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hovering between the quest for absolute truth and the pursuit of utter nonsense
gloss, n.
  1. A brief explanatory note usually inserted in the margin or between lines of a text.
  2. An extensive commentary, often accompanying a text or publication.
  3. A purposefully misleading interpretation or explanation.
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"The limits of my language means the limits of my world."
-Ludwig Wittgenstein
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-Mahatma Gandhi
Segal's Law:
A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.
"Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste more like prunes than a rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know."
-Groucho Marx

~ Tuesday, January 15, 2008 ~

Dueling Exegetes
The Saint proposes that my interpretation of vs. 64-65 stems from a reading that is wrong on two counts.

1. Keyholders are always male.

His first point is that the word "key" is a technical term, and that only men hold keys, so every time the text refers to someone who holds keys of any power whatever, it must necessarily mean a man and not a woman holding those keys. Thus, when v. 64 says, "If any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power..." the "who" refers not to the wife but to the man.

Go ahead and reread it that way with the new meaning in mind.

"If any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power..."

Can't do it, can you? Neither can I. The "who" so forcibly makes me want to refer to the wife that it seems impossible that it could refer to the husband. It's like saying, "When he visited his girlfriend, who lives on Cherry Tree Lane..." and expecting the reader to understand that it's he and not his girlfriend who lives on Cherry Tree Lane. If they wanted to refer back to the guy, they could easily have used "and he" instead of "who".

Besides, even though the keyholders are male every other time the term "key" is used, we can still imagine that this instance is an exception to that rule. Remember that v. 61 tells us that wife #1 holds the power of granting or withholding consent, so it's she who can open or close the door separating her husband from his prospective additional wives.

2. Administration to one's husband means fidelity, not consent to polygamy.

The Saint's other correction is the more interesting one. He proposes that in v. 64, where it says that the wife should administer unto her husband, the emphasis goes on "unto her husband" rather than on "administer"; that is, instead of meaning that she's going and getting additional wives for him, it really means she's refraining from sleeping with other men. She administers unto him, and not unto others. This would make her commandment to believe/administer unto him refer not to the part in v. 61 where it says "and the first give her consent" but rather to the part in v. 63 where it teaches that her being with another man automatically constitutes adultery. Her transgression would become infidelity rather than rejection of polygamy, and the punishment for her infidelity, if not utter destruction, would be that her husband becomes free to take another wife.

Now, I agree that it's generally more plausible for one verse to refer to something in a previous verse than to refer to something that was mentioned briefly three verses ago, so the Saint does have proximity on his side, but on the other hand, "administration" should, because of the nature of the word, refer to action instead of inaction. No one would call standing still and doing nothing an act of administration, regardless of whether or not my very refraining has a positive effect upon you.

Besides, at the end of v. 65, we are virtually told how 'administration' is being used in this sense: "Sarah...administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife." What does it mean to administer? It means to do what Sarah did when Abraham was commanded to take Hagar to wife. What was it Sarah did? She sent Hagar to Abraham.

But could it possibly mean, instead, that at the moment when Abraham was taking Hagar, Sarah happened to not be sleeping with anyone else? I don't see how. Sarah administered unto Abraham not only at the moment when Abraham took Hagar as a wife, but also because of God's commandment that he do so. That's the sense of the verse. Abraham couldn't have taken Hagar unless Sarah had given Hagar to him, and realizing this, and not wanting to get in the way of his obedience, Sarah administered to her husband by doing exactly that. (Although I should note that in Genesis's account, Abraham's sleeping with Hagar is Sarah's idea, not God's, and afterward she's pretty sorry she did it.)

And on top of that, there just isn't any other man present in the story to tempt Sarah away from Abraham, so it doesn't make any sense to be making such a big deal about her fidelity. She does have a little infidelity issue with the Pharaoh in Genesis 12, four chapters earlier, at Abraham's misguided (though understandable) behest, but I'm not sure that's significant, except that it makes her look even less like the sort of person you'd want to hold up as a paragon of fidelity.

Anyway, it seems clear to me that it was precisely by facilitating Abraham's acquisition of Hagar that Sarah was administering unto him; had she not facilitated it, he wouldn't have been able to impregnate Hagar, because it was up to Sarah to permit or prohibit it.

So those are his two points. If he were right, then the meaning of the text would indeed change dramatically--it would go from "she refused to assent to polygamy, so she loses her right to control whether he takes another wife" to something like "she was unfaithful to him, so he was no longer bound to be faithful to her" which actually would have been something I could have stomached.

Curiously, The Saint doesn't dispute my interpretation of the "Law of Sarah" as being a law that requires the husbands to obtain their additional wives as freely-given gifts from their first wives; I would have thought that'd be the weakest point in my interpretation, because the text is so vague regarding it, but I guess that point was obvious enough to him.

Incidentally, since asking him about it and hearing his answer, I've gone to visit Mormon.org (on Science Ninja's recommendation), where you can now sit down and have a real live chat with a real live missionary. I was passed around to a total of three different missionaries (as one person's shift ended, he or she passed me to the next) which meant I had to go through and explain the problem to each one of them (none of them had ever noticed the significance of this passage before...what gives??) and while their answers were as different as they were unsatisfying, none of them challenged my interpretation the way The Saint's did. Actually, none of them challenged it at all.

The first one, who really seemed to know what she was talking about, pointed out that if I did indeed know that the law came from God, I'd have an interesting decision before me about whether to follow it. I was just about to tell her that the source doesn't always matter, because I have my own standards regarding what sort of laws I'd be willing to obey (e.g. if God commanded me to torture puppies, I would not be into it), when she had to go.

The next one took the "No human can understand everything, but I know the Church is true" approach, which doesn't really help me, because I don't know that it's true, and even if I were absolutely sure about the rest, this issue would still strike me as Definitely Not From God, or at least not from the kind of god I'd want to worship.

The third insisted that the harder the commandment is to keep, the greater the blessing for keeping it, but honestly, I can't imagine any blessing so great that it would balance out the pain of sharing my husband with sister-wives. I told her that, and she said she wasn't really sure how to help me, but she recommended I pray to God for the answer. Oh well.

Kol hakavod, The Saint. Of all the answers I've heard, yours is the only one I'd find acceptable. If only it worked.

~ prattled by Miriam at 1:59 a.m. [+]

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