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Book Review: The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (Sarah Ruden)

Sarah Ruden may be my favorite author.  It’s not that I’ve read everything she’s written—her main oeuvre is translation of classics such as the Aeneid, and I find all the classics hard going.  (The Aeneid is something that you know you should read—in college, I read the Cliffs Notes instead, and have felt guilty ever since).  It’s not that I agree with Ruden on politics (she’s a liberal, though a thinking, nuanced one, as far as I can tell) or very closely on religion (she’s a devout Quaker, and there is only some overlap there with my Crusader-oriented theology, though we’re both Christian).  I think that, ultimately, it’s two things.  First, her work is original and fascinating, which in itself is a great deal.  But, combined with the second element, the charm and humor that shines through her work, the reader of her books feels like he’s sitting down for a few hours of conversation in a nerdy version of the Dos Equis commercial—the Most Interesting Woman in the World (or second most interesting, after my wife).

Ruden is the author of several works, including Paul Among The People, a highly original view of the Apostle Paul written largely to correct modern misapprehensions about him, showing the revolutionary nature of his doctrine when set against the real pagan world of his time, as opposed to our sanitized, beautified view of that pagan world.  Paul Among The People should be required reading for every Christian, no matter his politics or brand of Christianity, for it clarifies why Christianity matters.  It shows how radical the message of Christianity was (and is); how our society is, even today, wholly permeated by Christian assumptions; and how unpleasant a society without those assumptions really was (and will be, as we hurtle backwards toward it).  At the same time, Ruden’s earlier book undermines some of the more simplistic views of some conservative Christians, giving a measure of ammunition to modern Christian liberals.  And throughout, Ruden’s glittering writing and even-handed approach enhances the book.

That is not this book, though.  This book, The Face of Water, is both less ambitious and more ambitious (and has the same glittering writing as Paul Among The People).  It is less ambitious in that it has little to say about the modern world or our society today; it does not, at least directly, instruct us how to live or how to view the day-to-day world.  It is more ambitious in that any new Biblical translator assumes an awesome responsibility.  After all, to believers, you are presuming to offer a new view into the actual Word of God, and for a non-believer, the Bible is by far the most important and influential book in human history, and you are presuming to offer something new, that nobody else has offered before.

Ruden is not translating the whole Bible here, of course.  Her project is to show, through showing exactly how she translates certain key passages, and why she does it in a certain manner, the meaning of the passages in as deep a way as possible.  The object is for the reader to fully understand these parts of the Bible, and to grasp a certain way of seeing the “beauty and meaning” of the Bible.  Ruden begins, in her Introduction, with a variety of thoughts about the Bible.  She starts with a subtle, detailed and empathetic comparison of the Hebrew and English versions of David’s reaction to his infant son’s death in II Samuel 12:23, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”  Her basic point is that the English translation of the phrase, though twice as long in words, is less richly textured than the Hebrew, because (among other reasons), it “has a flattened-out rendering of the tenses.”  In Hebrew, the child will never return—but the father will keep moving toward the child.  And so forth.  This is the basic mode of the book—concentrated grammatical and vocabulary focus on relatively narrow passages of the Bible through the prism of the original languages.

From here, Ruden establishes a few of her background principles.  The absolute historicity of the Biblical account is not all that important, because “[N]o book has experienced such a long, aerobic winnowing of its claims to be revealed truth, and to be truth revealed in the proper forms. . . . I see absolutely no conflict between acknowledging that the production of Scripture is a fallible (if not pathetic) human process and believing that, over time, Scripture reveals God’s will.”  The canonical books of the Bible are there for good reasons that are not self-interested; books supposedly suppressed like the “Gnostic Gospels” were not included for good reason and were not “censored.”  And, finally, translations may not be perfect, and they may lose many elements of the original, but that does not mean we should despair or whine, for they’re what we have, and they’re actually quite good, being the result of a lot of dedicated, smart people working over a very long period of time.

Against this backdrop Ruden examines several specific passages, from both the Old and New Testaments.  These include the story of David, Uriah and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12:7); the Lord’s Prayer (in its two versions); Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-14 (“In the beginning was the Word . . .”); the vision of Ezekiel and the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14); the witness of martyrs in paradise (Revelation 7:9-17); the Twenty-Third Psalm; the Beatitudes; and a few more.

For each passage, in Part One, she discusses what she regards as key points, both in the abstract and as viewed, where applicable, against the classical and historical background.  For example, she ties “temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer not into its standard modern meaning, but rather to “examination,” under torture, by Roman persecutors.  In Part Two, she returns to each passage with a full re-translation, by her, of each one, showing the King James version and her own translation, which while not always euphonious, is meant to convey the meaning as Ruden thinks best—most effective and truest to the original.  Finally, in Part Three, she compares the King James for some of the passages to a literal translation of the original language of the passage, shown and translated word-for-word.

