Really Bad Bible Interpretation: The Alef Tav Sermon

2014 01 08 14 11 54

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.

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34 thoughts on “Really Bad Bible Interpretation: The Alef Tav Sermon”

  1. May I suggest that you put a “jump break” after the first few lines of each article? That way you won’t clog up your front page with reams of material. Instead we can click on the “read more” to read the rest of the article on a different page.

  2. oh, there is so very much more to get utterly angry about in the misguided and sometimes intentional interpretations. i’m far FAR from a hebrew scholar. but i sure as hell know about “et” the past year or so. i encountered the “et” in dissecting the infamous Lev 18 chapter. especially in the arbitrarily numbered verse 22. ugh.

    what really chaps me is that people assume that words and phrases mean the same thing in the OT as in today’s language and idioms. even more so, i came across “hebrew scholars” who claim that the phrase “uncover nakedness” refers to “shame, calling-out, loss of status, etc.” just as “losing face” does as in badly translated japanese. EXCEPT for that one chapter (Lev 18) where it actually means “have sexual relations” instead. and these same folks neglect all the other verses in that chapter (right there in front of them) that actually use words for intercourse and sex itself. and then neglect the 21st about burning children for Molech. and also neglect that there is no prohibition against “uncovering nakedness” with your son, wife, brother, male cousin…

    really infuriates me. especially in the catholic translations that deliberately alter two verses that refer to father and uncle by twisting the translation to read that the “uncovering” is via their wives. when the hebrew text explicitly names the father & mother & wives and the uncle & wives separately.

    sorry for the rant. i’m still angry about the deliberate deceptions via bad translations and misunderstood idioms of the scriptures i hold dear.

  3. I am really glad to have found your blog, Susan. Delightful and refreshing. I am looking very much forward to reading more of what you have to offer. I will ask my friends to like you. Because… I like you. 🙂

    1. The word et in Hebrew has no English equivalent. It is the sign of the direct object and has no translatable meaning. Its function is to indicate what the verb is acting on. Sometimes the Hebrew writers use it; sometimes they don’t. So it would be something like this in English: “Susan baked (sign of the direct object) an apple pie.” Or “George kicked (sign of the direct object) the ball.” Since the Hebrew sign of the direct object is not translatable, translators don’t make any indication of it in their translations.

  4. This reminds me of the time when someone finally expounded to me that when it says Chief Prince in Ezekiel 38 (which some translations change to Rosh), it really shouldn’t be a proper noun, it is just the Hebrew word rosh, it means chief or head, and appears elsewhere in the OT as just that. If someone interested in prophecy wants it to be Russia then they need more evidence than a word which sounds like Russia. Also Tubal isn’t Tobolsk, and Meshech isn’t Moscow. I can’t believe I bought this hook line and sinker for way too many years…

  5. Nice blog you have here. I’m really enjoying these posts.

    A question, though. Do you think it’s necessarily bad to ‘Christologize’ the Old Testament? I can understand if your problem is with a pastor or teacher presenting an allegorical interpretation as authoritative, what the original authors meant, etc. I certainly don’t think Jesus is ‘in’ Genesis 1 in any serious, exegetical way. But I don’t see any harm in Christians allegorizing the OT and centering it around Jesus, as long as they remember that it meant something very different for the original writers, who did not know Jesus, and there are other important things to take away from the text.

    Bit of a tangent, I know. Just something I’ve been thinking about. As you probably know the patristic writers merrily Christologized everything they possibly could. I’m wondering if there isn’t some wisdom in that, in moderation. A text means what it means, but can it mean something more, in light of Christ?

    1. You ask such great questions, Tammuz.

      I’m definitely not a big fan of christologizing the OT, especially when it’s something ridiculous like the example in the blog. But, I also realize that I probably wouldn’t have a job teaching OT had the NT writers not essentially prooftexted, allegorized, and typologized in their writings. And I owe a great debt to the Church Fathers who decided Marcion was wrong and the OT was Christian scripture. But I know they came to that conclusion because of their interpretive methods—methods I don’t like very much.

