Heresy Revealed: The Capstone Paper

This spring semester i had the hilarious and deeply satisfying experience of writing heresy—Budge-Nuzzard fanfic in biblical Hebrew—for seminary credit. It was an immensely engaging and creative endeavor, and i took no end of pleasure in offhandedly mentioning “my heresy” in my advanced Hebrew exegesis class and citing Thaddeus Glapp in the biography of my capstone paper. It’s crazy to think that i was permitted to get away with this nonsense. Classical Hebrew spec-fic? Inventing words in a dead language? Graduate-level Budge-Nuzzard scholarship? Weench midrash? Gosh. i am the luckiest nerd alive.

Those of you who’ve somehow stumbled through a wormhole and into this website may already have fallen victim to The Yaunsi Heresy. If you haven’t, you’re about to. The attachment that follows contains the complete text of that heresy—with commentary, on both my work and the Budge-Nuzzard. (It isn’t all heresy. The first half of the paper teases an entire semester’s study on Hebrew narrative style and literary devices.)

Enough piffle and blather! With very great thanks to Deirdre Brouer, Hélène Dallaire, Thaddeus Glapp, and A.S. Peterson, i present to you:

Narrative Criticism in the Hebrew Bible: Capstone report

The Yaunsi Heresy is a new work of fiction in classical Hebrew based on A.S. Peterson’s lobidious tale of the Budge-Nuzzard. It will be published in serial. Click “Yaunsi Heresy” above to read from the beginning—or to hear the story read to you. 🙂


Hebrew narrative is full of gaps. It’s part of the literary art. Did Uriah know about David and Bathsheba? With whom did Jacob wrestle? How exactly was Abishai part of Joab’s plot to kill Abner? These gaps excite our imaginations and draw us into the text by means of curiosity and suspense, but they also leave us with niggling interpretive questions. The medieval expositors who engaged in midrash sought (“midrash” comes from the word “to seek”) to fill in those gaps by making connections, seizing on clues as small as stray consonants, drawing in folklore and mysticism, explaining background, imagining.

Here’s an example. In 1 Samuel 28, Saul (who had previously cast all the mediums out of Israel) has been rejected as king and has given up seeking G-d, and now wants advice from the man of G-d who anointed him. This is Samuel, but Samuel is dead, and the only way to consult him is to consult a medium. When he finds a medium and convinces her that no harm will come to her if she conjures a ghost in direct defiance of the king’s (i.e. his own) order, she consents. But as soon as the spirit rises out of the earth, she panics—“You are Saul!” Well, what on earth about the spirit gave her the identity of the flesh-and-bone man standing in her tent? The midrash on this passage explains it thusly: A spirit conjured from the dead will rise feet first, head down, except in the presence of the king. Then, out of respect, the spirit rises head first, feet down. Samuel must have done so, and the sight of him rising, upright, told her everything: This was Saul, the king.

Is that actually how she knew? We can’t be certain, although a possible misspelling in the Masoretic Text, corrected in the Septuagint, might support this theory. Either way, when faced with the question of why the woman, seeing Samuel, suddenly recognized Saul, the midrash expositors devised an explanation which harmonized with the received text, slipping cleverly into the gap the narrator left behind.1

Now, what i am doing with the Yaunsi Heresy i have often called fanfiction. Up till last week all i was doing, aside from switching main and secondary characters, was retelling the story, sometimes as directly as translation would allow. But there is a gap, a rather large gap, in the Budge-Nuzzard. It is a cunning gap, a subversive gap, one that invites wrestling, and i seek now to fill it. For the last year i have been drawing together threads from the Budge-Nuzzard itself—no folklore, no mysticism, but only from my source material—to put forth an interpretation which i believe to be consistent with the story’s own evidence. What has been fanfiction or even simple retelling is now becoming midrash.2

If you have not yet read the Budge-Nuzzard, do start now.

 The midrash on 1 Samuel 28 does not end here, and it is fascinating to read. For an introductory study, see my paper The Witch of Endor: Toward a Literary Treatment, written last spring.

The name of a Hebrew book is taken from the first major word of the book’s text. For example, the first word in Leviticus is Vayikra—“He called.” Rabbah—“great”—is the term given to the expansion of the text via midrash. The midrash on Leviticus is therefore Vayikra Rabbah, and my midrash on the Budge-Nuzzard is properly named Nolad Rabbah, as the first word of that story in Hebrew is Nolad (“It was born”).

Discovering Hebrew narrative, Part One

i am a pantser. My modus operandi, writing-wise, is just to dive right in and find out how things work. i have always done this with my English writing. The joy of discovery is too great to bother with outlines; if i already know what is going to happen, what is the point? And i started my Hebrew fiction-writing career this way, too, almost as soon as i started learning Hebrew. What else is language for but storytelling? And when the very fibers of my being all vibrate with glee at words like “robiderant” and “lobidious,” when a story causes my mind to be constantly running away to make connections both internal and external, when i am confronted at every turn with the delight of ordinary cereal or hunger or travel reimagined into something alien and (literally) breathtaking, well, what else am i supposed to do? Write, of course, and the sooner the better. There’s no time to wait.

