Saturday, April 4, 2009

Numbers 5: ORDER!

The first thing that Master says to Moses in Numbers 5 is this:

Πρόσταξον τοῖς υἱοῖς Ισραηλ

This is the Greek translation by Jews (in Egypt) of what Moses (once outside of Egypt) wrote that God (aka יהוה) told him. In Hebrew that's this:

צַו אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

As I'm re-viewing my first attempt at a word-play translating into English (of both the Greek and Hebrew), I'm struck by the first word of God. Does he really speak Hebrew to Moses? What if they're speaking Egyptian (Moses's "mother tongue") and Moses is just translating it צוה (tsavah) for the Jews in the desert?! What he must be getting exactly right -- as far as a literary or a dynamic equivalence goes -- is that this is God's command and his imperative to the sons (the offspring) of Isra El. So the sons of Israel in Alexandria Egypt render the word into Greek as an imperative command with a direct object (the sons of Isra El): Πρόσταξον.

Already there's wordplay. The word is reflexive. Its original audience becomes its speaker. Its original Speaker becomes an audience. Its original implied subject is a member of the direct audience. Its direct object becomes its subject. Its insiders become outsiders and vice versa. It's the stuff linguists spend hours on and sociolinguists speculate about and anthropologists fill ethnographies with and rhetoricians delight in. Theologians and lexicographers and etymologists and philologists pontificate about this stuff.

The thing that amazes me in the word is that it's tough to deny the wordplay. I don't care if you're Aristotle. I don't care if you have your orderly logic and your systematic syllogism well ordered. I don't care if you have written a scholarly treatise called Oieko-Nom-icks (Economics, or Household-Rules) in which masters and slaves and men and their womb-wives know their place. Just as soon as you try to lock down πρόσταξον, you find it escaping to all sorts of unintended places.

For example, πρόσταξον broadens out from the Hebrew word (meaning more "command") and ambiguously suggests a different kind of "order," an ordering of sorts. So, in Greek, it's hardly just "the giving of an order" but it's also "the very putting to order," or "arranging according to an order" that is suggested.

And alongside ὑποτάσσεσθε, another imperative, it reintroduces class and gender. When one reads Numbers 5 in Greek alongside Ephesians 5 in Greek, then one sees the ordering of social rank by social position and by sex. The sons of Isra El are ordered. Their women-wives have a different rank. And the now-free sons of Isra El, now free from slavery in Egypt, may actually enslave women and men. The social order must be explicit. Men over women-wives, and Masters over slaves. The lower are commanded, are ordered, by ὑποτάσσεσθε.

John Chrysostom, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, sees that both words (with his third one, σύστασιν) are important when passing through Ephesians 5 and coming to Ephesians 6. Otherwise, there is no order. Chrysostom writes (commenting on verses 5-8 of chapter 6) to give household rules (reminiscent of Aristotle's):

Ὥστε οὐκ ἀνὴρ μόνον, οὔτε γυνὴ, οὔτε παιδία, ἀλλὰ καὶ οἰκετῶν ἀρετὴ συντελεῖ εἰς σύστασιν καὶ πρόστασιν οἰκίας. Διὰ τοῦτο ὁ μακάριος Παῦλος οὐδὲ τούτου τοῦ μέρους ἠμέλησεν· ἀλλ’ ἔρχεται μὲν ἔσχατον ἐπ’ αὐτὸ, ἐπειδὴ καὶ ἔσχατον κεῖται τῷ ἀξιώματι. . . .

"Οἱ δοῦλοι," φησὶν, "ὑπακούετε τοῖς κυρίοις κατὰ σάρκα."

Εὐθέως τὴν λελυπημένην ἀνέστησε ψυχὴν, εὐθέως παρεμυθήσατο. Μὴ ἄλγει,
φησὶν, ὅτι ἔλαττον ἔχεις καὶ τῆς γυναικὸς, καὶ τῶν παίδων· ὄνομα δουλείας ἐστὶ μόνον· κατὰ σάρκα ἐστὶν ἡ δεσποτεία, πρόσκαιρος καὶ βραχεῖα· ὅπερ γὰρ ἂν ἦ σαρκικὸν, ἐπίκηρόν ἐστι.

"Μετὰ φόβου," φησὶ, "καὶ τρόμου."

Ὁρᾷς ὅτι οὐ τὸν αὐτὸν ἀπαιτεῖ παρὰ γυναικὸς καὶ δούλων φόβον; Ἐκεῖ μὲν γὰρ ἁπλῶς εἶπεν·

"Ἡ δὲ γυνὴ, ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα·"

ἐνταῦθα δὲ μετ’ ἐπιτάσεως,

"Μετὰ φόβου," φησὶ, "καὶ τρόμου. Ἐν ἁπλότητι τῆς καρδίας ὑμῶν, ὡς τῷ Χριστῷ."

