Jots & Tittles
Moses & Co. on Trial
Moses and the enslaved Israelites should have thought twice before they absconded from Egypt with, as it says in Exodus 12:35, “articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing.” If an Egyptian jurist has his way, “the Jews” must now, after more than three millennia, repay their debt to Egypt—with interest.
According to a bulletin of MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, Nabil Hilmi, dean of the law school of Egypt’s Al-Zaqaziq University, announced in August that he and a group of fellow Egyptians are preparing a lawsuit against “all the Jews of the world” to win compensation for the treasure allegedly lost by his country during the biblical Exodus. “At that time,” Hilmi told an Egyptian interviewer, “[the Jews] stole from the Pharaonic Egyptians gold, jewelry, cooking utensils, silver ornaments, clothing, and more, leaving Egypt in the middle of the night with all this wealth, which today is priceless.”
How priceless? Hilmi says he calculated the size of the theft by description of the goods the Israelites used to furnish the tabernacle in Exodus 35:12–36. Estimating that the wealth amounted to 300 tons of gold, and accounting for inflation—which is considerable after 3,500 years (6,000 by Hilmi’s reckoning)—the debt is equivalent in today’s economy to “1,125 trillion tons of gold,” according to Hilmi.
The non-Islamic world has treated this planned lawsuit as little more than a joke (albeit one motivated by anti-Semitism), but Hilmi and his partners insist they are serious in pursuing it, as a counter to modern Israel’s use of the Hebrew Bible to justify its presence in Palestine. Hilmi’s plan has also drawn criticism from within the Arab world, however, both from those who wish for better Arab-Jewish relations as well as from critics who say that his case is a legal Catch-22: By presenting the Bible as evidence in a lawsuit, Hilmi is legitimizing the use of the Bible as a history book and is thus actually promoting Israel’s claim to the Holy Land.
Given the enormous size of the debt he claims is owed to Egypt, Hilmi concedes that it will be impossible for the world’s Jews to come up with the money immediately. “There may be a compromise solution,” he says. “The debt can be rescheduled over 1,000 years, with the addition of the cumulative interest during that period.”
The Word Down Under
“G’day,” begins the Gospel of Luke. “Lots of other blokes have had a go at telling you what happened—sticking to the ridgy didge [genuine, real], fair dinkum [reliable] facts … so I thought I’d have a go too at sorting it all out, and making it clear, so that you’ll know, Theo old mate, that you’re not being a mug [fool], but you’ve got it straight” (Luke 1:1–4).
If it sounds more like the Crocodile Hunter than the third evangelist, that’s because it comes from a newly published version of the Gospels in vernacular Australian. The Aussie Bible (Well, bits of it anyway!), published in August by the Bible Society of New South Wales, is the brainchild of Australian journalist, radio presenter and word maven Kel Richards. Richards wanted to enliven the often-intimidating Good Book for his increasingly secular countrymen, and thought the way to do that was by retelling the story of “God’s Own Son” Jesus (and his team of apostles) in Australia’s colorful national idiom.
In Richards’s version, Jesus’ mum Mary becomes a regular Aussie sheila (woman) “engaged to the local carpenter, Joe Davidson” (Luke 1:27). After Jesus is born “in a back shed, because the pub was full to bursting” (Luke 2:7), angels spread the news to some “drovers” (movers of livestock) camped out nearby. The angel said: “Stop looking like a bunch of stunned mullets. Let me give you the drum [news], the good oil [reliable news], it’s top news for the whole crew—everyone, everywhere. Today in that little town on the hill a rescuer has been born: he is the Promised One, the King, the Lord. And here’s how you’ll find him: the little nipper is wrapped up in a bunny rug, and lying in a food trough” (Luke 2:8–12).
It may sound hokey (or irreverent), but Richards, interviewed on the Australian radio program The World Today, explained that his down-to-earth approach to the scripture was what the original gospel writers had in mind: “Originally the New Testament was written down in a type of Greek called Koine. Now, Koine was marketplace Greek, it wasn’t the Greek of the philosophers. It was the Greek in which blokes would stand in the marketplace of Jerusalem and yell out the price of their melons. So it always was very down-to-earth Greek. To put that into really down-to-earth Aussie English I think is appropriate.”
Translating the Bible into local tongues and dialects has a long and hallowed history. The Hebrew Bible was translated into the Mediterranean lingua franca Greek in the third to first centuries B.C. In the fourth century A.D., Jerome translated both the Old and New Testaments into the then-widely-used Latin. (His translation is known as the Vulgate, from the Latin for “common.”) The Bible has since been translated into over 2,000 languages worldwide.
The Aussie Bible (Well, bits of it anyway!) can be purchased by calling (from the U.S.) 011–612-9267–6862 or online at http://www.theaussiebible.com.au. Video and CD versions are also available.
