Really Bad Bible Interpretation: The Alef Tav Sermon
I’ve been a professor of Old Testament for twenty-one years now, and in my profession you run into some very strange and, often, ridiculous interpretations of the Bible.
One of these is called, “The Alef-Tav Sermon.” It falls into the downright outrageous category as it is based on huge jumps of (ill) logic and disregard for how language works. I first heard this sermon in a church where my husband was on staff but was not the pastor. I was in seminary at the time, working on my Ph.D. The pastor was aware that I was specializing in Old Testament and that I knew Hebrew.
It was Sunday morning, and I was seated behind the pulpit along with the other choir members. We had done all the typical Baptist preliminaries of worship in preparation for the highlight of the service: the sermon. As we sat down, the pastor arose, walked to the pulpit, and announced that he was going to preach a series of sermons called “Jesus in Genesis.” I groaned inwardly, because I knew that meant he would be christologizing the OT (i.e. inserting Christian ideas into the OT text in order to make the it seem more relevant). But I had no idea what he was going to do when he said, “And today, I will preach on Jesus Christ in Genesis chapter 1, verse 1.”
I’m sure there were a few introductory illustrations and other content that allowed the sermon to extend to the mandatory 25 minutes, but what I remember of the sermon was this. The preacher read the text, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Then he said, “Now, in between the word ‘created’ and the words ‘the heavens’ there’s a little Hebrew word called ‘et.’ He turned around to me, seated unsuspecting in the choir, and asked, ”Isn’t there, Susan?“ Shocked that I was being addressed at all during the sermon, and knowing that there was, indeed, that little word, I nodded. Smiling smugly, he turned back to the congregation and launched into what has to be the most appalling misuse of Hebrew I’ve ever heard.
”Now,“ he said in his best Texas-preacher voice, ”that little word, ‘et,’ isn’t translated, so you can’t see it in your English Bible. But, it’s there. And here’s the amazing thing: it’s spelled alef tav. Now, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is alef. The last letter of the Hebrew alphabet is tav.“ His face began to turn red with excitement. The jugular veins were bulging as his voice grew louder. And, wiping the sweat beads from his forehead, he said profoundly: “Alef and tav, the first and the last, the Alpha, the Omega! Jesus Christ in Genesis 1:1!!!!”
My jaw dropped, and I’m certain I turned scarlet red. He had just pulled off an incredibly implausible interpretation, and he had used me to substantiate it. Of course I couldn’t just stand up in the choir loft and rebut him (though I wanted to). No, there was nothing I could do but sing along during the invitation hymn and follow the other choir members out of the loft.
Bubbling with fury, I waited for my husband to return to the little trailer we called home. I busted forth with righteous indignation the moment he entered, declaring my intent to confront the preacher Monday morning and teach him a thing or two about Hebrew.
But, maintaining a good relationship with the pastor was pretty important if my husband was going to keep his job. So I remained silent (very biblical, wasn’t I?).
So, I never got my moment in the pastor’s office, but each fall, with every new group of Hebrew students, I tell this story as an example of how not to use Hebrew. That little word, ”et,“ which functions as the sign of the direct object in Hebrew appears thousands of times in the Old Testament. If one claims that ”et“ in Genesis 1 refers to Jesus Christ, then wouldn’t one have to claim the same for every verse in which this little word appears? So what, then, does one do when the OT reads, ”And Adam knew “et” his wife, Eve” (Gen. 4:1)? Is Jesus right there in the middle? Oooo, a bit awkward, isn’t it?
The sad thing is that I’m not the only one who has heard this sermon (though I doubt the other preachers had an unsuspecting Hebrew dupe in their churches to help them justify it). Indeed, apparently this is a ”stock“ sermon that came out of an institution of higher learning located in Dallas. Said institution has spawned many preachers who have regurgitated the Alef Tav sermon to their unwitting congregations. And so, this misuse of Hebrew is propagated, while stalwart Hebrew teachers, wielding their grammars and lexicons, doggedly call their students to higher standards of interpretation.
**I originally published this in my old blog on blogger.com. I’ve updated it here.
Coming Soon: How Moses hit Jesus and was forbidden entrance into the Promised Land.