science fiction author, and a composer) writes:

ada palmer

What are these plays about, the prince, the tavern or the king? The structure of Henry IV makes it particularly easy for the director to change the answer, since for much of both plays the action literally alternates between funny scenes at the tavern, with Prince Hal and his old friend Falstaff playing drunken pranks, and scenes of war and politics with King Henry IV facing bold rebels. The two halves are united by the process of the young prince gradually facing up to his political destiny, but the director can completely change which half seems to be the thrust of it by deciding which scenes to do quickly and which to do slowly, which to trim and which to extend with music or dance or horse chases or battle drama.

We know that in Shakespeare’s day the big hit was Prince Hal’s funny friend Falstaff, who was so popular in Part 1 that Shakespeare added a ton more (completely gratuitous) scenes with him in Part 2 plus wrote the entire comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor just to give us more Falstaff—pandering to one’s fans is not a modern invention! But the modern audience of The Hollow Crown is in this for the high politics dynastic warfare epic, so the director has made the shockingly radical decision to give us a version of Henry IV which actually seems to be about King Henry IV.

Below on the left, Prince Hal smirks at Falstaff’s antics in the Globe production of Henry IV (portrayed by Jamie Parker and Roger Allam) while on the right, Hal is being told off by his father, King Henry IV in The Hollow Crown (Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons). Both scenes appear in both versions of the play, but guess which is extended and which trimmed?

Only part of this shift comes from directors actually cutting lines, though The Hollow Crown […] does trim the silly scenes and extend the serious. What makes focus feel so different is the emotion and body language behind an actor’s delivery, which can make a line have a completely different meaning. For anyone who wants an amazing quick demo of this, check out two short videos Mercator A and Mercator B, created by an NEH Workshop on Roman Comedy, demonstrating how the same short scene from Plautus’s ancient play feels completely different without changing a word—the jealous wife’s body language is altered. (The hard-core can also watch the scene in Latin where body language alone tells all).

For me, in Henry IV, the centerpiece issue is how any given director chooses to present Falstaff, the vice-ridden, drunken, witty, thieving, lecherous, eloquent old knight with whom our young trickster Prince Hal plays away his youthful hours. The crux of this is the finale of Henry IV part 2 when (415-year-old spoiler warning) Prince Hal becomes King Henry V and, rather than taking Falstaff to court as one of his favorites, suddenly banishes Falstaff and all the immoral companions of his youth. This decision wins Henry the respect of his nobles and subjects, but breaks Falstaff’s heart and hopes, resulting in the old knight’s death. How Falstaff and Henry’s nobles react is locked in by Shakespeare’s script, but it’s up to the director and the actors to determine how the audience will react—by deciding how to present Falstaff, Prince Hal and their relationship to the audience throughout the four-plus hours leading up to Hal’s decision.[…]

Falstaff can be (as he is in the recent Globe and Royal Shakespeare Company productions) show-stoppingly, stage-stealingly hilarious, delivering all his absurd and nonsensical jests with brilliant comic timing, so you’re almost eager for the battles to be over so you can have more Falstaff. Or he can be (as he is in the 1960 Age of Kings) a conversational tool for Prince Hal designed to show off our beloved prince’s wit and delightfulness, cutting many of Falstaff’s lines to minimize how much the audience bonds with him and make as much room as possible for the long-term protagonist. Or, as in The Hollow Crown, he can be portrayed as a remarkably unappealing and lecherous old man who mutters and rambles nonsense jokes that are too obscure to even be funny, so you spend your time wondering why Hal is wasting his time with this guy. This is not a difference of acting skill but of deliberate choice, highlighting the moments at which Hal is critical of Falstaff (or Falstaff is critical of himself) and racing through the jests instead of stringing them out, focusing the play (and the audience’s attention) more on Hal’s choices and less on Falstaff’s jokes.

(Even this extended excerpt from Palmer’s brilliant essay does her a disservice — her essay is among other things, an extended meditation on the difficulty of producing the play after John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding — how can directors and actors can solve this puzzle: “The audience has just spent five hours bonding with the hilarious Falstaff, and now Hal is going to betray and destroy him. But we then have to spend another entire play watching Hal, so we need to still like Hal after he casts out Falstaff. Thus, the performance needs to show us motivations for Hal’s action which we can understand, sympathize with, respect, and generally accept.”)

Given the complexity of how we present Falstaff to an audience; how can we understand Cain’s wisecrack to God?  Is it a problem that we find this progenitor of an evil act?

Perhaps the Cain story was a second account of the introduction of sin to humankind, parallel to the story of Adam and Eve’s fall.  This is certainly the interpretation of at least one LXX.  The NETS is a translation of LXX versions keyed to the NRSV, and it is especially interesting to see how divine instructions to Cain in Genesis 4:12 changes between the NRSV and LXX:

[And the LORD said, “] When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” (NRSV)

[And God said, “] For you will till the earth, and it will not continue to yield its strength to you; you will be groaning and trembling on the earth.” (NETS)

The NETS translation portrays the Old Greek as being far more bereft of humor.

The challenge of presenting evil and decadence in a horrific fashion, stripping it of jokes, is a challenge even for the highest peaks of literature.  Consider, for example, the challenges faced by Milton in writing Paradise Lost.  Milton’s presentation of Satan is so noble and the lines Milton assigns to Satan are so passionate that Satan comes across as a type of hero in that poem – certainly contrary to Milton’s intentions.

So, is Cain a wisecracking smart-ass or not?  It’s all in how you read the text.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 30, 2018, and backdated to July 18, for reasons explained here.)


929 Project: Genesis 3 – who dumped whom?

July 17, 2018

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


Consider the start of Genesis 3:24 on the expulsion of humans from Eden:

ויגרש את האדם

So he drove out the man […] (KJV)

I want to present a passage from Daniel Matt’s remarkable Zohar translation (Zoh. 1:297-298) or a passage at 1:53b.  Here is the Zoharic Aramaic (with the Biblical text italicized):

ויגרש את האדם. א”ר אלעזר לא ידענא מאן עבד תרוכין למאן, אי קב”ה עבד תרוכין לאדם אי לא. אבל מלה אתהפך, ויגרש את, דייקא. ומאן גרש את. האדם. האדם ודאי גרש את. ובגין דא כתיב וישלחהו יי’ אלהים מגן עדן. אמאי וישלחהו. בגין דגרש אדם את כדקאמרן

Below, I give Matt’s translation of this passage and a portion of  Matt’s notes and commentary – the full commentary can be read here.  I have slightly modified Matt’s text for consistency with this series of blog posts.  The text of the translation is in black and the commentary is in red.

He drove out את האדם (et ha-adam), Adam

Literally, He drove out the human.  The preceding verse reads similarly:  LORD God expelled him from the Garden of Eden.  The apparent redundancy stimulates the following mystical midrash.

Rabbi El’azar said, “We do not know who divorced whom:  if the blessed Holy One divorced Adam, or not.

Several midrashim interpret the biblical word ויגרש (vaygaresh), He drove out, in the sense of גרושים (geirushin), “divorce.”  [See Matt original for references.]  From midrashic sources: “He drove out Adam.  This teaches that the blessed Holy One divorced him like a wife.”  “This teaches that he was divorced like a wife divorced from her husband because of some indecency.”

Adam’s harmonious and intimate relationship with God is ruined by sin.  Rabbi El’azar adopts this midrashic view but reassigns the roles.

But the word is transposed:  He drove out את (Et) – precisely!

Grammatically, the accusative particle את (et) has no ascertainable independent sense, but Nachum of Gimzo and his disciple Rabbi Akiva taught that when et appears in a biblical verse, it amplifies the original meaning.  See BT Pesachim 22b, Chagigah 12a.

