The Tempest

the tempest_The Tempest is one of those plays that can be very tough sledding for the modern audience.  I just watched the BBC 1980’s TV version, and it is borderline.  Even Michael Horndern, by whom I’ve never seen Lear played better than, has a hard time selling Prospero.  But that’s what must be done in this play.  If folks don’t like Prospero, if the audience doesn’t trust his intentions, and if they don’t become sympathetic with his project, then uneasiness builds apace.

So if you want to know what I think, I think Prospero must be played with barely contained joy in every moment.  He’s been shipwrecked, his dukedom stolen, his home lost, and he has landed on an island.  But he has acquired magical power, has a powerful spirit-servant, and can command the elements and control anyone who comes to the island.  His reach is even long enough to command a storm and bring a passing ship to wreck on his island, because the ship contains the two men who most wronged him in the beginning.  And once he brings them to shore, he uses his powers with absolute sway: they go and do only as he allows and directs.

Why would he do that?  To get revenge?  Wonderfully, no. The whole play and everything he directs is designed to bring his offenders finally before him where their sins are exposed and … he forgives them.  Everything leads to forgiveness.  He is not paying them back or making them suffer or abandoning them to the island while he returns to Milan to take back his dukedom.  No.  He works all his wonders to forgive his enemies.  This is a happy project, and he should be seen to delight in it.

Then after the last scene of forgiveness and reconciliation, in the last speech of the play, Prospero addresses the audience directly.  He asks forgiveness of them, reminding them not very indirectly, that those who hope to be forgiven by heaven must forgive all offenses against themselves.

And since this is basically Shakepeare’s “last” play, it is common to see Prospero’s exit as Shakespeare’s own goodbye.  Prospero lays aside his magic staff, and releases the powerful spirit who served him, and prepares to leave the magical island where everything the characters can do is directly under his sway.  Even so, Shakespeare puts down his pen, releases his muse, and leaves behind him the magical storyland of the theater and the characters he commanded.

That kind of stunt “works” for an audience if it is done with a deep joy and an ever-present twinkle in the eye, a fundamental playfulness, and a commitment to reconciliation and final forgiveness.

For best results, that’s how Prospero has gotta be played.

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A Tale of Two Porters

porterSaint Benedict and Shakespeare both treat the function of the Porter, whose job it is to open the gates to guests and visitors.

Benedict wrote his Rule for monastic communities in the early 6th century.  Among many other things that order the monastic life, he treats the role of the Porter.

Of the Porter of the Monastery
Let a wise old man be placed at the door of the monastery, one who knoweth how to take and give an answer, and whose mature age doth not permit him to stray about.
The porter should have a cell near the door, that they who come may always find one present from whom they may obtain an answer. As soon as anyone knocketh or a poor person calleth, let him answer, “Thanks be to God,” or invoke a blessing, and with the meekness of the fear of God let him return an answer speedily in the fervor of charity. …
It struck me when I read that, that Shakespeare, writing 1000 years after Benedict, turns the Porter’s job completely upside-down in Macbeth.  In Act II, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have just murdered their guest king Duncan when there is a knocking at the castle gate.  They hasten off to “bed” so as not to be discovered suspiciously up and about when the king’s body is discovered.
A drunken Porter comes to answer the door.  Unlike Benedict’s monastic Porter, who is to answer knocking with a blessing, admitting guests to the care and hospitality of a monastery, Macbeth’s porter drunkenly plays with the idea that he is a Porter to hell, greeting the damned who arrive to their torment.

Here’s a knocking indeed! If a
man were porter of hell-gate, he should have
old turning the key

He first welcomes a suicide …

knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of
Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hanged
himself on the expectation of plenty: come in
time; have napkins enow about you; here
you’ll sweat for’t.

As those outside continue to knock at the gate, the Porter next pretends to welcome an equivocator, a topical/contemporary reference to one who obscures the truth in his testimony in order to appear innocent.

knock! Who’s there, in the other devil’s
name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale;
who committed treason enough for God’s sake,
yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come
in, equivocator.

As the knocking continues, the Porter keeps playing his game (perhaps with those in the front row of the audience as hell’s new arrivals) while those outside are kept waiting

knock, knock! Who’s there? Faith, here’s an
English tailor come hither, for stealing out of
a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may
roast your goose.

Finally, the Porter gives up the game and answers the gate, complaining that the night is too cold to pretend to be at hot hell’s gate

knock; never at quiet! What are you? But
this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter
it no further: I had thought to have let in
some of all professions that go the primrose
way to the everlasting bonfire.

Benedict’s Porter welcomes the visitor to a monastic community, an island of charity and order, under God’s government, in the midst of the dark social chaos of the Roman Empire’s ruins.

Macbeth’s Porter welcomes these visitors to his castle, a veritable hell of betrayal, murder, and madness, where Macbeth governs by the counsel of the witches and the devil/s they serve.

