Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why Censor a Mother, Twice?

Tim Bulkeley at Sansblogue has posted on "The censored Bible: translating Psalm 90."  He sees in the Hebrew of Tehillim 90, in these lyrics of Moses, what is "explicitly (I think) maternal imagery for the creation of our world."  Nonetheless, as Bulkeley explicitly puts it, most English translators "censor" out the maternal from the language of Moses.  "Why?"

At this blog of mine here, I'm mostly interested in why the Jews using their own Greek in Alexandria, Egypt would read their ancient Hebrew (in their scriptures) any given way.  I want to first look at Tehillim 90 (renumbered πθ, or 89).  Then I want to look at another hymn or psalm or song or tehillim of Moses, an earlier one in what the Septuagint renames as Deuteronomy 32.

Psalm 89 (Tehillim 90)

As we all know, for Psalm 89 (Tehillim 90), the Septuagint translators put Moses's "explicitly" maternal Hebrew into their Hellene this way:

κύριε καταφυγὴ ἐγενήθης ἡμῖν
ἐν γενεᾷ
καὶ γενεᾷ
πρὸ τοῦ ὄρη γενηθῆναι
καὶ πλασθῆναι τὴν γῆν
καὶ τὴν οἰκουμένην
καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος σὺ εἶ

Why?  Is it not so explicitly maternal now?  Perhaps it's very playful, rhyming words with rhythms and alliterations that we English readers don't so easily hear, if we can see some of them.  Notice the punning (whether intentional or not) in the ἐγενήθης /e-genēthēnēs/ and in the repeated γενεᾷ /genea/ followed by γενηθῆναι /genēthēnai/ followed by γῆν /gēn/.  But where is the γυνή /gynē/, the woman with a womb?  Why is the motherly imagery censored out?  Or, at the very least, why is it so implicit, so hidden in the text, so subtle?

My guess is that the translators in Egypt were being very careful.  My hunch is that they knew what they were doing.  My observation has been that they were resisting the Greek of Aristotle, who boxed up (his elite male-only Greek-citizen-only) language in order for him and his own to avoid ambiguities of blathering barbarisms and slippery sophistries and womanly whimsies.  Our best guess is that, in most cases, the Jews in Alexander's empire, back in Egypt, were looking further back to Homer's and Hesiod's and Sappho's poetry and Euripides's plays, and to much more poetic and playful, and sometimes hilarious Hellene.

So now let's look at the song of Moses in what they call Deuternomy 32.

Deuternomy (Devarim) 32

Buckeley's comment at my other blog got me looking at and listening to Moses here.  Consider these two lyrical lines of maternal imagery in Hebrew (i.e., verse 18):

צוּר יְלָדְךָ תֶּשִׁי
וַתִּשְׁכַּח אֵל מְחֹלְלֶךָ׃

Now here's that in Hebraic Hellene:

θεὸν τὸν γεννήσαντά σε ἐγκατέλιπες
καὶ ἐπελάθου θεοῦ τοῦ τρέφοντός σε.

Now here's that in patriarchal English bible translations:

You deserted the Rock, who fathered you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth. (NIV)

You neglected the Rock who had fathered you;
you forgot the God who had given you birth. (NLT)

(You ignored the rock who fathered you
and forgot the God who gave you life.) (God's Word®)

You have no thought for the Rock, your father,
you have no memory of the God who gave you birth. (Bible in Basic English)

Of the Rock who became your father, you are unmindful,
and have forgotten God who gave you birth. (World English Bible)

Note the difference in the Jewish English of Robert Alter:

The Rock your bearer you neglected 
you forgot the God who gave you birth.

With the Christian English translations above, we quickly need to ask "Why Father?"  And "why not mother?" or just (as Moses and Alter have) at least a hint of her?

With the Jewish Greek, we now need to ask "Why θεος /theos/ [or God]?"  And "why not πετρας /petras/ [or Rock]?"

I really wonder whether Jesus or even if Matthew was asking the same questions of the Septuagint translators here.  The name and this re-naming of Peter (i.e., the disciple of Jesus) is a clear play on the Greek.  But the Jewish translators of Moses song (i.e., Deuteronomy) tend to "censor" out the word for Rock and replace it with the word for God.  Why?