Συνεχῶς τοῦτό φησι. Τί λέγεις, ὦ μακάριε Παῦλε; ἀδελφός ἐστι, τῶν αὐτῶν ἀπέλαυσεν, εἰς τὸ αὐτὸ σῶμα τελεῖ· μᾶλλον δὲ ἀδελφὸς ἐγένετο οὐ τοῦ κυρίου τοῦ ἑαυτοῦ, ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῦ Υἱοῦ τοῦ Θεοῦ, τῶν αὐτῶν ἀπολαύει πάντων, καὶ λέγεις,

"Ὑπακούετε τοῖς κατὰ σάρκα κυρίοις μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου;"

Διὰ γὰρ τοῦτο, φησὶ, φημί. Εἰ γὰρ τοὺς ἐλευθέρους ἀλλήλοις ὑποτάσσεσθαι κελεύω διὰ τὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ φόβον, καθάπερ ἀνωτέρω ἔλεγεν·

"Ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Θεοῦ·"

εἰ γὰρ τὴν γυναῖκα προστάσσω φοβεῖσθαι τὸν ἄνδρα, καίτοι αὕτη καὶ ὁμότιμός ἐστι· πολλῷ μᾶλλον τὸν οἰκέτην. Οὐ γὰρ δυσγένεια τὸ πρᾶγμά ἐστιν, ἀλλ’ ἡ πρώτη εὐγένεια, τὸ εἰδέναι ἐλαττοῦσθαι, καὶ μετριάζειν, καὶ εἴκειν τῷ πλησίον. Καὶ ἐλεύθεροι ἐλευθέροις μετὰ πολλοῦ φόβου καὶ τρόμου ἐδούλευον.

Thus then it is not husband only, nor wife, nor children, but virtuous [slave] servants also that contribute to the [ordered] organization and [ordered] protection of a house. Therefore the blessed Paul has not overlooked this department even. He comes to it, however, in the last place, because it is last in dignity and rank. . . .

“S[lave s]ervants,” saith he, “be obedient to them that, according to the flesh, are your masters.”

Thus at once he raises up, at once soothes the wounded soul. Be not grieved, he seems to say, that you are inferior to the wife and the children. Slavery is nothing but a name. The mastership is “according to the flesh,” brief and temporary; for whatever is of the flesh is the flesh, is transitory.

“With fear,” he adds, “and trembling.”

Thou seest that he does not require the same fear from slaves as from wives: for in that case he simply said,

“and let the wife see that she fear her husband”;

whereas in this case he heightens the expression,

“with fear,” he saith, “and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”

This is what he constantly says. What meanest thou, blessed Paul? He is a brother, or rather he has become a brother, he enjoys the same privileges, he belongs to the same body. Yea, more, he is the brother, not of his own master only, but also of the Son of God, he is partaker of all the same privileges; yet sayest thou,

“obey your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling”?

Yes, for this very reason, he would say, I say it. For if I charge free men to submit themselves one to another in the fear of God,—as he said above,

submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ”;

—if I charge moreover the wife to fear and reverence her husband, although she is his equal; much more must I so speak to the [slave] servant. It is no sign of low birth, rather it is the truest nobility, to understand how to lower ourselves, to be modest and unassuming, and to give way to our neighbor. And the free have served the free with much fear and trembling.

[--Philip Schaff translating, with my bolding and formatting to show correspondences]
Now, just to summarize. Translation by insiders, such as the Jews in Egypt using the lingua franca of the Greek empire for the Hebrew of Jews outside of Egypt using Hebrew for the words of God and the Egyptians, can open things up. If Aristotle, or Paul, or John Chrysostom, or Moses, or God, or any of us, would suggest a word can Order in an invariable way one human over another, then think again. The fundamental structure of patriarchy is exploded by words. The "necessary" binary, the A and NOT A, the A is over B, the algebra -- all exploded by words, by translation, by the polysemous dimensions of rhetorics and feminisms. A word, a necessary translation, opens up meanings in freeing ways. Words, because of humans and their Creator, actually allow word play. This is playfulness and also wiggle room - wordplay, ambiguity. And this play allows an ordering, but a re-ordering, a Πρόσ-ταξον.


  1. Think you could maybe provide morpheme breakups and glosses in the future? I have no Hebrew and I'm only just starting to learn Greek, and it's hard to understand what you're saying without some help! :)

  2. Dannii,
    I'll just try that some time. Sorry it's been so hard to understand and thank you for the suggestion.

  3. Just to clarify, I wasn't suggesting it for everything, that wouldn't be worth it! But for the key phrases like:
    Πρόσταξον τοῖς υἱοῖς Ισραηλ
    צַו אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
    It could be quite helpful.


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