Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Bible in a Year: Respect Your Elders

Readings: Exodus 25-26, Leviticus 19, Psalm 79

On Day 43 of Fr. Mike Schmitz's Bible in a Year podcast, I came across a line that made me pause. 

"You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man."

That's from Leviticus 19:32. 

Sometimes Leviticus is horrifying, as is much of the Old Testament. Other times you see surprising glimpses of compassion emerging from the angry deity of the Israelites. It's almost as if he's maturing as they mature as a people. (Hmm.) For example, elsewhere in Chapter 19, God reminds his people (twice) not to abuse the foreigners residing among them. Don't steal, lie, or swear false oaths. Don't rob or defraud your neighbor. Don't withhold the wages due to your workers. (In Catholicism, that's one of the sins that cries out to heaven.) Don't curse the deaf or lay stumbling blocks for the blind. Don't show injustice to the poor or partiality to the rich. Don't spread slander. Don't seek vengeance or hold a grudge. Don't cheat when using weights and measures. And most of all, love your neighbor as yourself. Shades of the Sermon on the Mount right there. All good stuff.

The people are also commanded not to get tattoos (v. 28), but that's been mostly forgotten these days. 

Then there's Verse 32. 

Now, I have a pretty big vocabulary, but I wasn't sure on first glance how many people reading this translation would understand what "hoary" means. Let's face it: It's not an everyday word. What followed "hoary," the admonition to honor the face of an old man, does give a clue to the context. And yes, it does mean, essentially, "white with age," like the hoarfrost. So, honor the gray-haired people among you. Show respect to your elders. 

As a guy with some gray on his temples and a lot on his face, I'm down with this whole idea of respecting the aged. We might ignore the ban on tattoos, but wouldn't we all be better off if we deferred to the wisdom of the aged? 

But I think this verse points to a potential problem with translations that put literalness over plain understanding. And this is why I like to have an abundance of Bible translations on hand. I thought this would present a good opportunity to do some comparisons, so let's dive in.

Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition: You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man. This is the translation Mike Schmitz uses for his podcast. And this particular verse, notably, is nearly identical to what appears in the King James. I'm generally a fan of the RSV-2CE for its formal prose and its literal translation tendencies. But sometimes, I'm left needing some clarity. This was one of those times.

English Standard Version, Catholic Edition: You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man. Proof that changing just a few words can make the difference between a difficult passage and one that sings. "You shall stand" is more powerful and direct than "You shall rise up," which could mean something like getting up from a reclining position, or even coming to life. (Rise, my minions.) And yes, "the gray head" just cuts to the chase and paints a clear picture. Excellent.

Douay-Rheims: Rise up before the hoary head, and honor the person of the aged man. So here it seems the RSV-2CE's King James-ish translation leaned into the traditional Catholic wording. One reason I don't often reach for the D-R (or the KJV for that matter, setting aside the problem of its incomplete Old Testament canon) is the archaic language. Scripture need not be dumbed down, but it should be immediately understandable.

Knox Bible: Rise up from thy seat in reverence for gray hairs; honor the aged. Typically beautiful prose from Msgr. Knox. Specifying "from thy seat" leaves no ambiguity about what "rise" means. "In reverence for gray hairs" is just wonderfully poetic. 

New Catholic Bible: You will stand up in the presence of those with gray hair, and honor the presence of those who are old. Not bad, but it takes a lot of words to make the point, and it's rather straightforward and bossy and, moreover, lacking in elegance. The repetition of "the presence of" suggests that the editors were trying to create some parallelism to give some good balance to the sentence structure. I'll give them points for that. Nice attention to prosaic detail. 

New American Bible: Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the old. Functional and serviceable, but loses the nuance that comes with referencing the gray hair. A little bit too straightforward. Typical of the NAB to miss the mark. 

New Living Translation, Catholic Edition: Stand up in the presence of the elderly, and show respect for the aged. Not much different from the NAB, but at least it makes sense in a Bible that's meant to be written in everyday prose. The NAB can't seem to decide how it wants to present itself, so it just jumbles everything up and spits it out, without any regard for grace, nuance, or stylistic consistency. (Have I mentioned I don't like the NAB?)

Jerusalem Bible: You are to rise up before gray hairs, you are to honor old age. This gives us the same unclear "rise up" as RSV-2CE. And "honor old age" is maybe a bit off: It's the aged, not age itself, that is to be honored. I normally love the Jerusalem Bible for its poetic, conversational flow, but it doesn't always hit the spot. 

I think ESV-CE and Knox are my favorites for this verse.

An aside: It's interesting that the notes in the New American Bible say the prohibition on tattoos is probably meant only to prevent slaveholders from branding their slaves. Why that would be isn't specified. If you can drive an awl through a slave's earlobe (Exodus 21:6), why couldn't you tattoo him? It also cites the Mark of Cain as an example of a tattoo. Odd. But then the NAB's notes almost always are. (I forget if I mentioned I don't like the NAB.)

Not that the ceremonial laws are in force for Christians anymore. I just find it funny when devout Christians with tattoo sleeves start lecturing people about following the Bible to the letter. 

That's all for today.

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