The Word of God

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"God said it.

I believe it.

That settles it."

-bumper sticker

    But did God really say it? How could we possibly know, either way? Traditional Christians have provided the criterion for answering those questions: they refer to the Bible as the Inerrant Word of God. They reason that, given that God is perfect, any communications from God must also be perfect, completely without error. So if we find an error in the Bible, then we can be certain that God did not truly say it.

    Let’s be clear about what we mean when we say that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Conventionally, and especially among Fundamentalists, it refers to the belief that God has expressed Eternal Truth in human language, guided human scribes in writing down the text of that Eternal Truth, and supervised translators who rendered that text into languages other than the original (Hebrew for the Old Testament, Greek and Aramaic for the New Testament). Under that doctrine the Bible can contain not one single error, nothing that changes the meaning of any of its statements away from that unique Divine Truth.

    So can we find an error in the Bible? Psalm 45:6 looks like a good candidate. In the original Hebrew it consists of four simple words and yet it has been giving Bible translators and theologians conniptions for centuries. In what is supposed to be an epitome of elegant composition, a song of praise for a Hebrew king and his bride on the occasion of their wedding, this statement jars like a banjo solo dropped into "Silent Night".

    The Psalmist begins by addressing the king, praising his power and his glory, noting in two places that God has blessed the king for his righteousness. But partway through that song of praise the Psalmist throws in an aside apparently addressed to God. Then, until he reaches the line in which he describes God anointing the king for his righteousness, he leaves ambiguous who he is addressing, God or the king.

    And what is that troublesome aside? Look at some of the common versions of it:

Vulgate (St. Jerome, 4th Century); Sedes tua, Deus, in saeculum saeculi.

         King James Version (1611); Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever.

Jewish Publication Society Version (1917); Thy throne given of God is for ever and ever.

Revised Standard Version (1952); Your divine throne endures forever and ever. OR Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever. OR Your throne is a throne of God, it endures for ever and ever.

    Those variants create the impression that the translators had a particularly hard time with that passage. True, Hebrew is not a member of the Indo-European family of languages, so we might expect that the translation of Hebrew texts into their Greek, Latin, and English equivalents might get a little tricky in places. But such translation is possible nonetheless and the men who translated the Bible don’t seem to have encountered serious problems with the rest of the text. So what did they run into when they came to Psalm 45:6?

    In the original Hebrew the line is kiys’kha elohiym l’olam v’od. On first impression that looks like something that any first-year student of Hebrew could translate easily. The word kiyseh means chair and the suffix -kha means your, so kiys’kha means your chair (or thy throne if you prefer the Shakespearean English of the King James Version of the Bible). The word elohiym simply means God: originally the plural of eloah, it became a singular through usage as such. Olam refers to the world in the same way as does the Greek word cosmos and it is often used in a temporal sense, referring thus to eternity. The prefix l’- means toward, so l’olam means toward eternity, usually translated as forever. Od means onward with the prefix v’- meaning and, so v’od means and onward. Now, before we can assemble those pieces into a complete translation, we need to find the verb.

    As many languages do, Hebrew uses a tacit version of the present tense of the verb to be, except in those situations where it’s needed to clarify an ambiguity. Clearly the above statement uses that tacit copulative, but where does it go? If we put it between kiys’kha and elohiym, then we translate Psalm 45:6 as "Thy throne is God forever and ever". But that’s simply sacrilege and does not belong in the Bible, so we can dismiss that possibility out of hand. Our only alternative is to put the verb between elohiym and l’olam and to interpret elohiym as being in the vocative case, exactly as the translators of the King James Version did in following Saint Jerome. But that only brings back to our original bewilderment with a new aspect.

    "Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever" sounds clumsy enough as it is in the context of the psalm. It becomes even clumsier now that we know that the word translated as forever actually means toward eternity. Normally we would expect that kind of phrase to take a verb in the future tense, giving us something like "Thy throne, O God, will be/exist forever and ever". The Psalmist seems to have come up with a truly bad piece of writing here. So why is it in the Bible? To put it into Fundamentalist terms, Why would God inspire something so bereft of elegance and then ordain its inclusion in the most sacred scriptures?

    That question gives us a serious puzzle, but the puzzle does have a solution. We find the key clue that we need to solve the puzzle in the Second Commandment.

