February 16, 2014

Adventures in scriptural revision

I was just reading 1 Samuel (that sounds like a lead-in that has a back-story, but it doesn't, really), and the footnotes in this edition (New American, i.e. Catholic) are remarkable. Here's one on verse 13:1:

A formula like that of 2 Sm 5,4 was introduced here at some time; but the age of Saul when he became king remais a blank, and the two years assigned for his reign in the received text cannot be correct. Tradition (Acts 13,21) offers the round number, "forty years".
That is to say, we don't really know what this verse actually says, so we're leaving one part of it blank and actively contradicting another. This is how they actually presented that verse:
[ Saul was . . . years old when he became king and he reigned . . . (two) years over Israel. ]
The brackets are included in the main text. The weirdness of this inspired me to check out a few other translations. For comparison, the NRSV has the similar
Saul was . . . years old when he began to reign; and he reigned . . . and two years over Israel.
with two footnotes to explain the blanks. "The Message" Bible, a somewhat controversial idiomatic/contemporary translation, just sidesteps the missing numbers:
Saul was a young man when he began as king. He was king over Israel for many years.
But what did they do before the era of modern Bible scholarship? Apparently, just say things that make no sense at all. Here's the KJV:
Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel,
What? And Douay-Rheims is even better:
Saul was a child of one year when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel.
What the what?

Just a few pages later, another footnote is even more eyebrow-raising in its sheer contradiction of the text. In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel (the judge, who speaks for God) says to Saul (the king), that it's time to punish Amalek; in verse 3, he says, speaking for God,

Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.
A gruesome, genocidal command, with no room for interpretation. But the footnote on this passage says:
In such wars of extermination, all things (men, cities, beasts, etc.) were to be blotted out; nothing could be reserved for private use. The interpretation of God's will here attributed to Samuel is in keeping with the abhorrent practices of blood revenge prevalent among pastoral, seminomadic peoples such as the Hebrews had recently been. The slaughter of the innocent has never been in conformity with the will of God.
So... God gave a command, but Samuel edited it, and misinterpreted what God meant? An interesting idea; it might be worth pondering, except that the subsequent text pretty directly contradicts it. Saul, it turns out, carried through the full genocide but held back on some of the animals (not to eat them, but to sacrifice them later), and God doesn't like that he didn't wipe out everything:
Then the Lord spoke to Samuel: "I regret having made Saul king, for he has turned from me and has not kept my command." (10-11)
Thence ensues a back-and-forth where it is fully clarified that when God says wipe them out, he means wipe them out, and wanting to offer sacrifices is not as important as obedience and submission. The closing line of the chapter reiterates that "the Lord regretted having made him King of Israel." All of which is, sure, part of the cognitive dissonance inherent in working with the Bible; and it can all be addressed with an analysis that understands Biblical history as an evolving relationship between humans and God. But that footnote is... well, the best that can be said is that it's trying a bit too hard.

'It should be a movie. A movie musical, in fact. That entire first book of Samuel screams out, "MAKE ME INTO AN EPIC. INCLUDE AN INTROSPECTIVE BALLAD."' --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 10:44pm on 16 Feb 2014
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