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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Genesis 1 and 2: "Straightforward historical narrative"?

I have been following Dr. Joel Duff's Naturalis Historia blog for some time.

Yesterday, he offered what I called a "concise summary of some key issues" that divide young- and old-earth creationists one from the other.

The post has generated a fair bit of discussion. And, because I thought Dr. Duff's comments were so useful, I have been "listening" and participating in the discussion.

Anyone who has followed the debates between young-earthers (à la Answers in Genesis) and most old-earthers will recognize the concerns expressed by someone who calls himself "LAR-15" who protests Duff's analysis of some of the issues:
It seems you have misidentified the foundational assumption. It isn’t that the earth is young; it is that the Bible is the Word of the God who cannot lie, and therefore it must be accurate. The young earth is a conclusion from that revelation.
Those who affirm the OEC and the authority of the Scripture have very great difficulty as is seen in the lengths to which they must go to try to defend both. In the end, the Genesis creation account is straightforward historical narrative, in terms of its genre. To read that as some sort of framework or poetic device flies in the face of everything we know about Hebrew grammar and syntax. The only way out is Waltke’s position when he said years ago that Moses intended 6 24-hour days, but that wasn’t what actually happened. But nonetheless, the assumption is that the Bible is right.
To bail out with the claim that the Bible doesn’t intend to teach us about science is akin to an newspaper article saying 2+2=5, but it’s not really wrong because it wasn’t intended to teach math. And that assumes that Genesis wasn’t intended to teach us how the world got here, something that is a prior assumption taken to the text and then the text is read in light of the assumption. No other conclusion is possible. (Just like you accuse YEC of doing.)
Since I feel a great affinity toward what I believe LAR-15 was trying to say, and, yet, since I also find myself objecting strenuously to several of his claims, I wrote the following response.
LAR-15: I would question the factuality of your fifth sentence ("In the end, the Genesis creation account is straightforward historical narrative, in terms of its genre"), the meaning you intend to convey by your second sentence ("the Bible is the Word of the God who cannot lie, and therefore it must be accurate"), and, then, whether your third sentence ("The young earth is a conclusion from [God's biblical] revelation") is a NECESSARY conclusion (based on your intended meaning in your second sentence and the problems associated with your fifth sentence).

The key, however, is your fifth sentence. And so I will seek, here, to respond to your claim.

As Miller and Soden point out, in In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood,
Genesis . . . was written more than 3,000 years ago, and it was written in Hebrew. To understand it fully, one must read it first in its original language and try to understand it in relation to its original author (Moses), in relation to its original readers (Israel recently released from slavery in Egypt), and in relation to the culture, worldview, and literary genre of the text. This is an issue in the debate on origins that is often--perhaps usually--ignored by Christians. For those who would ignore it, the meaning of the text is self-evident: "The real question involved in this debate is, Do we accept the plainest meaning of the Bible, or do we insist on a reinterpretation in light of the prevailing opinion of scientists?" The plainest meaning . . . is indeed what we want to find, but the issue is, the plainest meaning to whom? We must start with the plainest meaning to the original recipients. (p. 48)
And when you look at those original recipients in their cultural context, you realize that the language God-through-Moses uses in Genesis 1 and 2 is not at all "straightforward historical narrative" as you and I might expect from any modern text. Not at all.

But/and when you do consider the original recipients' cultural context, you realize God-through-Moses is seeking to answer questions very different from what any of us modern American readers tend to ask. The historical questions themselves are different. And the answers really and truly have virtually nothing to do with the physical universe (or cosmos/cosmology) with which we are familiar. they do, indeed, have to do with the cosmos/cosmology, but they have to do with a cosmos/cosmology with which ancient Egyptians--and recently emancipated slaves of said Egyptians--were familiar.

As Miller and Soden note, however, the cosmos/cosmology presented in the Bible is very similar to the cosmos/cosmology of Ancient Egypt, and yet it is presented in a dramatically new and different manner. FOR EXAMPLE, while one finds all the same basic "players" in the Bible as one would in the Egyptian cosmos, the "gods" of Egypt (and the "gods" of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cosmologies) are shown to be without power (much as the Egyptian gods are embarrassed in the narrative of the 10 Plagues in the Book of Exodus).