Here, as often in the Zohar, את (et) becomes a name of Shekhinah [an aspect of God], who comprises the totality of divine speech, the entire alphabet from א (alef) to ת (tav).  See Zohar 1:29b, 1:247a, 2:90a, 2:135b, and the Christian parallel in Revelation 1:8:  “I am alpha and omega.”

Who drove out EtAdam.  Adam actually drove out Et!  Consequently it is written:  LORD God expelled him from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23).  Why did He expel him?  Because Adam drove out Et, as we have explained.

By dividing the biblical sentence, He drove out את (et) Adam, into two units, Rabbi El’azar transforms its meaning.  The first unit consists of:  He drove out את (et).  The second unit identifies the subject of the sentence, which is shockingly not God, but Adam.

In the Zohar, the exact nature of Adam’s sin is a tightly guarded secret; the biblical account of the Garden story is seen as hiding the true meaning.  See Zohar Chadash (Midrash ha-Ne’lam) where Rabbi Shim’on recounts a conversation he had with Adam while selecting his future site in Paradise:  “Adam … was sitting next to me, speaking with me, and he asked that his sin not be revealed to the whole world beyond what the Torah had recounted.  It is concealed in that tree in the Garden of Eden.”  The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil symbolizes Shekhinah.  […]

Adam’s sin has driven Shekhinah from the Garden and dissolved her union with Tif’eret [another aspect of God], so She finds Herself abandoned in a no-man’s-land.  Meanwhile, as a result of his sin, Adam is banished from the Garden.  Wandering outside, he finds Shekhinah, and together they go into exile.  See Zohar 3:114a-115b, and 1:237a:  “Come and see the secret of the world:  Adam was caught in his own sin, inflicting death upon himself and the whole world, causing that tree with which he sinned to be divorced, driven away with him, driven away with his children forever, as is written:  He drove out את (et) Adam.

In this interview Matt puts an interesting spin on this Zoharic passage:

We all know the famous story near the beginning of Genesis about the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s clear that God expels Adam and Eve from the garden. But the Zohar asks a startling question: Who threw whom out of the Garden? Through a very artistic and radical reading of the text, the Zohar suggests that Adam expelled God from the Garden! This seems impossible or heretical. But one way to understand this is that in some sense we’re still in the Garden — we just don’t realize it because we’ve lost touch with the spiritual dimension of life. The challenge is to reconnect with the divine reality that we have banished from our lives, to welcome God back in.


Also worth reading are a number of other interesting commentaries on this passage.  I particularly enjoyed this brief article which discusses Hebrew terms in Genesis 3 and ends with a fascinating explanation of the etymology of the English world “checkmate.” 

I also enjoyed this article by Shawna Dolansky that discusses a legend from the medieval The Alphabet of Ben Sira that Lilith was the first wife of Adam, but Adam and Lilith divorced over an argument about who was allowed to adopt the superior position during intercourse.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 29, 2018, and backdated to July 17, for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 2 – humans from humus

July 16, 2018

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

This entry for Genesis 2 is largely derived from a post from our co-blogger Suzanne McCarthy about the usage of ha-adam and adam in Genesis 2 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.

Suzanne died in 2015.  We all miss her.

To give some context for this entry, Suzanne was passionately concerned with how Biblical translations reflected the notion of personhood, and how Hebrew and Greek words indicating a person are often translated into an English form that indicates a male person.  Since many Bible believers in the US and Canada cannot read Hebrew or Greek, they find themselves using translations, and inferring notions of gender relations based on translations that were not in the original.

Suzanne was quite strong in her Greek, and it was fascinating to see her back and forth discussion.  She didn’t interact as much with Hebrew, but in today’s post she does interact with Hebrew.

Most of the people who engaged Suzanne in discussion (or debate) were men.  Usually, these men didn’t know Greek very well.  I am sorry to say that a few of these men became quite rude to her.  Today, we are all painfully aware of politicians who have insulted a political opponent by calling them a “nasty woman” or saying “nevertheless, she persisted” have become common.  Suzanne faced even worse criticism in many cases.  We’ve seen that these ad hominem attacks can boomerang.  However, it has not seemed to permanently set back those who wield these phrases as weapons – one of those politicians is the current US president and the other is the US Senate majority leader.  (And, just so you’ll know, the best translation of ad hominem is not “to the man” but “to the person.”)

On the 929 page for today is a wonderful note from Marcelle Hohl entitled “Adam’s Absence:  Man and Woman are Equally Divine.”  I believe Suzanne would have appreciated Marcelle’s contribution.

In today’s post, Suzanne meditates on Genesis 2:7.  Here it is in Hebrew:

וייצר ה׳ אלהים את האדם עפר מן האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה

And here is how Robert Alter translates it in HB-A:

then the LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.

with this note:

the human, humus.  The Hebrew etymological pun is ’adam, “human,” from the soil, ’adamah.

(Side note:  it is interesting to me that in this case Alter did not translate the initial vav (ו) in the as “and,” as Alter usually does.)

In comparison, here is the KJV translation of the same verse:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Below I have edited Suzanne’s original blog post.  Suzanne’s post was constantly in dialogue with other bloggers, and as a result, many of her posts are from the middle of a discussion.  This one is from August 2010, and as a result, it would take too long to try to restore the full context of the discussion.  I’ve tried to modify her post so it does not require catching up with all the statements made back and forth.  Of course, Suzanne’s original blog post speaks for itself, and I encourage you to read it in its original entirety.

Suzanne’s post reflects her own wit and passion.  It is bittersweet to read today Suzanne’s humor as she predicts her own death in the post.

Suzanne, thank you for continuing to contribute to the discussion about gender in Biblical translation.  Suzanne, thank you for being in a tradition of strong and thoughtful women.  Suzanne, thank you for this guest post.

Suz Marcelle-150x150Chisholm_Shirley square ew clinton


[…] I am quite open to considering that biblical usage [in the Tyndale translation tradition] has affected [the English] language. […]  Tyndale’s translation […] had enormous influence, but I have also found that in certain cases, it has not had the influence that some people attribute to it. For example, an editor of the ESV [the English Standard Version translation – a conservative Christian Evangelical revision of the RSV]  told me that “propitiation” was in the Tyndale translation. However, it is fairly common knowledge that Tyndale created the word “atonement” to translate those Greek words that are normally translated as “propitiation” in the King James Bible. The use of the word “propitiation” was wrongly attributed to Tyndale’s translation.

So, I am curious to see how Tyndale translated the Hebrew word adam. Usually, it is translated as “man” or “Adam.” However, in Numbers 31 adam is [sometimes] translated as “women” because it refers to a group of all females. In the King James Version and subsequent Bibles, adam is [sometimes] translated as “persons” in Numbers 31.

Just this brief discussion provides some data. I will summarize as much relevant information as I can from this and other language resources.

The Hebrew word adam can be translated into English as

  • a man
  • Adam
  • a human life
  • persons
  • women

I assume that it can also refer to a group of men, but I cannot come up with a reference for this.

The English word “man” can translate the following Hebrew words,

  • adam
  • enosh
  • geber
  • ish

So, right away, one can see that there is enormous difficulty in mapping Hebrew into English.

I believe the following is also useful information. In Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German, there were different words for “man” referring to human beings, and “man,” a male/citizen. I personally think that we are better off in modern English with both “human being” and “man.”

  • Hebrew – adam/ish, geber
  • Greek – anthropos/aner
  • Latin – homo/vir
  • German – Mensch/Mann

Finally, I personally would go first to German and Middle English to find out the precedent of the word “man” in Tyndale’s translation. In Luther’s translation, of course, adam is translated by the word Mensch. I know that it might seem that the English word “man” is closest to the German word Mann, a male. However, that is not the case. In German, the word for “someone” is quite simply man, a person, a human being, a somebody, an indefinite pronoun referring to a person.

