Etiology

CT-advertisementI have written a series of posts here on Bible verses related to same-sex sex and marriage. In my last post, I shifted my focus to Genesis 2:24, a verse commonly described by traditionalists as G-d’s Marriage Law or G-d’s Design for Marriage, but which I think is a more general observation about how we don’t want to be alone. In that post, I introduced an idea I’ve been toying with, that there are certain Bible-reading techniques that fit well with interfaith dialogue. These are techniques that we can share in common, techniques where we don’t give preference to any particular tradition for reading the Bible. The fact that Jesus or Paul may have read an Old Testament text in a certain way cannot settle how Jews and Christians read this text together, any more than the reading of a Jewish sage like Rashi can settle this matter.

How should we deal with our divergent traditional readings of the Bible? Well … we can share them. That’s often the best we can do. Your Bible may read Isaiah 7:14 to have Isaiah predict that a “virgin” will give birth; my Bible may say that a “young woman” will give birth. Some Christians may agree that “young woman” is the right translation, but I don’t see what is gained by Jews and Christians arguing the point. Similarly, your church may teach that Isaiah 53 is a messianic prediction, or more specifically, a prediction that the Jewish Messiah must suffer and die. In contrast, my synagogue may teach that Isaiah 53 is prophecy concerning the entire Jewish people, that we will suffer persecution until the world comes to its senses and recognizes the G-d of the Bible. Jews and Christians have been batting this verse back and forth for 1,800 years, without any advance in Bible knowledge or mutual understanding.

We might try to break the pattern of fruitless argument by temporarily clearing the deck and, for a moment at least, trying to see Bible text in a different way. One way to do this is to “problematize” the text. At some very simple level, problematization is a strategy where we read texts thinking about problems. Perhaps the text itself is (or should be seen as) causing problems. Perhaps the text is a response to a problem. Perhaps there is a history of people having (and resolving) problems with the text.  Sometimes, we as readers bring problems to the text. Maybe the accepted meaning of the text is a problem for us. Perhaps we think that the status quo could use some shaking up. Or perhaps we want to defend that status quo, by showing how well it stands up to the challenge of having problems thrown at it.

I’m not a literary critic, but I understand that problematization is connected with another critical idea, “defamiliarization.” Again to oversimplify, defamiliarization is a technique where we take something we think we already know, and momentarily at least, make it seem new, strange, uncertain, and unfamiliar. We might do this by presenting something well-known, but doing so from a different point of view. For example, The Mists of Avalon is a highly successful retelling of the legends of King Arthur, from the perspective of the female characters. Another defamiliarization technique is to describe a scene down to the minutest detail; the hyper-fine focus can make the ordinary seem strange. Just about every teacher engages in defamiliarization techniques at one time or the other: you may think you know all about X, but I want you to look at X in a different way.

With the Bible, one terrific defamiliarization technique is to read the text in its original languages. I hope you saw this in my last post, where we looked at the Hebrew of the Bible’s pronouncement, “It is not good for the Adam to be alone.” The Hebrew for “not good” is lo-tov, which contrasts poignantly with the Hebrew ki-tov used repeatedly in Genesis 1 to proclaim the goodness of creation. My frequent reader-commenter Kim wrote on Facebook that lo-tov “even sounds like loneliness.” As English speakers, thinking lo-tov instead of “not good” can open up a familiar text for us, so that we see Adam’s lonely state anew, as something truly awful and unendurable.

Reading the Bible in its original languages can have a positive, defamiliarizing effect even on great scholars. One of the very greatest of current New Testament scholars, E.P. Sanders, describes this effect as follows:

In 1960, when I’d learned enough Greek to read the letters of Paul through, I decided to go to a meeting of the central Texas conference of the Methodist Church  … I attended only out of curiosity, choosing a back seat in the vast nave of the First Methodist Church Fort Worth. The meeting was unbearably dull. To relieve the tedium I opened my book bag and pulled out the Greek New Testament. As the meeting groaned on I read through the letters of Paul. I could hardly keep from bouncing around in the pew.  It was one of the most exciting afternoons of my life. I saw all of this great stuff which I had never heard anyone preach on much less explain. I fell totally in love with the breathing, throbbing, passionate zealot whose letters I was reading. He may not have been an easy person to know but there are few greater thrills than reading his letters.

With problematization and defamiliarization in mind, let’s look more closely at the Hebrew of Genesis. I already pointed out that Genesis 2:24 begins (depending on the translation) with “Therefore,” or “That is why,” or “For this reason.” The Hebrew being translated here is עַל־כֵּן֙, pronounced al-ken. Once again, we have another Hebrew-hyphenate of short words! Al is a preposition meaning something like “upon,” “above” or “over.” In modern Hebrew ken means “yes,” but evidently its meaning in Biblical Hebrew is different, something like “so” or “thus.” We can then conclude that al-ken means … “above so”? “Over thus”?

