the birds and the bats

One of the problems I have with the fundamentalist approach to religion is the tendency to insist on the literal interpretation of written words, often without regard to context.

Yet on the other hand (in a paradox that never made much sense to me), fundamentalists will often gratuitously supply context which is otherwise missing from the text. A good example is the story of Sodom, from which derives the word sodomy. Two angels (whose sex is unstated in the Bible) were sent by God to Lot's house, and while there they were threatened by an angry mob of local villagers who tried to break down the door in order to commit angel rape, and who would have succeeded had God not blinded them. Now, if we assume the sex of the angels was male, that would have been homosexual rape, just as if they had been female, that would have been heterosexual rape. Yet the story is widely interpreted as condemning all homosexual conduct. Why? Had the threatened angels been female, would anyone see the story as a condemnation of all heterosexual conduct? But despite these problems, out of this story the word "sodomy" was manufactured by medieval clerics as a synonym -- not for angel rape, not for ordinary rape, and not even for homosexual rape, but for ordinary homosexual acts. Taking into account medieval prejudices, it is certainly understandable how this might have happened, but to call it a literal interpretation of the Bible is simply at odds with the words that are there.

The story of Sodom is one of the many reasons I have trouble seeing fundamentalism as accurate biblical literalism, despite the frequent claim that all they are doing is following the exact word of God.

The problem there is what words? Whose or which translation is most favored by God?

Leviticus 18:22 appears to condemn the lying with a man as with a woman, but there is no agreement as to what the original Hebrew words (or the Greek words) meant, or the context.

Speaking of Leviticus, I stumbled onto a fascinating passage which made me wonder about the correct interpretation of the simple word "bird":

Leviticus 11:13-20 (New International Version)

Unclean and Detested bird:

13 "These are the "BIRDS" you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, 14 the red kite, any kind of black kite, 15 any kind of raven, 16 the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, 17 the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18 the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, 19 the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat, 20 " 'All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be detestable to you.

Does God think bats are birds? Or was something lost in translation? How much any of this really should matter is of course a good question, but even posing such a question can lead to a charge of religious insensitivity in some quarters.

While I believe in God, because I don't think God consists of text I don't lose much sleep over what the literal meaning of repeatedly translated words. Otherwise, I might be worried that God might think our national symbol is, as the passage says, detestable.

(Probably best not to let religious nuts like Reverend Wright know....)

posted by Eric on 02.26.09 at 11:00 AM


The original text was in Hebrew, and the original meaning of many of the Hebrew words is not totally clear.
We also have the problem that the meaning of many of our english words has changed in the past 400 years.
Unless one is a scholar in ancient Hebrew any argument about interpretation is not valid.

Hugh   ·  February 26, 2009 11:27 AM

I agree that we cannot know precisely what biblical text meant to the writer.

And I hold that no God dictated the words although the writers may have thought it was so. i.e. some sort of revelation or delusion.

That said, the example about GOD perhaps mistakenly classing bats as birds makes no sense.

The distinction of bats from birds is just a convention of science and modern language. We could look at birds and bats differently, we just don't.

There is no mistake. Whatever God or writers thought is what they wrote.

The four legged insects clause is more interesting. Four legs is the great exception among insect like creatures. In fact I know of nothing like an insect with four legs. But there probably are some.

Why not six or eight legs? We don't know but ancient languages used the same symbols for numerals and letters. So "four" may not have been intended.

Alternatively, some numbers were mystical in the past just as we still speak of "seven" as being a lucky number today.

K   ·  February 26, 2009 2:09 PM

When I was little, we had to memorize the six (?) common characteristics of clean birds...they don't eat other birds, they have a crop, they perch with three toes forward, and some other stuff. Apparently "swan" was a mistranslation in the KJV, because swans are closely related to geese and actually clean. IIRC, that is. It was all a long time ago.

Sean Kinsell   ·  February 26, 2009 4:38 PM

Oh, wait. I think clean birds don't rip prey apart and eat it in flight. Can't believe I forgot that one, because, of course, when you're a little boy, raptors are cool.

Sean Kinsell   ·  February 26, 2009 4:41 PM

Lot was a good guy. He offered up his daughters to the mob so that they would be raped instead of the angels.