The sun and moon are "gods" in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian contexts; but "the Genesis account does not name the luminaries and thereby does not name any of the gods of the ancient Near East, whether Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or Canaanite. While the general purposes for the luminaries are the same between the biblical and ancient Near Eastern perspectives, in the biblical account the lights are not deities. They are merely parts of God's creation, doing his bidding and accomplishing his will. They do not have independent rule or power in creation but are completely under God's control, doing his bidding" (p. 132).

This is not a place for me to develop Miller and Soden's full thesis. Their book is relatively brief and exceptionally clear. I encourage you to read it on your own. I did--and do--want to point out, however, how great the divide is between the world into which the Genesis account was released and our world today.

But I would like to quote one more section from Miller and Soden with respect to the cultural context:
[T]he ancient Near Eastern world did not sharply distinguish between their stories of cosmology and "history." Neither cosmology (how the universe came to be) nor cosmology (how one understands the universe, including the relationship of the gods) in the ancient world was understood in scientific or historical terms but as symbolic, metaphysical explanations or as a means to "articulate the incomprehensible and the marvelous, while attempting to express such phenomena in a rational manner." (p. 156) [Final quoted text is from Vincent Arieh Tobin, "Mythological Texts," in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (p. 459).]
And finally. About those "clear" references to seven, literal, 24-hour days, listed in Genesis 1. Miller and Soden point out three "very interesting" features of those days to which my attention has never otherwise been directed by any other authors whose works I have read.
  • "There is no known record of any other society framing creation in seven days, so the use of it in Genesis 1 does not appear to be directly dependent on Israel's ancient Near Eastern mind-set. The use of a seven-day period of time, however, commonly appears in ancient Near Eastern mythology, legend, and cultic practice. . . . The number seven was . . . not always intended to be a literal number; instead, it carried symbolic significance, being generally understood to express the ideas of completion, perfection, or fulfillment." (pp. 155-156).
     
  • "Most translations of Genesis 1 do not accurately represent the Hebrew text when it comes to the numbering of the days of creation. Most translations refer to 'the first day,' 'the second day,' 'the third day,' and so on. In fact, the Hebrew text lacks the article 'the' on days 1 through 5. It should read as the New American Standard Bible translates: 'And there was evening and there was morning, one day' (v. 5); 'And there was evening and there was morning, a second day' (v. 8), and so on through day 5. . . . It is only when we come to day 6 that the definite article is used: 'And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day' (v. 31). This detail of the Hebrew text is significant because it is very unusual. The normal way of indicating the 'first' of anything is with the Hebrew word for 'first' (the ordinal) and not the Hebrew word for 'one.' The Hebrew phrase used here is almost always translated and understood to mean 'one day' in its other uses in the Hebrew Bible. . . .

    "[W]e must wonder why it is written in such an unusual way if it is to be understood as a simple consecutive twenty-four-hour period. The sixth and seventh days do have the article ('the sixth day' and 'the seventh day,' 1:31; 2:2-3), although day 7 does not use the summary formula, 'There was evening and there was morning, day x.' Clearly the sixth and seventh days are set apart as distinct in the listing of the days." (pp. 49-50)

    Miller and Soden note that this strangeness in the text may seem insignificant. After all, "It still tells us that there were seven days, doesn't it?"

    "The point is," they respond, "Genesis does not state the sequence like a Hebrew reader might have expected. Instead, it uses a very unusual way of expressing the days and makes a significant change in the last two days. It is as if the writer is telling the reader to pay attention because this is not a normal week. . . . There is clearly an intended sequence. But the arrangements may be logical (or theological), not necessarily chronological (or scientific). And perhaps there is even more significance, or a different significance. . . . The point here is the unique presentation, suggesting to the original readers something other than a normal or straightforward reading of a simple week." (pp. 50-51).
And, finally,
  • Miller and Soden note that "if we were reading [Genesis 2] independently of any other text, we would naturally assume that it is giving us a chronological timeline for creation.

    "If Genesis 2 is taken most naturally (chronologically), however, as the creation of all the plants, the animals, and the birds, then it contradicts the order of creation in chapter 1. . . . Furthermore, chapter 2 implies only one creative day. There is no reference to any other days and, in fact, the chapter begins with reference to a single day (Gen. 2:4 literally states, 'in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens'). . . ." (p. 55)

    Miller and Soden note that the standard evangelical "solution" to this apparent conundrum is "simply" to "explain" that "the author intended to give a non-chronological order in chapter 2 in order to make a theological point (for example, mankind is seen as central to creation rather than as the climax)." But, say Miller and Soden, "If chapter 2 is out of order for theological reasons, why must chapter 1 be in order chronologically? The only reason for this assumption is because it makes sense to us and because we have assumed that the enumerating of the days requires it. [But i]f the lack of the article on the first five days shows us otherwise, then a strict, linear chronology of Genesis 1 is not necessarily required." (p. 56)