An Aussie Annunciation
When Libby was six months gone, God sent the same angel—this Gabriel bloke—to a backblocks town called Nazareth, in Galilee shire, to a nice young girl who was engaged to the local carpenter, Joe Davidson. Her name was Mary.
The angel said to her, “G’day Mary. You are a pretty special sheila. God has his eye on you.”
Mary went weak at the knees, and wondered what was going on.
But the angel said to her, “Don’t panic, don’t chuck a wobbly. God thinks you’re okay. You’re about to become pregnant, and you’ll have a son, and you’re to call him Jesus. He will be a very big wheel, and will be called the Son of God Most High. God will give him the throne of his father—your ancestor—King David, and he will be in charge of the whole show forever.”
“But how?” said Mary. “Joe and I have done the right thing, we’ve never … well, you know. I mean to say, I’m still a virgin.”
The angel answered, “Leave the mechanics up to God. This is heavenly stuff. God’s Spirit will come upon you, and the Big Brain behind the Big Bang will manipulate the necessary molecules to make it happen … Look, even Libby, your old cousin, is preggers—at her age! God can do these things …”
“God’s in charge,” Mary answered. “If that’s what God wants, then it’s what I want.”
Then the angel nicked off and left her alone.
(Luke 1:26–38 as retold by Kel Richards)
The Bible in the News
What do the European Union, Taiwan, East Timor, the Internet and perhaps the whole world have in common? As portrayed in the popular press, they all share a basic feature of the Tower of Babel in Genesis: unintelligibility, wrought by too many different languages spoken at the same time.
A story in the Halifax Daily News titled “Tower of Babel” notes: “The 11 official languages of the European Union already make for quite a mouthful, and starting next May , the linguistic kaleidoscope adds new colours when a fresh batch of member states add nine newcomers to the mix.” In another account that describes the European Parliament as “the tower of Babel personified,” it is calculated that “with the present 11 languages there are 55 pairs of language to translate.” For you non-mathematicians: So that everyone present can understand each other, each language needs to be translated into ten other languages, making 110 different translations (or 55 pairs) and 110 possibilities for confusion. “After enlargement,” the article continues, “with say 22 languages, there would be 231 pairs”—an arrangement termed “unmanageable.” Elsewhere, the cost of translation is put at one billion dollars annually. What, we wonder, would it have cost to circumvent God’s dictum in Genesis 11 that “they will not understand one another’s speech”?
Local efforts to revert to a pre-Babel condition (described globally in Genesis 11:1 as when “the whole earth had one language and the same words”) can be met with resistance—whether it’s an attempt to adopt a single common language, such as Portuguese in East Timor or English in the EU, or an effort is made to adopt an invented language like Esperanto. As suggested in the Florida Times-Union, “[Esperanto] may take getting used to … The Lord’s Prayer would begin, ‘Patro nia, kui estas en la cielo, sankto estu via nomo.’” Another option: We might revert to the form of English, highly abbreviated, that graces more than 50 million text messages a day, in which case we would begin the Lord’s Prayer this way: “R Dad Hu R n heaven.” To which I would retort, “heaven 4bid!” Even the solution of bilingualism, as with French and English for Canada, is seen to raise as many questions as it solves.
In the Hebrew of the Book of Genesis, there is a play on words between Babel as a proper name and the verb b-l-l, “to confuse.” And confusion, caused at least as much by the low quality of translation as by the high quantity of tongues, lies behind descriptions of the United Nations as “the present world’s Tower of Babel,” where “members have babbled while millions throughout the world” suffer, even if the babbling is restricted to six official languages.
Such confusion can reign supreme even in a seemingly monolingual environment, as can be seen in this criticism in The Hill from the nation’s capital: “Like the Tower of Babel, those involved with the construction of the new $300 million Capitol Visitor Center appear to have a communication problem.”
The world of the Internet is a natural for references to Genesis 11: “We all remember, from ancient Biblical stories, the tale of the Tower of Babel. Advance our sundials six or seven thousand years. Go online and try to figure out some airlines. Try to make sense out of the quoted fares. Yep. It’s a Tower of Babble.” Or, more briefly, “Technology PR can sometimes resemble the fabled chaos of the Tower of Babel, with new languages sprouting up from every corner and a fair amount of miscommunication.” Solutions to this problem are in evidence in such titles as “Remodel the Net’s Tower of Babel,” “How to Topple the Electronic Tower of Babel” and “Autonomy Rescues Firms from Tower of Babel.”
Was there ever a real Tower of Babel? This is a point that archaeologists and historians can debate ad infinitum. But if it did exist, it was in present-day Babylon, about 55 miles south of Baghdad, “where Adam met Eve and the Tower of Babel was built,” in the words of one headline in London’s Daily Telegraph. As soldiers in Charlie Company found out this past spring, “the famed Tower of Babel [may] just be a large mound, and the legendary Hanging Gardens could not be found, but the sense of history was profound,” as reported in the Virginian-Pilot. That sense of history, repeated and relived, remains profound for us all.
Moses & Co. on Trial