Saturday, January 10, 2009


A Book of Revelations

As previously stated, my goal in 2008 was to read the entire Bible from front to back in the space of a year. Having read the New Living Translation last year, I'm starting over for 2009, this time reading Oxford World's Classics edition of the King James Version. But, for the New Testament, I'm trying something a little different.

Not long ago I caught a glimpse of The Five Books of Moses in a Seoul bookstore. The book's author, Robert Alter, is a scholar with a background in English literature and Hebrew Studies. The purpose of Five Books is to tell the story of Genesis through Deuteronomy as a "powerful, cohesive work of literature," as opposed to a simplified version of the story that some translations become. Having read Genesis and Exodus many times, this seemed a useful tool for revealing new insights.

Furthermore, you probably don't need me to tell you that the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are among the hardest to become engaged in. Once, when I expressed this concern to a pastor friend of mine well-versed in original Hebrew, he lamented that I could not see the "poetic structure" of those books in their original text. I had hoped that Alter's book would prove useful in revealing such subtleties.

Well, I'm not through Genesis yet, and the book has already paid numerous dividends. There are numerous linguistic nuances in the original Hebrew that Alter explains, plus he reveals how the first words or actions of a Biblical figure tend to reveal their destiny. For example, when he meets the servant of Abraham questing to find a wife for Isaac, the first thing Laban notices is the gold the servant gives to Rebekah, hinting at the greed he will later show in dealing with Jacob.

Also, the first words out of Rachel's mouth, in Gen. 30, express desire to have sons lest she die. Alter notes that she demands multiple sons, not one, rather ironic considering that she will die giving birth to her second.

But for me, the most revelatory passage of the book so concerns his note on Gen. 12:5, which in the KJV reads: "And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan ..."

The word "souls" is translated as "folk" in Alter's version, and explicitly defined in his footnotes as "slaves." The concept of slavery in the Bible is a troubling one, which non-believers have often used as evidence of the Bible's injustice and believers have struggled to reconcile.

Here's Alter's explanation: "Slavery was a common institution throughout the ancient Near East. As subsequent stories in Genesis make clear, this was not the sort of chattel slavery later practiced in North America. These slaves had certain limited rights, could be given great responsibility, and were not thought to lose their personhood."

Of course, we tend to see things written in ancient times through modern lenses, where the word "slavery" automatically conjures images of white men whipping black people, separating them from their families and taking their lives without hesitation. This is not the case, evidently; later Biblical passages do make it clear that the Hebrew people were to take slave from the peoples neighboring the Israelites -- they were a people "set apart" for a reason -- but even those slaves of other societies were not to be abused, degraded or killed without cause.

It certainly wasn't an enviable line work, and wouldn't be accepted in our society -- at least not explicitly -- but how many workers today are paid no more than what can meet their basic needs, sometimes less?

I don't claim that this revelation -- nor my explanation, inspired by my limited understanding -- ends the debate, but it does makes the argument that the Bible is unjust specifically because of slavery an incomplete one.

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