Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Judging (Gay) Men & the Manner of Women

I'm reading a big swath of text (especially in Hebrew, then Greek, then Englishes).  There's much I can't say in just 15 minutes (on the Greek only).

So here's an overview of that big swath:  the section headers of the HCSB English translation, because I like those headers, more or less.  Where I think the Greek emphasizes something else, I strike the HCSB header and offer my own:

Genesis 18:9 - 21:21  
--Sarah Laughs, 
--Abraham's Plea for Sodom, 
--The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah 
Lot Offers his unnamed Daughters to the Sodomite Men, who'd rather have the Visiting Men, 
--The Origin of Moab and Ammon 
Lot's unnamed Daughters "Sleep" with Him to get "Sperm-Seed", 
--Sarah Rescued from Abimelech 
Abraham Lies Again About Sarah Being His Sister not His Womb-Wife which Closes Up -- Really Closes Up -- all of the wombs of the women of Abimelech, 
--The Birth of Isaac 
Sarah Laughs Again and this time she gets to ask the rhetorical question, 
--Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away)


By the homophobic and the homophilic alike, this passage may be one of the most commented on texts of the bible.  The former use it as a prooftext against gays in Judaism and in Christianity.  The later use the text to respond.  

If you're looking at the Greek text of Genesis 18:9 - 21:21 for prohibitions against or for permissions to engage in certain sexual behaviors, then I'd say several things.  First, there are lots of different sorts of sexual relations described in this particular passage that do and do not typify the varieties of sexual mores of the Greeks in their literatures.  Second, since some readers are insistent on regulating sex in marriage between one heterosexual man and one heterosexual woman by Sarah's and Abraham's example in this Bible, then this couple's dysfunctions sometimes do seem fairly aberrant even compared to Greek behaviors.  Third, if you're looking for some definitive gay or anti-gay prooftext of some sort in the Greek bible, then I'd recommend looking at Ann Nyland's translation work and commentary. What Nyland does, that few other English bible translators have done, is to consider the Greek words in the New Testament in light of their uses in many other extra-biblical contexts. On page 22 of her NT translation, for example, Nyland mentions that she's looked through "all Greek literature, as well as the Septuagint" for a particular use of a particular Hellene word.  Fourth, when you get the time, you might look at the various Greek verbs in this big section of Genesis to see how the men and the women and the narrator(s) who are the translators describe the sexual behaviors.  Fifth, among the horrors of Sodom and Gomorra and of its destruction and of incestuous relations and the like, there's some very funny stuff, laughable (such as the different ways the text views the unbelieving laughter of Abraham and of Sarah, who gets the last laugh in her son, whom she names). This is the women who in Greek calls Abraham what he calls the god: "Master" (i.e., κύριος). What's funny about that is the New Testament writers, using Greek, notice.

Today, I'm only going to look at how the Jews translating Genesis into Greek decided to duplicate barbarous wordplay. I'm interested in this here for a couple of reasons. First, there are three repeated words in this relatively tight context. Aristotle would accuse the Hebrews of duplicating their Bar-Bar-isms into Hellene. (He didn't care much for those who sounding to him like they were saying bar bar bar, and he followed the Greek practice of disparaging foreigners by calling them barbarians (οἱ βάρβαροι).

Second, Hebrew and Arabic poetry seems to key in on the repetitive, to play off of it, even in Greek translation.  These non-Greeks may sound to the ancient Greeks as if they've stammered.  Moses stammer twice when complaining about having to speak in Egypt. 

"Perhaps the repetition [in the complaint of Moses that he had 'uncircumcised lips'] signifies that the phrase has more than one meaning," suggests Dan Judson. In addition, Suzanne gives some compelling reasons why "The translators of the Septuagint could not write that Moses was of 'uncircumcised lips'." Perhaps they didn't want their translation, as barbaric as it sounds in Genesis, also to sound so weirdly feminine in their Greek Exodus (i.e., where Moses in translation speaks Hellene). Repetition, especially around a man claiming to have uncircumcised lips, signifies many suggestive meanings.

The men of sodom repeat a phrase. So the Jewish (heterosexual male?) translators have them repeating the phrase in Greek too.  

The narrator repeats a phrase to show a problem for the women of Abimelech.  So the Jewish men translation repeat the phrase in Greek too.

And when the translating men want to describe Sarah's menopause, they repeat a Greek phrase for women.  This they do without much help from the original Hebrew narrator of the story.

