Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 1: 20-31) transports me to the big screen where some of the biggest name stars are cast in their normal lead and supporting roles, but despite their fame you wouldn’t be able to recognize a single one of them, at least you wouldn’t recognize their faces. The list of unrecognizable actors is impressive: Will Smith, Renée Zellwinger, Angelina Jolie, Jack Black, Robert De Niro, Alexander Gould, Willem Dafoe, Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Buddy Hacket, Jason Marin, Alan Rickman, – playing the roles of Oscar, Angie, Lola, Lenny, Sykes, Nemo, Gill, Dori, Marlin, Scuttle, Flounder, Joe. As you might have guessed, you wouldn’t recognize them by sight because they all were giving voice to fish in various animated movies. Animating fish with human characteristics has been around a long time. Decades before Pixar was finding Nemo and DreamWorks was spinning a shark tale, we had actor Herschel Bernardi giving voice to Charlie the Tuna, who kept trying to impress Starkist with his proclivity for fine art and music and literature, only to realize time again that the company didn’t want tuna with good taste, but tuna that tasted good. Sorry Charlie. My favorite of those early animated fish stories was The Incredible Mr. Limpet, where Don Knotts lent his voice to a nerdy fish who joined the Navy and gave important tactical intel on the Nazis during WWII. A bit of quirky trivia: Don Knott’s fish character fell in love with Ladyfish, played (voiced) by Elizabeth MacRae, who later gained fame as Gomer Pyle’s girlfriend Lou-Ann Poovie.
As it turns out, anthropomorphism related to sea creatures was happening long before Herschel Bernardi and Don Knotts. The fantasy of assigning fish a role in human affairs is actually imbedded in the first chapter of Genesis, in the creation story, at least the way it is traditionally translated. There on the fifth day, God made the water teem with living creatures, and it was good. On the sixth day, God decided to make humanity in God’s own image, so they could rule over, among other things, the fish of the sea. Taken at face value, the notion of having dominion over the teeming sea, that is, to be headmaster over schools of fish, is patently absurd. I mean, other than dolphin shows, where Flipper is trained to do tricks through the manipulation of rewards, what other fish have paid the first bit of attention to our supposed authority over them? Who among our ruling human class can lay claim to ever mastering a single fish? Some of us spend hours upon hours trying to persuade one of them to simply take a bite of a baited hook. Dominion? Mastery? Authority? Rule? Really? I don’t think the fish got the message that they were to be under our rule. They seem to answer to the beat of a different drummer. The only thing we’ve learned to do well in our dominion, it seems, is to breed them in factory fish farms and harvest them for Mrs. Paul’s freezer.
But what if all that animation-like fantasy of having fish answer to our beckon call is based on a misunderstanding of the script? Some biblical scholars think this is so. The word translated as rule over or have dominion over is the Hebrew word yirdu, with the root y-r-d. Until the Masoretes began copying the Hebrew Bible in the 7th century, there were no vowels in the words. The Masoretic scholars added vowel markings, dots under the letters, as a guide to pronunciation. Sometimes the choice of vowel placement can completely change the word, and Genesis 1 gives us a prime example. The Masoretes added a single dot (called a chireq) under the r, signifying the root word radah, meaning to subdue, to master, to rule, to exercise authority and dominion over. Had they placed two dots (called a tsere) instead, it would have signified the word yarad, which means instead to lower oneself, to humble oneself, to make a descent. Imagine centuries of destructive imperial dominion theology being reversed with the simple addition of a single dot. The humility translation makes so much more sense given the context of the Genesis story, the tragic narrative of humanity’s proclivity to hubris and the temptation to act like God. From the outset, God created humanity from the humus, prompting us to get off our high horse and come down to earth, to the reality that we are essentially on the same wave length as the fish that swim and the birds that fly. We all rely on the goodness of creation to nourish us. We are all part of a complex network and a wondrous world of life. For us to act like God, to try and give voice to the divine authority to sustain and guide life, is nothing but fantasy. Sorry Charlie. God wants humans with humility, not humans with hubris.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.