What “Fools” We Mortals Be

The first book of the Bible I ever translated from Hebrew to English was Jonah. My five-member Ancient Hebrew class would gather with our professor at 8:00 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the refectory for coffee, cereal, and translation. We were always tired and a bit silly, so it was good that we were working with Jonah which is only four chapters long and entertaining.

When Christians study Scripture, we tend to ignore the comedy of Jonah mostly because it doesn’t translate naturally from Hebrew into English. Plus, laughing feels irreverent even when God intends it. As a child, I learned about Jonah “and the whale” on Sunday school felt boards while gobbling animal cookies and juice. I pictured the prophet bobbing around inside that whale as Pinocchio and Geppetto sailed the stomach juices of Monstro before getting sneezed out. Jonah’s was a cautionary tale: obey God’s commands, or you’ll be punished (maybe by swimming with rotting fish carcasses inside a whale belly). There’s nothing funny there.

That moral of the story isn’t necessarily wrong, but it also isn’t the point of the book. The Book of Jonah is not a biography of a bad prophet; it is a satirical tale of a man who thinks he is more deserving of God’s grace than his enemies are. His opinion is absurd, so everything that happens in the book is extreme.

    • God says, “Travel about 500 miles west to the city of Ninevah.” Jonah decides to sail about 2,500 miles east to the tip of Spain. That’s a different mode of transportation in the opposite direction for five times the distance.
    • God sends a hurricane to stop one ship sailing the Mediterranean. Jonah says, “Drown me, and the winds will stop.” His baby toe hits the water, and there is instant calm.
    • A fish (be it bass, tuna, or shark—but not a whale) carries Jonah back to dry land. A fish. No explanation needed there.
    • God says, “Go give My message to the people in Ninevah.” Jonah takes about three steps into a city the size of Los Angeles and says to no one in particular, “Stop it, or God will kill you.” And they do. One glorified whisper from one random foreigner leaning against the wall of their city, and all Ninevans—and their animals—repent.
    • Jonah climbs a hill and pouts because God is just too nice to everyone, including Jonah. God refuses to kill Jonah as the prophet requests because, once again, God is just too nice…to any who rebel against Him.
    • The salvation of 120,000 people doesn’t teach Jonah the value of God’s mercy, so God kills a day-old bean plant just in case that might do the trick.

Then we are left hanging: “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?” (Jonah 4:10-11). God asks Jonah a rhetorical question, but we never hear the prophet’s answer.

If we try to read it seriously, then we can get caught up in all of the story’s odd details and miss its meaning. But if we remember that this is an absurd story meant to convey a deep truth (that is, satire) about God’s consistent grace for all people in all nations, then the Book of Jonah is poignant.

It is tempting to read Jonah and mock him, thinking we know better and behave better than the prophet did. But really, we are the prophet. Too many Christians want to limit God’s grace to only those people whom we think deserve it. We will bend over backward—sail through a hurricane or sleep in a fish—to see our own “enemies” punished when we are no better than they are.

That attitude is absurd, and God knew it would take an absurd story to show us our own prejudices. No foolin’!

I Blame Amelia Bedelia

I have always been an avid reader. Maybe it was the result of being an only child—reading is usually a solitary activity—or maybe I just love stories. By the time I was in school and able to check out books from the library, I couldn’t get enough of Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish. The title character had a habit of taking every word literally and out-of-context:

“Amelia Bedelia, the sun will fade the furniture. I asked you to draw the drapes,” said Mrs. Rogers.

“I did! I did! See,” said Amelia Bedelia. She held up her picture.*

That particular blunder by Amelia—sketching a picture instead of closing the curtains—especially bothered me as a kid. My mother had taught me that furniture is an investment: couches are for sitting, not dining. The idea of faded or stained fabric worried little me to no end!

Amelia Bedelia came back to haunt me when we bought our late-nineteenth-century American Foursquare. It still has the original wavy-glass windows. They are gorgeous; but they are energy inefficient, let in all sorts of road noise, and without that modern low-E coating new windows have, my upholstery started fading. Fast. Now big me is reliving the worry; I literally draw—as in, close—the drapes wherever the sun streams in the afternoons.

Is it partially Amelia Bedelia’s fault that the word literally has become a too-common almost-meaningless adverb we all drop into sentences whether or not we actually mean what we are saying literally? I used that word a lot in my new book about how to read the Bible, and each time I checked myself: Do I really mean literally? Or am I describing something figuratively? The misuse of the word has become one of my adult pet peeves. Too often people end stories by saying, “That literally blew my mind!” No, no it didn’t, or you wouldn’t be sitting there. Amelia Bedelia and every second grader in America know better.

One place where the word literally gets above-average use is the church. It has become fashionable for some Christians to brag that they take every word of their chosen Bible translation “literally,” as would Amelia Bedelia. She was always well-intentioned but consistently struggled to understand the difference between what people said and what they meant. We shouldn’t want to emulate Amelia in this way, especially in our relationships with Scripture.

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In the post was a side-argument over which version of the KJV is best—the 1611 or the 1769. For some, nothing but a photocopy of the hand-inked book presented to King James himself would do.

