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If you ask most anyone, God is a He. Hey, I go with it too, most of the time. It’s easier to give Him a simple pronoun. And the image of God as father is one of the most comforting things imaginable. But the truth is that God is more complicated than gender.

Those who would refer to God as masculine get this conceit from the Bible. But what is the Bible if not a book? That’s what the name “Bible” means. And all books have an audience. The Bible’s audience — spoiler alert! — was not meant to be women. At the time the Bible was written, women couldn’t read. They couldn’t participate in religious ceremonies on the same footing as men. Even today, women aren’t given equal place in the hierarchy of some faiths (I’m looking at you, Catholic church). So guess what? The Bible wasn’t written for women. Also, it wasn’t written in English. Who translated it? More men. No wonder God looks like a “He” in the Good Book.

Only…is that even true? A wise woman of faith who devoted her lifetime to reading the Bible in its original language once told me otherwise. God is referred to in feminine terms throughout the Bible. In Job 10:16 (and at least four other places in the Old Testament alone), God is called a “lioness.” Not a lion. It would have been just as easy to write “lion,” but they didn’t. Why? God is also seen drawing his people to Him “like a hen with her chicks.” Sounds pretty motherly to me.

But what about Jesus? Doesn’t He call God “Father”? Actually, the word He almost always uses is a non-gender-specific word for “parent.” Makes you think, huh?

What if God is bigger than anything we can dream up with our petty gender roles and small boxes made for conveniently pigeon-holing one another? What if God is He and She and It and Them and All? To riff on the movie “Jaws,” “We’re going to need a bigger pronoun.”

If you read the paper or watch the news, you’ve probably heard about Westboro Baptist Church and their protests at military funerals.  Frankly, they make my skin crawl, but that’s the reaction I have to anyone who uses the Bible as an excuse for hate speech.
In part, it is because I find this level of intolerance and hatred frightening.  But I also wonder – do they not understand how open the Bible is to interpretation?

Whoa.  Interpret the Word of God?  Yes, I am one of those people who believes that Scripture, in this case specifically the Bible, is open to interpretation.

But you are also one of these people unless the Bible you are holding is written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages in which the books that make up our Bible were originally recorded.  Is it?  I didn’t think so.  Your Bible is a translation and translation requires interpretation.

The modern Bible has been translated from the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic into Latin, German, English, Spanish, Mandarin and Tagalog to name just a few of the many languages that make God’s Word accessible to humankind.   This accessibility relies on the work of translators. Even prayerful translators are human and humans are fallible, at worst, and variable, at best.  This means that when Translator X interprets a word, such as the Greek teleios, he may come up with one word while Translator Y comes up with another.

To see how much difference it can make, read Matthew 5:43-48.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

That was how Translator X interpreted teleios.  Perfect.

Now read Hebrews 5:12-14.

“We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”

Here, I teleios becomes mature.

Perfect.  Mature.  Not the same, but both interpretations of the same Greek word.

As if this wasn’t enough to give you pause, we also run into difficulty interpreting scripture when we don’t know enough about Biblical culture.  Take, as an example, Matthew 5:39.

“But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

We generally interpret this to mean that we should forgive the slight, but there is much more to it than that.  The Hebrews to whom Christ was speaking would most likely have had to worry about being smacked by a Roman.  A right-handed Roman would backhand a Hebrew across his right cheek.  If the Hebrew then turns his left cheek to also be smacked, the Roman would have to deliver the smack with the palm to the left cheek.  A slap with the palm meant acknowledging this person as an equal.  A backhanded slap would be dealt to an inferior.  Jesus was telling his listeners to force the Romans to acknowledge them as equals.

Perfect vs mature.

Forgiveness vs treatment as an equal.

That’s a pretty big difference, and one that doesn’t support hate speech or picketing a funeral. But then, I guess its all in how you interpret it.  Personally, I do my best to interpret the world through the filter of God’s love for us all.  Some days this is more challenging than others.

–SueBE

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