Maybe the angel who said
Now I know that you fear God
was a literalist, unable to imagine
how this story sticks in our throats.
Maybe the angel’s speech
wasn’t originally part of the story.
Maybe Sarah got wind of the plan
and her soul departed, or
maybe she was ready with a feast
when Yitzchak came home.
These lines above are ones that struck me most profoundly first. They’re a few lines from a poem Rachel Barenblat wrote that she calls “Possibilities.”
Imagine, an angel unable to imagine. The creative imagination of this poet isn’t just offering us alternatives within the stories of Genesis. In these few lines, she’s not only allowing for the fact that God’s own messenger may be a failure when it comes to translation. Rather, Barenblat is also showing us the possibilties of language.
Immediately, I was struck by two possibilities when reading those few lines of Barenblat’s. First, maybe the man called Peter was a literalist, unable to imagine how his New Testament translation of this story would stick in our throats. Second, maybe we would be willing to be more open to the possibilities of language, as Toni Morrison is, to the possibility of the power of language when it comes to God and people.
So in this blogpost, I’d like now first to look at what Peter wrote. Second, I’d like to hear what Morrison said.
I’m excerpting below what Peter wrote, but do go find it in full context if you will. Let me just warn you that I’m going to have us look at the even fuller context from which Peter makes his statement. Here it is in Peter’s Greek and in the English of the all-male team of translators of the English Standard Version translation:
5Οὕτως γάρ ποτε καὶ αἱ ἅγιαι γυναῖκες αἱ ἐλπίζουσαι εἰς [ἐπὶ τὸν] θεὸν ἐκόσμουν ἑαυτάς, ὑποτασσόμεναι τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν· 6ὡς Σάρρα ὑπήκουσεν τῷ Ἀβραάμ, κύριον αὐτὸν καλοῦσα, ἧς ἐγενήθητε τέκνα, ἀγαθοποιοῦσαι καὶ μὴ φοβούμεναι μηδεμίαν πτόησιν.
5For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
You should recognize this excerpt from I Peter 3. Nonetheless, you’ll be able to remember the context prior, where in chapter 2, the writer Peter has already called God “ὁ κύριος” or “the Lord” when quoting the Greek translation of the Psalms. Likewise, he’s already addressed slaves (or “servants” in the ESV) to tell them to be “subject to” their “masters” to address women right before this excerpt under consideration; he writes the following then (which begins chapter 3): “1Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands…. ” So let’s look at how literal Peter’s version of this bit of Genesis is. Peter’s reading a Greek translation and writing in Greek himself. In the Greek, God is called “lord.” And in the Greek, Sarah calls Abraham “lord.” What Peter doesn’t mention is that in the Greek, Abraham’s servant (or slave, who helps Isaac find a wife) also calls Abraham “lord.” But in the Hebrew Bible, unlike in the translated Psalm that Peter quotes in Greek, God isn’t called “lord” at all. Peter’s Greek readers make the connection that God and masters and husbands are all “lord,” lords over their humans and their slaves and their wives. In case it’s not clear, let me put it this way. Peter is using classic Greek hierarchies and is using the Greek language to reinforce these. His language yields a power in its literalness. And this brings us to his warning to wives “καὶ μὴ φοβούμεναι μηδεμίαν πτόησιν” (“and do not fear anything that is frightening”). The qualification of “anything that is frightening” seems to be a gesture towards Abraham, of whom, the angel says, “Now I know that you fear God.” The implication of the literal reading here is that wives are to so fear their husbands (if not to be frightened by them somehow). Never mind that obedience to a command of sacrificing your one promised son, your wife’s one and only, is frightening.
So now, I just want to quote an excerpt from something Toni Morrison said. When I read Barenblat’s line “imagine / how this story sticks in our throats,” I recalled Morrison saying something similar. Morrison said something similar as she was giving her Nobel Lecture on December 7, 1993, when receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. Here’s the excerpt but we’d do well to hear it in the fuller context (a parable of an old, blind, black slave woman being put to the test); Morrison says:
Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
The old woman is keenly aware that no intellectual mercenary, nor insatiable dictator, no paid-for politician or demagogue; no counterfeit journalist would be persuaded by her thoughts. There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death. There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.
Notice here the themes echoed by Barenblat’s poem of possibilities. An unimaginative (literalist of an) angel, saying what God said, is like the “theistic language” Morrison mentions. It is like “language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.” In the Genesis story, as Peter recalls it so literally in Greek, it is the woman Sarah who, like a slave, obeys Abraham and calls him “lord.” It is all wives, henceforth, who are to be like her, literally, in this way. It is the word of God. Barenblat suggests, “maybe” and explores “possibilities” and mentions various alternatives to how Sarah may behave. The story, she confesses (perhaps as a woman, as a wife, as a mother), “sticks in our throats.” If it’s the silenced and submissive wives, then Morrison’s blind woman, a black slave woman, must submit to “seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words.” Are these God’s words? What’s in our throats? And can’t we go back to re-read the Psalm that Peter read, now differently? How? What are the creative, imaginative possibilities?
טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי־טֹוב יְהוָה