Saturday, January 3, 2009

Sister-Sibling Sara // the exceedingly well-figured womb-wife

My comments today are on the Greek translation of the text of Hebrew scripture from Genesis 11:10 to 14:13. Seems to me, the translating is fairly concordant here.

The translators living in Alexandria, Egypt do seem to want the Greek rendering to punctuate the death of the fathers who fathered sons and daughters. The translators tend to say καὶ ἐγέννησεν υἱοὺς καὶ θυγατέρας (and he birthed sons and daughters); then the translators add something not explicit in the Hebrew: καὶ ἀπέθανεν (and he died). If the Hellene word order is anything, there's this syntactic sequential joke (of course not likely intended): "he fathered sons . . . then daughters and died" as if having girls, for the patriarchy, somehow leads to mortality.

Anyways, when "women" are mentioned again as "womb-men" and as wives, the Greek emphasizes what the Hebrew does: Abram's woman-wife was barren, as if bearing children is her worth.

In the Hellene mother tongue, nonetheless, there are some interesting connotations and contrasts around Sara, the wombman-wedded to Abram. In 12:11, the would-be father "knows" his wife-woman-womb in a different way than the sexual, procreative way: "εἶπεν Αβραμ Σαρα τῇ γυναικὶ αὐτοῦ Γινώσκω ἐγὼ ὅτι γυνὴ εὐπρόσωπος εἶ·" ("Abram said to Sara, 'I've given birth to the knowledge that a blessed-faced wombman you are'.") So Abram, in Egypt, wants Sara to tell the men, the princes, of Egypt that she is not his wife-woman-birther but rather that she is something else to him.

Sara is Abram's Ἀδελφὴ, his sister. He doesn't want other men thinking he can't "know" his own woman and can't father children. She's not to be seen as his womb-woman but as his female sibling. Besides, this wife of Abram's is seen this way: καλὴ ἦν σφόδρα (she has exceedingly-dangerously good form).

The story has many dimensions and turns at this point. But I want to fast forward a bit to a contrast.

Lot (who is properly Abram's nephew) is by the Greek text something else to Abram. As Abram puts it (in the Hellene mother tongue): "ἄνθρωποι ἀδελφοὶ ἡμεῖς ἐσμεν" ("We are human brothers.") Of course, this Greek word ἀδελφοὶ is ambiguous, meaning both "siblings" and possibly "brothers" (in contrast to "sisters.") Other than pointing out the ambiguity, I want to highlight the fact that the masculine Greek noun here serves as the unmarked "siblings." When Abram asks his woman-wife Sara to lie for him, then the marked feminine "sister" or Ἀδελφὴ is used.

In a similar way, ἄνθρωποι or "mortal humans" is the unmarked masculine word that may also ambiguously refer to "men" (in contrast to "women").

So just after the text tells a bit of the story of Abram and his "brothers" (i.e., Lot and his men), the narrative describes other men. Here the Hebrew translators render some of that into Hellene as follows: "οἱ δὲ ἄνθρωποι οἱ ἐν Σοδομοις πονηροὶ καὶ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἐναντίον τοῦ θεοῦ σφόδρα." ("The humans - those in Sodom - were exceedingly-dangerously wicked and transgressive in reference to the god.")

The contrasts in Greek are fairly stark. Abram's wife-wombman is to be seen as his sister because of her exceedingly-dangerously good form. Abram's nephew - a man-human - is seen as his brother-sibling, but the man-humans in Sodom are the god's exceedingly-dangerously awful ones, wicked and transgressive. Greeks reading the Hellene version without any knowledge of the Hebrew would likely find the differences sharp between Abram's womb-wife and his fellow human-men. How Greek marks the females and the feminine (but leaves unmarked the males and the masculine) accounts for these differences.

I'm not trying to suggest that Hellene writers were forced by the language to mark wo-men and fe-males. There are these famous lines that betray no default to the male:

Στᾶθι κἄντα φίλος,....
καὶ τὰν ἔπ᾽ ὄσσοις ἀμπέτασον χάριν.

You may recognize them as written by a woman, by Sappho. And Athenaeus writes to suggest that this fragment of her poem is written to a man, perhaps to her brother. But except for Athenaeus's comment, how would we ever know that?

Face me, my dear one...
and unveil in your eyes your favor.

Couldn't the translators of Genesis have allowed Sara more of her own agency, not marked always in relation to a would-be fathering man, as one who speaks as Sappho does?

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