Here's the barbarous stammering, the doubling of words for doubling of meanings:

וַיִּשְׁפֹּט שָׁפֹוט

κρίσιν κρίνειν

Is this man (Lot) here to judge to judge us? ask the men of sodom (19:9)

עָצֹר עָצַר

συγκλείων συνέκλεισεν

God shut up, he shut up the wombs of the women of Abimelech (20:18)

Αβρααμ δὲ καὶ Σαρρα πρεσβύτεροι προβεβηκότες ἡμερῶν,
ἐξέλιπεν δὲ Σαρρα γίνεσθαι τὰ γυναικεῖα.

Abraham and Sarah were old, old, in days,
Gone out of Sarah birthed her wombly-womanly-ness

וְאַבְרָהָם וְשָׂרָה זְקֵנִים בָּאִים בַּיָּמִים חָדַל לִהְיֹות לְשָׂרָה אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים׃



  1. KJV for 18:11 "and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women."

  2. I am enjoying much this new blog of yours.

    I agree that homosexual acts were not the reason for God's wrath against Sodom and Gomorrah, but I don't quite follow how Ann Nyland does not see that Paul most likely uses the word ἀρσενοκοίτης in connection to it's use in Leviticus 20:13 LXX αρσενος κοιτην which has nothing necessarily to do with rape or sexual violation.

  3. Thanks for reading and even more for commenting!

    I'm assuming you're looking at Nyland's fn on pp 314-15 of her translation. Are you saying she's wrong to follow D.A. Carson's understanding of "exegetical fallacy" when she suggests that the single word Paul uses is the one used in Migne Patrologia Graeca 82 and in Martial, 11.78 for sex acts in which there are "women receptors"? but which is never used by Aristophanes who uses "a wide range of words for men in sexual relationships with men"? It's possible Paul only read the LXX and not Aristophanes, not his contemporary Roman Martial, and not Aristides (whom, Nyland shows, uses the verb form of Paul's word to suggest the raping of women). But Paul's readers in Corinth would very likely have watched and heard and possibly even read Aristotphanes' plays. In addition, Macarius of Egypt and Rhetorius Aegyptius (who would be familiar with LXX, Paul's letters to Corinth, Aristophanes, and Aristides) both used Paul's "term as women with the receptors. . . and rapists of women." (Nyland quotes K. J. Dover and Bruce W. Winter as secondary sources, but the Greek sources seem compelling enough, no?). If/ when I make it to Leviticus in this LXX blog, I'll revisit all of this.

    Please let me know what you think the translators are doing with "αρσενος κοιτην," and why they wouldn't have used the single word Paul did or one of Aristophanes' words. Or does Nyland overstate or misunderstand Carson's "exegetical fallacy"?

  4. I think the Levitical passage is not only referring to some "pagan" cultic ritual but is part of a list that includes sexual practices that were not considered acceptable. It is a good question why Paul uses a single compound word rather than using αρσενος κοιτην as the LXX translators chose. Did the translators of the Septuagint translate the Hebrew text literally since they did not have any other proper way to express same sex acts since other terms might have had humorous or sarcastic connotations. Perhaps this is the same reason Paul chose not to use one of the words Aristophanes used. When did the contraction of the two words first occur? I don't see why Paul's use of the contracted term whether he or someone else coined it, would have had any different meaning than what he read in Leviticus. I do not really disagree with Nyland's translation of I Cor. 6:9 as a possible translation, but I don't see reason to translate αρσενοκοιτης as anal penetrators if the word should according to Nyland to have a broader meaning such as rape or extortion than perhaps αρσενοκοιτης would be better be translated as “f*cker”. But at the same time Paul could have just as well meant men who have sexual acts with men in reference to the LXX without reference to extra-biblical uses of the word. Leviticus says nothing about woman to woman sexual acts. So, why does Paul mention them in the first chapter of Romans. Was he interpreting the Levitical law or expanding it because of a different practice he encountered in Roman society? Since the modern understanding of homosexual orientation is quite different than that of antiquity, I am afraid that a lot of attempts to interpret these texts in relation to this modern understanding are faulty. So if it can be proven that homosexuality is a natural orientation in some, than I would rather assume that the writers of the scriptures were not of this view(wrong according to modern research) and did not see these kind of acts as acceptable, then to force the wrong interpretation upon these writers. I do not understand why, if monogamous homosexual relations were acceptable, there are no clear and positive examples of such relationships in the Bible. This is in contrast to the subject of women. Although some find passages limiting womens' leadership roles, there are clear examples to the contrary.

    I am looking forward to reading your continuing work.

  5. if the word should according to Nyland to have a broader meaning

    why, if monogamous homosexual relations were acceptable, there are no clear and positive examples of such relationships in the Bible.

    Thank you again for your comment. I don't mean to project my agnosticism onto you, but I do appreciate many things you say! (By agnostic, I mean "I just don't know yet!"). Have you talked with Ann Nyland about her study? Don't you think she seems accessible and open to talking? I think I've seen her comments on listservs of old, and the like. Wayne Leman at BBB has interviewed her (for that blog) and may have a way you could contact her.

