Sunday, March 17, 2013

6X Clement - Root meaning

In this series, I am looking at Brevard Childs' The Struggle to understand ISAIAH as Christian Scripture.

His chapter on Clement of Alexandria and Isaiah is very short - only 4 pages. But he focuses on one verse in Isaiah: 7:9.

The verse relates closely to my thesis about translating by pattern matching rather than translating for meaning.  Mean is an odd word in English: it encompasses the mean value, the mean bully, and the vague question - but what does it mean?  I tend to distrust meaning - since if somehow we think we have the meaning, we then have control over the text. And that is exactly what we do not have. (See my post Isaiah 55 and ponder - who's in charge?)

Isaiah 7:9 Childs gives as this: If you will not believe, you will not understand.  As one of my conductor friends used to say. Boring.

The Hebrew is a pun (or paranomasia if you like bigger words). So now to construct the music.
אִ֚ם לֹ֣א תַאֲמִ֔ינוּ כִּ֖י לֹ֥א תֵאָמֵֽנוּ
The music doesn't tell us much out of context - but there it is. The roots of the two main words are both the same: אמן. (Amen) so now how would you translate it?

אמן is a polyvalent word with many synonyms used for it in English translation history: support, confirm, believe, be faithful, and their passive components, and in other forms to stand firm, trust, be certain, believe in.  Ouch!  All these are loaded. And it's such a simple sentence: if you will not x (hiphil - causative, permissive, stative, denominative, or unclassified), you will not be x'ed (niphal, passive). My Hebrew Latin concordance gives sustenare, fultum, fidum esse; fundatum, stabilum esse, probum esse. Hiphil credere, fidem habere; fides, veritas as noun; and I have but scratched the surface...

Clement takes this sentence as a foundation for his hermeneutic. In Childs words: Clement sees that "Faith is not a blind submission to authority, but a basic form of understanding. ... Faith is the recognition of the truth forced upon us from objective reality, a position akin to that of Aristotle."

For another opinion and suggested translations I found this article by Sawyer in Sacred Texts and Sacred Meanings, the chapter on Root-Meanings in Hebrew.  This intrigued me because he asks here for analysis of the significance of consonant sequences and semantic fields - exactly as I have attempted in my Seeing the Psalter, to preserve the 'sounds-like' quality in the poetry.

Or put it this way - much of what I have learned in my faith/training/establishment, my אמן, is not what I was taught implicitly or explicitly by my confession (Anglican) and the KJV/prayerbook I was brought up on (somewhat by accident).

Sawyer suggests the following verbal jingle: If you cannot be sure, you cannot endure. Or jingle with etymology: if you do not have trust, you will not be trusted. (That's rather good, I think.)  It certainly underlines a translation problem. I would not use trust (בָּטַח) in this context, but then what would I do?

In Isaiah 7, the words are addressed to the people by God - implying if you don't deal with me how can I deal with you?  How about, if you are not firm, how will you be affirmed? This certainly implies a relationship, but it has lost the element of abstract belief (something worth losing). Sawyer has several pages of analysis of the semantic domain of true / established / pillar, all of which relate to this root. It is an interesting set of problems.

What did other translations do?
LXX: ἐὰν μὴ πιστεύσητε οὐδὲ μὴ συνῆτε;
translated by Ottley as: and if ye trust not, neither shall ye understand.
Vulgate: Si non credideritis, non permanebitis. If you don't believe, you won't be established.
French, Louis Segond 1910 Si vous ne croyez pas, Vous ne subsisterez pas.
JB 1962: but if you do not stand by me, you will not stand at all. (Good try but loses something.)
REB: have firm faith or you will fail to stand firm. (Both these miss the turn to the divine passive.)
ESV: If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all. (Good shot but again misses the divine passive.)
Complete Jewish Bible: Without firm faith,you will not be firmly established
 - hey - good for them!  Getting meaning and similarity of sound with a two word workaround.

Clement begins here - but the brief from Childs says little else about Isaiah. Clement tended to allegory and followed Philo. Childs says of him that "the historical meaning of the biblical text was often rendered as a symbolic reflection of the realities of a timeless world."  Who knows, he and I might have got on well.