M. Simon   ·  February 26, 2009 7:02 PM

Neil   ·  February 26, 2009 8:17 PM

Ummm, Eric? I agree with your point generally, but are you actually accusing the Medieval-period Catholic Church of biblical literalism? The entire point of the Latin liturgy was the idea that the peasants were not to be trusted with the literal word--they "needed" the clerics to do the "interpreting" for them. It's only with Protestantism that you get the idea that just any old schmuck should be able to decide for himself what the Bible is all about (whether he decides to read it cover to cover as an instruction manual, or to cherry-pick the best bits is another argument altogether).

Neil   ·  February 26, 2009 8:22 PM

The ancient Jews were well aware that the text of the Bible is problematical. It contains two or more versions of important stories and laws, like the creation and how to cook the paschal lamb, that are contradictory. Some verses are doubled. Others appear to be missing. A few are so garbled in the best ancient manuscripts that no interpretation, never mind translation, is possible. Yet, if this is the Word of G_d, all these defects must be remedied. Thus for 25 centuries Jewish scholars have debated the meaning of the Bible, trying to construct a coherent meaning. The Protestant conceit that anyone can read the Bible and understand it is utterly asinine. It suggests that the whole Protestant movement is basically anti-rational and idolatous.

Bob Sykes   ·  February 26, 2009 9:01 PM

Thomas Jefferson's thoughts on the Book Of Revelation: "considered it as merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams"
That could be said of most of the Bible.

Frank   ·  February 27, 2009 12:57 AM

The "bat blasphemy" can, indeed, trip up the unwary neophyte god-killer, especially one captured by hubris and certainty who skips the critical "check the Apocrypha" step, thinking it only for the fanatic or the insecure.

The Book of Pink Gordon tells us clearly that it was only after the writings of Leviticus had gone through committee that the old-time "bats" - far different from any conception of "bat" that you and I have today, resembling more the phoenix of fable and myth - it was only then, having so sorely grieved god with their irreverent and familiar attitudes towards resurrection, that He (apbuh) finally lost his temper and had all bats sent quietly ahead to the Spanish Inquisition for a complete and final roasting. To this day, their feathers have not reappeared in any descendant. See Pink Gordon, Sec. 99421.9d, p2 (apuh from original).

So, my son, to immediately make the leap to "I cannot be wrong, therefore god is a FOOL!" can only lead you astray from what otherwise might have been the "useful life of quiet insecurity" so valued, and so often commented upon, by the first of the Pink Prophets (est.) It is through Pink Gordon (and, of course, the Pink Gordon Girls, those lovelies through whom Gordon sometimes choses to reveal himself) that God reveals to us that such "hubris" scores almost as poorly in the "bung-muscle stoopid" scale as does the entire masturbatory regimen found in a quick backwards reading of "An Inconvenient Truth."

bobby b   ·  February 27, 2009 1:27 AM

Like most English speakers, you are reading an axe-grinding English translation

of an axe-grinding Latin translation

of an axe-grinding Greek translation

of a Hebrew original that is terse and multivalent.

Hebrew is based on 3-letter roots of meaning that get prefixed, suffixed, and vowelled into noun, verb, and adjective forms.

It is very compact - and each root carries penumbras of meaning - but in these cases, it's not at all hard to understand the plain meaning of the text.

The word usually translated as "abomination" really just means "repulsive" or "disgusting" - which is why it is used for unclean animals, carrion, and certain sexual practices.

(and it's not "bird" but "flying thing" in Hebrew - the list includes flying insects in addition to feathered and mammalian fliers - so this isn't really a strong argument).

Both the animals and the sexual acts are also described by the Hebrew text as "tameh" - an almost untranslatable word that has little to do with sanitation or cleanliness, although it's usually translated as "unclean".

It's a spiritual notion of debasement or a pagan-type enmeshment with physicality that is at odds with Jewish ideals.

This is Judaism's real problem with homosexuality - it leads to debasement. And as someone who has lived in cities with "thriving gay communities" organized around anonymous, exploitative sex and external "types" and fetishes - I think there is more than a little truth to the Jewish critique of homosexuality.

The solution prescribed for being "Tameh" is not to take a shower - but to offer a sacrifice in Jerusalem, and undergo a ritual re-consecration of self.

