Last week’s well written post by Bridget Jack Jeffries entitled “Oops, She Did It Again,” prompted more discussion and debate than anything published so far on Worlds Without End. Considering the fact that Jack’s fascinating piece critiques not only a type of Mormon feminism, but also a misrepresentation of Biblical Hebrew that has now appeared twice in an official LDS publication, this observation, I suppose, should come as no surprise.
In this post, I’m not going to rehash the well articulated arguments presented by both Jack and the poster Nitsav of Faith-Promoting Rumor that clearly explain why one cannot possibly translate Yahweh’s statement to the woman in Genesis 3:16 as “He shall rule with you.” Instead, I would like to explore the philosophical reason behind this mistake, and then take this opportunity to share why I believe Historical Criticism can be an effective tool for religious interpreters of the Bible.
This recent example of ignoring the rules of Biblical Hebrew to allow Yahweh’s statement to accord with a Mormon feminist reading of the passage is an example of what has been called in the past approaching the Bible as “privileged” text. This method to biblical analysis has been going on for many, many years. Mormon are not the first, nor will we be the last to treat the Bible this way. Scholar James Kugel explained this traditional interpretive approach with these words:
Scripture is perfect and perfectly harmonious. By this I mean, first of all, that there is no mistake in the Bible, and anything that might look like a mistake—the fact that, for example, Gen. 15:13 asserts that the Israelites ‘will be oppressed for four hundred years’ in Egypt, while Exod. 12:41 speaks of 430 years, whereas a calculation based on biblical genealogies yielded a figure of 210 years—must therefore be an illusion to be clarified by proper interpretation.
This method to interpreting the Bible (the one that gave us the recent misrepresentation of the Hebrew in Genesis 3:16) sees the entire record as perfectly harmonious, and by extension, obviously without error. It assumes that since some, if not all of the Bible came directly from God himself, that the Bible should be interpreted according to its own unique rules that either harmonize or simply ignore inconsistencies.
Throughout the centuries, when biblical texts appeared to either contradict each other or to oppose a contemporary view point, such as “men and women should rule together,” qualified “professional” interpreters (such as scribes, rabbis, or priests) would reinterpret the plain meaning of words for their respective communities in a way that made the Bible conform with both itself and later religious preferences. Hence, the type of grammatical and contextual manipulation that we’ve recently witnessed in the Parry translation of Genesis 3:16 has been going on for centuries.
It reflects a mindset that everything in the Bible must be harmonized to not only itself, but with a contemporary theological reading of the text. In this sense, it treats the Bible as a privileged text that should not be read like any other book but instead according to its own special rules. As readers of the Bible, we actually witness this approach to scriptural analysis occurring even in the Bible itself. I’ll use the legal material in the Pentateuch as an example.
In the Pentateuch, biblical laws appear in three distinct literary blocks: Exodus 20-23 (the Covenant Code), Leviticus, and Numbers (the priestly code), and Deuteronomy 12-26 (the deuteronomic code). All three blocks of legal texts feature repetitions. For example, all three contain laws concerning such issues as the Israelite festival calendar, slavery, and asylum (meaning a place offering protection or escape). Two of the collections feature prohibitions against boiling a kid in its mother’s own milk; two of them contain altar laws; two include kosher laws, and finally, two of the blocks feature laws regarding tithing.
The repetitions are redundant, and really, if you think about it, quite unnecessary. Why go to all that effort in producing legal collections only to repeat the same laws over again? These repetitions appear to suggest that they derive from separate sources that were eventually spliced together to create the Pentateuch. At minimum, this raises the obvious question, “why would Moses have felt a need to present three different law collections in his books that address the same topics over and over again?”
Much more importantly, however, when we take the time to line up and compare the laws to each other, the inconsistencies not only show that Moses did not write the texts, but that these legal blocks derive from entirely separate authors who held vastly different perspectives on how a society should seek to maintain divine order.
This observation, however, proves problematic for someone who views the biblical laws as “privileged text,” and we therefore encounter very early efforts to reconfigure the laws in a similar way that the Parry translation harmonizes Genesis 3:16 with a more politically correct perspective: It doesn’t really mean, what it really says!