And in Middle English, of course, there is man, also “someone,” an indefinite pronoun, as in German. For a male person, there is the word wer/were. And that is how we know that a werewolf is a male human being who transforms into a wolf at night.

If God had wanted to call the human race after male human beings, he would have needed to use a word designating maleness in Hebrew, and this might have been translated as were by Tyndale in an effort to be specific. We might have retained the word were in English, if the attribute of maleness had been considered important to the early translators. The human race might have been called were, which is just a little bit better than being called has been.

Somehow, I am in favor of asking the[se] kind[s] of questions[…], but I find the research does not lead to simple answers. Or does it? Am I a man? Yes, I am a “somebody.” Am I a woman? Yes, a stereotypic woman, in fact. Am I a were or a has been? No, but I will be some day, in the manner of all human beings.

[Update added later by Suzanne to her post]

[…] To be parallel to Hebrew, we would need to see adam and adama as a parallel to “man” and “woman.” However, adam and adama, are parallel to “human” and “humus,” as Robert Alter translates them, in order to preserve the literalness of the Hebrew. Alter is committed to translating literally in order to reveal the meaning and the form of Hebrew, its poetry and rhythm.[…]

Hebrew has four words which English translates as “man” and Greek, German and Latin have two words. English is much better able to indicate the Hebrew pattern if we use “human being” for adam, and “man” for ish. It is not a perfect match, but closer than simply using “man” for four distinct Hebrew words.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 28, 2018, and backdated to July 16, for reasons explained here.)

929 Project: Genesis 1 – what does the first verse mean?

July 15, 2018

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

Every book has a beginning (with a few notable exceptions).  Genesis 1 is the beginning of the Hebrew Bible with this famous line:

בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ

The only problem is figuring out what it means.  According to the Mishna (M Chagigah 2.1) and the Talmud (BT Chagiga 11b-12a), it is even forbidden to teach what it means:

אין דורשין בעריות בשלושה, ולא במעשה בראשית בשניים; ולא במרכבה ביחיד, אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו.  וכל המסתכל בארבעה דברים, רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם–מה למעלן, מה למטן, מה לפנים, מה לאחור.  וכל שלא חס על כבוד קונו, רתוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם

One may not expound the laws of forbidden sexual relations before three people, nor the account of Creation before two, nor the Divine Chariot before one, unless he is wise and understanding from his own knowledge. Anyone who looks into four things would be better off if he had not come into this world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after. And anyone who has no consideration for the honor of his Maker would be better off if he had not come into the world.

The prohibition against explicating the creation must be one of the most ignored of all religious laws.

How to translate Genesis 1:1?  Jon Levenson summarizes two approaches in the JSB14:

A tradition over two millennia old sees 1:1 as a complete sentence:  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  In the 11th century, the great Jewish commentator Rashi made a case that the verse functions as a temporal clause.  This is, in fact, how some ancient Near Eastern creation stories begin – including the one that starts at [Genesis] 2:4b.  Hence the translation:  “When God began to create heaven and earth.”

I prefer to see the Hebrew text as having both meanings – meanings that have been assigned to it by careful readers.  I see no reason to argue over the meaning – anymore than we can ever hope to resolve whether Hamlet’s flesh (that he wish would melt) is too too sullied or too too solid.  And we can assign more meanings to the text as well.

According to Daniel Matt, the mystical text Zohar reads the verse differently, “not as “In the beginning God created”… but rather: ‘With beginning, [the Unnamable One] created God.’ This sounds shocking or heretical. But the point is that our usual understanding of God is pretty childish. What we think of as God is only one limited aspect of the infinite divine reality, which transcends and explodes all names.”  (You can watch a brief video of Matt lecturing here)

This too is an interpretation of the Hebrew, and a “hidden meaning” we must consider.

(NB this blog entry was written on July 27, 2018, and backdated to July 15, as explained here.)

929 Project: Abbreviations and Acronyms

July 15, 2018

This is a placeholder page to list abbreviations and acronyms that I use my 929 series of posts.  This list of abbreviations and acronyms will expand as I go through the series.

929 English The English 929 website
929 Hebrew The Hebrew 929 website
Alter See HB-A
BR Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig’s German translation of the Hebrew Bible.
BT Babylonian Talmud.  I recommend the version here.
DRC Richard Challoner’s revision of the Douay-Rheims Bible.  I recommend the version here.
EB-NCE The Norton Critical Edition of the English Bible
Fox See Shoc
HB-A Robert Alter’s translation and commentary on the Hebrew Bible, scheduled to be published in December 2018.  Until publication, references will be to Alter’s current versions, including his Five Books of Moses.
JSB14 The Jewish Study Bible (2014 edition)
KJB See KJV below
KJV The King James translation of the Hebrew Bible.  Widely available (for example, here).  For printed versions, I recommend the EB-NCE.
LXX Septuagint translations.  This refers to a corpus of ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible.  Note that multiple translations exist, so it is an error to refer to the Septuagint.  I recommend the Göttingen Septuaginta.  For English translation, I recommend NETS.
M The Mishnah.  I recommend the version here.
MSG The Message by Eugene Patterson
MT Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible (here is one resource)
NABRE New American Bible Revised Edition
NETS New English Translation of the Septuagint
NIV11 New International Version (2011 edition)
NJPS Jewish Publication Society translation of the Hebrew Bible 1985 version.  For printed versions, I recommend the JSB14.  Online version here.
NLT15 New Living Translation (2015 version)
NOAB77 The New Oxford Annotated Bible (1977 version)
NOAB18 The New Oxford Annotated Bible (2018 version)
NRSV New Revised Standard translation of the Bible.  Widely available (for example, here).   For printed versions, I recommend the NOAB18.
RSV Revised Standard translation of the Bible.  This went through several versions; I will quote the version as published in the NOAB77.
Shoc The Shocken Bible being translated by Everett Fox.  The Pentateuch and Early Prophets volumes are in print.
Targ Ancient Aramaic translations of the Bible (Targum) – see here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example.
Vulg Latin translation of the bible (Vulgate).  I recommend the version here.
Zoh The Zohar.  I will use Daniel Matt’s Aramaic version and Daniel Matt’s English “Pritzker Edition” translation and commentary.

929 Project: Preface

July 15, 2018

929 has launched an English version.

929 is a daily (Sunday – Thursday) reading project based in Israel to go through the chapters of the Hebrew Bible.  It has some association with the Israeli Ministry of Education as was made clear in this Ministry announcement (my loose translation):

Project 929 – Bible Together Project

929 is a special program initiated by Deputy Education Minister Avi Worzman, Rabbi Benny Lau and journalist Gal Gabai. On Hanukkah, December 21, 2014, we began the first cycle of a community reading of the 929 chapters of the Hebrew Bible. Every day, we begin a new chapter with interesting commentary, explanations, videos, pictures, and narrations. 

Discussion about the daily chapter occurs in social networks, study groups, meetings, and special events. It is attended by intellectuals, cultural figures, artists, and the general public – and it offers a pluralistic range of approaches.  The first cycle will end in the summer of 2018 during the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel.  The discourse surrounding the daily chapter reflects the diversity of viewpoints of those who read the Hebrew Bible, giving a perspective from many different angles.  The discourse is conducted in an inclusive and open environment, offering all participants a set of new and varied approaches. […]

If  you want to know more, seek depth, find new meanings, discover new voices and be part of a broad community that is exploring together, then reading the Hebrew Bible with 929 is for you.

Why the Bible?

Countless words have already been written about the text of the Hebrew Bible. It is a foundational text, an common denominator across the world, with stories and ideas that resonate in our lives up until today. As a book, it is amazing in its wealth.  It is fun, exciting, moving, and full of contradictions.  It is thought provoking and controversial.

