Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Five Bible Images You Probably Misunderstand" article

Really interesting post over on Huffington Post: Five Bible Images You Probably Misunderstand (posted June 22, 2012).  The author, Dr. Joel Hoffman, writes a blog called God Didn't Say That, about mistranslations of the bible. 

Here are the "five bible images you probably misunderstand", along with my thoughts about them all:

#1 and #2: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul..." (originally Deuteronomy 6:5, then quoted/taught by Jesus in Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27)  Actually in each of these references, it is expanded to include "strength" or "mind" in addition to "heart and soul". 

The Huffington Post article says that in Hebrew, "heart" referred to mind and emotions, and "soul" referred to the physical body.  Which is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from English- in English, "heart" means only emotions, and "soul" is some vague other-worldly concept that may or may not actually exist, depending on who you ask.

Personally, I know I have spent a TON of time thinking about this verse, because it's the most important commandment in the entire bible.  In doing so, I've placed a lot of emphasis on the individual words, and broken it down into "What does it mean to love God with all my heart?  What does it mean to love God with all my soul?  What does it mean to love God with all my strength?  What does it mean to love God with all my mind?"  Which, I mean, that's great and all, you totally should love God with all your whatever, but it looks like the way I divided it up was not the way it was intended by the original author.

Well, darn.  But it's because of how American culture views mind and emotions as very separate things, whereas in ancient Israelite culture, where the bible was written, they were not seen as separate.  So, I know we definitely need to take that into account when interpreting the bible, but still, different cultures tend to emphasize/value different things, and that's fine.

Because really, the culture where the bible was written does not exist anymore.  That was thousands of years ago.  It just doesn't make sense to me to say "you have to forget all the things your own culture emphasizes and assumes, and pretend you only know the ancient Israelite culture, in order to interpret the bible."  That's way too extreme, and totally not possible, since that culture doesn't even exist any more.  So there has to be a balance in there somewhere.

#3:  Psalm 23 says "The Lord is my shepherd" and goes on and on with that metaphor.  You may think of shepherds as skinny guys who sat around and petted cute little animals, but that would be wildly inaccurate.  What the writer of Psalm 23 was actually saying is "The Lord is my shepherd- he would totally punch a bear in the face to protect me."

In all of these examples, there's not really a good way to fix it.  You can't say "oh these translators are trying to mislead us- why don't they just fix it now that we've done more research about the original meaning" because there just IS NO WORD in English (or, there is no concept in modern American culture) that means the same thing.  Translation is hard.  I totally recommend learning a second language (I recommend Mandarin Chinese, but, you know, I'm biased), just so you understand how translation is hard and words don't always mean what you'd expect them to mean.  And get a whole new perspective about how things can be communicated in ways you'd never even imagined.

#4:  In Song of Songs 4:9, the man calls his lover "my sister, my bride."  (By the way, the whole book, Song of Songs, is about romance and sex and how the two of them are all over each other.)  So, uh, what's up with the "sister" part?  Were they... eww...  No, apparently in Hebrew it "referred to equality of power"- the man and woman are equals in the relationship.

It totally makes sense that in different languages, the names for different family members mean slightly (or very) different things.  I remember when I went to China and stayed at my Chinese friend's house, someone told me that I was supposed to use the words for "aunt" and "uncle" when addressing her parents.  I thought that was incredibly awkward and never did it.  Later I found out that Chinese people totally do that- every adult who's your parent's friend or your friend's parent gets called by the word for aunt or uncle, even if you've only met them once.

(And a disclaimer, just to make sure I have not misinformed you:  Yeah, when I said "gets called by the word for aunt or uncle" that was kind of misleading- they get called 阿姨 and 叔叔, but there are actually a lot of other ways to say "aunt" and "uncle", depending on whether it's on your mom or dad's side, etc, a lot of other complicated things.  I really don't understand how it all works.   Sorry, translation is hard.  I guess that's the point of this post.)

#5:  When it says that Adam lived to be 930 years old (Genesis 5:5), or that other people lived to whatever ridiculous age, that's a metaphor, and ancient people would have understood it as a metaphor.  To them, 930 is a nice round number, because they were apparently not using base 10 like we do.  930 = (30 x 30) + 30.  That's totally symbolic, or something.

Sounds to me like this would be the same as me saying "we're a thousand miles apart" and somebody translating it to "we're 1609.3 km apart" which has none of the poetic/hyperbole feel of the original.

