Below is the first installment of my proposed piece on the Bible (yet to have a publisher). I hope you enjoy it. Further installments to follow.
The Bible according to George
When I was married the first time, my wife was not practicing in her family’s Jewish faith so we got married in the struggling little Southern Baptist church my parents had started in my home town of Dunsmuir, CA. At the time, we only had a lay preacher, John Parks. As a courtesy, Ralph and Martha, Carol’s parents, attended the Wednesday night service the week before the wedding.
I recall virtually nothing of the sermon that evening, except John’s impassioned attempt to emphasize some part of the lesson by asking a question. ”Do you know what God done?”, he queried. Then, in an effort to drive home the point even more emphatically, he literally bellowed, “Do you know what God done!?”
Now, like I said, I don’t even remember what part of the Bible was being taught that night, although I’d bet it was from the Old Testament, where we spent most of our time, and where, if you were to ask us, God did most of what he had done, but I have never been so embarrassed in all of my life. Whatever it was that God had done, I was sure it could not have destroyed the impression Carol’s parents had of me any more effectively than what Pastor John had just done.
At any rate, the urge to translate the King James version of the Bible to modern language probably began with this kind of grammatical exposure through religion. What moves us to vest the authority of putting religiously interesting questions in the hands of people we wouldn’t trust with day-to-day decisions? It is as if we use an entirely different set of rules to judge what is reasonable when we try to evaluate religion.
It has recently occurred to me that most modern translations, by which I mean those you are apt to encounter in modern churches, are generally written as if the readers were from the 17th century. But not only do the modern readers not come from the 17th century, they are rapidly losing contact with the historic richness of the King James version of the Bible, which reigned supreme as the most common translation throughout my parents’ lives. In brief, the younger generation knows almost nothing of the most significant book of their culture, and future generations will know even less. Even I, from a Southern Baptist background, may not know the Old Testament as well as I thought, as my attempt to translate it has shown me. Even though we seemed to spend most of our Bible study time in the Old Testament. I recall little of its less savory parts.
Perhaps the main difference between fundamentalist Christians and Jews lies in adherence to the philosophy of Christ. Even at the level fundamentalists did so, we would have been rather intolerant of much that I learned about Saul, David, and Samuel.
Most of those who read the modern translations of the Bible do so because their denomination has endorsed the translation. That endorsement, I suspect, comes as often as not more from reputation of the translators as readers of early languages (such as Aramaic) as from theological credentials, although I would probably put no more faith in the latter than I do in the former. I just want to know what the Bible actually says, not to hear someone else’s take on it, and I trust my own understanding of its meaning as related by the King James translators. Still, as translator, the temptation to put some spin on the text is overwhelming, and it is largely because of the many times I gave into it that I titled this work as I did. Hopefully I have not strayed much from the true meaning of the original.
When I was about twelve, I was “born again.” What that means, or meant, I hardly have any idea now. It was a very long time ago. At that time, I thought I might go into preaching as an adult. I sort of did, for I became a teacher of mathematics at a Community College and most of my students took most of what I told them as articles of faith. What I liked about it most, though, was that which could be proven. In offering this Biblical translation, I will attempt to be relatively true to that preference by sticking to telling you only what the King James version says happened, and leave the meaning of earlier interpretations unexamined. I grew up comfortable with the language in the King James version but totally unfamiliar with anything which may have been spoken by someone in earlier tongues.
I hope my attempts to make sense of the King James version of the Bible will satisfy those who would like to know what is really there. At the same time, I hope no one who has only interest in religiosity to the extent of hoping for its “proof,” nor who has so little interest as to be looking only for disproof, will find me helpful. My tendency to make comments is, I hope, forgivable as my little attempt to make it more readable–besides I should get some leeway by virtue of putting my own name in the title, shouldn’t I?
