Mythical Creatures in the Good Book
“I've got green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but Lord, I'm so forlorn
I just can't find no unicorns"
I don’t actually like that song, but because the vestiges of St. Patrick’s Day are still around, the dopey tune just sort of sprung into my head when I started writing this piece. What I wanted to say is if you’re looking for tales of unicorns, dragons, leviathans, and fair damsels, I have a source that may surprise you. All these creatures are found in the King James Version of the Bible. More modern translations are not nearly so much fun--dragons are reduced to jackals and the glamorous unicorns become mere oxen. Leviathans, however, are allowed to retain their grandiose mythical status, at least in the New Revised Standard and New International Version. A damsel is now just a girl. Ho hum.
For the past several years, I’ve made an attempt to read a “daily” Bible, which is a version that breaks the text up into 365 readings with the idea that you read one each day and thus read the entire Bible in a year. Usually, I can finish the year’s worth of readings in about fifteen months. But the first time I attempted the King James Version, it took me two full years, and I have to confess that even then I was probably thinking about other things while my eyes dutifully scanned the page. It was really more an exercise in history than faith for me because I spent more time thinking about how things were said rather than what was actually said.
One example that got me right off the bat was how the Old Testament patriarchs died. In the book of Genesis, Abraham “gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age.” Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob all give up “the ghost” too, and so a phrase that I thought to be very modern is obviously not. I put the phrase in the mouth of one of my characters in an upcoming book, so it will be interesting to see if I get any reaction.
Since I write primarily historical novels, I figured my characters would be familiar with the King James Version of the Bible and therefore I should be, too. So not only was the grand Bible reading not really a spiritual exercise, it was not even a true academic exercise. It was just part of a business plan.
I decided to try the KJV again this year, hoping that now the novelty has worn off and that I will find new spiritual insights. Instead, I’m looking up the definition of leviathan in the dictionary. And today (I’m writing this on March 21, so naturally the selection I was reading today was labeled February 28. Must be a misprint) I realized that the Lord established a form of working welfare. In Leviticus 23:22, the Lord orders Moses to tell the people to leave some grain in the field when they harvest (“thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest”) in order to make provision for the poor and homeless. But he doesn’t order the Israelites to give food to the poor--he expects the poor to go out and glean for themselves. Mercy and help but no handouts. I like that.
I wonder if I put my orders in flowery King James era language (I’ve heard the KJV was deliberately set in language that was archaic even in King James’s time, so perhaps I should say King Richard era language) my children might see the wisdom of my words and respond appropriately. “Thou shalt make clean riddance of the corners of the corners of thy bedroom before thou liest in front of the TV” or “thou shalt not pusheth thy sister aside in thy haste to gain access to the bathroom facilities.”
Of course, the kids in Moses’s time had no wait for bathroom facilities. And I’m willing to bet there were a lot of two-seaters around in King Richard’s day. But while I don’t always like living in a world where dragons are mere jackals and we’ve reduced the noble unicorn to an ox, I do prefer modern sanitation. So I’ll wait while both my children finish with the bathroom, and maybe while I wait I’ll look around for a few one-horned oxen.
Until next time...