    I confess there's so much here I don't know, so much to learn. The more open and open to wordplay (and to metaphor, to interpretation, and the like) a translation is, the better it tends to be, I think. I'm not saying αρσενοκοιτης has to be non-specific when translated into English. But to detail with precision what and only what the word must mean in any given context seems very problematic.

    And when there's silence in the text (especially on sexual behaviors that have taboo variance across time and across cultures), to specify with unfounded certainty seems downright dangerous. One of my favorite pastors writing likes, it seems, to tell those he's counseling that the bible is silent, for example, on masturbation. He further counsels on ethical moral social health issues around it, getting some of the ethics, morality, societal, health, counsel from the bible. When none of Peter's or Paul's writings on man-wife/woman relations and master/slave relations address specifically the woman who is a slave and how a man in relation to her must behave, then there are difficulties. One of my favorite new testament scholars studies and writes about this silence in the text, and what that meant as the households in the early church worked out slave and woman hierarchies and behaviors with respect to men. Why does Paul seem to add instruction where Leviticus has none with respect to same-sex female acts?

    A serious question: Have you read William Webb's Women, Slaves, and Homosexuals? He addresses the inconsistent instructions (and some silences) on the first page, as I recall. But he seeks an answer in redemption, in time, in an interpretation out of dynamic love. I wish he'd dealt directly with the Septuagint more, as it informs or gives permission to the New Testament writers to re-interpret.

  6. I would love to dialogue with Ann Nyland. I once requested a response as a comment in her “Bible Translator” blog, but did not get any reply. I was hoping for one, but not really expecting one since she has specifically stated in her blog that “Blogs are NOT discussion groups , the blogger posts, and other people can comment on to the posts but they don't get answers as they would on a discussion group. It's not a discussion group!
    So, dear friends, my apologies for any misunderstanding and I am sorry to tell you that we will all have to keep on digging God's Word for ourselves. I have time to post, but I have no time to discuss, and had I wished to do this, I would have started a discussion group on yahoo.”

    I appreciate Nyland's work a lot and would like to have more access to her up-to-date work.

    I am living in Thailand, so my resources to material that might be in libraries is limited as is my access to book stores. Shipping costs are as much as the book's cost, so I rely heavily on whatever I can get via Internet which is not always very complete.

    As you are, so I am quite agnostic. I have seen that the major cultures of the world have been predominately oppressive towards women throughout history. I cannot help but see anti-feminism also in the Bible. A couple of the most troubling texts for me are the Levitical law concerning the birth of female children vs male children, Lev 12, and the valuing of male vs female Lev. 27. I want to believe that these anti-feminist texts are a result of sin in creation which has clouded the revelation of God. I want to believe that in spite of the fall, divine truth is trying to shine through the darkness in this collection of texts which we call the Bible. I know that many male translators have done much disservice to the original text's positive message about women. But at the same time, I do not want to distort the texts by forcing my views, whether it be about women or homosexuality, into them.

    Your example about masturbation is very applicable. I almost made reference to this in my last comment. Although the Bible is completely silent on this issue, the traditional stance on masturbation by not only Christian but also Jewish, Islam, Buddhist religions has been mostly condemning. Why is this? I don't know, but in this case I will not accept traditions condemnation to be forced into the texts either.

  7. Thank you again for your comments. Thanks for writing from Thailand! You're closer to Nyland (in Australia) than those of us on the other side of the Pacific and "up over" (v. "down under"). Where I've seen her talking about her translation work has been in forums some time ago. I think she blogs and writes now but about one of her hobbies: horses.

    You say, "I know that many male translators have done much disservice to the original text's positive message about women." Why does the text need to be view so statically? How can it be "original"? One of the most wonderful things Jesus says, I think, is πῶς ἀναγινώσκεις (which of course is Luke's Greek read of his spoken Hebrew-Aramaic): "How do you read it?" asks Jesus. And he says things like, "you have heard that it was said...but I say to you." And he let's Matthew translate that. And he asks, rhetorically, "Do you not understand this parable? How will you understand all the parables?" -- which is someone's translation of Mark's translation of his words. What agency! There's much agency around the text, which requires that outsiders/ listeners and readers / interpret from who they are.

    Why the textual silences? Can't the person always be prior to and above the text? Won't the person speak when the text is silent? And I'm really asking.

    Don't men put themselves above others by race, by class, by gender, by sexual (deviant?) preference? Isn't that what "text" is often for?

    Don't feminists have to respond to sexism? even if the response is protest, protests in silence? And, again, I'm really asking.


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