Ben-David   ·  February 27, 2009 9:23 AM

ask any rabbi as to the symbolism between water, wine, and oil, and you then will understand a lot of the newer parts of the bible (not believe, understand).

most modern christians are like any other collectivists, unlike in the past where they did know the meanings better.

it serves the purposes of leaders to manipulate scripture by playing down some things and playing up others. in this case the concept of whats literal, whats allegorical, and whats historical.

this does not invalidate scripture, and just as more who claim to follow it dont study it, those that dont like it study it even less. (which is one reason i like reading commentary from jon jay ray at dissecting leftism and other blogs. he is an athiest but not so ignorant of history and contributive frameworks that he washes his hands of the thing).

much of what floats around now is quite propagandic. since its the bedrock of western civilization, you want to tear it down, you tear that down. which is why they recasted it into marxism twisting the charity into state obligation (and servitude). the pharasees would be happy.

for instance, most do not realize the mental change that christianity brought that created all these modern things and attitudes. most who hate it would not realize this.

the han chinese led for centuries and yet nothing much was invented... this is not to say nothing was invented, but the whole concept of basic science with no returns which would build a critical amonut of world knowlege that would unleash what we call the modern world.

when the christians said how can i get closer to my god, they came up with the answer that if they study "gods works", they would understand the "artist" through his works (in some cases this led to the literalists). the lessons in the bible did not abrogate reality, though they were slow to adapt to it (which protects them from fads and fashions more, this does not mean immunity)

from this simple concept all basic science came. why the gun was invented by a german priest, genetics by a german priest, and on it on it went... and why the idle wealthy, adopted the morals and desire to learn about the world too. so you got voltaire, and compernicus, ptolemy, and all the others... the church impeded too... but that could never compare with the fundemental shift that they provided that let teh genie out of the bottle!!! without the genie being out, there would have been nothing to impede. we could have easily went another 20k years as poverty peasants...

the morals of the christians is what led to the enlightenment. they took the concept of a single moral god who was kind, firm, just, and unyeilding in principals, and TRIED to apply that to themselves, and their thinking.

if god thinks every man is important, then individuals are the most important thing, whether firm, or infirm. the germans would have exterminated hawkings, as most of the communists and socialists would... now the enlightened having abandoned god, cotemplate the extermination and controlled selection of winners and losers to control ends.

which means we also forgot that only god can conttol ends (As a lesson not selling this. just trying to inform what these principals bring), and god loves individuals, and so the state has no right to a mans labor, or life, except through his voluntary charity and complicity without violent coercion.

the real world is a world absent of all morals, and such. morals are for the groups who are social, and they can vary.

the high morals that created the enlightment and informed its ideals and potential future, have now been perverted. the water is clean but it has salt in it.

we are willing to do evil to do good, beasue we no longer can tell what is evil or good!

maybe athiests may not like religion, but they sure do like what it brought to society and its stability, peacefulness, and goals.

it caused us to focus on ourselves, our responsibilities, what we did each day, whether we worked first or played first...

the foundation has been crumbling for a long time, and as it has the very social framwork holding us together as a peoples independent from the state has faded with it.

better to be the slave of an imaginary being that you can decide how they are, and how they judge you.. than it is to be teh slave of the state in which you have no deciison, and how they jduge you controls the ends and the means is to threaten more misery to get you to comply with a lesser misery.

we forget that fringe groups are fringe groups, and that even though they can pool together and wield power outside their numbers against a larger mass, that doesnt mean that what they will do will be good and benificial.

using socialists as an example. socialist are parasites, and parasites do VERY well in a stable society where there numbers are kept pretty low. but if sociopathic parasites get together, form an ideology, and work things till they have power over the body politic, they then exceed their hosts.

yes, fringes need hosts... they are not stable enough as a group, productive enough, etc... which is why they are fringes...

when ticks overcome their hosts what happens?

they drain the body of its capital.. rather than have 200 million bodies to eat a bit from, they cause a trajedy of the commons, and suck em all dry.

so once empowered and manipulated to rise up and be equivalent outside that, they saw the branch that supports them and everyone else believing they are making it all better.

this is why socieites rise and fall...

the parasites can only pool ni a society large enough... then they take over more and more and different parasites link up... (They dont know that they are parasites, would get angry to even examine it). the sociaopathis power ones lead, the criminal get passes, the borderline personalities get passes, and so on... all of them deep down know who they live off of, and if they link up, they can then have everythig they want... and not have to deal with the hosts. (you can see it in how they do business not wanting to make customers happy as individuals dealing with each other, but actually dislike customers... and act like they should just show up, drop off money fast, and leave - parasiticals running businesses).

