A LGBTI Perspective of Religion and its Teachings Part 6: Interpreting the Bible (continued) By Gary Konecky In the last

installment, I started to introduce you the way the written Hebrew Bible is interpreted. We worked through an example of how the oral tradition modifies the written text to clarify the meaning of the written text. In this installment, we will see the other tools we have available to help us understand the Hebrew Bible. Having learned about the oral tradition, we now turn to the text itself. The first problem we encounter is the problem of translation. Some words do not have English equivalents and some words have much more nuanced meanings than their English equivalents. Some words in Hebrew also have very specific meanings, while the English word does not. For instance, Hebrew has multiple names for G-d, each one referring to a specific attribute of G-d. In English, we have no such reference system for understanding G-d when His name appears in Scripture. The problem of translation is summarized in the Talmud (Kiddushin 49a) as follows: “But it was taught: R. Judah said: If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar; if he adds thereto, he is a blasphemer and a libeller.” (note 1) It is also worth noting that our interpretation of the Christian Bible will also have to deal with translation issues. As if translation issues were not enough, when studying the Hebrew Bible, one needs to look at the context. What verses are before and after the verse in question? Is the sequence of events in chronological order or is it out of chronological order to make a point? Are the subjects related? How are they related? If they are juxtaposed, why are they juxtaposed? You also need to understand the impact language has. Hebrew is composed of root words (typically two or three constants). Vowels, prefixes, and suffixes are added to make additional words. Therefore, one looks to the root word and then compares the word in question to other words with the same root to derive the meaning of the text. For example, the Hebrew word commonly translated as holy is actually the separate. How does this help us to understand holiness? A sizable part Book of Leviticus deals with holiness. The commandments in those verses how the Jewish people will conduct themselves; what they will wear, what eat, how men shave, that they cannot have tattoos, what sexual relations permitted and so on. No other nation has these rules. word for of the govern they can are

What do these rules accomplish? G-d said that the Jewish people would serve Him as a nation of priests. In order to protect them from corrupting influences (remember everyone around them worshipped idols and engaged in fertility rites as well as incest, adultery, etc.) G-d gave them a series of commandments that separated them from everyone else. If you cannot eat what everyone else eats, your dinner dates are limited. If you cannot dress in immodest attire, you are less likely to have an inappropriate sexual relationship. If you are told that you can only have sexual relations with people of your religious beliefs, then you are less likely to be lead astray. An example of this can be found in Numbers 24:14, when the evil sorcerer Balaam explains to the Moabite king Balak how to arouse G-d’s wrath against the Israelites (Jewish people). We see the results of that advice in Numbers 25:1-9 when the Moabite and Midian women seduce the Israelite men, thereby using a sexual relationship to con the Israelite men into idol worship.

The above shows us what can happen when holy is not kept separate. We now have an example of why the law in Leviticus spends so much time on prohibitions designed to separate the Jewish people. Separate and holy reinforce each other. Additionally, the same word is looked at in the other places it appears to see if those verses can shed additional light on the meaning of the word in question. In addition to words that share the same root, words that have the same root letters in a different sequence are also looked at in an effort to understand the meaning of the text. Furthermore, some words in the Torah have letters of different sizes, or have words with dots over them. These features also impart meaning to the written text. Sometimes, the word written in the Torah is not read, but another word is substituted during the public reading of the Torah. When each of the instances occurs, there is a specific reason for it. We also have another interesting issue. The system of chapters and verses in the Hebrew Bible is not of Jewish origin. It was invented by Christians. Jewish divisions of the text (for want of a better term I’ll use chapters) are based upon the way the text is written in the Torah. Jewish teaching holds both the black (of the letters) and the white (of the blank parchment) impart meaning to the text, for a midrash holds the Torah was written in black fire upon white fire (note 2). This becomes important in understanding the text as illustrated Genesis 35:22. According to Jewish teaching, this verse is split into what Jews would consider two different chapters. This division into two chapters is significant because a plain reading of the text would indicate that Reuben raped Bilhah. Yet owing to the way this verse is split into two chapters when written in the Torah, we know that Reuben did not rape Bilhah. There is also additional evidence in scripture to support the view that Reuben did not rape Bilhah. In addition, Hebrew letters also function as numbers; hence, every word adds up to a numerical value. Therefore, one can look at words with the same numerical value and see how they can contribute meaning to the text you are studying. Furthermore, it is believed that every word, every letter, in the written Torah has meaning, nothing is superfluous. If a letter appears, and its meaning is not obvious, or the letter or word appears to be superfluous, the sages would work out its meaning. In short, nothing can be left out if one is to understand Divine intent. Based upon their exhaustive study of the oral and written Torah, Jewish sages developed a huge body of literature including; the Mishnah, the Talmud, Aggadah, commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, and other rabbinic literature. In our search to understand the meaning of the Hebrew Bible, we will need to draw on these texts as well. Furthermore, the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are ancient texts. They come from a place that is very different than the world we live in. Our livelihoods, clothes, mores, social customs, even the status of women, are all different than when these texts were written. These differences matter and we need to keep in mind what society was like when these texts were written. As you can see, the interpretation of the Bible is a incredibly complex task requiring a working knowledge of many different texts, plus language skills, plus analytical skills, and so on. It is not a matter of taking things at face value but it is a labor of digging as deep as you can in search of the truth. When one

digs that deep, one finds buried treasure and one learns that things are not what always what they appear. In the next installment, we start to relate the Bible to LGBTI people. We will unearth one of those buried treasures and discover that this ancient text has much to offer us today.

Note 1: The Soncino Talmud, Judaic Classics by David Kantrowitz, Version 3.0.8, Copyright 1991-2004. Note 2: Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 33:2

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