Despite Ruden’s leavening of it by humor and chatty asides, this is a dense book, where the reader benefits from close focus and re-reading passages.  This is not a book that can be skimmed or read in a few hours of diffident attention; like the Bible itself, it rewards the patient and recursive reader.  For example, and related to the title, Ruden spends a long time on Genesis 1:2.  First, she establishes that where the Bible tells us that “darkness was upon the face of the deep,” here “deep” is a Hebrew word implying “subterranean water or an abyss, or the fathomless depths of the sea—in any case a horrifying place suggesting the roaring, numbing, consciousness-robbing, subduing underworld bodies of water or bottomless chasms of pagan mythology. . . . not just emptiness or disorder but an ongoing primal catastrophe that preceded God’s creative activity but was subdued by his power.”  Thus, when the next phrase is “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” in Hebrew, the spirit “doesn’t just ‘move’ over the water:  it hovers or broods or cherishes, like a bird over its eggs or hatchlings.”

The natural reaction to reading this is some degree of confusion on the part of the reader, who doesn’t quite understand how relatively simple English words can have been more flexible in Hebrew (or, to a lesser extent, Greek).  The answer is, as Ruden covers in detail, that Hebrew has a much smaller vocabulary than English—but much more possibility of combinations, “to create structures of great size, diversity, and nuance,” which, combined with that it’s an inflected language, give it a flexibility, and sometimes ambiguity, that is simply not found in English.

One thing that becomes very clear through this book is how very many translations of the Bible there are, backed by enormous dictionaries that analyze the classical languages (Hebrew and Greek) in which the Bible was originally written, with both surrounded by endless works of exegesis and analysis.  The average Christian is probably aware of five or ten translations (the King James, of course, which is Ruden’s default choice here “because of its beauty and familiarity”; various “Revised” and “Standard” versions that are hard to distinguish; perhaps some dated “contemporary” versions; and, for those a bit more adventuresome, maybe Douay-Rheims).  From Ruden’s bibliography and her casual references to academic reference works, the reader quickly becomes aware there is a lot out there—which is daunting, but if the reader is interested, worth pursuing.

For a counterpoint to Biblical translation that Ruden does not mention at all, one might consider the Qur’an.  That book has experienced no “winnowing” at all, much less a “long, aerobic” one.  Exegesis by those with a more flexible view of Christian doctrine, and textual criticism by those who may not be believers at all, underpins much of the modern view of the Bible (along with the much longer tradition of exegesis by those without a flexible view of Christian doctrine).  Certainly, there are many who reject such collective exegesis and analysis, in favor of the supremacy of (generally untutored) individual interpretation, including such extreme versions as “King James Onlyists,” who believe that the King James translation was itself divinely inspired and is inerrant.  Naturally enough, viewing the Bible as an organic whole yet in some ways pasted together, for example seeing the Book of Daniel as not prophetic and written at the time of Babylonian Captivity, but rather as written centuries later, during the time of the Maccabees, has its challenges to faith.  But there is no reason a believing Christian, whether traditionally orthodox or more, um, supple, can’t combine wholehearted belief in Christian doctrine with a modern approach to Biblical translation and analysis.

This is, for better or worse, in sharp contrast to Muslim practice, where any textual analysis that involves novelty of any sort is banned and can get you killed, which is why the extremely few scholars who analyze the Qur’an as the Bible is routinely analyzed often hide their identities (e.g., the pseudonymic Christoph Luxenberg).  Of course, the majority Muslim position is that the Qur’an is uncreated, which is different than the Christian position that the Bible is divinely inspired, and that suggests that textual analysis, at least of the Qur’an in Arabic, is nonsensical for a devout Muslim, like saying one can have a square circle.  On the other hand, the created hadith are also not subject to objective analysis in Islam, other than for their chains of transmission (isnad), and the hadith are more important for actual Muslim doctrine than the Qur’an.  Given that there is little to zero extra-Qur’anic evidence for the existence of Muhammad, and that the Qur’an assumed its current form well after Muhammad’s death (due to Uthman’s compilation of an “official” version and the destruction of all other proto-documentation), this seems like an area ripe for study.  I wouldn’t hold your breath, though, waiting for it.  But it would be interesting.

In any case, whatever your religion, this book has a lot to offer.  It probably has less to offer atheists, but even they should still find this book of interest, given that the Bible is the common inheritance and (increasingly invisible) skeleton on which our culture is hung.  Thus, whatever your perspective, you will be the richer for having read this book.

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