a guest post by David Tuchman
OMGWTFBIBLE is a new translation of the entire Hebrew Bible as a comedy. But that doesn’t mean I don’t take my translation very seriously. Beyond all the jokes, in retranslating Genesis, I’ve discovered two trends that reveal the approach to women and property taken in the culture surrounding the text that are not apparent in existing translations.
One of the earliest decisions I made when writing the OMGWTFBIBLE was to maintain an almost megalomaniacal consistency. If a word was translated a particular way, I stuck with that translating, regardless of context or traditional approaches. This led to some striking discoveries in Genesis, particularly regarding the words usually translated as “wife” and “servant.” I discovered that, depending on how the book is translated, nobody gets married in Genesis. And everyone owns slaves. And it’s not a coincidence those two words are so controversial.
Traditionally, Genesis is filled with marriages and wives. Adam makes Eve the first wife, Abraham takes a wife and then a concubine, and, after a veil-assisted switcheroo, Jacob ends up with more wives than he can handle. But none of those men necessarily have wives. In Hebrew, the word for “wife”—אשה [isha]—is identical to the word for “woman.” And at no point in Genesis does anything described explicitly as a wedding take place.Nearly every time a man and woman get together, the phrase used is ויקח אשה [vayikach isha]—“and he took a woman”—forceful language that at one point, in Genesis 34 (Episode 16), is assumed to connote rape. It seems clear to me that women in Genesis are treated merely as property traded by the men who own them. In fact, the word usually translated as “husband”—באל [ba’al]—can actually mean “owner.”
There’s no dearth of owners in Genesis either. Every single one of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—is a slaveowner. Once again, this is a case of selective translation. In most translations, we’ll read of these men’s many servants. But like women, servant is translated from a word that has more than one meaning. עבד [eved] also means “slave.” This word is evoked every Passover, in the traditional reading of the Haggadah, when Jews sing עבדים היינו [avadim hayeenu]—“we were slaves”—during the ritual Passover meal. I translate it only as slave to ensure it’s clear that these men owned slaves. Abraham and Isaac not only owned slaves but received them as payment.
Throughout Genesis, women are repeatedly treated as property as slaveowning is casually mentioned as attributes of the book’s heroes. Theses two strands meet in Genesis 24 (Episode 9), when Abraham sends a slave to search for a woman for his son Isaac. When the slave, who remains unnamed throughout the episode, finds a suitable woman, he spends most of his energy trying to convince Rebecca’s father and brother to give her to Isaac as his woman. Asking her consent in the matter seems merely an afterthought, which speaks to the status of women in this world. Usually, this character is referred to as a “servant,” but as a slave, his story becomes much more interesting. As a man in bondage, what are his feelings about acquiring yet another piece of property for his master’s son? The answers are nowhere in the text but the question is nevertheless compelling.
At the moment, I’m nearly finished with my translation of Exodus, which, like Genesis, is full of surprises. To me, these shifts in understanding emphasize the need to retranslate the Bible. We must criticize at every turn. We can’t merely accept that traditional historical readings are correct. It’s crucial to our engagement with the world that we question everything we are told.