Monday, March 2, 2009

God said WHAT???

My obsession with languages and translation carries over into the Biblical sphere and occasionally a phrase will arise that sends this sensibility into red alert. Today, that passage was the Old Testament reading from Leviticus.

Monolingual North American Catholics are probably just reading their New American Bible -- the official English translation approved by the USCCB, except for a few scholarly types who might break open the Jerusalem Bible. It's OK, but a little one dimensional. In the Hispanic community, we read many different translations and this is what makes leading a Bible study in a grupo de oración so much fun. What did God REALLY say? Is it what we read in the Biblia Latinoamérica? Or the Biblia de Nuestro Pueblo? Or the Biblia de Jerusalén or any of the other myriad translations that an hermano might bring? So, as a precaution, I keep a lot of English and Spanish translations around.

Today, the passage that caught my eye was the Biblia Latinoamérica's version of Leviticus 19:16: "No calumniarás a los de tu pueblo; tratándose de tu prójimo, no pedirás la pena capital." Wow! There it is in black and white: "You will not ask for the death penalty." Pretty straightforward...or is it? Let's see what some of the other translations say:

Biblia de Jerusalén: "...no demandes contra la vida de tu prójimo" ("don't ask for your neighbor's life") -- similar but less specific, less political.

Biblia de Nuestro Pueblo: "...ni declararás en falso contra la vida de tu prójimo." "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor's life." We have already drifted away from asking that the neighbor be put to death, to a different sin -- bearing false witness. The Biblia de América contains similar language.

And what are English-speaking Catholics getting?

New American Bible: "...nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor's life is at stake." Nothing about the death penalty or bearing false witness. Instead we have a sin of omission, not of commission...and a very broad one at that.

And the Protestants?

King James Bible: "...neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour."

New American Standard Bible: "You are not to act against the life of your neighbor."

New International Version: "Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life."

We have moved beyond the judicial system to an admonition that covers everything from renting out a mold-infested house to plying your obese friend with chocolate cake.

We often come up against Bible-toting evangélicos who claim to know the literal word of God. All they really know is what it says in the Bible they happen to be toting...which may not be what "my" Bible says. What did God really prohibit in Leviticus 19:16?

a) asking for the death penalty?
b) bearing false witness?
c) failing to intervene when your neighbor's life is in danger?
d) endangering your neighbor's life?
e) all of the above?
f) none of the above?

Maybe an expert Bible translator like my friend Padre Juan Alfaro knows, but I don't and neither do the Bible-thumping evangélicos, and if they claim otherwise, that brings us to Leviticus 19:11: "You shall not lie or speak falsely to one another", which is unambiguous....I think....

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