It covers a kaleidoscope of interests, covering topics as varied as history, politics, engineering, design, and cooking. It presents to its readers personal journeys and family odysseys, interpersonal relationships and the actions of great empires, fascinating anecdotes and cross-cultural myths, angry prophecies and poetry full of tenderness, legends and thoughts.

Why a daily study program?

This daily reading of the Hebrew Bible is based on its division into 929 chapters. The chapters were defined in the [early 13th century] and the division is attributed to Christian theologian [Archbishop] Stephen Langton.  […]  For many years, the tradition of learning in Israel has promoted the daily reading of the founding texts [such as the Daf Yomi system of reading the Babylonian Talmud], and now the daily chapter in the Bible joins this cultural custom.

The first cycle completed and a new cycle began on July 15, and will continue until February 2, 2022.  With the new cycle comes a new section focused on an English speaking audience:

Torah Study Is Becoming One Big Crowdsourcing Project, With Launch Of ‘929 English’

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt

Israeli website “929” — devoted to the study of all 929 chapters of Tanakh (Scripture) — just announced that it is launching an English-language website[…] .

The website, and its app, invites participants to “read the Tanakh from cover to cover, one chapter a day – five per week”, and currently gets around 270,000 engaged readers returning to the site 3-4 times a month, according to its team.[…]

The English edition is in partnership with the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, spearheaded by Shira Hecht-Koller. “The points of access [to Torah study] and web of connections are not always obvious or natural,” said Hecht-Koller. “But therein lies the work; to take the language and rootedness of a tradition that is central to who we are as a people and utilize it as a lens through which to see and engage with the world. And, alternately, to think of ways to bring the beauty, wonder and mysteries of the world and connect them back to our texts and traditions.”

And the commentaries in 929 exist far beyond writing — some contributors turn to art, music, Tanakh-inspired walking tours with interactive maps of Israel, and video to interpret biblical verses. One contributor used graffiti and video to comment on Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone.”  Another contributor used a web series to interpret Psalm 30. […]



The 929 project in its first cycle was not without controversy.  Rabbi Benny Lau’s ideology was  summed up in a Haaretz headline:  This Orthodox Israeli Rabbi Is an Ultra-liberal and Not Ashamed of It.  The right wing launched into multiple attacks on the site. 

Those on the left complained the site was not as inclusive as promised:

It only took nine chapters for the project to run into trouble.  Ari Elon, one of the most prominent, influential and well-respected scholars in the world of secular Jewish thought was invited to participate in the project and write his daily commentary on the daily chapter. Elon is known for his provocative and audacious commentary on the Torah and the Talmud, challenging the concept of God with linguistic acrobatics and unconventional associations (author of Alma Di: From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven). Only nine chapters into 929 and Ari was already disinvited. “Cool it,” he was told by Lau, “your secular approach is insulting and angering some of the Orthodox rabbis” (paraphrased from Ari’s Facebook page).

The controversial commentary which got Elon in trouble relates to Genesis 9 verses 5-6: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.” A moral decree, needless to say, given on the heels of the great flood, which destroyed the vast majority of the creatures of the world. Ari dared to point out that God himself doesn’t follow his own edict. He doesn’t practice what he preaches. What does God have to say in defense of his own actions, Ari asks. In a clever play on the words of the scripture, Ari poses the ultimate heretical question: “What kind of man creates such a God in his own image?” The result of Elon’s participation in 929 has been the birth of a Glatt-Kosher version of the initiative.

A later report said “This turned out to be a misunderstanding—Elon is still signed on, though one of his pieces was delayed—but the passionate outcry reflected the suspicions held by many secular Israelis about whether a Bible-learning initiative co-run by an Orthodox rabbi could possibly be truly open to nonbelievers and non-traditionalists.”


The main tool for following along is the 929 English website.  The site has apps for the iOS and Android platforms.

The amazing website has a portion of its calendar section devoted to 929.

929 has Facebook pages in Hebrew and English, although the English page currently has almost no content.

A list of abbreviations and acronyms that I use in this series is available here (constantly being expanded).

And, of course, there are a huge number of Bible translations, Bible commentaries, and Bible websites available.  I’ll be mentioning some of my favorites as we go through the series.


It is, perhaps, a peculiar disease of academics that we feel need to have an opinion about everything, as Jacques Ellul famous observed in his book Propaganda.  The Hebrew Bible is far too large and complex to try to do that.  So instead, in this series, I will try to just make a simple observation.  If I can, I’ll make some original comment, but that is not very easy with a text that is so widely discussed.  So instead, I’ll often simply react to a comment on the 929 web site, or repeat some observation that I learned from someone else.  I don’t want to argue for a certain perspective in this series, merely make observations (or repeat observations that from others that I found stimulating).

Of course, as always, the whole BLT team will be on the lookout for comments that are spam, hateful, off-topic, or inappropriate.  We believe in freedom of speech here, but if your speech falls into one of those categories, please preset your ideas on your own blog.


929 is a project centered in Israel, so it uses the Jewish weekly calendar, starting on Sunday and finishing on Thursday, with Friday and Saturday being review days for the weekend and Jewish Sabbath.  The cycle began on July 15, but presentation of English language content was tied to a major site revision.  That got delayed for two weeks, so the English version is only launching now.  Until we catch up, my posts will be back-dated to the date that the chapters were announced.  I hope to catch up with the site in due course.

Of course, I am painfully aware that many projects of this sort fall completely flat.  For example, Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun (the New York synagogue of Ivanka and Jared) launched a blog with great fanfare to follow along with the 929 project.  The blog dutifully covered Genesis chapters 1 through 16 individually.  It did chapters 17-20 as a group, and then chapters 21 and 22 individually.  It skipped chapters 23-31.  It covered chapter 32, and then apparently stopped.

Perhaps this series will suffer the same fate.  But I hope it does not and that I will be able to continue working through the chapters – perhaps along with you.

As I write this series, I hope to keep in mind the memory of Suzanne McCarthy, our co-blogger whom we all miss. 

This last week, I was the lucky beneficiary of an incredible good deed performed by an anonymous person – I do not know who he or she is.  If by some incredible coincidence that person happens to run across this post, then I would like to express my thanks.  (So a thanks to an anonymous person from a pseudonymous person on an obscure blog.)

I’m looking forward to reading a bit of the Bible with the 929 community – and with you.

(NB this blog entry was written on July 27, 2018, and backdated to July 15, as explained above.)

Suzanne McCarthy et al, on or in “The Biblioblog Top 50 for June 2018”

June 30, 2018

Some years ago, Suzanne McCarthy wrote this on or in a blog post:

I decided some time ago to completely ignore the list of top 50 biblioblogs. I was just being a pain about it, and I didn’t want to foist my irritation on others ad infinitum. So imagine my astonishment on finding out that somebody, or a collection of somebody’s, has voted this blog among the top ten biblioblogs. Shoot, now I am going to have to improve my manners and act like one of the gang. No more crankypants!

The top 50, way back then, was mainly a gentleman’s club, a nearly all male country club set. Yesterday, this thing continued. And it lists the lot of us here at BLT, including the late Suzanne we must presume, as “J. K. Gayle et al.” Well, we who are still here blogging with her in spirit, don’t know how, as she didn’t either, “to completely ignore the list of top 50 biblioblogs.”

We do remember well Suzanne McCarthy and her many helpful thoughts and blogposts and comments on the Bible and hope soon to make an announcement about something related to her and her thinking and writing.

How to End the Finest Tragedy

March 23, 2018

In his translator’s note, Daniel Mark Epstein says the following of The Bacchae by Euripides:


I have been reading the recent and maybe the now-unmatched translation by Anne Carson and am awe-struck, as usual, by her translating. (Here are links to a review of her performed version and to another of her more recent book version of that.) And appreciating how Euripides ends this finest of tragedies with his Greek chorus and how she matches that with her English, I wanted to blog to share that.