I begin with Samuel for no particular reason, except that I’ve had previous experience with it. Where I stop will probably depend on many factors, not the least of which may be intimidation from realizing what a stupendous task I’ve taken on: the Bible is proving to be more dense than I imagined, and, boy, is it long!
First Samuel AKA The First Book of The Kings: in which the origins of Judeo-Christian culture are given.
In a town with a long funny name, Ramataimzophrim, about 5000 years ago, there lived a bigamist with a short funny name, Elkanah, from a family of people, it seems, who long had had rather short funny names. The bigamist’s wives came in two varieties, fertile and not so much. Bigamy, by the way, was quite common then. The man in question annually went to Shiloh (a city for which a famous American Civil War battle millennia later would be named, as opposed to Ramataimzophrim, which is largely unknown outside of Jewish monasteries, or synagogues, or whatever they are called) to sacrifice sheep, I suppose, and to worship. Of course, the wives went too.
Here the book of Samuel becomes a bit hard to follow, as if it appears to be a story handed down via a game of telephone (A favorite of Kindergarten teachers in which a complex phrase is whispered to one child, who then whispers what was heard to the next child in the class, etc. until the last recipient child tells the whole class what had been heard. The final result rarely resembles the original.) from generation to generation. As near as I can tell, Hannah, the barren wife, is teased by Peninnah, the fertile one, because she is barren. In addition, Hannah feels guilty because the common husband, who apparently loves her very much and wants a man-child by her–as opposed to Peninniah–has endowed her with both her portion and the as yet unborn, but wished for, child’s portion of his inheritance. You can easily see how this story would not be a candidate to survive the rigors of telephone, especially if handed down from generation to generation, and you will, therefore, forgive me if I treat it with less reverence than interpreters generally do.
Anyway, Hannah enters into a bargain with God at the first trip to Shiloh–a bargain brokered by Eli, one of two priests apparently present at Shiloh at the time. The bargain involves Hannah’s promise to give her first born male child, who will, of course, be Samuel, to the exclusive service of God if God will just let her have him. Apparently infertility was an easier problem to attack in those days.
Subsequently, she skips at least one of the annual visits to Shiloh for she gets pregnant just after returning home from the first trip, and bears Samuel. There are diapers to change, I guess. At any rate, she needs, or at least wants, more time with the child before rendering him to God.
When she next attends the Shiloh festivities, though, she kills a bull and gives two more to the priesthood. She also leaves Samuel in the priests’ care.
Chapter two starts on a more reverent tone than a historical one with the song of Hannah praising God’s greatness and decrying humanity’s powerlessness.
The book then turns back to historical content and becomes a bit more telephone–over–the–generations–gameish. As best I can make of it, here’s the story: Elkanah goes to Ramah, where he either has a second house, or grew up–or both–and Samuel takes on, as a child, the job of advising Eli. This is the same priest who brokered Hannah’s deal with God. Hannah’s location in all of this is unclear. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were particularly unsuited as emissaries of the Lord for they were kind of un-Godly. They took rather transparent advantage of the peons when they came to make annual sacrifices to the Lord by outrageously setting up conditions so that the priests were well cared for while the peons routinely received no services. They also were in the habit of sleeping with, in the Biblical sense, the women at the door. Eli hears of it, of course, and berates them. Samuel, still a child, becomes increasingly popular with both Eli and the public.
Then “a man of God” comes to Eli and predicts the fall of Eli’s house as an apparent reversal of a promise God made to Eli’s father when they were still in Egypt.
Eli gets old. His sons, as predicted, die on the same day, although I don’t know when or even if they predeceased their father. Eli’s house is thereby cursed with having no young men to carry on the line of the priesthood. Samuel is set to take over as the Spiritual Leader of Israel. Remember that this all took place about 5000 years ago, so I assume the position was rather more like the Supreme Leader in Iran than the President of the U.S. or the Queen of Great Britain today. In fact, as you will see, I became convinced as I read more of Samuel, that the Spiritual Leader was very much like a king.