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Firing up our sanctified imagination

‘Who translates God words?’ is the question the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney seeks to answer during the 111th Sprunt Lectures at Union Presbyterian Seminary

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney (Photo courtesy of Brite Divinity School)

LOUISVILLE ­— Who translates God words and how?

That’s the question the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney seeks to answer this week during three lectures she’s delivering this week at Union Presbyterian Seminary, the heart of the 111th Sprunt Lecture series. Watch the first lecture here.

News flash: God words don’t come from heaven. They’re delivered to human beings via a committee. “Is there any love for committees under the heavens?” Gafney, the Right Rev. Sam B. Hulsey Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, told her largely Presbyterian audience gathered at Watts Chapel Monday. “Can we who have become minoritized trust those who translate for us?”

During their sermons, preachers in the Black church translate the Word of God for the people, Gafney noted. “As powerful as Scripture is, the reading is not enough,” she said. “The preacher must say something about the Word and craft it into a word that’s fit for the congregation and the moment.”

“So thus it is,” said the author of acclaimed books including “Womanist Midrash” and “A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church,” “that wrapped in the mantle of the translator/prophet, I aim to make visible biblical translation according to the womanist axiom, ‘making it plain.’”

Top of mind for Gafney is the notion of sanctified imagination, “where Black folk do what I understand to be a form of indigenous midrash” by telling a story about the biblical text that is not in the text in order to help people understand the text.

“It lets the congregation know that they are trustworthy, that they’re not saying this part is in [the text],” Gafney said. “Then the congregation will trust them and go, as people say, a little way down the road with them to see where they’re going with that and know it will be OK.”

For many of the faithful, at the heart of translation is the question of ontological gender — the gender of God. According to Gafney, grammatical gender is binary in Hebrew. Virtually every part of speech has one of two genders, masculine or feminine. In biblical Hebrew, “there’s a category that’s been taught forever: masculine plural,” Gafney said, a category used to describe even groups of 99 women and one man. It’s a little like how modern speakers use the term “guys,” Gafney said, adding, “the degree of inclusivity lies solely in the hands of the translator.”

Who translates God words matters, Gafney said. “That will shape what you hear and thus what you think about God.” Then Gafney read the opening portions of Gen. 1:1 and 2, first in Hebrew and then with a literal translation: “When beginning he God created the heavens and the Earth … And the Spirit of God she fluttered over the face of the Earth.”

“They only had to get to Gen. 1:2!” Gafney said to laughter. “But they read it in translation by men who chose to not ever use the correct pronoun.”

“The Spirit of God” and “she” are paired more than 30 times in Scripture, Gafney said. “God is female and male, and when God gets around to creating creatures in a divine image, they will be female and male, as God is.”

“This means,” Gafney said to building applause, “that feminists and womanists advocating for inclusive and explicitly feminine God language are not changing, but restoring the text, and could be considered biblical literalists.”

Then there’s this, Gafney noted: “The only reproductive organ ascribed to God in the biblical text is a womb.”

“Gender matters. Translation matters,” Gafney said, before rendering this translation of Job 33:4: “The Spirit of God She has made me, and the breath of the nursing God, She gives me life.”

“Translation matters,” said the Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, the president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, following Gafney’s talk. “We got a sense of how much it does.”

Before enjoying a concert, those gathered in the chapel closed the lecture time by singing together “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in This Place.

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