This week, i started my Hebrew narrative independent study. i’ve read two chapters in a great classic work—The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter—and am starting to realize what an audacious thing it was to write fiction in a language i hadn’t yet internalized. Ancient Near Eastern fiction has its own literary conventions! Nothing could be more obvious once they’re pointed out, but i had given no thought to this when i was starting my story.

Type-scenes, for example: Mini-stories that occur over and over again, in a certain sort of way, which leads the reader to expect how things will play out. We do this on a larger scale, repeating whole stories with wide variation (orphan-with-destiny, for example). Biblical type-scenes are smaller-scale, like the elements of the hero’s journey. But where the hero’s journey type-scenes are just templates (inciting-event, threshold-guardian, return-with-the-elixir), biblical type-scenes are very specific (meeting-one’s-future-betrothed-by-a-well, annunciation-of-the-hero’s-birth-to-his-barren-mother, epiphany-in-a-field), and every detail matters. The brilliance, of course, is in the many ways one can vary the convention to highlight or suggest or surprise or subvert. And now my mind runs away again, and i must run to catch it. What are the type-scenes in the Budge-Nuzzard? What about in its literary progenitor, Lovecraft? Can i use these type-scenes in my own story? Can i make them Hebraic? Can i identify any Hebrew type-scenes in the Budge-Nuzzard? Are there any ancient type-scenes which will serve my story, and can i make them nuzzardous?

And dialogue! Hebrew narrative, it turns out, is dominated by dialogue. The characters discover and reveal themselves through what they say, how they say it, what they avoid saying, how they spin and how they lie. This isn’t particular to Hebrew narrative, either; read any good literary novel in English and you’ll find the same thing: Subtext. Hebrew authors don’t tell you what people are thinking; they let their characters absolve or hang themselves without interference, and they employ quite a bit of subtlety and ambiguity in the process. This is a thing i want to work on in general, in Hebrew and English. One particular thing i neglected to consider in Hebrew is how to introduce my characters through dialogue. The first words out of their mouths should tell the reader something about them. What impressions do my readers have of Yaunsi, or of Smithers/Cheresh? What sort of men are they? Are these impressions what i intended? Do my introductions lead me, and my readers, further into the story, or will i have to work against these impressions, or even contradict them, as i develop my characters? What about expressing emotions and attitudes and bearing? What about speech patterns? Can i draw distinctions, deepen sympathy or reservations, heighten tension, by contrasting the way my characters speak to one another and to themselves? These are all things Hebrew authors do. Again, we expect this in English, but it does look different in Hebrew, and i had given it no thought before this week.

A week in, and i am already thinking of whether i should start over from scratch—a thought both exciting, because of what i am learning that i could apply, and frustrating, because i want to get on with the story and explore what happens next. And i haven’t even started the second week’s reading yet.

One of my goals for this semester is to develop a more authentically Hebraic writing voice. And one of the things i hear consistently around the Rabbit Room is that revision is not a threat to be feared but a friend to embrace.

i wonder what Yaunsi and i will be like when we’re finished. We might both need a little revision.

First week of classes

Yesterday i took up my work as Assistant WONAS (Hebrew tutor). So far i have had six students. Group tutoring is a whole new experience. It’s not much like individual tutoring; it feels a lot like teaching. i love having my own classroom. i brought handouts and wrote my name on the board and zoomed around on a rolling chair, answering questions all over. i’m learning how to phrase my answers as clues and leading questions so that the students can recall and synthesize what they’ve learned, rather than just rely on me. It’s a fun challenge. 🙂

Today’s schedule was very full. i arrove early to get some of my own translation done, then grabbed lunch and ate while tutoring, then went straight to my independent study meeting, and then had a half-hour to finish my translation before Hebrew class. (i finished just as class was beginning!) The independent study is going to be so fun. And the passage we translated for Hebrew this week was also fun—full of syntax and phrasings that jumped out in a way i have not seen in my English text. i took great pleasure, for the first time in awhile, just playing with the language as i translated.

During my independent study meeting, my professor and i were talking about which OT narratives i’m planning to read this semester. Since i want to focus on classical rather than post-exilic Hebrew narratives, she wanted to know why i decided to spend a week on Nehemiah. “i love him!” i said, and proceeded to lecture her for a good fifteen minutes. Then she said to me, wide-eyed, “You need to be teaching.”

i am starting to not dismiss these comments. (Or, as i might say along with the narrator of Genesis, i am keeping the matter. In my lower head, perhaps, or lower heart, as we would say in Hebrew, except that we wouldn’t. Well, i would.)

