David Kishik begins his lovely theological meditation The Book of Shem by pondering the inverted grammar that opens Genesis. Instead of a typical subject verb direct object construction, the first sentence of the original Hebrew text is arranged adverb verb subject direct object.
Wrote Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English (compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.” Odd, although not totally outlandish.
Kishik questions whether the grammar was actually strange, however. What if the book of Genesis opens with a perfectly normal sentence that is intended to convey a bizarre idea, instead. The first word, which everyone presumes to be an adverb, might instead refer to a power above even Yahweh himself (“Bereshit” in Hebrew, commonly rendered as “In the beginning” in English).
We would have something like:
InTheBeginning created (a) god, the heavens and the earth.
It seems implausible that Kishik, or anyone, would consider this translation to be what the original authors of Genesis intended. Even if the translation itself were more plausible, this interpretation is divorced from the actual religious practices that treat Genesis as a foundational text. Religions use the book, but no religion is defined by a text alone.
It might seem bizarre for InTheBeginning, the mysterious pre-civilized force, to be mentioned only once, at the moment when he creates our Lord. But Kishik pursues this idea through an entire arc of environmentally-conscious speculation. If InTheBeginning created Yahweh, then Yahweh’s formidable jealousy becomes comprehensible. We can understand why Yahweh might compulsively, almost tic-ishly, appraise the quality of his own creations: … and God saw that it was good.
Kishik begins by misinterpreting Genesis, but this allows him to make interesting discoveries along the way. He concludes that, just as InTheBeginning was a pre-human, pre-lingual force able to create God, there must be a symmetrical post-human, post-textual void for the world to return to. Although God made a covenant (Genesis 9:11) promising not to destroy the planet, He does not possess total control.
God will not kill us. But he may not be able to save us. We humans might destroy this world ourselves.
Indeed, we’re well on our way.
I was raised in a mostly secular household, and I’m still wary of mysticism (despite my own belief in free will). I’m quite obviously an outsider to every religious tradition. But religions shape the way most humans approach the world, so it behooves all people, myself included, to learn and think deeply about them.
Even outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.
It’s important to understand their standard interpretations. But, even from the perspective of an outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.
Kishik’s The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening, pleasurable read.
Or consider John-Michael Bloomquist’s “The Prodigal’s Return,” a poem about teaching in jail, which includes the line:
… I think Christ died for us
to forgive his father, who until he became a man
and dwelt among us had no way of knowing
what it was like to be Job …
In the standard interpretation, Jesus was sacrificed so that God would forgive us humans. This is a very traditional myth, with variants told by many human cultures across the globe. Wrathful deities must be appeased through the intentional, unwarranted sacrifice of something good.
In The Iliad, the Acheans praise Zeus by slitting the throats of a whole row of young men kneeling in the sand. Abraham bound his son on the mountaintop; the boy survived that day, but a lot of the story’s power comes from the original audience knowing that this sort of sacrifice was common. They would have realized how close Abraham came to plunging down the knife. There are numerous stories about the need to murder beautiful virgins to appease volcanoes, or to ensure good harvests, or to bring back rain.
Even though Jesus’s sacrifice makes sense within the framework of traditional mythology, it seems jarring within the context of Christianity, which purports to worship a kind, merciful god.
Within Christianity, it actually makes more sense for God to incarnate himself and suffer greatly so that we humans would forgive Him. He created this world, and this world causes us to hurt. Until He feels some of the hurt that He has subjected us to, his apologies would seem insincere.
Loneliness, hopelessness – God subjected Job to these in order to win a bet. He subjects nearly all humans to these travails as a matter of universal design. He needs to know the cost that we pay.
After hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you might have felt.
This is not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey. But we’d have a better world if it were.
John-Michael soon learned that being inside a jail – even as a visitor, there to read poetry for ninety minutes and then leave – was miserable. But he kept going for an entire year. The people in jail are suffering on behalf of all U.S. citizens – which meant, on his behalf – so he needed to suffer too.
Psychiatry students were once encouraged to ingest many different medications, so that they would understand what the compounds they’d prescribe felt like.
Shared experience – especially painful experience – can bring us together.
The author(s) of the Ramayana intended for Rama to be the greatest possible man. Within their philosophical framework, Rama is unambiguously good. The story is a triumph of the hero.
