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.
Kishik, “This is an odd grammatical construction, not only in English
(compare ‘Yesterday walked Joseph’) but also in Hebrew.” Odd, although not totally outlandish.
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
have something like:
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.
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.
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.
not kill us. But he may not be able to
save us. We humans might destroy this
we’re well on our way.
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.
outsiders must occasionally appropriate the right to critique these texts.
important to understand their standard interpretations. But, even from the perspective of an
outsider, a lot of nuance can be revealed through assiduous misinterpretation.
The Book of Shem, although obviously nonstandard, is an enlightening,
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
his father, who until he became a man
dwelt among us had no way of knowing
was like to be Job …
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.
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.
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.
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.
hanging from the cross, He could look to Job and say, I understand how you
might have felt.
not what the original authors wanted the Bible to convey. But we’d have a better world if it were.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
bow and my arrows, which are like venomous serpents, for now in my fury I shall
convulse the imperturbable ocean.
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:
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.
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.)
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
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
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.
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.
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.