And it’s good to look at other excellent renditions as well. The wikipediaists have listed the numerous English translators (here).

How do the best see fit to let Euripides and his Chorus end this great tragedy?

Here is from Epstein:


Here’s from Edward P. Coleridge:


Here’s from David Kovacs:


Here’s from Matt Neuberg:


Here’s from George Theodoridis:


Here’s from Carson:


Here’s Euripides, and please do not fail to notice the finest, quite unmatched poetry:


it’s a girl: the Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven

February 19, 2018

Greek New Testament translator Ann Nyland has the following footnote on Matthew 18.2:

Bible versions traditionally translate the personal pronoun here as ‘him’, but the personal pronoun in the Greek is “it” following the neuter grammatical gender of ‘child’. The gender of the child is not mentioned [by the narrator of the Greek gospel of Matthew], and the Greek provides no clues.

She herself translates the verse this way:

Jesus called a child over, and put the child down in the middle of them.

Dr. Nyland’s English is emphasizing the mystery or the non-specificity of Matthew’s Greek.

καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος παιδίον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν

She could have translated it with it, the way Hebrew-Bible and Greek-New-Testament translator Julia Smith has:

And Jesus, having called a young child, set it in the midst of them,

Beyond how “Bible versions traditionally translate,” and apart from the few non-traditional versions such as Nyland’s and Smith’s, there are three versions that seem to get at something greater in Matthew. (For a quick look at the traditional, one can click here.)

That is, three Greek New Testament translators have regarded the larger context and the regular gendered contrasts of the Greek gospel of Matthew. These three highlight the plausibility that this male Rabbi called a little girl over and put her down in the middle of these men who were his all-male talmidim clamoring for the answer to their question about who could be the very greatest in the Kingdom of this God their teacher called his Father.

Let me end my post with these three. But first let me consider more what Dr. Nyland is advising and why that matters. Ann Nyland like Julia Smith advises that we pay close attention to gender in the Greek. Grammatically we all know how very important that is. Neither translator wants to over-translate the gender. For those readers inclusive of the LBGT community, Nyland has stressed how important getting gender in translation right is. For those readers inclusive of first-wave feminist activism, Smith’s translating has been remarkably important both for the facts that (1) she herself without the aid of a man translated not only the Greek Septuagint and the Greek New Testament but also the Hebrew Bible and that (2) her close reading of the original language texts have yielded an English version that brings to light gender in clearer ways (as noted in The Women’s Bible commentary here).

Neither woman translating wishes to read more gender into the Greek than the grammar necessitates. Nonetheless most translators default in English to the male-child gender. Nyland uses the English adverb traditionally to describe this male default in the rendering into English here:

“Bible versions traditionally translate the personal pronoun here as ‘him’, but the personal pronoun in the Greek is ‘it’ following the neuter grammatical gender of ‘child’. The gender of the child is not mentioned [by the narrator of the Greek gospel of Matthew], and the Greek provides no clues.”

She is correct of course that the Greek pronoun αὐτὸ is neuter. To say “it’s a boy” or to say definitively “it’s a girl” is to go beyond the clues Matthew provides his Greek readers here. He as author narrator does nonetheless provide an antecedent to the next pronoun αὐτῶν. That next pronoun refers back to the men asking their male Rabbi the question. And he, this Teacher, has been referred to by the very Greek pronoun that Matthew uses again in 18:2.  The singular (non plural) form of this same neuter pronoun in Matthew 2 actually refers to the child Jesus, to the boy, to the male son of Mary. There are nine pronominal references to this lad in the tight space of a very close context. There is no ambiguity. The clues are abundant. But in Matthew 18, the writer’s same pronoun “provides no clues.”

What I would like to suggest is that English translators have three choices, and the third choice is most compelling because of the larger context of the gospel. The first choice is almost no choice at all; it is to default male; and it is precisely how “Bible versions traditionally translate the personal pronoun here as ‘him’.”


The second choice is Nyland’s and Smith’s. That is the translator is providing the English reader the opportunity to attend to the importance of grammatical gender in the Greek. That is the Greek hides whether “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl.”


The third choice is to let the English reader see what Matthew and what Jesus have been doing with the Patriarchy, with the male-superior hierarchy, as the Greek gospel goes along. Already we have taken time to see this male dominance and predominance and default position in Matthew 15.21-29. And so when we readers come with Jesus and his disciples to their question about which one of them in their male only schooling gets the top position when they all go to Heaven, we readers are not surprised that Jesus continues to deconstruct their notions of privilege.


When he calls a child over and sets it in front of them, even though Matthew’s Greek at this point provides no clues as to whether he’s a boy child or she’s a girl child, we wouldn’t be too surprised by now if “it’s a girl.” Girls in comparison to boys had no statuses. They were never great like Jesus himself as a boy would be in his family. They were never great as a great disciple of a great Rabbi would be in the Kingdom of greatness.

Maybe by providing us his Greek readers with no clues as to the gender of this child Matthew is asking us to use our imaginations. And so we must. We cannot just imagine a sexless child. When we read a story that includes a child being stood up in front of a group of men, we don’t usually think of it as dressed androgynously or as having hair that gives no clues as to its gender. We picture a boy in boy clothes with boy hair if we think it’s a boy. And we picture in our mind’s eye a girl with girl clothes with girl hair if we think it’s a girl. Another way to put this is to imagine ourselves casting a play or theatre or film version of this very story. We would choose a boy or a girl to play this part of the child set in front of the men. And we would want the costume department and the make up department to provide clues to the audience in the theater whether he was a boy or she was a girl. This exercise would perhaps betray our default imagination. We might be biased. We might have implicit bias. We might even be deeply sexist participating in the systemic sexism of the social constructs of our society. We could even test ourselves for this thankfully.

But I want to suggest that Matthew is pushing our imaginations in the direction of the plausibility if not simply merely the possibility that Jesus calls a girl to stand in front of the gaze of these men. The end of Jesus’s teaching here is the repetition of his likely admonition against the “male gaze.”

There are three New Testament versions in English that also help us this way. They are the one by the Jesus Seminar, the one by Willis Barnstone, and the one by N. T. Wright. Here these are respectively:

Jesus Seminar’s version –


Willis Barnstone’s version –


N. T. Wright’s version –

Matthew 5:
27 ‘You heard’, Jesus continued, ‘that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I say to you: everyone who gazes at a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye trips you up, tear it out and throw it away. Yes: it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for the whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. 30 And if your right hand trips you up, cut it off and throw it away. Yes: it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.

Matthew 18:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus. ‘So, then,’ they said, ‘who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2 Jesus called a child and stood her in the middle of them. 3 ‘I’m telling you the truth,’ he said. ‘Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. 4 So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And if anyone welcomes one such child in my name, they welcome me.’ 6 ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to trip up,’ he went on, ‘it would be better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and be drowned far out in the deep sea. 7 It’s a terrible thing for the world that people will be made to stumble. Obstacles are bound to appear and trip people up, but it will be terrible for the person who makes them come.’ 8 ‘But if your hand or your foot causes you to trip up,’ Jesus continued, ‘cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life crippled or lame than to go into eternal fire with both hands and both feet! 9 And if your eye causes you to trip up, pull it out and throw it away. Going into life with one eye is better than going into hell with two!  10 ‘Take care not to despise one of these little ones. I tell you this: in heaven, their angels are always gazing on the face of my father who lives there.

(with added illustration here at blt, I’ve reposted from here)

changing the very face

February 13, 2018

This year blogger Abram K-J is reading through the canonical Christian gospels in Greek. He’s posted about that here and has started a private forum here. There, after reading how the Greek in the gospel changes the very face of power, I posted the following:

de-privileging great faith

Matthew 15:21-29 is fraught with privilege. The two stories are bound together by it.

