Sunday, September 21, 2008

Stupid Bible Tricks # 1

I’ve been a professor of Old Testament for sixteen years now, and in my profession you run into some very strange and, often, ridiculous interpretations of the Bible. I decided I would do a series called “Stupid Bible Tricks” to highlight several of these low moments in hermeneutics. Some are simply silly. Others are downright outrageous. Still others are becoming increasingly dangerous as their popularity spreads, and common sense is replaced by a mechanistic and almost magical view of scripture.

The first Stupid Bible Trick I want to consider is what I’ll call “The Alef-Tav Sermon.” It falls into the downright outrageous category as it is based on huge jumps of (ill) logic and disregard for how language works. I first heard this sermon in a church where Kelly was on staff but was not the pastor. I was in seminary at the time, working on my Ph.D. The pastor was aware that I was specializing in Old Testament and that I knew Hebrew.

It was Sunday morning, and I was seated behind the pulpit along with the other choir members. We had done all the typical Baptist preliminaries of worship in preparation for the highlight of the service: the sermon. As we sat down, the pastor arose, walked to the pulpit, and announced that he was going to preach a series of sermons called “Jesus in Genesis.” I groaned inwardly, because I knew that meant he would be christologizing the OT (i.e. inserting Christian ideas into the OT text in order to make the it seem more relevant). But I had no idea what he was going to do when he said, “And today, I will preach on Jesus Christ in Genesis chapter 1, verse 1.”

I’m sure there were a few introductory illustrations and other content that allowed the sermon to extend to the mandatory 25 minutes, but what I remember of the sermon was this. The preacher read the text, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Then he said, “Now, in between the word ‘created’ and the words ‘the heavens’ there’s a little Hebrew word called ‘et.’ He turned toward me, seated unsuspecting in the choir, and asked, ”Isn’t there, Susan?“ Shocked that I was being addressed at all during the sermon, and knowing that there was, indeed, that little word, I nodded. Smiling smugly, he turned back to the congregation and launched into what has to be the most appalling misuse of Hebrew I’ve ever heard.

”Now,“ he said in his best Texas-preacher voice, ”that little word, ‘et,’ isn’t translated, so you can’t see it in your English Bible. But, it’s there, and here’s the amazing thing: it’s spelled alef tav. Now, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is alef. The last letter of the Hebrew alphabet is tav.“ His face began to turn red with excitement. The jugular veins were bulging as his voice grew louder. And, wiping the sweat beads from his forehead, he said profoundly: ”Alef and tav, the first and the last, the Alpha, the Omega! Jesus Christ in Genesis 1:1!!!!“

My jaw dropped, and I’m certain I turned scarlet red. He had just pulled off an incredibly stupid Bible trick, and he had used me to substantiate it. Of course I couldn’t just stand up in the choir loft and rebut him. No, there was nothing I could do but follow the other choir members out of the loft,. Bubbling with fury, I waited for my husband to return to the little trailer we called home. I busted forth with righteous indignation the moment he entered, declaring my intent to confront the preacher Monday morning and teach him a thing or two about Hebrew.

But, Kelly’s calmer mind prevailed, and, in spite of the injustice, he counseled me to remain silent. Maintaining a good relationship with the pastor was pretty important if Kelly was going to keep his job, after all.

So, I never got my moment in the pastor’s office, but each fall, with every new group of Hebrew students, I tell this story as an example of how not to use Hebrew. That little word, ”et,“ which functions as the sign of the direct object in Hebrew appears thousands of times in the Old Testament. If one claims that ”et“ in Genesis 1 refers to Jesus Christ, then wouldn’t one have to claim the same for every verse in which this little word appears? So what, then, does one do when the OT reads, ”And Adam knew “et” his wife, Eve“? Is Jesus right there in the middle? Oooo, a bit awkward, isn’t it?

The sad thing is that I’m not the only one who has heard this sermon (though I doubt the other preachers had an unsuspecting Hebrew dupe in their churches). Indeed, apparently this is a ”stock“ sermon that came out of an institution of ”higher“ learning located in Dallas. Said institution has spawned many preachers who have regurgitated the Alef Tav sermon to their unwitting congregations. And so, this stupid Bible trick is propagated, while stalwart Hebrew teachers, wielding their grammars and lexicons, doggedly call their students to higher standards of interpretation.

And so, the Alef Tav sermon earns the special distinction of being the first Stupid Bible Trick to make my list.


15 comments:

Bezner said...

Wow. That's dirty. Real dirty.

I can't believe it.

Well, I can. But I hate it.

Darrell said...

Ooooh! This is going to be a GOOD series! :-)

Bob MacDonald said...

Who needs the taf? One can get Jesus out of the missing alef in the first word. This is the head of all things that takes second place. Maybe your preacher was over enthusiastic, but your fury didn't do you any good, did it?

Seriously - what role does אֶת play in the grammar? Does the presence of the direct object marker prevent the translation of the verb as a participle?

As to the mediator between God and Man being in the Spirit in the midst of all relationships, why not? Is our Bridegroom depicted in the Song? Certainly the fact that the Jews read the Song at Pentecost suggests that God embraces all our humanity. And why is God not involved in the midst of knowledge (יָדַע ). Doesn't Eve say - I got the man with the help of HaShem?

Stupid is not a good adjective. (See the sermon on the mount and Psalm 14).

Al said...

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Jim said...

well i'm pleased as punch that Ethics Daily made mention of your blog! So I've added it to the blogroll at biblioblogs.com. it's official, you've attained canonical status!

;-)

nice work and i look forward to the rest of this series.

David Ker said...

More, more, we want more.

Singing Owl said...

I surfed in from Darrell's place. I was expecting something about Jesus being the creator, from John 1. But this--? Wow!

mike aubrey said...

I'm kind of hoping that it was someone from Christ for the Nations...

Bible Reader's Museum said...

I am a preacher myself. And I'm hoping none of my sermons show up here. But I will be reading for hints on what to avoid. I look forward to reading more "Stupid Bible Tricks."

Tim said...

I'll second David's cry of "more more!" but not just Stupid Bible Tricks in general, more, more!

Looney said...

Anxiously awaiting Stupid Trick #2 ...

Levi said...

wow, that's a lot worse than i expected. I've heard the "creator, word, spirit" in the first two verses, but never this one. ouch.

havelhavalim said...

For those of you that may be interested in actually watching this unfold before your horrified eyes, check out the YouTube video. It is a video of Larry Olsen. And just as Susan's pastor was filled with excitement at his "exegesis" so too Olsen is bursting with glee.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bx2QUk0t34U

wiserblog said...

Great series. Looking forward to "Stupid Bible Tricks #2" - Kinda reminds me of a congregation I used to attend in my adolescence thus far. . .

Wayne Leman said...

There's some similar christologizing of the Hebrew Bible that appears in a number of English translations by conservative evangelicals. I know they are sincere and base their translation on N.T. interpretations, but it's still not treating the original text properly. I have blogged on this before, but probably will blog about it again this coming week.