But it’s helpful to look at the myth with modern eyes and willfully misinterpret it. When we read the story now, Rama seems flawed because his world was flawed.
Near the end of Rama’s saga his path is blocked by the ocean. His wife is held captive on an island kingdom; Rama feels helpless, trapped on the shore. And so he threatens violence against the very waters:
Now, launching a powerful assault, I shall with my arrows dry up the ocean together with its fish and sea monsters and its masses of conch and oyster shells.
This lord of the ocean, abode of sea monsters, thinks that, because I am endowed with forbearance, I am weak. To hell with forbearance for people like this!
Fetch my bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall convulse the imperturbable ocean.
This passage was translated collaboratively by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, & Barend Nooten. And it is troubling to see Rama, the ideal man, threaten physical violence to ensure that the world conforms to his desires. Goldman and Goldman include the following footnote:
This episode, in its rendition by Tulsi Das, is the setting for his famous verse about how certain things and creatures, including sudras and women, only perform when beaten. This verse has been the subject of critique and controversy among members of the women’s movement and Dalit advocacy groups in contemporary India.
If we castigate Rama for his words, we are clearly misinterpreting the text. Rama is good within the text, because this behavior was good within his world. A man, head of the household, was allowed to beat his wife or servants if they did not meet his expectations.
Most people would find it difficult to read Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” with a straight face now. But, in another revealing misinterpretation, proponents of the Dravidar Kazhagam movement have found parallels between the Ramayana itself and a Kipling-esque tale of colonial conquest and oppression. In the Ramayana, light-skinned north Indians execute a south Indian king, subjugate the local populace, and install their own ruler. (I’ve written about this interpretation previously, here.)
Hinduism itself, along with the oppressions of the caste system, seems to have reached south India in this way. The original conquest probably occurred around the time that the Ramayana was composed, although the spread of Hinduism was not yet complete even many centuries of years later, when Kipling’s British white men arrived to make matters even worse.
In Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla writes that:
When I asked my mother and my uncle about our ancestors, they started with their grandparents’ generation, the earliest one they’d known.
Their grandfather and grandmother were born in the late 1800s in the Khammam district, within what later became the state of Andhra Pradesh, where they lived as part of a nomadic clan. Their clan did not practice agriculture. They subsisted on fruits, on roots, on honey, on whatever they could catch or snare. They were not Hindus. They worshiped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.
When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it – in a word, the Hindus – lived. The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it. There was no sign of human life for miles and miles. They took up farming. The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed. They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.
But soon the civilized people took notice of them. They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar – the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area – who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.
But that was not enough for this agent. He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning. They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding. Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre. My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.
This is what has happened to tribal peoples in India who try to settle down and cultivate land since time immemorial. It still happens to this day. What set Sankarapadu apart was that the Hindus who usurped all the fields around it did not settle there themselves. That’s because the village is surrounded by fetid swamps filled with poisonous snakes, scorpions, and thick swarms of mosquitoes. The landlords settled on safe and elevated ground several miles away in a village called Polukonda.
In the forest, my great-grandfather’s clan had had no caste. But in Hindu society everyone is assigned a place in the caste system. Certain castes traditionally own land, and others have to work for those who do. For those who must work, the caste you are born into determines the kind of work you do. There are priestly castes, carpenter castes, potter castes, barber castes. The more impure a caste’s traditional occupation in terms of ritual law, the lower its status.
When the people of Sankarapadu entered Hindu society with no caste of their own and the most impure occupation of all, that of landless laborers, there was no question where their place would be: at the bottom, as despised outcastes. Outcastes are also called untouchables because they are supposed to be so ritually unclean that the slightest contact with them will defile even low-caste Hindus. Untouchables cannot share meals with others, much less intermarry with them, and are made to live apart from the rest of the village in a segregated colony on its outskirts. Sankarapadu became the untouchable colony of Polukonda, albeit an unusually remote on.
The Ramayana was not meant to be a story of oppression. But this misinterpretation has value, because it helps us understand the widespread biases of the author’s world — biases that persist to this day and still cause horrific suffering and violence.
Anachronistic critique will invariably lead us to misinterpret religious texts. That shouldn’t stop us. I’m curious to know what the old stories would mean if the world were as good as it could be.