Friday, August 3, 2012

What's in a Name?

Genesis means "Beginning." Exodus means "Departure." So I was taught in Sunday School. The English translations were just a little less holy than the exotic Greek titles. 

But as my wife and I were on pilgrimage in Greece, I spot that things may be a bit more mundane than all that. Turns out, Exodus is the simple word for "exit":

Now, the linguist in me should have known this all along. Ex means out of in both Latin and Greek. hodos is the word for street.

(Our English word exit comes to us from the delightful preservation of theater directions. "Exit Stage Left" means "he goes out" that way.)

Even so, seeing this stark image has me thinking a bit critically of the Greek titles of the Pentateuch. 

Things start out just fine. Genesis, Beginning. The earth begins in that book, as well as the whole story of Salvation with the Family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Exodus, Exit. Gotta give this title a poor grade. There's just so much more to this book! If only whoever was making up these titles could have indulged in more than single words. And the Hebrew tradition was so inclined. The first or first few words serve as titles. In the case of Exodus,  the title is 'eleh ha-shmot, These are the names... If we could have used more than one word, a great title for Exodus might have been "The Sojourn in Egypt." Tolkien might have named it "A Patriarch's Tale: There and Back Again." 

Leviticus, Levitical Things. Meh. But I gotta give this title a pass because the book really is overwhelmingly concerned with such matters. Even so, I find the book one of the most fascinating reads in the entire Hebrew Bible. Virtually every verse hints at massive once known information about cultural matters that now can only be guessed at. Also, don't forget that this is the book that actually contains "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18).

Numbers. This book does contain a census and a whole bunch of counting. But it's also an important travelogue in which the People of Israel reach the very borders of the Promised Land. We have here the curious episode of Nehustan (Num 21) and Balaam's Ass (Num 23-24). If we could have used more than one word, perhaps "Continuing the Journey." 

Deuteronomy, Second Law. This would be a simply awesome title in a collection that contained a book entitled "First Law." As it is, the First Law referred to is in the book entitled "Exit." Bad title.

The fact that we keep the Greek words (with the exception of Numbers) is almost an admission of how inadequate these titles really are. We want our biblical books to maintain an air of mystery and holiness, and somehow placing a layer of unknown language between us and the divine accomplishes this (hence the tendency to keep archaic versions of language around in Liturgy).

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