Shem, Japheth . . . and Translations of the Bible

In a conversation recently, the question of the meaning of certain words in the Bible came up. In this particular case, predestination. I was asked: why don’t you preach about predestination, since it’s in the Bible? Well, there’s a word there translated as “predestination,” but there is not a theory of predestination in the Bible.

How do I know that? Because I know biblical Greek and have read Paul many times in the original. As the post Sounding Out the Readings showed, there are simply things in the Bible you will not learn in English. To put it bluntly — the Bible in English, French, Spanish, etc is not the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible and thus, open to legitimate literary criticism.

So, then, wouldn’t God want his message to be translated into as many languages so as to reach as many people as possible?

Here is the issue. Maybe this is the wrong question.

In Decoding Genesis 1 – 11, Father Tarazi engages in a magisterial overview of the opening chapters of the first Book of Scripture. Lamenting the abuse (yes, abuse!) of the Scriptures by Europeans and North Americans who not only failed to submit to the original text, but also appropriated it for their own ends, he takes us back to one of the most important passages in the early chapters of Genesis — Noah’s blessing upon Shem, his conditional blessing of Japheth, and the cursing of Ham’s son Canaan.

In Genesis 9 we hear:

When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said,
‘Cursed be Canaan;
   lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’
26He also said,
‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
   and let Canaan be his slave.
27 May God make space for* Japheth,
   and let him live in the tents of Shem;
   and let Canaan be his slave.’

Well, who are the descendants of Shem? Simply, in the Bible, they are the peoples who inhabit the Syrian desert and surrounding regions, for whom shepherdism is a way of life.

And the Japhethites? Well, in the Bible, they come to be known as he “island peoples,” whom we would recognize today as the sea-faring Greeks and Romans. There are no North Americans or Northern/Central Europeans in the Scriptures. But they must function as if they were Japhethites. Why? Because they are not part of the Scriptural story at baseline but must be invited into it.

And that is the issue here. Anyone outside the story of the Bible has, in order to share in the blessings of Shem, to actually dwell in the tents of Shem — where the scroll of Scripture is unveiled and read in its original languages.

And so, Noah’s (i.e, Scripture’s) blessing of Shem as the “gold-standard” for those outside of the original purview of Scripture to embrace, holds lessons for us when it comes to biblical translations.

The translation will always, like the Japhethites, be by invitation, and will receive a blessing only by being fully within the tents of Shem. And that means knowing the original languages.

In an earlier post, Baseline, I argued that the West appropriated so many of the treasures of the peoples of the Middle East — most recently since 2003 with the invasion of Iraq — that we have again come to see everything out there as belonging to us. To walk with the God of Scripture, it would help if we entered fully the tents of Shem, instead of thinking we made those tents and that they belong to us.


Skepticism and the Bible

I am currently in the middle of reading the late Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle in the Dark. Sagan tackles the superstitions and false beliefs that give rise to a kind of mental, if not political and economic, slavery. The way out of this word of superstition, often perpetrated by religion, is for a society to have broad scientific knowledge capable of asking relevant and critical questions borne of skepticism.

There is one section that caught my attention the most, and it it is this section that is worth reflection. In chapter 7, eponymously entitled “The Demon-Haunted World,” Dr. Sagan quotes the British historian Edward Gibbon who, commenting upon the philosophers who became Christians, makes this observation:

“The most curious, or the most credulous, among the Pagans were often persuaded to enter into a society which asserted an actual claim of miraculous powers” (TDHW, page 126).

The result for Gibbon, and Sagan, was that superstition came to eventually replace reason and critical thinking.

In his The Mythic Past, biblical scholar Thomas Thompson makes the case that the authors of the Bible often tackled philosophical questions about suffering and our views as humans of the divine, as in the case of the Book of Job. Thompson asks if the God portrayed in the book actually answers Job’s questions, because it looks like he pulls rank on poor Job, in effect telling him “who are you to question me?” Thompson (if I am reading him correctly) sees this as the authors actually questioning the widely held human awe of the divine that all cultures share. When we look at Elijah, do we see a righteous man eager for the Lord (our standard view of him), or a zealot who slays others in contravention of the commandment not to kill? God has to teach Elijah in the silence of Horeb that he is not the God of fire, wind, or earthquakes (i.e., violence; see 1 Kings 19).

So, skepticism of human views of the gods (indeed, of superstition) and of human behavior is very much woven into the fabric of the Bible. It is a book that introduced skepticism of religious traditions, and the dangers of excessive piety long before modern science entered the scene (Mark 7. 1 – 13).

In earlier posts on this blog, it was established that Plato and his followers “did a number” on the human race. We are still paying for Plato’s dreams. Sagan is partial to philosophy, presumably as a critical and skeptical practice, but it seems strange, because at the end of the philosopher’s discussions, nothing remains resolved.

So, it is not accidental that when Paul goes to Athens (Acts 17), he encounters Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” along with the rest of the Athenians.

I consider this passage to be one of the most indicting comments in the Bible of philosophy and how uncritical it is, as it is devoid of actual engagement with the real world. All the philosophers of Athens would do is talk, and frankly, behave like the rich man in Luke, ignoring Lazarus at the gate. That is, they would feed themselves and do nothing for the poor and needy who surrounded them, and who were invisible to them.

Scripture invites us to open our eyes — as Jesus says, to “look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6) — and be critical of the lessons we are being taught. Asking questions is very much part of the biblical tradition.