    Ultimately, then, they conclude, "The point is that one cannot take both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 'literally' without creating contradictions between the creation accounts. This is a final clue from the passage itself that it is not meant to be taken literally, or as if it is scientific information." And then, finally, "When we come to recognize some of these clues that the original audience would have intuitively noticed, we realize that our naively 'plain' meaning was not plain in the same way to the original audience." (p. 57)
And so. IF the language God-through-Moses uses in Genesis 1 and 2 is not "straightforward historical narrative" as we modern Americans might expect, THEN the fact that "the Bible is the Word of the God who cannot lie, and therefore must be accurate" is kind of beside the point when it comes to deciding whether the Earth is old or young. And, finally, it is illegitimate to claim that "The young earth is a conclusion from [God's biblical] revelation." Rather, it is a conclusion from someone's (potentially faulty) INTERPRETATION of the Bible based on that person's (potentially faulty) ASSUMPTIONS about the intended meaning of the text of Scripture.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Genesis 1: How Should We Interpret It? --Part 5 --An Excursus on Scholarship and Listening to Those With Whom We Disagree

Fifth in a series on In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. Click here for the first post.
*****
Miller and Soden conclude Chapter 6 of In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood with the following:
If the original edition of Genesis was presented to Israel after their exodus from Egypt, and if it was written in an early form of the Hebrew language to people who lived hundreds of years in Egyptian culture, then we should expect it to reflect a concept of the universe and a worldview different from ours. We should not assume, without examining the cultural context, that we understand figures of speech or allusions to common motifs, beliefs, and theological positions of their day. (p. 73)
Oh, boy! You know where this is going, don't you?

Miller and Soden are scholars. And when you hear scholars begin to talk about figures of speech, allusions, motifs, and theological positions, you just know they are going to reference some kinds of knowledge they believe they possess and from which they believe you can gain benefit . . . if only you will listen to them.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Genesis 1: How Should We Interpret It? --Part 4

Fourth in a series on In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. Click here for the first post.
*****
Miller and Soden ask dozens of trenchant questions that they believe might help us carefully come to a conclusion about how we should interpret Genesis 1 and 2. I would like to share just a few of those questions here.

What struck me as I read Chapter 6 in their book: Most of their questions are of a type I have heard no one else ask . . . much less answer.

Take a look:
  • Why would God choose to describe the beginning of the earth with these particular features: desolate, and deep, dark, and watery (Gen. 1:2)? Why are they significant?
     
  • How do you separate light from darkness? What was the state of things before light and darkness were separated?
     
  • Why does Scripture point out that God called the light "day" and the darkness "night”?
     
  • Why did God create light before he created the sun, moon, and stars? What does this mean and how can it be?
     
  • On the "second day," God separated "the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse" and made the "expanse" to go in between (Gen. 1:7-8). . . . Does this indicate that originally there was extra water somehow stored above the atmosphere in a sort of vapor canopy?
     
  • Is Moses giving some information that we need to correlate scientifically?
     
  • What does it mean that the waters are gathered into one place? If we look at our globe, how does the water only end up in one place?
     
  • Why does Genesis 1 suggest God spoke the animals into existence, but Genesis 2 says he made them from dust?
"On and on the questions go," say Miller and Soden. "Some seem easier and some harder. Some seem picky, while others seem intuitive. But are they either picky or intuitive?”

Implicit answer: No. They're neither picky nor intuitive. But, once raised, they really need to be addressed.

I think Miller and Soden ask these questions partially by way of caution, but also because, by asking these questions, they believe that, in some way, we might be led either away from answers that won't satisfy, or toward answers that will. If theirs were anything like the books I have read in the past, I would have found these questions rather heart-wrenching and hopeless: “Who is sufficient to answer such things?”

But considering that Miller and Soden asked the questions relatively early in their book suggested they might have some insights heretofore overlooked. I harbored a glimmer of hope that maybe, indeed, they would answer them. And, as I have suggested before, I was not disappointed. Not only did they answer these questions, but, to my mind, they answered in a manner that addressed deeper issues that had been bothering me on the edges of my consciousness: issues that no other authors I have read--young- or old-earth, concordant or non-concordant--have addressed.