In the Bible, we encounter laws such as Exodus 12:8-9 which states that the Passover offering must be roasted, not boiled (b-sh-l) in water, while according to Deuteronomy 16:7, the offering is to be boiled (b-sh-l). Some of the later biblical authors felt a need to harmonize these types of discrepancies. So already in the biblical period, we find Judean authors doing precisely what later Jewish and Christian interpreters of the Bible have done for centuries, including Don Parry, i.e. interpret these sources as “privileged” texts.
In an effort to harmonize these Passover laws (one which states that the offering should be roasted in fire, and the other that the offering should be boiled in water), the very late author of Chronicles creatively combined the two statements by writing that “they boiled (b-sh-l) the Passover offering in fire” (2 Chro 35:16). Boiling in fire clearly doesn’t make any sense. But it does provide a creative solution to the problem that in the Pentateuch we find two very different laws.
This reflects the fact that at an early point in Israelite history, the legal material was considered sacred revelation. Therefore, boiling in water doesn’t really mean boiling in water, 430 years doesn’t really mean 430 years, and yes, the biblical phrase “ruling over” in this one single instance doesn’t really mean “ruling over,” instead, this is the one time in a Semitic language that the construct really means “ruling with.” In sum, the Bible is not a “real” book. It cannot be interpreted by the rules of logic.
Ironically, if anyone, Latter-day Saints should know better. There’s really no need for a Mormon interpreter to read the Bible as a privileged text. Joseph Smith did not accept this type of approach. The Mormon prophet was in some ways what we might refer to today as a “critical” reader of the text. Joseph loved the Bible. He believed that it was the inspired word of God. Yet Joseph’s testimony did not keep him from recognizing that there were at times serious inconsistencies in the record.
Joseph taught that in its production, “ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests… committed many errors.” Throughout his efforts to explicate the Bible, we find in Joseph’s sermons a variety of references to alternate translations from the KJV (including the German), as well as allusions to the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. “There are many things in the Bible,” he declared, “which do not, as they now stand, accord with the revelations of the Holy Ghost to me.” And the prophet wasn’t afraid to point them out. So why are Mormons today?
In the discussions that followed Jack’s initial post, BYU Hebrew professor Erin Oslen made the following statement in an attempt to defend the Parry reading (but, note, not the translation):
“David, you want me to offer up alternative readings. I want an alternative pericope. And alternative book. One that does not inform me that childbirth is painful (something that is culturally determined, not biologically) and working hard or having a thriving libido is a curse.
Olsen’s statement again reflects the idea that we find so frequently amongst religious readers, that as scripture, the Bible should accord with our contemporary sense of morality. And yet in my mind, this is where the power of Historical Criticism can help. In response to Olsen’s statement that she wants an “alternative book,” I offered the following:
I cannot give you a different book, Erin. My academic field is what is known as “mainline” biblical scholarship, which means I approach the text from an Historical Critical perspective, identifying how the Bible would have been read in its original historical context, and critically, meaning independent from any contemporary theological lens.
And though I cannot offer a different book, I can offer an alternative pericope via historical analysis. These are ancient texts that present us with a host of views on topics ranging from slavery, sexuality, women, war, etc. These views are presented by ancient authors trying to make sense of such issues in light of their own unique cultural and religious assumptions. Recognizing what they truly are can shift our pericope as interpreters from a need to violate the rules of textual and linguistic analysis to force the Bible to accord with our own perspectives, to a more sophisticated awareness that when ancient authors discuss morality, sometimes they simply got it wrong.
Or, to again quote Joseph Smith, “There are many things in the Bible, which do not, as they now stand, accord with the revelations of the Holy Ghost to me.”
 see Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 1-3.
 James, Kugel, The Bible as it Was (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), 20.
 Teachings 327.
 “I am going to take exceptions to the present translation of the Bible in relation to these matters [interpreting prophecy]. Our latitude and longitude can be determined in the original Hebrew with far greater accuracy than in the English version. There is a grand distinction between the actual meaning of the prophets and the present translations” in Teachings 290-291.
 Teachings 310.