The second story ends by counting men (besides women and children). This crowd is one that Jesus had deeply and instantly and involuntarily felt his unique pity for. He’d healed all their loved ones with ailments. Then he cannot stomach how hungry these 4,000 men are (besides their women and their children).

The first story ends by counting a woman. This is a dog whom Jesus has refused to hear. He reserves his healings not for her child, not for a female’s female offspring, not for an afflicted girl of a girl of the goyim. She is multiply de-privileged. She is born into the wrong race, the wrong sex, the wrong class. She never appears on any census. She has to beg for compassion. None of the men need to feel anything for her.

And yet in this context of hierarchies, of males over females, of sons over daughters, of Israelites over gentiles, of healthy healer over sick and demonized, Jesus gives in famously and surprisingly to this resistance:

Ὦ γύναι,
μεγάλη σου ἡ πίστις·
γενηθήτω σοι ὡς θέλεις.

It should have brought the crowd back to the Lord’s Prayer in the sermon on the mount; it should take Matthew’s Greek readers back:

Πάτερ ἡμῶν ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·
Ἁγιασθήτω τὸ ὄνομά σου· ἐλθάτω ἡ βασιλεία σου·
γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου

Jesus has deconstructed the Patriarchal conception of the One God of the One chosen race of men.

He has put this nameless female with her afflicted female child of an unkosher people group so far below heaven and on the last lowest rung of unkosher animals (did she call herself a “bitch”?) up with “Our Father” and with “whatever he wishes is what we must pray for.” And he has said to her “what you’ve wished for really does count. You and your child, though woman, though merely a not-son daughter, really do count!”

Post Script:

This month in the United States has been called Black History Month, or as the President decrees it “National African American History Month.”

As we read these two stories in Matthew today, it may be useful to recall why the black woman Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw got us Americans looking at intersectionality more closely. Here are two notable articles:



“It’s not about supplication, it’s about power. It’s not about asking, it’s about demanding. It’s not about convincing those who are currently in power, it’s about changing the very face of power itself.”

Happy International LXX Day

February 8, 2018

In this 21st century folks of the International Organization for Septuagint & Cognate Studies decree February 8 “International Septuagint Day” because of a decree given 20 centuries ago by the Emperor of Rome in this month on that day:

This decree was intended not only for those communities that had requested the Greek translation [of the Hebrew Bible], but the emperor ordered his secretary Areobindus to proclaim it in all the provinces also (Feb. 13, 553; Novella 146, περὶ Ἑβραίων). The emperor had personal relations with one of the leaders of the Jews, a certain Theodosius, who was highly respected by the Christians; this Theodosius took part in a disputation on Jesus and refused to be converted (Suidas, s.v. Ἰησοῦς).

Women who taught Jesus (and what he learned from them)

January 25, 2018

Ann Durham taught him (these lessons: to live among & to learn to love and appreciate people who are very different from you religiously, racially, linguistically, socio-economically, sexually – because they’ve taken us in when our family was vulnerable and far from home; to resist folk who doubt your birth certificate and incessantly sneer about your legitimacy; to be okay with yourself when your father leaves the scene after you reach puberty; to be a community organizer & somebody who taps resources to give food to people who are poor and can’t manage well for themselves, or who just won’t for whatever reason, and to do all that with compassion and without judging their motives).


Oh, wait. Ms. Durham is Barack Obama’s mom. I meant Mary, the mother of Jesus, taught him (these lessons: to respect the Egyptians who didn’t throw the family out when they were refugees, in de facto deportation from home because of the actions of the leader of the land; to resist the rumors of illegitimacy and to trust that angels had spoken to your parents; to listen to your mother when your father’s absent; to help out at a wedding, to make a miracle when the so-so wine has waned and the people at the party are already tipsy and there’s only water left to give them;  to use what you’ve learned there to serve more people generously and from your deep reserve of compassion and out of the deep resources that they’d never earn for themselves, without judging their motives).

Hillary Clinton taught him (these lessons: to break the Billy Graham Rule; to find yourself alone with a woman everybody loves to hate on; to listen to her with respect; to enjoy a give-and-take with her actually; to forgive her; to encourage her to help others, in compassion, whether they deserve it or not; to change an entire village and to recognize it takes a village).


Oh, wait. Ms. Clinton is Billy Graham’s friend. I meant some unnamed mixed-race woman, in an unnamed village in Samaria, taught him when foolishly Jesus found himself alone with her, tired with her, hungry with her, thirsty with her (these lessons: to trust her to have the resources to slake you and your parched mouth; to listen to her with respect; to enjoy a give-and-take with her actually; to forgive her; to encourage her when she spontaneously runs back to a man who’s not respected her sexually, and to all the others; to support her in her efforts to be an evangelist, a village changer who believes in the power of a village to help folk and to change the world).

The Rev. Father Wil Gafney taught him (these lessons: to listen. Despite what Euro-American seminary-chancellor-disciple John Piper was urging men like you otherwise, just to listen & learn & be moved, then, to action).

Oh wait. That professor teaches seminary men and women elsewhere. I meant that the woman whose daughter got caught up in #metoo taught Jesus. You know, that woman, yes, from those foreign sh-thole countries, Tyre and Sidon, Syrophoenicia, or was it Canaan? Anyway, it’s in Matthew 15 or in Mark 7, in those canonical gospels if we have to go there. She taught him (these lessons: to listen. Despite what your pure-race “make Israel great again” followers are urging men like you otherwise, just to listen & learn & be moved, then to action despite the ostensible cost to the fatherland).

Lottie Moon taught him (these lessons: to trust her to get the good word out when the men are nowhere to be found).


Oh wait. Ms. Moon, who taught hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men, was that evangelist in China whose name has been used by the Foreign Mission Board or the rebranded International Mission Board to raise funds each Christmastime in Southern Baptist Churches across the US. Fortunately the Southern Baptist Churches are finally apologizing for their race based slavery and are distancing themselves from other groups latched on to white supremacy and are slowly entertaining the notions of what it might be like for women evangelists to teach the male seminarians. I meant Mary Magdalene taught him (these lessons: to trust her to be the first to get the word out when the fellas are all hiding out in some upper room somewhere, doubting).

It’s possible other women taught Jesus (other things too). This may not be the exhaustive list. Who could teach us (more)?

quick review: Anne Carson’s Nay Rather

December 21, 2017

three notes, or four, for a quick review:

Three years or so ago, or a bit more perhaps, I learned that Anne Carson’s talk (with Alexander Nehamas in 2005) on “The Question of Translation,” that had been published with some substantial revision as her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” (in A Public Space, Issue 7 / 2008), had been republished as her exercise book or her notebook or her cahier, Nay Rather (as her talk-turned-essay-newly-revised with her revised seven retranslations of the poet Ibykos’s poem she called, “A Fragment of Ibykos”). What’s added is a colophon and, on it, a warning after the text copyright mark before author Anne Carson’s name (although she’s a translator as well) and after the Images copyright mark before artist Lanfranco Quadrio’s name (and he may be a translator too), is the following, which must be reproduced as the following quotation: “No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form whatsoever without the prior permission of the author or the publishers.” And, without the prior permission of the author or the publishers – or of the artist whose new works inspired by the author’s work are included, I may have just reproduced in some form some part of that publication. (Nay rather, am I not a translator also?)

And I would have purchased this little cahier right away. Except the price, in the United States, where I lived, was too high. Now that sellers are stocking it on this western side of the Atlantic, the prices are far below what I finally agreed to pay. Publishers and their authors and their artists must make a living, mustn’t they? (Nay rather, translators and their translators must also earn a penny or two too, right?)

