Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A Good View on Genesis

I have long taken issue with the interpretation, by many on the so-called "evangelical" end of the Christian spectrum, of Genesis as a 'literal' history and with the view that it must be taken as being a "perfect" translation. There is never a "perfect" translation of anything. Nuances are always lost and sometimes meaning - especially in philosophic writing - can be turned on its head. It is therefore refreshing to see a blog written in the US by a man trained as a Baptist Minister which puts a different perspective on it. But then, knowing the author, I would not have expected otherwise.

His blog is to be found at Blogging Outloud and the post entitled "Women are Suitable Helpers to Men" (October 8, 2012) is an excellent explanation of an issue that arises from the misuse of the word 'helper.' It most certainly does not, in Biblical terms, mean 'slave, servant or subordinate.' It means, in the original language (and the use of the word in the 16th and 17th Century English) someone who is an equal, a full partner or a 'saver' who 'saves the day' by doing something good. This is why the word is used to describe the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

What this blog post reminded me of is that so much of it is misunderstood by many who claim that if it is not the 'literal' truth, and absolutely factual, it calls all the rest of the books into question. Funny that, the Jews take the book seriously, but do not see it as 'fact' either. The reason is simple, it is, certainly in the opening chapters, allegorical and based on poetic traditions. The word 'day' can be argued over, the 1611 translators of the KJV took the simplest word of the choices of meaning for the Hebrew (very likely itself a translation from an earlier language) which means 'era' or 'a period of time' or 'day.' In Hebrew script, everything is related to context, and a Jew certainly doesn't read this word as 'day.'

Presumably the KJV translators used it as it was simpler, in their day had a wider meaning than 24 hours and anyway, they knew that elsewhere there is another 'allegorical' reference which suggests that a 'day' to God is 'like a thousand years.' Note the 'like.' It sort of got lost between then and now so Archbishop Usher, the man responsible for the 'dating' so beloved of the literalists, used it as the base standard for measuring 'God's day' lengths. He probably used it in all innocence - I'll give him the benefit of the doubt anyway. What tends to get forgotten these days is that at the time of writing, a thousand represented a VERY big number. It took us a good long time to get to the point we could talk about millions, billions and now trillions. All the writer's were really trying to do was suggest that certain things happened over long periods of time. They would probably be astonished by the way some folk cling to them as absolutes.

Actually, if you are prepared to read Genesis 1 and 2 without the blinkers and prejudices, they are not bad explanations of the Big Bang (Creation) and the subsequent evolution of plants, animals and finally mankind. Not bad for an explanation that is a little over 2,500 years old. Once again, the translation (KJV and Vulgate) of Adam and Eve into the singular leads us into a bit of a blind alley. In the original versions it is "Adama" and "Eva" - the plural forms for Men and Women.

There are parts of the Bible which are 'historical' and can be dated, cross-checked and substantiated (again as long as the blinkers are left off) because, like any history, it is told from 'the other side's' perspective. We now know that most of Ramses the Great's 'victories' recorded on his monuments, were at best 'spin doctoring' - several battles recorded on his monuments as 'victories' are recorded on other nations monuments as defeats for him. Most of the later books and the Prophets can be dated accurately, but Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were compiled quite late in the history of Judaism from several oral and written sources. Then, after the Babylonian conquest, all of these books had to be recompiled or salvaged following the destruction of the Royal libraries and the Temple in Jerusalem.  

Most Christians probably don't realise that there are two 'canons' of Jewish Scripture, the first is the Hellenic Septuagint which formed the basis of the Vulgate canon still used by the Roman Church, Orthodox Churches and the majority of European Protestant Churches. The second 'canon' is the Talmudic or Babylonian collection which is what is used by the Sephardic Jewish communities and which is what the compilers of the King James Bible drew on. This collection has none of the "Maccabean" books which are now included in some Bibles as an "Apocrypha." This is why the KJV has 66 'books' and the Vulgate contains 74.

I sometimes think it's a pity some of those who love to be so fundamental and dogmatic about the Bible, haven't ever read a Jewish commentary on it, or perhaps even tried reading the same passages in the Vulgate version. It might change a few hearts and minds if they did ...


  1. Good thoughts. I think the literary approach to reading scripture opens up so much for theological discussion. And in fact, Gen 1-11 really form the theological framework for the rest of the bible which gets lost when one forces a literal rendering when one is not called for. I plan to address some of the issues you raise in the weeks ahead, and look forward to your reactions. :)

  2. Funny your example. I just was telling an acquaintance about an incident with a Luthern minister. He was telling me how the women in his church couldn't teach boys over the age of 6. How they were the men's helpers. What? So he said how he had a hebrew dictionary and how he was so up on stuff. I had him look up the word used for 'helper' with Adam and Eve. And it said: Lover, Companion, Friend, Helpmate and a few more. I put him on the spot and he was not a happy minister. No I did not join that church. Just thought it was interesting how you posted something that I just talked about on Tuesday.

  3. To entrust women to teach and mold the minds of our very young and then not allow them to teach men in fear of their influence is the height of hypocrisy. Laughable at best, disingenuous at worst.