The Taser's Edge

Calculated to Offend
November 17, 2006, 4:47 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

 If you find what follows to be more liberal than your own beliefs, then you should be pleased to know that Duke is considered to be fairly conservative as far as highly competitive seminary programs go.

Among my classes this semester is Hebrew Prose Reading, an excellent class that you all should take.  Last week our prof said that she was going to be giving us a “provocative” essay by a colleague of hers, Dr. Wilda Gafney, who teaches at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  It is entitled “Translation Matters: A Fem/Womanist Exploration of Translation Theory and Practice for Proclamation in Worship.”

I left a break there for you to react to the title and form your own opinions.  The basic problem that Gafney is addressing is that average churchgoers “hear the androcentric biblical text through the filter of a masculinist interpretation.”  While she talks about a number of differing topics, her basic solution is to create her “own gyno-centric practice of translation.”  For the most part, this is really strong and great.  I am actually worried that in this post I will not give her enough credit for her insights into the Hebrew.

Some examples:

First, she speaks of her own close study of the Hebrew text, which yielded something marvelous from Genesis 1:2–

“When beginning, He, God created…while the Spirit of God, She was fluttering…”

Later Gafney focuses on the glossing over of the femininity of verbs when the Hebrew is clearly feminine.  Most of these examples are where traditional translations (and even gender-sensitive translations such as the NRSV) ignore that God's speech is directed to a woman.  This occurs in many passages when Israel is compared to God's lover (see for example, Zeph. 3 and Isaiah 54).

Here is the NRSV translation of Isaiah 54:7–“For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”  Taken out of context, this is completely gender-neutral in the English.  Gafney is interested, however, in the fact that 2nd person pronouns are gendered in the Hebrew and thus her translation reads “For a brief space I abondoned you woman, / but in great mother-love I will gather you woman.”  Neat, huh?

At this point, I am sure that someone is suspicious of “mother-love” (Gafney) for “compassion” (NRSV).  But this leads to another tremendous insight.  The word for “compassion” is actually derived from the plural of “womb.”  Gafney says, I think correctly, that because “womb” definitely connotes “mother,” our translation should reflect it.

Despite the fact that, in the limited context of this essay, Gafney only subtly talks about the fact that God has no gender, class discussion entered that territory rather quickly.  The oft-repeated and very real question of how anyone who was molested by his or her father could call God “Father” was bound to come up, and it did.  I made the contention that we have to address the language of Father, because Christ Himself used it.  My professor said that some people just are not able to do that.  And I said that we still need to deal with it.

Did you catch that?  “Deal with it”–it's a seemingly innocuous phrase, but it carries a lot of baggage which I hadn't considered when I used it.  The baggage of “I don't care if you like it.  DEAL WITH IT!” and other similar negative contexts.  What I really meant is that we need to straightforwardly address the disconnect between our understanding of “father,” and God's understanding of “Father” when Christ uses it to describe God.  A father who molests a child is in no way being a real father.  Furthermore, the Bible is no stranger to telling us hard things.  For instance, in the hypothetical case of the young child who was molested by his or her father, cited above, the father becomes an enemy.  But Jesus calls even the molested to love their enemies.  And while it is a hard word, seems even unkind, and is definitely impossible for us, Christ doesn't release us from the obligation.

But, none of that came across in my flusteredness.  And so I left class flustered and went for a walk, and came up with something that is sure to offend.  I can't decide whether that's a bad thing or not, but here it is, my new children's book inspired by the conversation (the Blue Stuff in the background is The Mommy):

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