so like any host with too many parasites, a dog pile happens. feminist parasites, atheist parasites (not all are parasites, most are actually symbionts! but dawkins is a parasite), liberationists, populists, labor unions, politicians, and the list goes on.

and parasites do control the minds of their hosts... they are a fascinating medical subject.

so you can look at all thsi from different angles... all of them are valid for the sum of them is the truth... (think rasomon applied to ideas).

we have deconstructed the framework that informed us as to parasites, and how to keep them small, and so forth (liek dont feed socialists money and give them an inch, the infection of the bankers and money changers, and the sloth and percversion cause a decline till they are in control, and nothing works any more... (that continues till they are in decline and the new population of producers and such arises after a long dark age)).

sorry for the long post...

but i see things very easily in complicated ways across domains... and i do not know at all how to get those spanning ideas out wihout such long texts.

artfldgr   ·  February 27, 2009 9:24 AM

As an atheist, I'm having trouble finding an ax to grind in this, but "sodomy" doesn't mean ONLY physical relations between homosexuals, although the definition would include homosexuals because of the kind of sex they could not otherwise practice.

American Heritage Dictionary: "Any of various forms of sexual intercourse held to be unnatural or abnormal, especially anal intercourse or bestiality."

It is any sex considered "unnatural" or "unclean" including anal and oral sex.

It isn't necessary to specifically find mention of homosexuality because the sexual practices would be sodomy, regardless of the sex of the people involved.

Mrs. du Toit   ·  February 27, 2009 10:40 AM

Excellent comments, thanks!

Connie, oral sex seems to have been added later (as was masturbation!):

Eric Scheie   ·  February 27, 2009 11:14 AM

Ben-David's post brings to mind how important it is to not only go back to the original written text, but also undestand the culture in which it was written.

I took a modern bible study class from a professor that contributed to the original reading of dead sea scrolls and the like. Hebrew was first written with only the consonant sounds, and the reader had to know the vowels from memory. However, when the language fell in to disuse due to Israel being conquered for a few centuries, the scribes needed to insert the vowel sounds somehow. Since they did not want to disturb the text, they invented a system dots above and below the text to indicate the vowel sounds.

But when they came the word for the Hebrew God, Yahwey, they did not want to put the actual vowel sounds, because as a tradition this was a word that we never actually said during the reading of the text in the temple, out of respect for their God. So, they instead inserted the vowels for a different word that meant "Loved One".

As a consequence, the founders of Jehovah's Witnesses misinterpreted what the pronunciation was, and wound up creating a whole religion based on the incorrect assumption that all of Judaism and Christianity was actually praying to the wrong God.

So, the lesson of the story is it is as important to know the traditions of the people as well as the language to understand the interpretation that the writers intended.

Pablo Panadero   ·  February 27, 2009 1:22 PM

One quibble with whoever said above that atheists and agnostics study religion less than believers - it was certainly the opposite in my case.

As a youngster, I wanted to be religious and be a part of a religious community (still do sometimes). There were not a lot of books in my house when I was growing up, but there was a Bible. My parents also (at considerable cost in those days) purchased a set of encyclopedias.

Being an insatiable reader I read both. My idea of a perfect Saturday afternoon was on the porch swing with a book.

When my older brother got to high school, I started reading, first, his texts and later books he bought, mostly fiction. (And the Playboys he had under his bed.)

So... all this reading led me to question first what was being taught in Sunday school. It so often didn't fit with what I'd read in the Bible and it really didn't fit with what I'd read in the encyclopedia.

For social reasons, I'd go to catechism with my Catholic friends and to early morning classes with my Mormon friends. Every summer I'd attend as many Vacation Bible Schools as my mother was willing to cart me too. Most of those were Baptist or Methodist. What I learned was that the Baptists had better snacks.

As an adult, I've come to realize that what I have the most problem with are ORGANIZED religions. The differences between some are just silly and the differences of others are a bit scary.

So, first I became non-religious, then I became agnostic. I agree with most of what artfldgr posted, as well as with what most everybody else posted, including the original post!

My reading of the 1st Amendment is that no ORGANIZED religion shall be recognized by the state. God is OK but don't make me follow a specific interpretation of him/her or any specific text.

Religion is like any other two-sided coin, it can be good and it can be bad.

Donna B.   ·  February 27, 2009 9:23 PM

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