(See the follow-on post The Slaughter of Isaac: An Axegesis of Laughter in Genesis).
Language consists of two main levels: 1. the level of words and sentences (what words mean) and 2. the level of language use, or discourse (what we mean by the words we use). In other words, there are two questions “What does X mean?” (words in a dictionary and grammar book) and “What do YOU mean by X?” (What is your intention).
Here is an example of the distinction. I find my 10-year-old son, fiddling under the bonnet of my car. I say: “What are you doing?” Without any context, the sentence means that I’m requesting information. With a context, however, the sentence means “You brat!” and many other unmentionables. I have given an example of a “speakerly” text. In a” readerly” text, the writer cannot rely on body language such as a gruff voice, flaying hands or red face to provide what his characters mean by the words they use. The writer has to provide words to clarify other words, to develop related ideas. This principle applies to all written texts, and, therefore, also to biblical texts.
I now consider some of the problems in biblical exegesis where I provide examples – one from the Torah, one from the New Testament – of where misinterpretations lie not in the opacity of the text itself but in the theological/philosophical/psychological presuppostions that interpreters bring to the text.
In “Letters of Hebrew fire – the depth and death of meaning, I mentioned Rabbi Glazerson’s book “Philistine and Palestinian” (1995), in which he says:
“The deeper significance of the (Hebrew) letters… is a subject as wide as all Creation. Every single letter points to a separate path by which the effluence of the divine creative force reaches the various sefirot (”spheres”) through which the Creator, Blessed be he, created His world.” In a word, we are talking about the Gematria, which is a system that assigns numerical value to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values are closely related to one another.
Most of Glazerson’s book deals with the connection between the “deeper significance of the letters,” (the Gematria) and the surface text. In this post, I shall not discuss the numerical values of words in the Torah (Gematria) but rather their normal linguistic and communicative properties; in other words, the text itself.
“Rabbi Glazerson disproves the tale that it makes no difference in which translation language you happen to read the ‘Bible.’ He demonstrates that the Hebrew language possesses certain values which you hardly find elsewhere: a simple word expresses, in fact, deep ideas which the real meaning (my bolding) of the word includes. The Torah is not reading material for leisure, but needs much effort in order to be able to penetrate its real meaning and discover its real beauty beneath the surface.”
Rabbi Zalzer is using “real” to refer to both “surface” and “deep.” He distinguishes between the “surface” “real meaning” that needs to be penetrated to get at the “deep ideas” and “real beauty” lying underneath (the “real meaning”). Let’s get rid of the confusion by calling all levels of meaning “real” meaning, and then distinguishing between the real surface meaning and the real deeper meaning/s. Other terms for “surface” meaning are “grammatical,” “linguistic,” or “first” meaning.
I believe the scriptures usually contain only one meaning, the surface meaning. “Surface” is not synonymous with superficial. If they were synonymous, then every time I were to read “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good (Genesis 1:31), I could justifiably exclaim, “how superficial! And ask, “surely there’s more to “very good” than “very good,” surely there’s something deeper than “very good” – “very very good,” for example.
If, though, one wished to penetrate the deepest secret of all, one would discover – according to the Midrash – something so deep that it would defy the laws of contradiction. I would find that when God says “very good,” he means “very good” only for the hoi poloi. But if you’re Jewish and have also devoted decades to Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah, then, and only then, will you understand that when God says “very good,” he really means “very bad”; indeed, worse than “very bad”; He means the evil inclination itself, the yetser harah. Let the Midrash speak for itself:
- “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)—Midrash: Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: “Behold, it was good” refers to the Good Desire; “And behold, it was very good” refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says “very good” after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says “and God saw that it was good”) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: “Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.” (Kohelet [Eclesiastes] IV, 4) (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, translation from Soncino Publications)
Here are two more examples of “deeper” meaning. The first example is from the Hebrew Bible – the Song of Songs; the other, from the New Testament – Luke’s Gospel.
Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim).
On the linguistic (first) level, the Song of Songs is about physical love. For most scholars (Jewish and Christian), the deeper meaning of the Song of Songs is the love relationship between God and man (for the Jew, the relationship between God and his bride, Israel). Some modern Christian scholars see only the celebration of human love, and accuse the “allegorisers” of contorting a physical celebration into a mystical “cerebration.1” But, why can’t the Song of Songs be about both physical love as well as mystical love, which would mean that there would be not clash between the “first” (physical) level and the deeper (mystical) level. (By mystical I mean “imbued with mystery”).
The previous example was a legitimate example of how one level of meaning (the basic meaning) may allude to a deeper meaning. The next example – from Luke’s Gospel – is an example of illegitimate exegesis, which shows how one can arrive at (by steering towards) a higher meaning NOT by teasing it out of the basic meaning but by tearing the basic meaning out of context and replacing it with a “higher” meaning.
In Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says:
Luke 1:28 The angel went to her (Mary) and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Jerome translated the Greek charitoō (highly favoured) as “full of grace.” This Vulgate mistranslation of the Greek is one of the pillars of the Roman Catholic doctrines about Mary such as she was conceived without sin, and thus redeemed from conception, and she was taken up bodily into Heaven, and several more.
The question is why would Jerome make such an obvious translation error? The problem was almost certainly not an ignorance of Greek. Was it his compunction – encouraged by other sympathisers – to fill the mother of Jesus with grace, because he confused Jesus the “Son of Man (humanity)” with Jesus the Son of a man (masculine gender). A man knows about courage, truth, strength, wrath. But what does a man understand about gentleness, lovingness, virgin purity and affection? That’s the woman’s domain, isn’t it? Mary, the meek, loving, obedient highly favoured woman, pierced by sorrow becomes the Mother of God, “Can we not feel that it must have been so right…a living object of devotion, faith and hope” (F.W. Robertson, 1924. “The Glory of the Virgin Mother” in Sermons on Bible Subjects, p. 224. Everyman’s Library). When I was a devout Catholic, I used to feel that it was so. I never cared about biblical exegesis. Like most Catholics, I didn’t read the Bible much.There was no need to; the Pope said it was so, and that was that. Besides, the mother of Jesus had that feminine touch that no man – not even Jesus – could match. This, of course, is not true. The Son of Man was a perfect embodiment of both the masculine and the feminine of humanness. (You can find F.W. Robertson’s excellent psychological analysis of the Marian doctrine here).
In sum, while the Midrash digs deep below the surface of “very good” and finds something better; something (very?) evil, the Vulgate violates translation in order to idolize the pure blessed mother of the Mediator between man and God. Is not this also an example of the very good becoming very evil?
1From “cerebral” (brain, mental).
(See the follow-on post “the-slaughter-of-isaac-rabbi-glazersons-axegesis-of-laughter-in-genesis-17-18).