Now, to be clear, the Jewish translators do use the Greek word for rock in verse 13:  μέλι ἐκ πέτρας καὶ ἔλαιον ἐκ στερεᾶς πέτρας.  (And Alter uses similar English words for Moses' Hebrew:  "honey from the crag and oil from the flinty stone.")

There are two different Hebrew "rock" words in v 13, respectively:  (סֶלַע) and (צוּר).  The word that Moses uses repeatedly is the latter one here.  And he writes this rock word or he sings it some eight repeated times for the Divine One and for other divinities in the short context of Deuteronomy chapter 32.  (See verses 4, 13, 15, 18, 30, and 31).  However, in contrast, the Jewish translators of Hebrew into Hellene choose never, not even once, to use the Greek word for Rock to mark God or even gods.

Why "censor" out the maternal rock imagery?

Well, we can only guess, can't we?  I think there may be some sensitivity to Moses for the translators now back, as Jews, in Egypt.  I also speculate that they, being familiar with lots of Greek writings, hear some comparisons between unkosher ethnic polytheistic stories and those of Moses.  They don't want either the polytheistic Egyptians or the polytheistic Greeks appropriating their Moses.  They probably have watched and heard (or at least heard of) the plays of Euripides being revived and played right there in Alexandria.  They've been considering how to translate Ex-Odys 17, where God commands Moses to smite the Rock; and they've been considering how to translate Numbers 20, where Moses smites the Rock in impatient disobedience to God.  They're not wanting to call God "Rock" in Deuteronomy 32 (which we just looked at).  Why not?

Are they being sensitive to how these stories in Greek will sound, well, so Greeky, so polytheistic Greeky?

Here's how a bit sounds from the women in Euripides's play Ion (at around 1120, as translated by Robert Potter, with Euripides's Greek interpolated back in by me):

When Creusa's husband left the god's oracular shrine, he took his new son to the feast and the sacrifice he was preparing for the god. Xuthus then went where the flame of Bacchus leaps, so that he might drench both rocks [πέτρας] of Dionysos with the slaughter, as a thank-offering for the sight of his son, and he said: "You, my child, stay here and raise a tent, fitted on both sides, by the toil of carpenters.  If I should remain a long time in my sacrifice to the gods [Θεοῖσιν] of birth, set up the banquet for the friends who are there."
Notice the close associations of maternal deities and the rocks for bloody sacrifices to divinities.  Do the Jewish translators really want God, their maternal Rock, sounding like Διονύσου πέτρας and Γενέταις Θεοῖσιν?

And here's another bit from Euripides.  It's from Bacchae (from around line 690, as translated by T. A. Buckley, again with the Greek of Euripides we're looking at together put back in):

Your mother raised a cry,  standing up in the midst of the Bacchae, to wake their bodies from sleep, when she heard the lowing of the horned cattle. And they, casting off refreshing sleep from their eyes, sprang upright, a marvel of orderliness to behold, old, young, and still unmarried virgins.  First they let their hair loose over their shoulders, and secured their fawn-skins, as many of them as had released the fastenings of their knots, girding the dappled hides with serpents licking their jaws. And some, holding in their arms a gazelle or wild  wolf-pup, gave them white milk, as many as had abandoned their new-born infants and had their breasts still swollen. They put on garlands of ivy, and oak, and flowering yew. One took her thyrsos and struck it against a rock [πέτραν], from which a dewy stream of water sprang forth. Another let her thyrsos strike the ground, and there the god [θεός] sent forth a fountain of wine. All who desired the white drink scratched the earth with the tips of their fingers and obtained streams of milk; and a sweet flow of honey dripped from their ivy thyrsoi; so that, had you been present and seen this, you would have approached with prayers the god whom you now blame.
There may be at least two problems with this Greek play for the Greek translators.  First, there's this association to milk and honey, imagery of the promised land far away now from where they are back in Egypt.  Second, there are Greek women, Greek mothers, doing what Moses and what God did.  That is, these ethnic goyim mothers are generating, are bearing forth, are giving birth and motherly sustenance to their people in ways that might be compared with the One God and that one special servant Moses.

