Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"A Trifling Matter": Zoar in Joseph Smith Translation Genesis 13

The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible unfolds expansive doctrinal and historical additions to the record; just as startling are the little changes: additions and deletions that burst out of nowhere and, seemingly, have little to add to the story.

One wee deletion, for example, cancels the appearance of Zoar in KJV Genesis 13:10.

The KJV reads:

And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah,
even as the garden of the Lord,
like the land of Egypt,
as thou comest unto Zoar.

The verse has been commented to death: deletions, rewrites, clarifications all are called for. Something is seriously wrong. . .

Because no single reading, deletion, or rewrite has won out over all comers, we have no way to test the full merits of the Prophet Joseph's reading. That reading, however, does deal with the problematic material in its own deft way (and without fussy commentary):

And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah,
even as the garden of the Lord,
like the land of Egypt.

Here, the clause "as thou comest unto Zoar" vanishes, leaving a perfect gem of a couplet in the Hebrew:

like the garden of the Lord (ki gan Adonai)
like the land of Egypt (ki eretz mitzraim),

which compares the two places on earth most renowned for fruitfulness:

Eden and
Egypt's Delta.

The vague clause about Zoar, as translated into English, is even vaguer in Hebrew, where it is a phrase with a verbal noun, not a clause at all: bo'akha Tso'ar ("your coming Zoar" = in your coming to Zoar; as you start to come into Zoar). Because the phrase adds no meaning to the bicolon, it can hardly be the culminating punch of a tricolon. It breaks the couplet pattern to no purpose.

The Prophet Joseph Smith resolves a longstanding puzzle. After all: "The clause is equally unintelligible, whether we place the Pentapolis, of which Zoar was a member, at the south, or at the north end of the Dead Sea. Most commentators quietly ignore this difference. Others evade it by arbitrarily reshaping the whole sentence," W. W. Moore, "The Incongruous Clause in Gen XIII. 10," (The Old Testament Student, 6.8 at Union Theological Seminary, 1887), 237.

Professor Gunkel, for his part, asserts that all three of the phrases (garden, Egypt, and Zoar) are forthwith corrupt, all being interposed and unhelpful editorial glosses--not to mention the chronologically daft addition about destroying Sodom and Gomorrah--and perforce merit deletion. But which comes in first for deletion? This could be fun: try first one, and read the resulting verse; then another; and another. . .Then try deleting all three at once--there goes the Bible.

Besides, everyone knows that that area was never well watered, so what watered plain? What we get: And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld--exactly nothing.

No wonder the Lord resorts to the unlettered; you can't read a Bible that equals "exactly nothing."

And no wonder Hugh Nibley would tell his students that he loved reading the Book of Mormon because it hadn't been commented to death like the Bible (Here is a touch of wisdom students of the scriptures ought to ponder today.)

The Joseph Smith Translation gives us the best possible reading in English. Nothing at all is said about the Masoretic Text: maybe we're missing something as readers. The Hebrew text aside, the English needs trimming up. And the Prophet prunes well.

Now the French and German translators have their own little trick of rearranging the phrases so as to preserve both Zoar and the final couplet: "before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah until thou comest to Zoar [which was spared]," and then finish off with the concise couplet--but the King James Version didn't leave Brother Joseph that option. Even so, the rearrangement leaves something to be desired--good, solid sense.

There is a point to the poetic couplet about Egypt and Eden, says Von Rad: If "The twofold comparison with Paradise and with Egypt sounds surprisingly worldly and enlightened," it is only to induce Lot, like Serpent, Eve, to choose "quickly." "Striking for our usually reticent narrator are the strong superlatives used to describe the beauty of the land and the wickedness of its inhabitants, as well as the broad ceremoniousness with which the fascinating impression and then the making of the decision are painted. But the narrator wants to make a strong impression here. The unheard beauty of the land. . .and the unheard of depravity of its inhabitants! And how quickly and naturally the man on the heights of Bethel made his choice!" (Genesis: A Commentary, 172).

Joseph, while not resolving every quibble of criticism, at least gives us something--and that something accords perfectly with the logic of the didactic narrative as set forth by Von Rad: Lot sees his choices superlatively--and with no superfluity. But it's more than just something: how could anyone best the Prophet for optimum clarity?

There is one Zoar contender--the Dead Sea Scrolls. Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, editor of the Genesis Apocryphon, notes how that text also drops a Zoar: "The identification of Bela by the gloss in the MT, 'that is, Zoar' (Gen. 14:2) is omitted here; perhaps the gloss is of a dater later than the Genesis Apocryphon" (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran Cave 1 (1Q20): A Commentary, 235). (In this case, the JST leaves little Zoar put.)

The Joseph Smith Translation, however unfamiliar its additions, omissions, and cadences may be, and however daring its lack of dependence on millennia of commentary, is a thing of beauty.

Zoar, some say, is to be identified with Tell esh-Shaghur, also Segor. There is more than one Shaghur. For example, according to Hugh Nibley Segor is the same name Lehi gives to an oasis spot in the Arabian Peninsula (Ar. Shajer = clump of trees or bushes, oasis). The footnote for 1 Ne. 16:13a in modern copies of the Book of Mormon yields the ludicrous "HEB twisting, intertwining": Oh, those twisting turns of commentary! In Shajer, we have one of Nibley's greatest identifications of a Book of Mormon name (Lehi in the Desert, 78-9).

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