Friday, January 2, 2009

Popular (Mis)Depictions of Bible stories, part 1

Sometimes, popular belief and iconography can influence our minds on how we read the Bible (admittedly one of the least descriptive ancient texts), sometimes to such an extent that we are so used to it that when someone tries depict a particular event in a different manner - usually closer to what the Bible says, we often get fidgety and uncomfortable.

Here let's do a simple listing of popular depictions vs. the Biblical account.

1.) The Red Sea started to part from Israelites' side.

Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 and 1956 films, both entitled The Ten Commandments, and just about a majority of Moses films after it depicts the parting of the Red Sea in a very dramatic manner: as Moses raises his staff/hands over the sea, the sea starts to open from the shore where the Israelites are. (footage from DeMille's 1923 version)

The Bible (Exodus 14:21-22), however, paints a quite different picture:

Then Moses stretched out his hand toward the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind (v'ruach qadim 'azah) all that night and He made the sea into dry ground, and the waters were divided. The sons of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were for them a wall on their right and on their left.
While the exact route that the Israelites took is still a matter of debate (see map to the right for various possible routes), the results would have been pretty much the same. The Israelites were going eastward towards Canaan, as any good map could tell you. If the parting of the sea happened like films show it (opening dramatically), the sea would have started to part from the other shore, as the sea was driven back by "a strong east wind", rather opposite to what the movies are depicting - since an east wind comes from the east and blows west.

2.) Jonah was swallowed by a whale.

There's really no indication that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, at least from the book of Jonah (2:1):
The LORD appointed a great fish (hadag gadol) to swallow Jonah; and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.
Now the phrase "great fish" is ambiguous. While there is a possibility that it is indeed a species of whale, it could also have been another aquatic animal, or even a special one-time creature that God made for the purpose of rescuing Jonah.

The Greek Septuagint, meanwhile, renders the phrase hadag gadol as kētei megalō meaning "a large great fish" or "a large whale" or even "a large sea monster/sea serpent." Since in Greek mythology the word kētos, while meaning "great fish", is closely associated with sea monsters (e.g., Cetus (Kētos) of Greek mythology), early Christians seem to have understood and depicted the 'fish' as being a hideous serpentine creature like in the image at left; see here, here, and here for other examples.

Jerome later translated this phrase as piscis granda (great fish) in his Latin Vulgate. He translated kētos, however, as cetus in Matthew 12:40. At some point cetus became synonymous with "whale" (for instance, the study of whales is now called cetology).

In his late 14th century translation, John Wycliff rendered piscis granda as "greet fisch" (great fish) in Jonah 2:1, while translating cetus as "whal" (whale) in Matthew 12:40. William Tyndale followed suit, translating the phrase as "greate fyshe" in his 1534 translation of the Bible, while translating the word kētos or cetus as "whale". Tyndale's translation was later incorporated into the Authorized Version of 1611 (aka the King James Version). Since then, the "great fish" in Jonah 2 has been most often interpreted as a whale.

3.) Moses turned his rod into a serpent and called forth all ten plagues of Egypt.

In the 1998 film The Prince of Egypt, it was Moses who call forth all the plagues to the Egyptians. However, the Bible has Moses commanding Aaron to throw down his staff and to summon the first three plagues:

Exodus 7:10: When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, they did so, just as the Lord had commanded them – and Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants and it became a snake.

Exodus 7:19: And the LORD spoke to Moses, "Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their streams, over their rivers, over their ponds, and over all their pools of water, that they may become blood. And there will be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in wood and stone containers.’"

Exodus 8:5: And the LORD spoke to Moses, "Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your rod over the streams, over the rivers, and over the ponds, and cause frogs to come up on the land of Egypt.’"

Exodus 8:16: And the LORD spoke to Moses, "Say to Aaron, ‘Extend your staff and strike the dust of the ground, and it will become gnats throughout all the land of Egypt.’"
However, that piece of artistic license within the context of the film is understandable (the film has Moses' wife Tzipporah accompanying him to Egypt in place of Aaron, who seems rather bitter at Moses by this point).

As to the reason why Aaron is commanded to do the things that would call the three plagues, Jewish belief explains it as Moses being obliged to appreciate the help he received earlier from the Nile (Exodus 2:1-10), and the dust (Exodus 2:11-12) and was therefore unable to smite either of these, necessitating Aaron to do it in his stead.

4.) The Tablets of the Law are only written on one side.

Exodus 32:15-16 tells us that:

And Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hands. The tablets were written on both sides – they were written on one side and the other. And the the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
There was in fact a Jewish tradition which states that the letters were not merely engraved on the surface of the tablets; they were fully bored through it. In fact, while one would expect the reverse side to bear a mirror image since the letters were bored fully, both sides appeared normally; i.e. the back appeared identical to the front. Another is that the inner part of some Hebrew letters (either ayin, which in paleo-Hebrew looked like an 'O', or samekh or the final mem in modern-day Hebrew script) 'hovered' in place, despite the letters being graven fully.

As for how any commandments are written on one tablet, while arrangements such as "five commandments on each tablet" or the "three commandments on one with seven on the other" (first suggested by St. Thomas Aquinas, for theological reasons) are common, some are of the idea that that each tablet contained all ten commandments in imitation of ancient treaties, in which each party receives a copy of the treaty - usually written in stone - while the subordinate party places his copy of the pact inside the main temple of his deity, which would be parallel to the keeping of the tablets within the Ark of the Covenant, which in turn was kept in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Apparently, this was also a debated point among early Jewish rabbis: some held that there were five on each tablet, but it was also admitted that "the Sages say ten on one tablet and ten on the other".

1 comment:

Kirsty said...

Good point about the east wind!
I myself have done illustrations like this. Now I need to work out how to make them accurate while still looking cool...