So when Moses is singing of God the Rock, like a mother of the people of Israel, in Hebrew, then why not -- given the Greek imagery elsewhere and especially in the multiply polytheistic Egypt of Alexander -- just censor out Rock and specify God when it's sung in Hellene?  Why not use θεος /theos/ [or God] and not πετρας /petras/ for the Jewish maternal imagery of Moses in Deuteronomy?  [UPDATE:  Bob MacDonald inspires me to include some illustrations here, including one of David, with rock in sling and rod in hand, as he's getting inspired to sing, some time later, Psalm 18.  I couldn't find an artist's rendering of Job's inscription, so we'll all just imagine that one.  But the good point Bob's making is that the imagery is, in the mind of the translators, fairly rich.]

In summary, we hear Hellene sounding rather Hebraic and playful in Psalm 90 of Moses and definitely Hebraic though not as Greek-ish in the Deuteronomy 32 song of Moses.  We suspect the translators are motivated by the sounds of their languages.  But we still wonder what motivates the patriarchal censorship of some English Bible translators.


  1. What a fascinating thesis - well done! A touch of the mind of an ancient translation committee for us. tsur is an interesting study on its own - Psalm 18, Job's inscription, etc

  2. Bob, Your specifying other texts of tsur inspired me to include some illustrations. The mother (and virgins) of Bacchae may also have been in the mind of the translation committee.

  3. Thanks so much for this interesting post, the Greek passages are fascinating in connection with the issues the LXX translators faced here. I wish I knew more about Greek literature.

    My treatment of Dt 32 is a section in ch.2 of Not Only a Father.

  4. Kurk,
    I've dropped in via Suzanne's blog every now and again. I really enjoy your thoughts, particularly WRT the Septuagint. I do so wish I had more Greek than the amount of vocabulary I recognize. My BA is in German, and God made my brain for sound; I "get" grammar/syntax/etc. But I have no one to teach me at this point, and am too distant from a university right now for regular classes. Sigh.

    The path that has opened up for me in the last few years is that of Eastern Orthodoxy; I was received last June. As you know, the Septuagint is the Orthodox OT. An interesting connection that came to my mind with this post was that with the Uncut Mountain/Rock in Daniel, which in EO is always a type of the Theotokos. That's about as maternal as can be among my tribe! Of course, there's also the translation of the Nic/Const Creed that renders "begotten of the Father" as "born of the Father before all ages". I rather like that one.

    Thanks for your work.

    Dana Ames
    Ukiah California

  5. begotten / born - funny my English. I have always considered both as the same - the pain of birthing, not anything less costly.

  6. Tim,
    Thanks for the link to your book section, and for the kind comment.

    Welcome Dana!
    You have a wonderful background in German that most likely takes advantage of your God-given abilities in language learning in general. I've had many Greek classes, and taught some, I confess; but I'm a firm believer in the practice that "the learner is the best self teacher." I wonder if some of us could do more Greek learning/ teaching online.

    Your involvement in the Eastern Orthodox church is fascinating. (I really like much of the writers Edith Schaeffer, Francis A. Schaeffer, and now Frank Schaeffer, and the latter has joined EO several years back as a way to break from fundamentalism, as you know. Biblioblogger Esteban Vázquez also gives fresh perspectives as an Eastern Orthodox.) And until now, I'd not heard of the Theotokos - Uncut Mountain/Rock connection. Do you think that the Septuagint has caused and /or maintained that allusion?

    Thank you very much for your comments, your personal perspective and information!

    I have tended to associate begetting with siring, and spawning, and fathering - male parent involvement or procreation specialist involvement. Robert Alter has Moses (in Psalm 90) saying this:

    Before mountains were born,
    before You spawned earth and world,
    from forever to forever You are God.

    This doesn't do much for Tim, sounds horrific in English today, he says in a comment at his post. The "born of the Father" phrase, that Dana mentions as part of the translated Creed, may just be a bit ironic.

  7. Kurk,
    I don't know enough about the history of the Septuagint in Orthodoxy to be able to say. The typology is fascinating to me, though. The intertextuality and themes of the scripture readings for the vigils of feast days sort of lead one mentally to the typology, if one is paying attention.

    I do like the "fuller" bible, and the notion that not all the books "weigh" the same.

    Thanks for the encouragement re Greek.

    I've read some of E. Vasquez, nearly all the Schaeffers in an earlier life, about half of Frank's books. I appreciate his point of view, and he's still angry, so don't go there much.

    Favorite Orthodox blogger hands down:



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.