- Laughter at the Foot of the Cross by M.A. Screech
Allen Lane, 328 pp, £30.00, January 1998, ISBN 0 7139 9012 0
Have you heard the one about the children who laughed at the prophet and called him ‘slaphead’? A bear tore 42 of them to pieces. Or the one about the maid, expecting her master’s child, who then laughed at her mistress’s infertility? The mistress got a double revenge: she had the maid kicked out into the desert, then had a son herself and called him ‘laughing boy’. If those do not make you laugh, how about the idea of a man writing a book on Rabelais today without once mentioning Bakhtin? The punch-line to that one is that it turns out to be a very good book.
Vol. 20 No. 16 · 20 August 1998
After paying due tribute to M.A. Screech’s learning, Gerald Hammond (LRB, 16 July) goes on to accuse him of a couple of errors. This is for me a temptation to a mild guffawing, because Hammond himself makes the schoolboy blunder of confusing Elisha with Elijah. And the so-called ‘children’ (Revised Version) who shouted ‘Go on up, you baldhead’ to Elisha (not Elijah) are in the New International Version rightly called ‘youths’, i.e. teenage yobs. This rather wrecks Hammond’s opening ‘joke’. Whether the youths deserved to be mauled by bears is another matter.
In the matter of Hagar, I think that Hammond is a bit unfair to Abraham. If we take this old saga literally, we can see that Hagar was certainly unpleasant to Sarah, but while Ishmael was Abraham’s son, Sarah had to put up with it, just as Hagar had to ‘submit’ to Sarah’s position as lawful wife. Once Isaac was born, however, Sarah could exact her revenge with impun ity and demand the expulsion of Hagar. But at least Abraham was ‘distressed greatly’ and gave her and Ishmael some iron rations. The angel of God completed the rescue by pointing out a local oasis which Hagar had not noticed.
Very Rev. Alfred Jowett
Vol. 20 No. 18 · 17 September 1998
The Very Reverend Alfred Jowett (Letters, 20 August) is quite right to be amused at my confusion of Elijah and Elisha but the rest of his letter left me smiling at the assumptions which underlie it. One is that the New International Version’s translation of the Elisha story is the right one. The Hebrew phrase in question is na’ar koton: na’ar means ‘youth’ or ‘lad’, koton means ‘little’; and the NIV translates the phrase elsewhere as ‘young boy’ (2 Kings 5.14), ‘small boy’ (1 Samuel 20.35), ‘little child’ (1 Kings 3.7 and Isaiah 11.6) and ‘only a boy’ (1 Kings 11.17). In short, because it wants to dilute the savagery of the Elisha story, the NIV mistranslates and turns the children into ‘youths’; and because he wants to dilute it even more, Jowett turns the youths into ‘yobs’ and makes it a tract for our times, a bear only doing what a bear has to do. As for Abraham’s great distress at sending his son off to certain death rendering him any less guilty – all I can say is that in my book that puts him, and those who argue in such a way, at the moral level of the Walrus.
University of Manchester