On page 12 of the newer version (and we may reproduce a bit of a form of it again here) Carson writes:  “Francis Bacon does not invoke the metaphor of translation when he describes what he wants to do to your nerves by means of paint, but he does at times literally arrive at silence, as when he says to his interviewer, ‘You see this is the point at which one absolutely cannot talk about painting. It’s in the process’.2” (I won’t be silent that there’s a version of what Carson says and now writes available to us for free out on the internet here. And there, nay rather, that goes this way: “When I say Francis Bacon wants to translate sensation to your nerves by means of paint I’m using the verb translate metaphorically. In our usual usage, to translate is an operation of language, not paint. Silence also is something proper to language and Bacon does at times evoke it literally, as in interviews when he says (more than once), ‘You see this is the point at which one absolutely cannot talk about painting. It’s in the process.’ (4)”

What is of note is the variations of “metaphor,” “of translation.” Nay rather, “translate metaphorically.” There’s Greek rooted English, there’s Latin based English. How different are these?

The Pope and 7 Other Translators

December 9, 2017

Pope Francis in a tv interview recently suggested a particular translation of what we know as Matthew 6:13a. For what’s in The Lord’s Prayer, for this Greek in the New Testament,

καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν

he likes this Italian:

non lasciarci entrare in tentazione.

Here’s how Ann Nyland puts the Greek into English:

And do not put us through an ordeal.

Here’s how Richmond Lattimore puts it:

And do not bring us into temptation.

Here’s N. T. Wright‘s translation:

Don’t bring us into the great trial.

Here’s how Willis Barnstone seems to follow the KJV:

Do not lead us into temptation.

Here’s how the Translation Panel for the Jesus Seminar makes it for the Scholar’s Version:

And please don’t subject us to test after test.

Here’s what J. B. Phillips does with the Greek in his Modern English:

Keep us clear of temptation.

And here’s Clarence Jordan‘s Cotton Patch Version:

And from confusion keep us clear

I wanted to offer these renderings that are not in the main stream of Christian Bible translation publishing houses because of this blog post:

Human Agency and the Lord’s Prayer

The blog post author starts with this:

Caveat: I am neither a theologian nor a specialist in Biblical Greek (my specialty is Homeric Greek). 

And yet the author also gets, by the post title, the issue for the Pope. Is the issue of human agency engaged by the Greek prayer (ostensibly a Hebraic Hellene written transposition/translation of spoken Hebrew Aramaic). With all the news in the USA of public American men being accused by women of sexual improprieties, the question of being led into temptation, or not, is timely for a Pope, a Papa, who is speaking on behalf of God as a Father.


The passive aggressive voice of Harvey Weinstein’s Denial

October 16, 2017

has a post up today entitled, “The Strange Language of Harvey Weinstein’s Denial,” in which the linguist does a great job of giving readers his explanation of the “very peculiar flavor to the grammar of the statement released by Harvey Weinstein (via the spokeswoman Sallie Hofmeister).” He also includes a link to a much earlier post of his (“Fear and Loathing of the English Passive”) to try to get us past the tired notion that “the passive voice” must be responsible for “awkwardly evasive prose of this kind.”

What Pullum does not do is to help us consider how the passive voice is frequently a socially constructed way for our English speaking societies to perpetuate systemic sexism, to enable men to violate women sexually. He gives us, for example, no reference to the twitter campaign #nametheagent. Nor does he regard the problems of the social uses of the passive voice that male feminist Jackson Katz does regard.

Katz regards many English speakers’ uses of the passive voice to be a way of protecting the men who rape women. He says (with my emphases in bold font):

We [English speakers and writers] use the passive voice all over the place in discussions about violence, and gender violence in particular. So we talk about, for example, how many women in Colorado Springs were raped, or at colleges in Colorado or something, were raped last year. Not how many men raped women. Or we’ll say things like, how many girls in a Colorado Springs school district were harassed or abused last year, not how many boys harassed or abused girls. …

In each case, the use of the passive voice has a political effect and the political effect is to shift focus off of boys and onto girls. Even the term ‘violence against women’ is a problematic term — there’s no active agent in the sentence. It’s just something that happens to women, like the weather.

And he writes (again with my emphases):

Men’s role in rape is characteristically hidden in mainstream journalism through a variety of linguistic conventions. One of the more significant of these is when [English language] writers and speakers use the passive voice – consciously or not — to talk about incidents of sexual violence (e.g. “200,000 women have been raped since the conflict began.”). In addition, men’s central responsibility for the rape pandemic escapes critical examination whenever writers and speakers use gender-neutral terminology to talk about perpetrators, who are overwhelmingly men. An August 12 New York Times article reporting on Secretary Clinton’s trip provides a good case study of these phenomena.

The article appeared beneath the fold on page A8, in the International section. It was headlined “Clinton Presents Plan to Fight Sexual Violence in Congo,” by Jeffery Gettleman. The passive voice began in the first paragraph: “…Secretary Clinton…met a Congolese woman who had been gang-raped while she was eight months pregnant.” Passive sentence structures that hid male perpetration appeared in subsequent paragraphs: “…hundreds of thousands of women have been raped in the past decade.” “…countless women, and recently many men, have been raped.” “Hundreds of villagers have been massacred.” “The aid worker told Mrs. Clinton that an 8-year-old boy who had strayed out of the camp was raped the other day.”

This brief catalogue of passive sentences is not an attempt to single out the New York Times reporter for criticism. He was merely a vehicle for the transmission of the dominant ideology, which routinely obfuscates men’s culpability for rape through both conscious and unconscious omissions. Victims themselves often use passive voice. Gettleman quoted one woman, Mrs. Mapendo, who said “Our life is very bad. We get raped when we go out and look for food. “Another woman said “Children are killed, women are raped and the world closes its eyes.”

What I hope we might do is to consider that is Harvey Weinstein’s denial in English is, unfortunately, not strange at all. It is unmarked sexist and unmarked masculinist and unmarked rapist language. It is not strange. It is the sort of language that those using #nametheagent and those like Jackson Katz call to our attention.

So let’s call our attention back to Sallie Hofmeister’s use of the passive voice in English to speak on behalf of Harvey Weinstein:

Any allegations of nonconsensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein.

As Pullum notes, this is a rather strange use of the passive voice. But what is hardly strange at all, and Pullum could have pointed to this fact too, is English speakers’ and writers’ use of the passive construct in the context of talking about men having raped women.

“Women were raped (by Mr. Weinstein)” is what is alleged (and what is further denied by Mr. Weinstein).

So do you see what I just did? That’s right, I tried to show the weaselly implications in the construction of Ms. Hofmeister’s use of the passive on Mr. Weinstein’s behalf.

It is normal, and unmarked, to write and to say things like “women are raped.” Period. To leave it there and not to name Mr. Weinstein as the subject of the sentence, to merely imply that a someone, not named, was the rapist is not strange. Not strange at all.

And for Ms. Hofmeister to say, in English, this phrase — “any allegations of nonconsensual sex” — is not strange at all either. What her construct implies is a passive voice. And she uses this passive implication to implicate those making allegations. The language implicates those “alleging” as abusers of Mr. Weinstein. This turns the tables on them. They are taking away Mr. Weinstein’s reputation. They are threatening to rob him of his chance to go to rehab, to rehabilitate himself, to gain for himself a “second chance.”

“Women were raped.”

“Mr. Weinstein was accused, was made the poor victim (of mere allegations by alledgers).”

We listeners and readers, speakers and writers, of the English passive voice for what happens to women (“like the weather”) do not yet find it strange at all to protect the perpetrators of rape. Ms. Hofmeister seems to hope, on Mr. Weinstein’s behalf, that we will hear and read her English as implying that the women bringing the allegations are in that unmarked position of power, as we too normally allow rapists to be. We are used to the passive voice in the context of women being raped (by men); we find it commonplace to let this passive voice hide rapists and their aggression. We allow hardly stop to think about this passive aggressiveness and our complicity in it through our not strange language.