But we'll begin to talk about those things next time!

Next post in this series.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Genesis 1: How Should We Interpret It? --Part 3

Third in a series on In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. Click here for the first post.
*****
Miller and Soden provide a wonderful, gentle "on-ramp" to their discussion of Genesis 1. They address a whole range of troublesome issues that have bothered many of us who have either participated in or, at least, observed the old-earth/young-earth debate. I commend their book to you. Don't rely on my summary of those portions of the book that most moved me! I am leaving out some significant treasures!

I want to get to the meat of their presentation, however. So I am skipping over a whole bunch of wonderful, thoughtful, well-expressed material that I expect you are likely to find helpful either in your own thinking or when talking with friends of almost any persuasion about creationism and/or the age of the earth.

First item at the heart of the Miller-Soden presentation (at least from my perspective): the distinction between literal and figurative speech and how difficult it is for us in the 21st century to distinguish literal from figurative and vice versa.
If we interpret literally passages that are not meant to be taken literally, then we are as inaccurate as if we interpreted figuratively a passage not meant to be taken figuratively. (p. 43)
The authors illustrate their reason for concern via a number of Old Testament references. But I would like to pick up their mode of "argument" in their discussion of Joshua 10:12-14.
It is clear that the event is miraculous and that God is fighting for Israel (v. 14),but the connection between the sun and moon and the hailstorm is not as clear. . . . One way of understanding the text is to interpret the references to the sun and moon as figurative in themselves, as representatives of the cosmic battle taking place, similar to what is recorded in Judges 5:20: "From the heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera." Or Habakkuk 3:11: "The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear." If the references in Joshua 10 are figurative, understanding the text may be as simple as recognizing that the sun and moon were Canaanite deities, yet were under the command of Joshua. In Joshua 10:11 Baal is spectacularly shown to be impotent when Yahweh uses Baal's own weapons (the storm and the hail) to destroy more Canaanites than the Israelites' swords did. (pp. 45-46)
Obviously, none of this kind of interpretation comes naturally to those of us brought up in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We aren't used to thinking of heavenly (or, should I say, astrophysical) objects (as we might describe them) as being deities. For us, they are, first and foremost and always, physical objects. Yet those who are familiar with biblical language will recognize that Miller and Soden are engaging in no manipulation of the text to suggest these rather "new" understandings. And despite our--i.e., modern Christians'--tendency to focus solely on the monotheistic declarations of the Bible (see for example,
  • Isaiah 43:10, 12--"'[Y]ou are my witnesses, O Israel!' says the LORD. . . . 'You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God--there never has been, and there never will be. . . . I am the only God.'";
     
  • Isaiah 45:14--"He is the only God. There is no other.";
     
  • Isaiah 44:13, 15, 17-18, 24--"'[T]he wood-carver measures a block of wood and draws a pattern on it. He works with chisel and plane and carves it into a human figure. He gives it human beauty and puts it in a little shrine. . . . Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire. With it he warms himself and bakes his bread. Then . . . he takes the rest of it and makes himself a god to worship! He makes an idol and bows down in front of it! . . . He falls down in front of it, worshiping and praying to it. . . . Such stupidity and ignorance! Their eyes are closed, and they cannot see. Their minds are shut, and they cannot think.' . . . This is what the LORD says--your Redeemer and Creator: 'I am the LORD, who made all things. I alone stretched out the heavens'";
     
  • and so forth),
the Bible itself recognizes that there are other gods and that the people of Israel--not to mention the members of other nations--could easily decide to follow those other gods (see, for example,
  • Exodus 20:3--"You shall have no other gods before me";
     
  • Deuteronomy 6:13-14--"Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. Do not follow other gods";
     
  • Isaiah 43:10, 12--"'[Y]ou are my witnesses, O Israel!' says the LORD. . . . I predicted your rescue, then I saved you and proclaimed it to the world. No foreign god has ever done this.'";
     
  • etc.).
And many of these other gods were, indeed, what we now recognize as physical objects: the heavenly beings--sun, moon and stars; and things in the earthly realm. For example: most of the very things (in our mental matrix) that God used against the Egyptians as we read in Exodus 7ff--the Nile River, frogs, flies, and so forth--were gods, in their minds.

