Thursday, May 19, 2011

Genesis 16:13 The Meaning of El-Roi "a God who Appears to Outcasts"

What does the name El-ROI mean. Some translate it as a verb with a pronomial suffix "sees me" and some as an abstract noun, "seeing". The name highlights the character and nature of God, but is it highlighting God's watchfulness "sees me", or his ability to appear "God of seeing" as in capable of being seen? You can see this debate etched on the pages of the major English translations. The NAS favors the "God of seeing", while most others (NIV, NLT) favor the "God who sees me".

I think the difficulty here is that the scholars on both sides are making a simple Hebrew error, trying to translate a name as a functional part of the sentence. Intermediate Hebrew students know how easy it is to mistake names for essential syntatical pieces of a sentence, since Hebrew names are derived from normal Hebrew words. The results are often gibberish. The Reader's Hebrew Bible tries to help by putting names into a gray font. Here, however, it does not have either instance of ROI as a grayed name, which in this case is probably a mistake.

The first half of the sentence is very plain and easy. No scholarly debate here. But the Hebrew of the second half of the verse, even without the name, is awkward, "Did also here I see after the one who sees me?" As a result scholars have argued against the covenational understanding of almost every word in it. Why? Because the author knew it would confuse the average Hebrew reader, especially because ROI is not a typical name for God. So to preemptively stop the reader from parsing ROI at the end of the verse, the author directly and flattly tells us, "Hey! Haggar calls God by the name ROI. You need to know this so I can quote her without editing". Then the author has Hagar say, "Did I see here the back of ROI?" This is the simplest explaintion for the verse and is more obvious in a consonental text.

What do translators do when they're not sure about the Hebrew? Default to the ancient Greek translation called the Septuagint. This is why most translations attempt to go the "God who sees me" route. But the Septuagint has had the same difficulty and made the same mistake of trying to fit the meaning of the name into the grammar of the sentence.

With such an unusal name for God, our instinct is to look for a stated reason in the text for that name. Such an urge I think runs amiss here, especially with all the R'aH "to see" verbs present. In the very next chapter, while we get the reason for Abraham's new name, an etymological reason for Sarah's new name is not given. Either it was so obvious to the original audience it was not necessary, or it was not deemed pertinant to the author's point. Regardless, there is no rule that every name has to be explained, and so "ROI" also needs no explaintion. More important is what ROI did. ROI actually appears and talks to Hagar, and she is astounded that God could and would make an appearence.

Later Rabbi's are so uncomfortable with God directly speaking with a woman that the Aramaic Targum of this text substitutes different vowels onto the word for "here" and translate it as the word for "vision". They also add the words "all all" to the end of ROI to make the name, the "God who sees everything". This change is probably from the same chauvanistic motivation. They don't want God to be the God of "seeing", the God who appears to a woman. They are much more comfortable with a God who "sees" everything. Thus they turn a passage that's really about the immanence of God into one about his omniscience.

The two translations that get at least the first instance of ROI right are New Revised Standard and the JPS Tanak. As I stand now, I would argue that the second instance should also be transliterated as ROI. When push comes to shove, I guess I lean toward interpreting El-ROI as "God of appearing" since the Targum seems to be a polemic against this understanding. I also lean toward interpreting 'AHARI as "back" rather than "after" because of the congruence between Genesis and Exodus throughout the two books. Both these points deserve their own note at a later time.

So what?

It's in God's ability and nature to appear to us and speak with us, not from afar, not merely through visions, but physically and tangibly appear and be seen. The Hebrew God is no deist. He does not merely illuminate our understanding with spiritual insight and heavenly wisdom. He shows up and interacts with his creation, and authenticates truth with his presence. The incarnation of Jesus, the kinosis of God to descend and veil himself in human form is something permanently engraved on the pages of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. If I may use modern terms, God is a Pentecostal God, who shows up, and speaks, with or (as in this case) without the aid of a prophet. The Mormons are not in error because Joseph Smith saw God take the form of a physical body. They are in error because they dogmatize what these two bodies says about the relation between Father and Son.

God speaks to the most unlikely, even to women and to Egyptians. This might sound like a modern twist on the passage, but I don't think so. The entire chapter is full of backwards irony. An Egyptian is an abused slave of the house of Abraham. If this were not enough for the drama, God actually gives a revelation of himself to this run away slave. In this story Hagar stands in the place of Moses, being one of only two people who have seen the "back" of God. Both have run away from home. Both are told to go back. And both have a revelation of God's name. Echos of this same distain occur in Jesus speaking with the woman at the well in John 4. I find it more than coincidental that God later appears to Hagar in the wilderness and saves her and Ishmael from dehydration by openning a well and giving them water. Jesus offers a new double outcast, a Samaritan and a woman, water. If God speaks with outcasts, shouldn't we? And if God speaks to outcasts, should we listen to them? And if the implication is true that the oppression of Hagar is paid back to Abraham's descendent with a 400 year captivity, shouldn't we refrain from mistreating the outcasts that answer to us?

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