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Daughters of Heth, Hittite Women, … Whatever

I say again that the ESV is about as good as you can do for a modern English translation.  (Though the KJV beats it for accuracy at almost every point of disagreement.)  So my ESV rants in this series express my puzzlement and disappointment when the ESV translator makes what I view as the wrong choice.  Especially when the choice breaks a connection or obscures an antecedent in the Biblical vocabulary.

So Rebekah’s disappointing son Esau marries a couple of the local Hittite girls, and Rebekah complains to Isaac about these “daughters of Heth.”  Heth, as I’m sure we all recall, was one of Canaan’s two sons listed in Genesis 10.  Heth becomes the forefather of one of the Canaanite tribes known as the Hittites.  “Heth” and “Hittite” have the same Hebrew root.  So sometimes the text calls the Hittites “Hittites”, and sometimes it calls them “sons of Heth.”  The Hebrew has two different ways to say it.  Does it make any difference?

Maybe.  And my point all along has been that this is not a call that the translator should be making.  Translators just translate, and leave interpretation, explanation, and cultural accommodation for the preacher and teacher.  (Yes, yes, yes, it is not always that simple … but in these rant posts, I’m citing cases where I think it IS that simple.)  At least I think we should pause before we just flatten out the text and change all the Bible’s “sons of Heth” into “Hittites.”  Isn’t it possible that in some cases the Bible says “sons of Heth” to communicate a nuance or suggest a connection that “Hittite” doesn’t?  A good translation does not obliterate those connections.

So, no surprise.  KJV says “sons of Heth” where the Hebrew says “sons of Heth.”  But ESV wobbles.  When Rebekah complains about these “daughters of Heth,” ESV, for some reason, (WHY??!!), decides that “Hittite women” is better.

Guess what.  I disagree.

(I wonder if this is a bias danger for the kind of guys who get put on the translation teams.  Most of them are classroom professors, who always have one foot in the original language and the other foot in the classroom with a bunch of sleepy pastoral candidates who are just trying to survive the academics in order to go do gospel ministry.  Most of these guys could not care less about parsing Hebrew verbs, so the prof always has to pull the Hebrew idiom into the modern world and dress it in skinny jeans and tattoos before their students’ eyes begin to open.  That probably helps in the classroom, but is not the model for translation.)

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Hey ESV, it’s “the fathers,” and “a son”

Hebrews 1.1-2 in the ESV reads:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, (Heb. 1:1-2 ESV)

There is no “our” and there is no “his” in the Greek.  But translators just can’t resist inserting the personal pronouns.  The Greek has “the fathers”, and “a son.”  I’m trying to imagine why the translators feel like our poor English brains just would not be able to understand:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to the fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,

Why not that?  Really.  And this time, it’s not just the ESV.  Even KJV can’t quite get it.  KJV has “the fathers” and “His son” — but at least they put the “His” in italics to show that it is supplied and not original.

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Best Opening Line in Shakespeare

The best opening line in any Shakespeare play is in Antony and Cleopatra.

Nay, but this dotage of our general’s / O’erflows the measure:

That’s all you need to know about the whole play.  For the next two hours you will suffer along watching general Antony dote on Cleopatra so far beyond any measure that in the end, everything is ruined and everybody dies.  We could all be spared two hours of frustration and grief if they would just bring down the curtain after the first line.

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melchizedekIn seminary, I had to read all the scholars.  There were some good, believing Christian scholars.  But so much of the academic Biblical “scholarship” is profoundly ridiculous.  Useless, wrong-headed, faithless, … an absolute wasteland.  (Although in spite of themselves, sometimes they do get a helpful insight or see a true connection; God’s word cannot be completely shrouded, even by the most stiff-brained puff bags.)

I tremble to think that at one point in my life, I imagined I might pursue the teaching/academic life.  Now I am sooooo thankful I didn’t get to go that way.  Because to do respectable, “serious” academic work, you would have to wade in that dreck all. the. time.   At what toxic cost to your sanity and health?  Without a special covering and protection from God, it would be jibbering hell.

I am reminded of this even during my current studies and preparation for sermons and lessons.  Bibleworks, my primary study sofware, includes some respectable encyclopedia and dictionary resources of some pedigree.  It is very nice to have those tools, and I am generally very glad of them.  Nevertheless, some of the stuff in there is ridiculously foolish.  Today I saw some stuff on Melchizedek that is just facepalm terrible.

It reminds me of an exam I had in seminary.  Good old Doug Moo gave us a question about what so-and-so wrote in his commentary about the interpretation of a certain verse of James.  Not having read so-and-so’s commentary, but knowing so-and-so to be one among the worst kind of Biblical academics, I looked at that verse in James and asked myself, “what would be the worst possible misreading and misunderstanding of this verse?”  I put that down on the exam paper.  Moo did not mark it wrong.