"Regardless of how we understand Joshua 10:12-14," Miller and Soden conclude,
it is not a scientific account. It may describe a miracle of nature or it may refer to a spiritual battle in which the gods of the Canaanites stand by and watch Yahweh win. . . . Regardless, we must see the figurative and theological aspects of this narrative (namely, God using the storm and fighting against the Canaanites with their own deities) or we will miss the point. The main issue of this passage emphasizes that God listened to the voice of man and fought for Israel, using the Canaanites' gods against them. (p. 46)
 . . . And so Miller and Soden turn to Genesis 1.
Genesis . . . was written more than 3,000 years ago, and it was written in Hebrew. To understand it fully, one must read it first in its original language and try to understand it in relation to its original author (Moses), in relation to its original readers (Israel recently released from slavery in Egypt), and in relation to the culture, worldview, and literary genre of the text. This is an issue in the debate on origins that is often--perhaps usually--ignored by Christians. For those who would ignore it, the meaning of the text is self-evident: "The real question involved in this debate is, Do we accept the plainest meaning of the Bible, or do we insist on a reinterpretation in light of the prevailing opinion of scientists?" The plainest meaning . . . is indeed what we want to find, but the issue is, the plainest meaning to whom? We must start with the plainest meaning to the original recipients. (p. 48)
Miller and Soden say there are a number of indicators in the text of Genesis 1-3 that "suggest it was meant to be understood by its original readers in a broadly figurative way" (p. 49).

Evidence?
  • That "the Hebrew text lacks the [definite] article 'the' on days 1 through 5. . . . It is only when we come to day 6 that the definite article is used" (p. 49). --If your English text speaks of "the first day," "the second day," "the third day," etc., it has added the definite object. The NASB, RSV and ASV are correct when they translate these as "one day," "a second day," "a third day," and so forth. Only when you hit the sixth day do you have the Hebrew speaking of the sixth day. (Interesting: NASB and ASV get that right. But RSV chooses to pretend that there is no definite object even then!)
     
  • "[H]aving evening and morning before the creation of the sun generates a problem for a strictly linear chronology. . . . In our scientific mind-set, the presence of darkness and light suggests that the earth was rotating on its axis. 'Evening and morning' are . . . clearly a function of the earth's rotation in relationship to the sun. The fact that Genesis 1 presents 'evening and morning' three days before the sun suggests that Genesis 1 may not be about literal days and literal stages of creation" (p. 52).
     
  • That "there is no stated end to the seventh day, God's Sabbath" (p. 52).
     
  • "Exodus 31:17 . . . is often cited as proof that the creation week was a literal seven-day week . . . "[for] in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed" (Exod. 31:16-17). The argument is that the human week is to reflect God's week. If it is a literal, seven-day week for people, it must have been a literal, seven-day week for God.

    "However, . . . [i]f all is to be taken literally, then it must be literally true that God became tired and was refreshed after his rest. . . . But was God literally weary? Had he become spent during the week of creation? No, . . . God is drawing an analogy here rather than an equation. If we do not understand God's 'rest' and 'refereshment' to be the same as man's should we expect God's 'days' to be the same?" (pp. 53-54).
     
  • That if we interpret Genesis 2 in its most natural (chronological) sense, then

    • "[I]t contradicts the order of creation in chapter 1." And,
       
    • "Furthermore, chapter 2 implies only one creative day. There is no reference to any other days and, in fact, the chapter begins with reference to a single day (Gen. 2:4 literally states, 'in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens')." (p. 55)

    The point is, Miller and Soden conclude,
    everyone who assumes the two accounts [in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2] are not contradictory but complementary will also argue that the author intended to give a non-chronological order in chapter 2 in order to make a theological point. . . . If chapter 2 is out of order for theological reasons, why must chapter 1 be in order chronologically? The only reason for this assumption is because it makes sense to us and because we have assumed that the enumerating of the days [in chapter 1] requires it. . . .

    [To summarize our point in another way,] one cannot take both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 "literally" without creating contradictions between the creation accounts. This is a final clue from the passage itself that it is not meant to be taken literally, or as if it is [intended to convey] scientific information. (p. 56)
Here I have completely ignored the significant textual evidence and thoughtful discussion Miller and Soden bring concerning the points I have summarized above. Again, I urge you to read their book for the evidence. But I wanted to summarize their presentation. And I believe I have done that.

As Miller and Soden conclude chapter 4 in their book, they promise, "as we dig deeper, we will discover much more data showing us that the original audience would have heard [Genesis 1 and 2] much differently than we do and leading us in [a very different] direction [than most modern readers want to take it]" (p. 57).

