Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Context: A False God

"Context" is one of the false gods of biblical studies, biblical studies referring not exclusively to what happens in the academy, but also in the church.

Context is especially praised at the level of translation. Just like in English, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Aramaic have words with many meanings. How do we determine which meaning to use in a given situation? Omniscient Context tells us.

The Ever-Blessed Context also receives much praise in hermeneutics (of which "translation" could be a subcategory, depending on how you look at it). Preachers and academics alike will tell you certain words, passages, and pericopes are misinterpreted, because they are taken out of Context's loving hands.

Take the Hebrew word dowd. It is translated "beloved" many times in the Song of Songs. Dowd is the same word used in describing how Esther and Mordecai know each other: she is the daughter of Mordecai's dowd, generally understood to be his uncle. How do we know that "dowd" refers to a lover in the Song of Songs and to an uncle in Esther and other places?

Thanks be to Context.

But Context isn't exactly clear here. Love in ancient Israel included a lot of relationships understood as taboo in current, US-American culture. Would it really have been that unheard of for Mordecai to have catamite or some other sort of male lover? Pederasty and homosexuality was not unheard of in ancient times and although Mordecai seems very traditionally Hebrew in this story, we cannot be sure how much he may have acclimated to Persian culture at this point in the exile.

But now I've gone outside of Context's realm. Context in translation is immediate context, not levitical laws, cultural mores, and, of course, the heterosexual bias of the majority of biblical translators and readers. By immediate context alone, we cannot translate the dowd of Esther or the Song of Songs definitively as uncle or lover.

However, Context is wider than just a single book. Although the Christian or Hebrew Bible is not immediate context for Esther--the book was written independently of any canon--it is an Israelite book and therefore has Israelite stories in its background, including levitical laws.

But levitical laws do not change the scandals that go on many places in the Bible. Sometimes God's decrees are neither obeyed nor condemned in the Bible. Famously, Hewbrew midwives in Egypt refused to obey Pharaoh when told to kill all baby boys born to Hebrew women. The midwives simply don't do it, but they concoct a story for Pharaoh. That is, they lie, breaking one of the Ten Commandments God later gives the Hebrew people. What is God's response to these lies? "So God was kind to the midwives" (Exodus 1:20). Mordecai could be a Sodomite and God might not care. Apparently God doesn't always care when you're a liar.

Where will Context lead us next? Or more precisely, where does Context end?
"Il n'y a pas de hors-texte."
--Jacques Derrida
There is nothing outside the text (or: there is no outside to the text). To state it positively: everything is context.

No matter how much we use the name of Context, it is in vain. If I argued well, you now see how Context (at least immediate context) cannot show us if Mordecai's relationship to Ahihail was lover or nephew. Neither do we know if the relationship in the Song of Songs is purely sexual or if it is sexual and familial. But we can still have more to consider in the name of Context, because we, too, are part of the Context.

The Hebrew scriptures did not "close" with the writing of the last book. Neither did it "close" with canonization. Interpretations came afterwards and people still cite how early Rabbis (famously, the Mishnah) and commentators understood those texts. They became part of the text the moment they read it, the moment they entered into it, learning it intimately, becoming dowd, both family and lover--becoming one.

Or, if you don't appreciate my blend of text- and reader-oriented theory, imagine, then, how some get from Context being the Hebrew scriptures to Context including the New Testament. Then how Context begins to include language: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and English. For that matter, translation context includes many different versions of the texts we know as the individual books of the Bible. Finally, translation necessarily includes the translator as part of the context, because translation is interpretation. Then the subsequent interpreters have their own contexts that begin to swirl around in the amorphous context that influences the interpretations of other interpreters.

You may trust that God has aided translation to be accurate. Even so, you have again entered the context, because your interpretation includes your beliefs, what many hermeneuticians would prefer to call your "pretext." But, "il n'y a pas de hors-texte." It is all context.

You are context. I am context. Our histories, backgrounds, and cultures are context. Context is not omniscient in the sense that it knows all. However, perhaps Context is omniscient in the sense that it knows everything known, since everything is Context. We--everything--are the body of Context. When we die, we enter more completely (in the sense of being finished) into the relationship of the trinity of Context (author, text, and reader).

Perhaps Context isn't that false of a god after all, just not in the traditional understanding of a god.

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