The meaning of al-ken emerges when we see how it is used elsewhere in the Bible. Al-ken is a “formula” for introducing an etiological explanation. An “etiology” is a story or passage that describes the beginning of something: the cause or reason for a custom, name or something else already in existence. The Bible fairly abounds in etiology! Here are some examples in Genesis:

Genesis 10:9: Cush “was a mighty hunter before the L-RD, al-ken it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the L-RD.”

Genesis 11:8-9: “So the L-RD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.  Al-ken it was called Babel, because there the L-RD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the L-RD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”

Genesis 16:13-14: “So she named the L-RD who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen G-d and remained alive after seeing him?’ Al-ken the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.”

Genesis 21:31: “Al-ken that place was called Beer-sheba; because there both of them swore an oath.

Genesis 25:30: Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Al-ken he was called Edom.)

Genesis 32:32: Al-ken to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Genesis 42:21: They said to one another, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. Al-ken this anguish has come upon us.”

Genesis 47:22: Only the land of the priests he did not buy; for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh, and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; al-ken they did not sell their land.

Genesis 2:24 contains this same kind of al-ken structure, and it seems to be universally agreed: Genesis 2:24 is an etiology. But what is it that Genesis 2:24 explains? Why men leave home? Why men get married? Why men are attracted to women? We will need to address this question in a later post. But I think one thing is clear: the etiology of Genesis 2:24 provides a descriptive explanation (“this is what does happen”) rather than a normative explanation (“this is what must happen”) or a prescriptive explanation (“this is what should happen”).

I don’t mean to suggest that etiology is never found in the Bible in conjunction with commandment. For example, the quote above from Genesis 32:32 refers both to a law (it’s not kosher to eat the sciatic nerve from an animal) and an etiology connecting Jacob’s injury to Jewish dietary practice. Another example of law joined with etiology is the Fourth Commandment (Third Commandment for Catholics and Lutherans):

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the L-rd your G-d; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the L-rd made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the L-rd blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

In the Sabbath commandment, we see both a law command (“Remember the Sabbath”) and an etiology explaining where the law came from (G-d rested on the seventh day, therefore the seventh day became the Sabbath). But note: in the Fourth Commandment, law and etiology are separately identified: the commandment is stated, followed by the reason for the commandment. We don’t see a similar combination in Genesis 2:24. In Genesis 2:24 there is only explanation; there is no command.

We must not confuse etiology with command, or law, or even divine design. The etiology of Genesis 10:9 may explain why people once used the expression “a mighty hunter before the L-RD,” but we’re not commanded to continue using that expression. Notwithstanding Genesis 25:30, we are not required to refer to Esau as “Edom”; even after this explanation is given, the Bible continues to refer to Esau as Esau. Finally, consider the etiology of Genesis 3:16, where G-d curses Eve (and by implication, all women) with childbirth pain. Clearly, this etiology should not be confused with a command that women must suffer during childbirth—or else, Judaism and Christianity would prohibit women from receiving anesthesia and other pain relief during labor.

Remember what I said above about problematizing and defamiliarizing Bible verses? I hope I’ve accomplished this by considering Genesis 2:24 in a different light. Seeing Genesis 2:24 as an etiology should lead us to question what the verse is doing there, in the middle of the Adam and Eve story. Considering Genesis 2:24 as an etiology should lead us to consider whether it really describes “G-d’s plan,” or if it is simply an explanation for something that is, something we commonly see.

If Genesis 2:24 is there to explain something … what is it there to explain? I’ll have more to say about this in my next post, but in the meantime, have at it in the comments!

  • Joscelyne Gray

    Love it. Great post.

  • Joscelyne Gray

    I will add, on a completely humorous note, I can’t read the post without thinking of Christopher Smart’s poetry that was turned into Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Now there are 6/8 time singers in my head in addition to the lyrics that came from the Bible!

    • Joscelyne, thanks. I’ve only heard a little bit of Britten, and based on what I’ve heard, I can’t feel too terrible about the singers in your head!

  • Let Nimrod the mighty hunter bind a leopard to the altar and consecrate a spear to the Lord.

    Let Larry the etiological warrior write for we rejoice with him על־כן we will remember that we do not know everything we think we might know (and that ought to be a commandment too). Thanks for pointing out these techniques – particularly ‘defamiliarization’ is exactly what I have done with the psalms – to get people to see the poetry as something they have to work to read and not piously take for granted.

    • Yes, I was thinking of some of your work as I wrote this.

      (Etiological warrior, heh heh heh!)