    The Bible denotes the Deity in two ways – as God (which translates the Hebrew word elohiym) and as LORD (which translates the Hebrew word YHVH, usually transliterated as Yahweh or Jehovah). The first of those is a title of office and the second is God’s personal name, the name that the Second Commandment demands that we never take in vain. The Hebrews and their descendants, the Jews, took that commandment so seriously that the correct pronunciation of the holy name has been lost: instead of pronouncing the name when they came to it in reading their scriptures, people would say "Adonai" (my Lord) instead. The key to solving our puzzle lies in that shyness.

    One consequence of that shyness appears in the Psalms. We can divide the Psalms into two subsets by a simple criterion: into one subset we put the Psalms that contain both God/elohiym and LORD/YHVH and into the other subset we put the Psalms that contain only God/elohiym. We now hypothesize that the Psalms in the latter subset, while accepted as worthy of inclusion into the Bible, were seen as not sacred enough to warrant the inclusion of God’s personal name in them. A wedding song, while warranting inclusion due to its acknowledgment of God’s power and beneficence, would certainly belong in that latter subset.

    What would have happened if the original composer of one of those slightly-less-than-sacred Psalms had written YHVH instead of elohiym into the song? The only option available to the compilers of the Bible would be to have a scribe rewrite the song with elohiym in place of YHVH and then put the original manuscript into a g’nizeh (a tomb for sacred documents that were no longer usable). Is it possible that someone censored the Psalms?

    It is not only possible, it’s likely, because it solves our problem. Remember that all documents of the time the Bible was compiled were hand-written. You also need to know that the Hebrew letter yod resembles a large version of our apostrophe and the Hebrew letter vav resembles our lower-case ell. If one scribe were to draw a yod just a little too long, another scribe might mistake it for a vav, especially if he’s not actually reading the text.

    Even with modern printing that kind of error can happen. I have a copy of the Oxford World Classics’ edition of Reverend William Paley’s "Natural Theology". To produce this book the editors photographed the pages of an original 1802 edition and then transcribed the photocopies into their word processors. One of their challenges, as they note in their introduction, was to change the elongated esses still in use at the time into the short ess that we use exclusively today. Whenever I see an elongated ess in a reproduction of some document from the Colonial or Revolutionary War Eras I feel a strong compulsion to pronounce it as an eff, because it looks very much like a lower-case eff. Apparently the editors of "Natural Theology" felt the same compulsion: as I read the book I found five instances of an ess being transcribed as an eff (on page 32 line 31 feed for seed, on page 73 line 29 fight for sight, on page 151 line 1 confidered for considered [which is not even a word in the English language, so now we know that transcribers don’t actually read what they transcribe, even subconsciously], on page 187 line 35 grass-feeds for grass-seeds, and on page 191 line 27 feed for seed).

    Now we know the original form of Psalm 45:6. It had to be kiys’kha yihyeh l’olam v’od (Thy throne will exist forever and ever). The word yihyeh (YHYH) is the future tense of the third person singular of the verb to be/exist. And now we can see clearly that when the Psalms were being censored the scribe working on Psalm 45 read the yod hey yod hey of yihyeh as the yod hey vav hey of God’s personal name and changed it to elohiym. Reversing that change, replacing elohiym with the original yihyeh, restores the elegance that we expect of a psalm.

    But removing the clumsiness and ambiguity from Psalm 45 removes something else as well. We must remove the claim of Divine Authorship from the Bible, because now to claim that God had any influence over the content of the Bible constitutes an act of blasphemy.

    Recall that blasphemy consists of any act that diminishes our description of God. We might claim that when God inspired the psalmists who composed the slightly-less-than-sacred psalms It did not know that the use of Its personal name would be unacceptable to the compilers of the Bible. But one of the classical attributes of God is perfect knowledge of every detail of Reality for all time, so the statement "God did not know" is blasphemy. Likewise, to claim that God was not aware of the error when the scribe mistook YHYH for YHVH is blasphemy. And, of course, to claim that God allowed a flawed psalm to be put into the Bible or, worse, actually inspired the clumsy version if the psalm is not in error is also blasphemy.

    No, there’s only one way out of this dilemma. We must assert that God had nothing to do with the Bible. That doesn’t mean that we can no longer call the Bible the Word of God. It simply means that instead of understanding that phrase to mean words written by God, we must now understand it to mean words written about God by people who believed that they had encountered some aspect of the Thing that Created Reality.

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