Our sardonic Lord

I was reading Genesis’s account of creation through Everett Fox‘s translation this morning, and this verse made me grin:

At the time of YHWH, God’s making of earth and heaven,
no bush of the field was yet on earth,
no plant of the field had yet sprung up,
for YHWH, God, had not made it rain upon earth,
and there was no human/adam to till the soil/adama

If you’re used to Fox’s emphasis on both literality and expression, unique to biblical translations in English, you know from that last line that he wishes to get across in English the wordplay of adam / adama but can’t in a way that satisfies him. So you find the footnote, which says:

The sound connection, the first folk etymology in the Bible, establishes the intimacy of humankind with the ground (note the curses in 3:17 and 4:11). Human beings are created from the soil, just as animals are (v 19). Some have suggested “human . . . humus” to reflect the wordplay.

Wordplay. Perhaps some of the more humorless aspects of Protestant theology could be traced to the translations we Protestants have used for centuries. One can’t take more than a couple of steps into Fox’s bright jungle before being ambushed by wordplay, but one can speed over the paved surfaces of entire modern English Bibles without being jostled by one pothole of paronomasia.

Fox’s approach to translation, as he says in his preface to The Five Books of Moses, is “to echo the style of the original,” to present “the text in English dress but with a Hebraic voice.”  The approach helps counter centuries of favoring meaning over expression as if they were, in fact, separable.  Our English translations have quietly reinforced the idea that we can discard the stories and the way they’re told after we’ve extracted a doctrine or at least a lesson from them.

It’s hard to feel the fun in the above verse from the first chapter of Genesis and not feel also the ways its wordplay may shade the verse’s “meaning.”  Indeed, as accustomed as we Western Christians are to ferreting out meaning from even the most obscure biblical text, our blind eye to the Bible’s humor may deny us not only literary charm but also theological sense.  I remember spending an hour in debate with a friend over whether Jesus is being sardonic as he opens his explication of the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13):

And I say to you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. (Webster’s)

To me, the parable preceding this explication is both simple and wickedly playful. One step ahead of his master’s reckoning, the unjust steward goes to his master’s debtors and liquidates his master’s loans for pennies on the dollar so he’ll have a job with one of his master’s debtors once he’s dismissed. The master, surprisingly, commends his steward’s cunning and duplicity, and Jesus, in the above quote, echoes the master’s commendation somewhat ominously as he transitions out of the parable proper.

My friend’s and my disagreement turned on whether the Lord was being facetious, a possibility my friend could not allow in principle. But the parable doesn’t work otherwise. My friend was left to spiritualize the steward whom Jesus labels “unjust.” Jesus, my friend said, anticipates that we, too, will “fail,” and he asks us to become like the grasping and dishonest steward – “wise as serpents,” as he puts it elsewhere in the Gospels. My friend therefore assumed that Jesus’ “everlasting habitations” amount to worldly prosperity and, finally, heaven. I hear Jesus hinting darkly at hell.

In my view, my friend’s refusal to recognize the Lord’s satire, his sardonicism, sucked the sharp elbows right off of the parable for him.

I enjoy the master’s rueful humor and the dark overlay Jesus, by echoing it, gives it, but I like also how Jesus’ commentary doesn’t explain the parable away as a Western sermon or literary critique might. Instead, Jesus’ explication, taken in full (I quote only its opening), adds more of the koan-like richness I find in the parable itself.

The Bible often draws lessons from its stories, but it doesn’t discard the stories in the process. Genesis itself, Fox’s version or otherwise, is almost devoid of commentary and rarely draws morals from its stories. The nearest thing I’ve found by way of commentary in Genesis is the conclusion to the narrative of Esau’s exchange of his birthright for his brother’s meal: “thus Esau despised his birthright.” The line seems incongruous to me in the lean body of Genesis’s narratives.

I don’t suggest that Jesus’ facetiousness would be any more apparent in the parable’s Greek, but I wonder if our translations’ usual emphasis on the original’s literal meaning over its means of expression, whether that expression involves sound or humor or the stories themselves, has served to make our theology humorless and overly theoretical – and sometimes just wrong. In other words (and I know this connection may be a bit attenuated), I suspect that our literal translations predispose us to an unnecessarily systematic and shallow or grim theology, and that our translations and the modern theologies that attend them combine to keep us from discovering and enjoying the Bible’s humor and playful expression.


We Westerners divorce the “what it says” from the “how it says it” not only in biblical hermeneutics but  also in political theory and in literary criticism. I’m beginning to see that examining this cheerless separation of sense and expression is a central preoccupation of my blog, uniting my frequent screeds on hermeneutics (part of my “Devotionals” section), political science (“Civil”), and literary criticism (my “Critical” section, mostly). One of my earliest posts quotes a favorite line from Robert J. Ray and Ann Ray’s The Art of Reading: A Handbook on Writing that attacks the separation of meaning and expression from a literary standpoint:

The best prose is that which is so thoroughly at one with what it expresses that one sentence generates another. The thoughts, so called, have their existence in the turn of a phrase and cannot be extricated from it.

I think that’s good biblical hermeneutics and maybe a good principle of statutory and constitutional construction, too.

The connections I see among religious, political, and critical overemphasis on literality may really exist.  I think Western civilization’s penchant for disembodied theology has lead to its similar weakness for disembodied political theory. Like the Southern secessionists before us, we have forsaken the Declaration’s grounding of mankind as children of God, equal in their Father’s eyes, and we have hewed out instead a blind adherence to the Constitution’s letter, as if the Founders had ever intended such a thing. I also wonder how much of the destructive twentieth-century political ideologies (communism, fascism) grew in part out of Protestantism’s overly systematic approach to theology. (The opposite is also quite true: in the West, theology mirrors philosophy. See Nancey Murphy’s Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism for a detailed description of how the liberal and fundamental strains of Protestantism fell into line with opposing philosophical responses to David Hume.)

Harry Jaffa has a point: modern philosophy is “unreasonably skeptical and unreasonably dogmatic.” (Crisis of the House Divided, preface at iv.) The same quote describes Western religious life, I think, if not its theology. I wonder if the skepticism and the dogma feed each other, the dogmatic reliance on extracted meanings serving to mask our unbelief – an unbelief fostered, in turn, by our failure to live in the stories.

Walter J. OngWhen we insist on seeing a piece of literature as an object, as New Criticism does, we cut it loose from historical and biographical accidents that may otherwise drown our ability to hear its sound and drink its sense. But New Criticism ultimately destroys a piece of literature by saving it. Objects, after all, are lifeless, and dead things invite scientific analysis. On the religious front, the objectified, dead text and the age of science have led to literalism, the Western religious mind’s answer to science’s objectivity. In Paul’s words, we have divorced the letter, which “killeth,” from the spirit, which “giveth life.” Wouldn’t it be better to risk experiencing the God behind the Bible’s words? Wouldn’t it be better to hear a poem as a cry, as Walter J. Ong insists we do – as a connection between a living, or once living, poet and a living reader or performer – as a potential intimacy?

A return to the Bible’s, the Constitution’s, or any poem’s text, then, isn’t a call to humorless literalism or to a strict constructionism that can’t distinguish between letter and spirit. It’s the slow and repeated enjoyment of a text that won’t be squeezed for, and then discarded in favor of, some dogma or other envenoming essence. It’s an emphasis on story and language and oral expression that might have us, like the Lord, speaking not in theories but in parables, and grounding ourselves in the serious play of prosody.