“Claiming to be wise …”

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What is it with the ESV and “flesh?”

From time to time I gripe about translators who shy away from the Bible’s own vocabulary to accommodate some perceived issue in the target language.  The ESV is about as good a choice as you can make (that is, if you won’t read the KJV), but once in a while I see something in the ESV that disappoints, as I have complained in this space before, here, here, here, here, and here.

So here’s another.  “Flesh” is a loaded term theologically.  Leviticus loads that term with all kinds of associations of human infirmity and uncleanness.  We are walking decay factories, and all manner of death and corruption erupts from within and prevents us from approaching the holy, living God.  But all that “flesh” theology is lost when translators imagine that poor, stupid English readers will never be able to remember or understand such difficult matters.  So they choose to substitute other things for the “flesh” word.  This they do in an effort to simplify and clarify, but it also completely breaks the rich connections that are supposed to inform and feed our thinking.

As in Romans 6:19

  • KJV I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh:
  • NKJ I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.
  • NAS I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.
    But alas,
  • ESV I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations.

“Natural limitations?”

No.  Okay, yes, “natural limitations” are part of what may be in view here, and that may even be the main thing Paul is saying, and that may even be what the teaching and preaching point should be.  HOWEVER, that translation eliminates the possibility of any reader making connections that the Bible’s own vocabulary establishes.  So are we really too stupid nowadays to learn and understand what “flesh” means?  Unhappily, the ESV doesn’t even give us the chance to think about it.

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Saul and Gibeah and Jabesh Gilead

saulSaul is from Gibeah, and Gibeah is effectively the capital during his reign. At least it continues to be his residence.  Remember that Gibeah is the town that committed the outrage against the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19-20), which led to the near-annihilation of the whole tribe of Benjamin. For the 600 surviving Benjamites, 400 wives were supplied by sacking Jabesh-Gilead, which hadn’t shown up for the fighting. And then 200 wives were kidnapped at the Shiloh dance.

Well, that creates some bonding, some ties of kinship between Gibeah and Jabesh-Gilead, right? So there seems like there would have been some extra motivation for King Saul, in his first act of kingly war, to muster an army to go fight Nahash the Ammonite, who had Jabesh-Gilead in his snakey coils.

Saul would have been all like, “Hey! that’s where grandma is from!”

And of course, it’s the men of Jabesh-Gilead who come retrieve Saul’s body from the Philistines after he’s killed on Mount Gilboa. … J-G practically brackets the Saul narrative.

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Nebuchadnezzar Baptised

nebNebuchadnezzar was baptized by the dew of heaven: καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς δρόσου τοῦ οὐρανοῦ τὸ σῶμα αὐτοῦ ἐβάφη (Dan. 4:33 BGT).

So there it is: the Greek “baptw” word in a circumstance where it clearly cannot mean “dip” as some Baptists say it always does. Nebuchadnezzar was “baptw’d” by the dew of heaven. Basically Presbyterian style.

Just FYI.

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Called to be Saints: a Holy Convocation

HazardousZoneIt is easy to run right through Romans 1:7 where Paul tells the Romans that they are “called to be saints” and just tell ourselves that the Christian life requires holy living: no stealing, no adultery, no killing, and love one another.  That kind of thing, right?  Live a separated, holy life, okay?

However, there is much more going on here.  The words Paul uses for “called saints”, κλητοῖς ἁγίοις, have a strong specific referent in the Pentateuch.  Thirteen times in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, those “called” and “holy” words are used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to refer specifically to Israel’s holy convocation, the κλητὴ ἁγία.  Particularly in Leviticus 23, on each of the calendar feasts, Israel was to have a κλητὴ ἁγία.  Every weekly Sabbath was a κλητὴ ἁγία.  The first and seventh days of Unleavened Bread were κλητὴ ἁγία.  The day of Pentecost was a κλητὴ ἁγία.  The first day of the seventh month, the beginning of the feast of Trumpets, was a κλητὴ ἁγία.   The tenth day, the Day of Atonement, was a κλητὴ ἁγία.  On the fifteenth day, the first day of the feast of Booths, was a κλητὴ ἁγία.  On the eighth day of Booths, the closing day of that feast, was another κλητὴ ἁγία.

So here is Israel, in it’s most Israelish, elect, special, holy, separate, priestly nation, core observances, gathered in the restricted holy zone around the altar and the tabernacle, defining what it means to be κλητὴ ἁγία.  If you are not in the Holy Nation, you do not have access.  So it is a Big Deal for Paul to open his letter to the Roman, gentile Christians, and tell them that now they are κλητοῖς ἁγίοις, the assembly of the sanctuary people.  That which formerly was for one nation, is now for all nations in Christ.  That which formerly only Jews could do, assemble in a κλητὴ ἁγία, now happens in every assembly of the Jew + Gentile church.  That which was formerly restricted to a few, is now in Christ, open to all.

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