It would be stranger, perhaps, for Mr. Hofmeister to assert this this way:

Eva Green, Florence Darel, Melissa Sagemiller, Juls Bindi, Katherine Kendall, Angie Everhart, Minka Kelly, Tara Subkoff, Sarah Ann Masse, Claire Forlani, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Barth, Lea Seydoux, Cara Delevingne, Rose McGowan, Heather Graham, Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Asia Argento, Louisette Geiss, Rosanna Arquette, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, Mira Sorvino, Emma De Caunes, Judith Godreche, Elizabeth Karlsen, Lauren Sivan, Jessica Hynes, Romola Garai, and Lysette Anthony actively, publicly, courageously, and unequivocally state that Harvey Weinstein without the consent of any of them sexually assaulted them individually, and now I Sallie Hofmeister say that he denies that he did that.

When will feminist activism, the bringing of rapists to justice, finally not be strange?

The ESV Goes Beyond Mars and Venus

June 29, 2017

Carolyn Custis James has written a fun and funny blog post, “The ESV Takes One Small Step for ‘Mankind’!” In it she tells a personal story of a man who had “an annoying habit of pontificating on his [malestrom] views of women, often flinging verses at me [Carolyn], to make sure I knew my place.” She explains how she’d get him reading a verse that particularly indicts “men” apparently and not all of mankind. When she read that same verse translated by the male-only team of ESV translators, nonetheless, she makes a discovery.

And she shares with all of us on this planet under the moon “a significant breach in the ESV’s firm commitment to retain ‘man’ and ‘men’ in universal statements to preserve a so-called ‘masculine feel’ to the Bible.” Read her post here.

Now I’d like us to look at more ESV verses. Let’s start with a set of verses that the ESV editors say point us back to the exact one that Carolyn Custis James has discovered. Let’s begin by looking at what Paul has written in Greek to Jews and Greeks and perhaps to barbarians in Rome. Is he, a male, a man, a Jew, a Roman citizen, writing only just merely to others of his kind, to men only, just to other males, simply to the guys and not the gals? Is this for Men from Mars and not Women from Venus?

Well, we might think so in the context as we read Romans 2. And continue then into Romans 3. Let’s look:

I’ve highlighted the word man and the word one. The ESV men translating are rendering Paul’s Greek, respectively the word ἀκροβυστία and the word ἄνθρωπος.

The consensus of most lexicographers studying the former word of Paul’s is that it refers to the tip of the penis, to the foreskin of the male genital. And readers of the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Hellene writing, can be sure of this too. For example, Genesis 17 has this for the end of verse 10 and the beginning of 11: περιτμηθήσεται ὑμῶν πᾶν ἀρσενικόν, καὶ περιτμηθήσεσθε τὴν σάρκα τῆς ἀκροβυστίας ὑμῶν. Later Jerome looks at the Hebrew scriptures (and possibly at this Greek translation too) and renders that in Latin as follows: et semen tuum post te circumcidetur ex vobis omne masculinum, et circumcidetis carnem praeputii. I mention the Latin for two reasons. First, Paul is snubbing official use of Latin as a citizen of Rome when writing to his fellow Jews and to those who identify as Greeks, using the old lingua franca of the previous Greek empire. Second, for us English only readers today the cognates with this newer imperial language may be more obvious: semen, circumcision, masculinity, carnivore/carnal, and prepuce. The Torah context is G-d’s institution of male circumcision on the eighth day of boy’s life as the physical sign of the sons of Abraham. Paul is writing about that boy-only, male-only, man-only body part. And so the ESV men translating his Greek phrase ἡ ἀκροβυστία make the full phrase “a man who is uncircumcised,” for a male individual retaining penis foreskin into adulthood.

The consensus of most lexicographers studying the latter word of Paul’s is that it refers to mortals in contrast to gods in its earliest uses. As such both men and women are included in the sense of the Hellene phrase. Sometimes, oftentimes, the ESV male only translators will nonetheless make it refer only to men, and not to women. Here’s just one example we’ve noticed before. What we can see, however, is that the ESV for Paul in Romans 3 lets the phrase refer to any “one” whether male or female. The constrast with God is emphasized for “everyone.”

Now, the editors of the ESV get us readers of Paul’s Romans 3 jumping back to the Psalms. They get us looking not just at the verse Carolyn Custis James has shared with us. But they also get us looking at another verse in Psalms. Let’s follow note “c” on this Romans 3 phrase “every one”; and we see that it takes us here:

Again the highlights are mine. What we may want to know in the original Hebrew for Psalm 62:9 is that there are two different phrases we might transliterate as “Adam” and “Ish.” We might put these in stark contrast with “Eve” and with “Isha.” In other words, the two Hebrew words are most of the time, by the ESV translators, rendered as referring only to men, not to women. Even the LXX translators of the Hebrew into Hellene open of the possibility that the reference is only to men:  οἱ υἱοὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων and οἱ υἱοὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων (or the “sons” of “humans”.)

But here again for the ESV translators, in Psalm 62, there’s the generic English: “Those” and “those.” So when men are mere breaths, mostly deluded, and all liars then, in the ESV, they are also women. Or maybe we could say that at certain points the ESV goes beyond those distinctions of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.

Not Nonsense

June 16, 2017

When I was a kid, my mother taught us a number of songs that had been popular when she was younger. I still sing them sometimes.

We gotta get goin, where we goin,
What are we gonna do?
We’re on our way to nowhere,
The three of us and you.

We sang this one whenever we all needed to get going somewhere, or get going on some project like cleaning the house. I thought of it as a fun, silly song that had a nonsense-syllable refrain.

What’ll we see there, who will be there
What’ll be the great surprise?
There may be senoritas
With dark and flashing eyes!

So I was singing this the other day, as I was putting on my shoes and getting ready to head out for an errand….

We’re on our way
Pack up our pack
And if we stay
We won’t be back
How can we go
We haven’t got a dime
But we’re goin’,
and we’re gonna have a happy time! Sooo…

…when I realized, while singing the first syllable of the refrain that I’d sung dozens of times before, that it wasn’t nonsense after all!

¿Cuánta le gusta, le gusta, le gusta,
le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta?
¿Cuánta le gusta, le gusta, le gusta,
le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta?

It was wild: the syllables left my mouth differently, now that I understood that I was singing Spanish. There were breaks between the words now, and I knew roughly what they meant (“How much do you like?”). And they were spelled differently: I’d learned the refrain phonetically as


I’ve been gradually learning Spanish using Duolingo for a few weeks (I’m on a 21 day streak, but I had a broken streak before that), and these “(pronoun) gusta” phrases have been used a lot. (I took a year of Spanish in 8th grade, but I don’t remember learning that idiom then. Hermana Carmen was teaching us Castilian, not Latin American Spanish, though; maybe it’s not a common idiom in Spain? Or maybe it just didn’t stick, since the French that I’d studied for longer, and was much more common in the community, had no similar construction.) And I’d hit the “cuanto, cuando, cual” question words a few lessons back. So I had all the pieces at hand to recognize what I was singing.

At present, my mental map of the phrase is still flexible: I can go back and forth between “Cuanta le gusta” and “Quan-tolly-goose-ta” depending on which I fix in my mind before I start to sing. But if I stick to my Spanish lessons as I plan to, I expect I’ll lose the gooses after a while.

To finish this post off, I figured I’d find and include a recording of this piece. When I searched for it, I discovered that the words vary a bit from what I recall, and also from recording to recording. I think the version I learned may have been a combination of the Andrews Sisters (“the three of us”) and Eddie Cantor (“senoritas”). Here they both are:




both of whom are apparently covering the original by Carmen Miranda, in the 1948 musical “A Date with Judy”.



I must say, the most fun and surprising part of the video search was the discovery that caballeros are available as an alternative to senoritas! 🙂

I hope you enjoyed this story of nonsense transforming into language as much as I did while it was happening.