December 2, 2011


Years ago, I read an article which left a lasting impression on me. It discussed how the ambiguity of words can create problems in interpretations. For example, the word for whale in the ancient Aramaic language was the same word used to mean that someone had a problem. Given that knowledge, the author speculated about the story of Jonah and the Whale. Was he literally swallowed by a creature or was he consumed by a problem? Of course, being swallowed by any animal is always a problem, that’s not my concern here.


(Gerard Laz photo)

Irshad Manji, in “The Trouble with Islam” makes a similar observation about ambiguities in ancient Arabic words.  For example, the word for virgin and raisins were the same — raisins being rarer and far more valuablethan virgins at the time.  The ambiguity causes Manji to wonder what sort of reward awaits jihadists after their martyrdom. Will they awake to a room full of virgins or raisins? To some that might be an important question.

One of the most charged words in our language is blood. In pre-Christian times blood was viewed as the source of life, a coagulant from which bodies sprang.  Some cultures held the belief that clay, infused with blood could spring to life, so great was its power. As societies became more patriarchal, however, our view of blood changed. Placental blood was seen as a curse and not a blessing. Women who were menstruating had to be isolated so that their filth did not pollute others. According to Barbara Walker in her book, “Man Made God” one of the reasons women are still barred from serving as ordained priests in the Catholic Church is the belief that menstruating women would pollute the altar at Mass. That same belief explains why there are no altar girls only altar boys. (“Man Made God,” pg. 80)

Walker is a scholar with a devious sense of humor, which makes reading her enjoyable. After reviewing religious abhorrence to placental blood, she pauses to ask why the term “Mother Church” is still used with affection. I have to admit, that’s a whale of a question.