Sunday, June 09, 2013

Bow or rainbow?

I've blogged before about the problems inherent in the story of Noah and the flood (indeed, it was my very first doubt on this blog). But when thinking about the difference between the scientific method and the religions method the other day, I found myself thinking about the rainbow after the flood. Science does a pretty good job of explaining why there is a rainbow when the sun comes out, after the rain.

What I find interesting about the religious explanation is that the majority of Christians these days don't seem to understand the symbolism that is in the original text, and so they misunderstand the original intent of the story, as far as I can tell.

Modern translations tend to say something like this: "I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth" (Genesis 9:13 NIV).

Older (and more literal translations) say something more like this: "I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth" (Genesis 9:13 KJV).

Not much of a difference, you're probably thinking, 'bow' and 'rainbow' are basically the same thing, aren't they? Well, no. A rainbow is a rainbow, but a bow can mean a rainbow, or it could mean a weapon, as in a bow and arrow. Indeed, this appears to be the primary meaning of the word as used in the OT Hebrew.

What has just happened in the biblical story? God has warred against humanity and pretty much wiped it out. The appearance of a rainbow is explained as being a symbol (or maybe the real thing) of God putting down his weapon as a token that he is at war with us no more. So whenever we see the bow in the sky, we know that it is not in his hands, ready to unleash death on us again.

But by translating Genesis with the word 'rainbow', the entire message of this verse is lost. The bow switches from being a sign of war (albeit war ended) to being a sign of peace.

A very minor thought, but I thought I'd share it... I wonder how many other subtleties like this have been lost in translation?

5 comments:

Mike McQuaid said...

Good points. This is why I've always found it weird that so few biblical literalists (or 'sola scriptura' types) know any Hebrew or Greek. Muslims seem to consider the translated Qur'an as not the Qur'an and most even secular Jews know bits and pieces of ancient Hebrew. Why are Christians so poor here? Laziness? Anti-intellectualism?

Ricky Carvel said...

I think that a large majority of Christians think that they know what the bible means, so the way they interpret it must be correct. So they don't need to know what it actually says in its original language and cultural context, because - fundamentally - they believe it was written for them to read now, not for ancient folk to read in years gone by.

Implicit in this is the assumption that if God wants to speak to me through his book today, he'll have made sure that it got translated properly and that my first impression of the text (in whatever language and version I happen to read it) is probably the right one. And also, there is the Holy Spirit who makes sure that I get the meaning correct. That's his job, isn't it...?

Mike McQuaid said...

True but deeply sad.

Anonymous said...

The King James Bible uses the exact phrasing: And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: 15 And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it , that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. -- hence for most english speakers this metaphor is not lost.

Anonymous said...

So far I have found 3 major words of scripture lost in modern translations. Needless to say #3 has wreeked the most havoc.
1. "Bow"-in Genesis 9 in the Hebrew is a war bow not a rainbow
2. Longsuffering" has been replaced with patience. Longsuffering means much more to me than patience
3." Fornication" (Greek- pornea) has been replaced by the words "immoralities" and "adultery". But there is a greek word for adultery. Also fornication and adultery are listed as two separate sins in 1 Corinthians. Fornication in Matthew is the word Jesus uses in the exception clause (only found twice in the New Testament in Matthew 5 and 19 which was written to the Jews) as he gave reason for divorce for fornication. Fornication was committed by unmarried violators but may include adultery if one of the violators was married. So Jesus was allowing divorce for reason of Unfaithfullness during the betrothal period as with Joseph considering to divorce Mary before the angel intervened with the truth.