      When the NT writers christologize, I think it’s important for us to recognize that as an important interpretation through Christian eyes. But, I always tell my students that if something from the OT is quoted or alluded to in the NT, look at what the text means in its original context first. Understand what it meant to the original readers first. Then you can look at how the NT writers utilized or reinterpreted a text in light of Christ.

      So, to your original question: “Is it necessarily bad to “christologize” the OT?” No and Yes. No, it’s not necessarily bad as long as we first acknowledge what a text meant to its original writers, and then look at how the NT writers reinterpreted it.

      Yes, it can be bad if we foist the christological interpretation onto the OT text, for example saying that Genesis 3:14-15 was the OT writer “prophesying” Christ’s triumph over Satan. First, I don’t think any NT writer uses that text that way–it’s probably something the Church Fathers did. Second, it assumes a text is “prophecy” when the original writer is simply outlining the realities of Israelite life. I’ll have to write a blog post on this one, probably.

      So, I certainly recognize that christologizing happens in the NT and later with the Church Fathers. My main concern is that most Christians, if they know of such christologizations, assume that they are the original meaning of the OT text. They don’t consider that the OT text was written first for the Israelites and not for Christians. So, often it’s really hard to get Christian readers to relax their death hold on the christological interpretations they’ve been taught and get them to see the text through Hebrew eyes. Hope that makes some sense.

  6. If you read it as if the author were using Aleph Tov as a swear word, it is much funnier, and probably just as legitimate. 😉

  7. You people all need to admit the truth – the bible is just a bunch of old stories that have nothing whatsoever to do with God.

  8. As a graduate of “an institution of higher learning located in Dallas”, which may or may not be the one to which you refer but is often thrown into such broad brush stroking, I did not learn this “stock sermon” and my Hebrew profs would have worked very hard to dissuade me of such silliness had they suspected I was thinking along those lines.

    The example you give seems the quintessential Baptist/Fundamentalist anti-intellectualism, very lazy thinking wanting to pretend smartiness. And the way that he pulled you into it is, I think, incredibly unethical. I’m sorry that a paycheck forces you to remain there.

    1. Not just the Hebrew profs, either. The rest of them as well. Were someone to show up at preaching class with that, they’d have been ripped over it. Unfortunately, the people who think like this are fairly self-inoculated against criticism and should you confront this guy, I suspect he will give you a patronizing monologue about how you love your knowledge more than you love God. My guess, anyway.

    2. Maybe it was a sermon that made the rounds in the 80s or something. Who knows? But no worries. We aren’t still at that church. This was something that happened a long time ago.

    1. Sorry, I’m not sure what you’re asking. The letter he is simply a guttural letter with no relationship to the alef or the tav (that I know of). If you’re referring to the Tetragrammaton: yod he vav he, then it is one of the letters of the divine name. Alone it is the definite article in Hebrew. And I’m sure in gematria it has symbolic significance.

  9. Even without the aleph tav the Old Testament is a foreshadow of Christ.

    John 5:39 KJV
    Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

    While Jesus was on the earth the scriptures He spoke of were OT.

  10. When I was young, I was aghast to read about the church’s objection to translate the Bible into the vernacular in the days of Martin Luther. Now that I’ve seen the whacky and stupefying things people claim based upon their readings, I wonder if the church didn’t have a point. 😉

  11. Dear Susan,
    do you think that it is conclusive as an object-marker – nothing more, nothing less? Do you think there is mystery surrounding when it is used – when other Hebrews letters could have been used for the same word, and when it is not used – when clearly an object-marker is needed?
    Thank you!
    JT

    1. Yes. It is an object market, nothing more or less. Sometimes there are grammatical reasons why the marker is used. For example, if a writer wants to emphasize the direct object, he can put the sign of the object and the object before the verb for emphasis and also to avoid confusing the reader. But I think the Hebrew writers were free to use it or not as they saw fit. There are no other Hebrew words to indicate the sign of the object. Word order, as in English, tells the reader what the object of a verb is, if the sign of the object is not used.

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