I can assure you: They keep their promise!

Next post in this series found here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Genesis 1: How Should We Interpret It? --Part 2

Second in a series on In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood by Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden. Click here for the first post.
*****
Miller and Soden begin their book with personal statements of "where they are coming from." Both confess long time commitments to literalistic, young-earth creationist perspectives. As Miller put it, he was raised in fundamentalist churches "where the Bible reigned supreme--that is, our interpretation of the Bible reigned supreme. To question our interpretation of the Bible was equal to doubting God and proving you weren't really a Christian" (p. 18).

He struggled with his faith, but eventually gave his life to Jesus. Shortly after making this commitment, he ran into Henry Morris' and John Whitcomb's The Genesis Flood and he "began to believe that if you take Genesis one literally, then you also must take Genesis 2-5 literally, and putting these chapters together with a tight genealogy demands a young earth" (p. 19).

And so he believed and so he taught for many years. But then . . .

One day he came to the conclusion that "all my life I had been reading Genesis from the perspective of a modern person. I had read it through the lens of a historically sophisticated, scientifically influenced individual. I assumed that Genesis was written to answer the questions of origins that people are asking today" (pp. 20-21). Put another way, he had failed to ask--as most authors who debate the meaning of Genesis 1 fail to ask-- "What did Genesis mean to the original author and original readers?" (p. 21).

And that is the primary question that Miller and Soden both seek to answer: What is Genesis 1 intended to teach us? "Only after we see Genesis 1 . . . from the perspective of both its author (in this case, Moses) and its original readers will we have the right to apply it to modern discussions . . . about the age of the earth and the meaning of the days of creation" (p. 23).

You know--you just know--a shoe is about to drop. They're "setting us up" for something. Right? It's obvious.

But for what?

And whatever they are about to say--and you know (since their title, itself, tells you) the authors are going to offer less than gushing approval of their (obviously former) young-earth perspective: If "the perspective of a modern person" isn't good enough to understand what Genesis 1 is about, then what will the perspective of a person from three thousand years ago or more add to our understanding? And, perhaps more important: How can Miller and Soden possibly suggest they could discover what a person of three thousand years ago believed or thought?

Happily, the authors offer answers to these questions--gently, carefully, tentatively, with humility and grace.

Next post in this series found here.

The fuzzy edges of translation

I thought this was pertinent--by way of illustration--to some of the issues I am trying to deal with in this blog.

I ran across an article in the July 2013 Reader's Digest borrowed from an article in Mental Floss magazine by linguist Arika Okrent who, herself, borrowed from Found in Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche. One short story in particular struck me as helpfully instructive of the need not only for care in translation, but for humble tentativity and resolute commitment to query a communicator's comments . . . especially if or when we sense "our own" interests or views are being threatened.

Rather than extend my introduction, let me "simply" tell the story.

If you're in your late 50s or older, you may recall a famous (or infamous) speech by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow on November 18, 1956. He said, in Russian, "Мы вас похороним." Literal translation: "We will bury you," or, even more literally, "We will dig you in."

The meaning was not lost on any of those who were present. It was clear to all that, as Okrent summarizes the story,  Khrushchev was making a threat "to bury the U.S. with a nuclear attack."

Was that his intended meaning?

Before we discuss some other statements Khrushchev made that use much the same phraseology, let me note what Okrent (Kelly and/or Zetzsche) say: "[T]he translation was a bit too literal. The sense of the Russian phrase was more that 'we will live to see you buried' or 'we will outlast you.'"

Ah! A circumlocution for, "We're going to live longer," or, "Our system is better," or, "We'll still be kickin' when your heart's no longer tickin'." Something like that.

Interesting idea.

Can we get any insight from the broader context of the speech?

Wikipedia offers some context. First, from the speech itself:
The actual verbal context was: "Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will [bury you]." 
Hmmm.

The preceding sentence certainly seems to push in the direction of the Okrent/Kelly/Zetzsche interpretation. "History" to that point certainly wouldn't be "on [the Soviet Union's] side" to provide evidence that the Soviet Union would bury the United States with a nuclear attack.

But there is a broader historical context in which we may view that particular speech. Wikipedia goes on:

In his subsequent public speech Khrushchev declared: "[...] We must take a shovel and dig a deep grave, and bury colonialism as deep as we can."
There's that burial verbiage! And this time, we cannot interpret it as being passive, the way Okrent, Kelly and/or Zetzsche suggest.

