The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the BibleSarah Ruden (Pantheon, 2017).

The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (Hardcover)
by Sarah Ruden

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Ruden, a Quaker, is a classical philologist, as well as a poet, essayist, and a former Guggenheim fellow. Right away she confesses: “I’m the opposite of a cleric or theologian or philosopher …. What’s more, I have no formal qualifications whatsoever as a Biblical scholar-not one degree, not even a single course credit, let alone peer-reviewed publications in scholarly journals, or a teaching post” (xvi). But she can read Hebrew and Greek and so she dives right into the Bible!

She is struck by the fact that, in biblical literature, “form and content are inseparable, and equally important”-“what they meant was tightly bound up in the way they meant it …. That’s true of all ancient literature, but for the Bible, on which so much of our society was built, the implications are far more important” (xxi-xxii). Amen!

A primary text for her reading is 2 Samuel 11-12, the David-Bathsheba story. Thankfully, she employs an English translation that translates 11:25 and 11:27 with the same phrase: “Let not this thing displease thee” (David to Joab in 11:25); and “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (the narrator, in 11:27). It would have been even more striking had the original Hebrew idiom been retained: “evil in the eyes of ….” In other words, here’s the author’s doing: Who gets to decide what is evil and what is good-David or Yahweh?

Ruden mentions the Ammonite war at the beginning of the story (10:1-19), but neglects the same war at the end of the narrative unit (12:26-31), as well as the entire chiastic structure of 2 Sam 11-12: A Sin/conception (11:1-5); B Concealment (11:6-13); C Murder (11:14-27a); D Evil in Yahweh’s eyes (11:27b); C’ Murder (12:1-6); B’ Exposure (12:7-15a); A’ Death/conception (12:15b-25) (13-14). The hinge (D) and what the author is doing here with it is obvious.

She does make good observations, nonetheless. For instance, David is on “the king’s roof,” but Bathsheba is simply “on the roof”-a fact most English translations hide by assuming, wrongly, that second “roof” in 11:2 refers to the one where David is stationed. And the authorial doing here: it is as if this roof had “no significance except in what is going on there visibly right now,” claiming the entirety of David’s attention (15). Also, the parallels between 11:1 and 11:2: each starts with wayhi, three more waw-consecutives follow, and then a noun + participle (“and-David was-staying”; “a woman bathing”), with an extra item in 11:2 that has no parallel in 11:1: “and-the-woman [was] beautiful/good to-see very.” Armies fight, while David is lollygagging, and a woman is bathing-a beautiful woman (15-16). Is there a hint of deprecation in Bathsheba’s lounging-“both these people indulge themselves” (16)?

All of this, according to Ruden, “keeps heavy emphasis on the deployment of power. Leaders, especially, do what they want; moment by moment, they choose” (16)-an appropriate theological focus for 2 Samuel 11-12. But I was disappointed that she did not bring out the unusual repeats of the verb “to send,” a concentrated imperial motif (11:1, 3, 4, 6 [×3], 12, 14, 27) that clinches that focus. David sends; everyone jumps. Until 12:1 where Yahweh-who now appears for the first time in the narrative-does some “sending” of his own, turning the tables on the hubristic ruler who thinks he can decide what is evil and what is good. In Ruden’s reading, the beauty of the text is explored, but now what? What is the author doing, and what must his readership do in response? Unfortunately, Ruden, like most language scholars, does not go the distance to tell us preachers what the significance of the text is and what direction application may take. She confesses as much: “As to sharing this at Wednesday night Bible Study, better you than me” (77). But isn’t that what Scripture is primarily for, to be shared [read “preached”] for life transformation?

A number of examples are dealt with in the same fashion: the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew and Luke (27-34); John 1:1-14 (46-50); Rom 8:31-39 (89-95), Jonah 3 (110-112), among others, all well worth a glance if you are planning to preach those texts. Genesis 1:1-5 is considered, too (40-45).

Overall, The Face of Water is an easy read, with an appealing sense of dry humor. (But, caveat lector: there are a few profanities and mentions of bodily functions!) Making a fine attempt to look elsewhere from the standard fare provided us by Bible scholars and translators, Ruden understands the importance of integrating form and function, style and meaning. And to that I say, “Give us, preachers, more!”

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 18.1 (2018): 80–81

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