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And God Said: Table of Contents

(Also take a look at the Table of Contents with Wordles.)

1. The King's English: Why We're All Stuck in the Middle Ages
  "If the King's English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me."

That quip by Miriam Amanda "Ma" Ferguson to her Texas constituents last century actually reflects a common attitude toward the Bible. While of course most people know that it wasn't originally written in English, they also think that the ancient text is conveyed pretty accurately in the familiar English quotations: "The Lord is my shepherd...," "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth...," "Thou shalt not covet...," "Let my people go," and so forth. Most people think they know what the Bible says because they've read it in English.

But they're wrong.

2. Recapturing the Past: What Does the Hebrew Mean?
  "Why do you drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?"

"When a house burns up why does it also burn down?"

"If the ice-cream man brings ice cream in the ice-cream truck, shouldn't we fear the fireman in the firetruck?"

Jokes like these - and many more like them - show us something important about how language works. We see that the most straightforward way to understand words and phrases just doesn't work. It's a mistake to think that a "parkway" must be a place for parking just because it comes from the word "park." (In fact, a "parkway" used to be a "way" that traversed a "park.") It's a mistake to conclude that just because "up" and "down" are opposites, "burn up" and "burn down" must also mean different things. And it's a mistake to use "ice-cream truck" to figure out exactly what "firetruck" must mean.

Unfortunately, these sorts of basic errors mar many Bible translations and obscure the real meaning of the ancient texts.

3. Bridging the Gap: Writing Hebrew in English
  "Out of sight, out of mind," sounds like it might be paraphrased as "blind idiot," but of course it cannot. Yet many translations of the Bible make this sort of basic mistake when they render ancient Hebrew in modern English.

That's because knowing what the Hebrew words mean is only one half of translating the Bible. The second and more difficult half is finding English words that do the same thing as the original Hebrew. More generally, translation consists of two parts: decoding the original language (Hebrew, in our case), and finding a translation in a new language (English, for us) that does the same thing as the original.

In Chapter 2 we used examples from modern languages to get a sense of how the first half of translation works. We'll use the same approach now to understand the second half. And, as before, some examples will help pave the way for a discussion of the underlying theory.

4. Heart and Soul: What Makes Us Human
  The most important commandment, according to Jesus in Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, and Luke 10:27, is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind" (NAB and, essentially, NRSV).

Jesus himself (using Greek) is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 (which is in Hebrew), and that line is central to both Jews and Christians. Deuteronomy 6:5 is part of the text that Jews traditionally affix to their doorways, and, as we just saw, Jesus calls this the most important commandment.

The combination "heart and soul," or some variation of it, appears nearly forty times in the Bible, further emphasizing how important these two ideas were in antiquity. But here's the problem. The Hebrew words for "heart" and "soul," the words in Deuteronomy 6:5 that Jesus quotes, are levav and nefesh, respectively. And they are severely mistranslated. In fact, the translations miss the point entirely.

5. Kings and Shepherds: Who We Are
  Few images from the Bible are more well known than the poetic opening of Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd." Equally, few images are more widely misunderstood. The problem is that shepherds, once common, are now rare.

We likewise find a problem with kings. The word "king" appears thousands of times in the Bible, usually in reference to human kings, but sometimes referring to God. However, while we still have kings now, in Morocco and Sweden, for example, and theoretically in England, the role of kings has changed.

6. My Sister, My Bride: How We See Each Other
  We have already looked at the romantic and poetic imagery in Song of Songs enough to suspect that the incestuous translation, "my sister, my bride" (NRSV) must be wrong. The KJV's "my sister, my spouse" is no better. Other translations, like "my treasure, my bride," or "my own, my bride," may be poetic, but they are original inventions of the translators that do not reflect the original Hebrew. So what's going on?

7. Wanting, Taking, and Killing: How We Live
  Perhaps more than any other part of the Bible, the Ten Commandments have shaped Western culture. They adorn houses of worship and appear in courts of law. Unlike most parts of the Bible, they have influenced secular laws. And it seems that their importance was recognized even in the days of the Bible, for they comprise the only extended passage to appear twice in the Five Books of Moses.

The good news is that most of the commandments have been translated accurately. The bad news is that two have not.

Before we look at what went wrong and what the commandments really mean, it makes sense to understand what the Ten Commandments are and why they are so important.

8. Virgins and Other Young People: How We Mark Our Years
  Isaiah 7:14, quoted in Matthew 1:23, predicts that the Lord shall give a sign in the form of a "virgin" (KJV) who shall conceive. This virgin has been widely interpreted to be Mary, mother of Jesus, and Isaiah's prophecy is therefore a cornerstone of Christian theology.

But the word doesn't mean "virgin," so the prophecy isn't what is seems.

The Hebrew in Isaiah is alma. We now know how to figure out what the word really means. As we follow the same path we did in previous chapters, we'll also need a bit of general background about words that are used to mark age and societal roles.

9. The Power of Words (or Go Marry a Harlot)
  Hosea 14:1 (numbered 14:2 by Jews) calls on us to "return to the Lord."

Hosea is one of the "minor prophets," as they are sometimes called by modern scholars, or simply "the Twelve Prophets," as they are somewhat more reverently referred to in verse 49:10 of the 2,200-year-old Book of Sirach.

The Book of Hosea is hard to date. It begins with a preamble that puts itself in "the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah" and "the days of Joash's son, Jeroboam, King of Israel." So the book dates to the divided monarchy, when what we now call "Israel" was divided into a northern kingdom called "Israel" and a southern kingdom called "Judah." (Historians, being nothing if not clever, sometimes call the northern kingdom "The Northern Kingdom" and the southern kingdom "The Southern Kingdom," rather than using the terms "Israel" and "Judah.")

Unfortunately, according to II Kings 15:8, Jeroboam died while Uzziah reigned, so there was no period of time during both "the days ... of Jotham" and "the days ... of Jeroboam.

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