Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Caedmon’s Edge” first appeared in the May 2006 issue of Touchstone.
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Anthony Esolen on the Fair Advantage of a Medieval Bible Translator
Quite aside from questions of orthodoxy, the only really interesting interpretations of the Bible come from those who believe that it is the inerrant word of God. One reason is obvious: If you believe the work is riddled with mistakes, you don't bother with interpretation at all. What would be the point? So you substitute what you think should have been written instead, or what you suppose really happened, based on some theory of what must have been written or what must have happened.
My favorite is the now stale "interpretation" of the miracle of the loaves and fishes: Jesus starts passing out a couple of loaves and fishes, and the embarrassed people smile and start sharing their lunch with one another. People in those days had no experience of embarrassment or of sharing lunch, so they attributed it to a great miracle.
Then there is the "interpretation" of the Resurrection, which acquires a tingly scholarly aura by the placement of the word "event" after it—it apparently being foolish to believe in a "resurrection," but as for a "resurrection event," now you're talking. Of course, the "event" turns out not to be an event at all, but a sort of vague good feeling, a sense that Jesus' life had not really ended, because now his message could be preached to the world, the good news of love, with the blind remaining blind, the lame remaining lame, the captives staying where they are, and everybody dying as they always had.
But if you do believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of a providential God who is the Lord of history—including that part of history recorded in the Bible—then what fascinating fields of interpretive play await you! That fact came home to me again the other day, as I was recalling an Old English poetic account of the story of Abraham and Isaac.
The author may not even have been literate; it is just possible that he was the famous Caedmon, the cattle-herder taken in to the abbey at Whitby when he was discovered to have been given the gift of hearing Scripture and rendering it into Anglo-Saxon epic song. Caedmon or no, the author "reads" Scripture as if the Lord were what in fact he is, an artist, the elements of whose compositions are not only words but objects, people, events, all the runnels and eddies of time.
Look at what he does to one apparently unimportant verse: "And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son" (Gen. 22:6). They who place their hope in errancy will shrug and say, "Yes, well? Abraham had to carry the pot of fire—if the event actually happened, which it almost certainly didn't."
But my believer in a providential God? He writes, in one stunning half-line of poetry: Wudu baer sunu.
I'll let that sink in for a moment. Wudu baer sunu. And they call Yeats a poet.
What does it mean? Depends on which is the nominative and which is the accusative. You see, the nominatives and accusatives of wudu and sunu are identical. The grammar and the assonance both force two meanings upon us: either "The son bore the wood" or "The wood bore the son." Either, and both at once.
The poet is clearly seeing in Isaac a foreshadowing of Christ, carrying the wood to another altar of sacrifice, and then being borne by that wood in turn. The Lord requires no human sacrifice from Abraham—that is one of the lessons in this scene. A young ram caught in the thickets nearby is the substitute, as the lamb of Passover will be, and as the Messiah himself will be, only not a substitute exactly, but the conqueror, God himself, suffering that we may be redeemed, dying to destroy death.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son. Every agonizing step up Mount Moriah meant infinitely more than Abraham could know—or than the errant modernist will see.
Wudu baer sunu. Think about that. •
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
“Caedmon’s Edge” first appeared in the May 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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