But the context is broader than this, too:
Later, on August 24, 1963, Khrushchev remarked in his speech in Yugoslavia, "I once said, 'We will bury you,' and I got into trouble with it. Of course we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you," a reference to the Marxist saying, "The proletariat is the undertaker of capitalism," based on the concluding statement in Chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto: "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable." Khrushchev repeated this Marxist thesis at a meeting with journalists in the U.S. in September 1959.
So. We have the context of the immediate speech during the reception. We have another reference to much the same imagery and phraseology just hours later ("his subsequent public speech"). We have comments Khrushchev made to American journalists three years later, and, finally, a direct reference back to it from a speech  Khrushchev made six years later.

So what was his meaning?

Can we "even" take his 1963 reference as controlling? Is it possible he is "reinterpreting" his meaning, at least slightly, from 1956? (I.e., does he "up the ante" a bit by suggesting a greater instrumentality on the part of the Soviet Union than he intended in 1956 when he first made the comment?)

Clearly, there is a lot of burying going on. And, as Okrent/Kelly/Zetzsche comment, however we might interpret the phrase, it is "not exactly friendly." But taken one way it is quite a bit less threatening than if taken another. So which was it?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Genesis 1: How Should We Interpret It? --Part 1

I have been looking forward to writing this post for some time. I can't remember how I discovered this book, but I find its "solution" to the question of how to interpret Genesis 1 extremely gratifying.

The book's title: In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood . . . by Johnny V. Miller (former president of Colombia Bible College [which became Colombia International University during his tenure as president]) and John M. Soden (professor of Old Testament at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School).

I have urged my acquaintances at Sonlight to incorporate this book into the Sonlight high school curriculum—and at least some of its basic insights and perspectives into earlier grades’ teaching notes. Hint: Miller and Soden take a strongly non-concordist view of Genesis 1-3.

As I wrote on this blog two years ago:
The concordist interpretations seek to show how modern scientific teaching is well in line with what the Bible teaches about creation and the early history of the world. ("See, if we reinterpret this word as meaning _______, and if we recognize that this word means _______ [etc.], then there is no conflict at all between science and Scripture!")
The non-concordist interpretations, by contrast, say, in essence, "Look, the biblical record in Genesis 1-11 has no relation to modern science or history. Don't even look for evidence that tries to tie the Bible's teachings in Genesis 1-11 to modern science or history. It doesn't. It 'teaches' everything obnoxious to modern science and history that the young-earthers claim . . . and more. Except . . ." . . . 
The non-concordists suggest various ways by which evangelicals ought to understand Genesis 1-11--ways that, they say, honor the Bible as God's inerrant, infallible Word (as per the standard evangelical statements of faith) while also containing statements or teachings that don't even come close to according with the truth of history and science as we know it. 
My view: In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood is the first book on a generally POPULAR level that seeks to address the topic of Genesis 1-3 in a way that honors the legitimate intentions and concerns of both old- and young-earth creationists while also--and more importantly and fundamentally--seeking truly to honor the text of the Bible as written and the context in and for which it was written.

As  Miller and Soden note, the concordists on both side—the Ken Hams of the world on the young-earth side and the Hugh Rosses of the world on the old-earth side—all read into the text modern scientific “insights” that were never there in the first place . . . and, therefore, they try to make it say what it obviously doesn't say.

Meanwhile, however, all of the non-concordists I have read prior to Miller and Soden tend to note the problems with concordist interpretations [“so,” they conclude “therefore, we must adopt a non-concordist interpretation”], but/and, then, they immediately “get on” with “the science” of the age of the earth . . . and jettison any concern with or attempt, properly, to interpret the biblical text. I.e., they leave us with an open question as to what was the Bible meant to say? How should we interpret it?

Miller and Soden provide what I find to be a rather satisfying answer.

It is an answer that will shake up most fundamentalists’ and/or evangelicals’ perspectives on the Bible. But I believe Miller and Soden have gotten to the deepest roots of my discomfort with both the old- and young-earthers’ claims. . . . I sense they honor the text as written, the Bible as God's inerrant Word. They also leave modern science to do whatever it will do.

And in case you are wondering: they say, YES, the Bible--"even" Genesis 1-3--is authoritative. But/and it is authoritative and speaks authoritatively in a way that doesn't happen to have anything to do with the age of the earth or scientific evidence concerning the age of the earth.

--More in my next post . . . found here.