Personally, I always believed it was literally 930 years or whatever, even though that's pretty weird, because I thought the alternative was to say "clearly the bible is wrong here because, dude, that's just ridiculous."  I need a better reason than that.  I believe the bible.

And saying "the author meant it as a hyperbole"- that makes a lot of sense.  I could totally believe that (because "meaning" is what the author intended, not the way it looks when I read it, several thousand years later).  If that's true, then it means people back then placed a lot more importance on what certain numbers represented.  That's pretty interesting- actually if anyone knows of a link that talks more about this stuff, I'd be really interested to read it.  (Plus I'm a math nerd, so, there's that.  Numbers are awesome.)

So, I think the point of all this is you can't place too much importance on individual words when reading the bible, because it's a translation.  The general meaning is there, but unless you know stuff about ancient Hebrew/Greek, you have no idea whether an individual word means what you think it means.

And I think in general, that's okay.  The really important things in the bible are mentioned and elaborated on enough times that the meaning is obvious, even though it's a translation.  Some other less-important, obscure things can be misunderstood/mistranslated. (All of the examples here are little things that it's not a big deal if you misunderstand.)

But the thing is, a lot of times I do find one particular verse or one particular word that means a lot to me.  And other Christians do too- I've read all about how it says "in" instead of "on" or whatever, and the amazing things that shows us about God's faithfulness.

Or about how in the original Greek, this was the same word they used for how a dog scratches around when it's trying to go outside (okay I made that up but you know, examples like that- "this is the same word they used for" whatever).  I'd be kind of skeptical about coming up with some deep meaning from that, unless the person you're discussing it with actually knows Greek.  Just because it's the same word doesn't mean the original readers were all totally thinking about that dog trying to get out of the house.

So, what do you think?  What should we do about little misunderstandings/mistranslations like that?  Is it a big deal?  Does it worry you that some stuff ends up worded in a way that's misleading- and that's totally unavoidable, because it's a different freaking language?  Should Christians study Hebrew and Greek?  Any other insights about the examples mentioned here?


  1. Hey Stephanie! check out this video to go along with your answer on #5. I think you'll find it really interesting! He explains how it would have been scientifically possible for folks to live to 930 years back in the pre-flood conditions.

    1. Thanks for the link! A long time ago I read a lot about young-earth creationism, and I haven't thought about it lately, but after watching that (really long) video here are my thoughts:

      Not everything he gets from the bible is super-clear- I think some of his interpretations aren't necessarily so obvious- stuff could be interpreted in other ways and still make sense. For example, he got some stuff from poetry, like about God "stretching out the heavens" or "he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters" and like, that's poetry, it's not necessarily saying "there was totally a huge ocean under the earth's crust."

      Overall, creationism makes sense to me. But I'm kind of suspicious because in popular opinion, there's very very strong criticism, saying "this is clearly stupid and ridiculous, no one who knows anything about science would even begin to take this seriously, this is only for dumb people who hate science" etc. So I wonder why such strong criticism- maybe it is ridiculous?

      But the other thing that's suspicious is that I have NEVER seen mainstream science directly address any of the points in the creationist thinking. If it's so ridiculous and clearly stupid, why have I never seen anyone explain even a little why it's clearly stupid? (One time I watched a video "debate" between young-earth creationists and evolutionists, and the evolutionists kept saying "these are half-truths" but they never gave any other rebuttal to anything the creationists said.)

      For example, I would like to know what mainstream science has to say about some of the specific things he brings up in the video:
      - human artifacts that were found in coal
      - the many examples he gives of "missing links" like cro-magnan man, Lucy, etc, and how they were all hoaxes, or constructed from just one bone
      - would it be possible for the earth's atmosphere to have a layer of ice suspended around it long ago, and would that really double the air pressure and increase the oxygen content to the point where the health benefits cause people to live to 900 years?
      - he claims that neanderthals were regular humans that lived long enough (300 years or so) that their skulls and brains grew to that shape- is this reasonable?
      - he says the faults/cracks in the earth's crust were created when the big stores of water under the earth's surface burst open- is this reasonable?
      - dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time- this is why we have ancient pictures of dragons
      - human and dinosaur fossils found together? human and dinosaur footprints found together? Is this true? How reliable is the evidence- is there another explanation?