As I was writing about biblical translation techniques for Blue Eye Shadow, I ran across a social media post claiming that only the King James Version of the Bible has literally preserved God’s Word. I was shocked by what I read. The anger that so many of the 100+ respondents hold toward other Bible versions and the people who translated them or prefer them leaves no room for grace and love of others.

As I got deeper into the post, I realized how ill-informed they were about language. Many argued for sola KJV with half-facts or complete ignorance of Scripture’s historical development and translation process.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the KJV. I particularly prefer its use of “charity” rather than “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 because Paul is not discussing romantic love in that letter, as modern readers tend to assume when the chapter is read out of its context. That chapter wouldn’t be so commonly misused in weddings if Bible translation had stopped in 1611.

Many Christian literalists, even those brazen enough to study the NKJV, claim their Bibles contain word-for-word literal translations of the Hebrew and Greek. But that is literally impossible. One word in Hebrew often requires an entire sentence in English, as a two-word sentence in French—je t’aime—requires three words in English: “I love you.” Such a translation is called by some “phrase-by-phrase,” acknowledging the grammatical differences between languages, and it is no better or worse than word-for-word. In fact, both are necessary in good translations.

But language should not be flattened into definitions and grammar. When it is, we are left wondering if a curtain should be drawn with a pencil or drawn closed by a hand. Both meanings of drawn are literally correct, but the contexts of culture and situation inform the meaning of the word.

All languages are filled with figurative phrases in their prose and poetry that are easily lost in translation when translators and readers are unfamiliar with foreign cultures. “Love” is represented by a heart in English, but ancient Israelites might have used a lotus instead. Likewise, King James’s seventeenth-century British subjects declared love with spoons, whereas spooning has a totally different meaning to Westerners today.

Insisting that every word of Scripture must have a literal meaning that is the same in all languages at all times limits the power of words and ideas. The Bible’s literature is simply too deep and too creative to have its range of meanings diminished to fit into our narrow minds. To better understand and appreciate God’s Word, we must study not only the words of a Bible translation but also the cultures that recorded them yesterday and that hear them today. God’s truth never changes, but languages do.

Just ask Amelia Bedelia.

*Peggy Parish, Amelia Bedelia (1963; New York: HarperFestival, 1999), 48.

Who Cares about “Blue Eye Shadow”?

The title of my next book, Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow, is not so much a statement of fact as it is an acknowledgement of how easy it is to mischaracterize biblical figures.

Technically, Mary could have worn eye shadow, as it has existed for thousands of years. In Egypt and Babylonia, where many cosmetics originated, eye shadow had not only a decorative purpose but was also thought to protect sensitive eyelids from the sun and insects. Minerals such as malachite would be ground into a powder like today’s popular “mineral makeup” and smeared directly on the skin with rigid spatulas.

Archaeologists have found makeup containers and tools in Israel, so it was used by God’s own people. But the Bible suggests that makeup was not worn by everyone as it may have been in other cultures. When makeup is mentioned in the Bible, it is associated with evil and sexually immoral women. For example, Jezebel–another biblical character whose name is synonymous with prostitution–wore makeup (2 Kings 9:30).

The association of makeup with prostitution is ancient and enduring. As recently as the twentieth century, polite Western society equated actresses, dancers, and even opera singers with loose morals. To this day I worry that I might “look cheap” when I wear heavier makeup for an evening out or in front of a camera.

The Bible never says that Mary Magdalene “painted her face” (KJV) as Jezebel did, so why did popular culture lump her in with immoral women for so long? (Yes, if you read or watched The DaVinci Code, then you already know the answer.) In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I was bothered by the fact that the “sinner” who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50 was unnamed. So he tried to “fix” God’s Holy Scripture by assigning her story to the next female named in the text. Since Gregory was the church’s supreme authority on earth at the time (and Protestantism was still a century away), no one questioned his word.  And then the rumor grew, as they tend to do, and the sinner became an adulteress who became a prostitute.

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Her artistic portrayal as a sexually immoral woman was common by the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci skipped the makeup in his c. 1515 topless, red-haired portrait of her, but I suppose no one is looking at her face in this particular masterpiece.

Mary Magdalene has endured centuries of slander simply because her story begins in Luke 8:2, a mere two verses after Jesus’ highly aromatic pedicure.

Many traditional artistic depictions of Mary Magdalene imply that she was a prostitute by “painting” her face with garish makeup. Our 1980s Sunday School felt boards were among the worst offenders; the Mary Magdalene paper doll was always the prettiest one, thanks to her bright clothes, heavy jewelry, dark tan, and dreamy batting eyes. I remember a  golden castanet in each hand too. But that Mary would have fit better seducing the shah in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights than visiting Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.

Such false traditions are incorrect and can undermine our interpretations of Scripture. They need to be recognized, debunked, and shelved under Fiction; but that is difficult to do when untruth is “common knowledge” that has been immortalized by artists and is believed by Bible teachers themselves.

If Mary wore eye shadow–and I doubt that she did–it was to repel insects and UV rays, not to attract men.