My heretical Budge-Nuzzard midrash has not yet settled into a proper weekly rhythm, but that changes next week. Tomorrow i have a book to read—Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. i will be taking note of the various literary conventions he discusses, with an eye to applying them to the Budge-Nuzzard and my own writing, and hopefully that will make an interesting post. It’s been awhile since i’ve written a textual criticism essay. This one will be narrative criticism, not textual, but i fully expect it to cause my eyes to widen and the sounds of deep contemplation to waft from my upper head. If you should like to hear the conclusions drawn from my wafting contemplations, check back later.

At the top of the stairs, again.

Classes start up again on Monday, after a six-week break. Six weeks should be long enough, right? And there are factors, changes, which i know will make this semester different from last—and yet.

Ever since midterms of my first semester—a year and a half ago; how is this possible?—i have staved off stress-and-homework-induced panic attacks by writing words on my hands. They’re the words that called me down the stairs, the words which told me that it would be worth it. Three times over break i have looked down while washing my hands to see these words on my wrist when i have not written them there. The third occasion happened today. Do my eyes play tricks on me, seeing the phantom where they have so frequently seen the reality? Or am i being prepared for another death?

It hurts to die, but each time i’m raised again and i’m something new, something i don’t recognize, something i never expected.”

Last semester i stopped believing in resurrection. i didn’t want resurrection; i didn’t want even to survive. i just wanted sleep. i lived in a chemical suspension of exhaustion and adrenaline for two months. It took days to climb out of that grave.

i don’t know what this semester holds, but i hope to regain hope. And maybe, just maybe, one death at a time, i’ll learn to trust the coming resurrection.

The blessèd syllabus

Alert: This post is in English. Weird, i know.

My next Yaunsi segment is written, but my editor and i are taking Christmas off. Meanwhile, i shall regale you with news of significant nerdery. More

Hapax legomenon

Well kids, my brilliant heresy launches in only eight days, and i think it’s time for another brief lesson in textual criticism as relates to the Budge-Nuzzard.

You might have noticed a comment left on my previous post. It was a single word: “Urblementary!” This comment’s author is uniquely qualified to make such a judgment. And the judgment he chose to make made me laugh for two different reasons, one of which i will explain to you.

Urblementary is a word which occurs in the original Budge-Nuzzard exactly once. In textual criticism, this is what is called a hapax legomenon, which means “a word used only once.” This might mean once in a particular text, or even in an entire language. Handily, the Budge-Nuzzard is the only (to my knowledge) surviving text written in the glorious tongue of Weem-Ti (Weench), so urblementary qualifies, however critics (me) would like to dice that definition.

Hapaxes are a way for an ancient author to troll his/her modern reader. It’s notoriously tricky to figure out exactly what a hapax is meant to convey, because there’s no context outside the passage at hand to help tease out shades of meaning. The lexicons we now have for Hebrew, for example, are all the results of different scholarly word-studies. They’re dictionaries of ancient words, not ancient dictionaries. For common words, there’s no trouble here; read a variety of texts, which use a given word in a variety of contexts, and the meaning becomes pretty clear. But when you’ve only got one instance, how do you know you’re getting it right? A great example of this can be found in Amos 7:7-9. For years translators had to take a wild stab in the dark on one word in this section. They went with “plumb-line,” because they had no idea what the word meant but that translation made sense of the imagery in the passage—Amos was standing next to a wall, and G-d was about to judge Israel for not lining up with His standards.

Sometimes, related languages or dialects can help. Hebrew is one of a whole family of Semitic languages. If you come across a Hebrew hapax, you might look to Ugaritic or Akkadian to see whether a similar word appears in that language, and if it does, this can help enormously. In the above example from Amos, the word previously translated “plumb-line” turned out to be an Akkadian loanword which means “tin.” (Amos was being extremely snarky here, not only using a trollsome hapax but using imagery that mocked the “sturdy” walls of Samaria, which would surely withstand any enemy’s attack, even if G-d sent them. Get this: Tin makes terrible walls.)

Unfortunately, i don’t know of any cognate language for Weench.

When you’ve got neither multiple uses of a word nor a cognate in a related dialect, the best tool you’ve got is context. We’ve got to do our best, like past generations of Amos scholars did. So, let’s look at the context for our Weench hapax.

As my plodden journey onward goes, I have, in the night I fear, gained a companion, though boon or ill I cannot say. In darkness, the moon, so gibbous and bloated, my way did brightly light. And then I felt upon my nape a gazing. Hideous it was, and urblementary. I hurled my eyes about to see what eyes I felt aseeing me, but no eye spying did I see. I bid my feet plod on, and bid such repellent gazing be flushed in whole from my upper head. My feet heeded well. My upper head, however, cast itself in rebellious form and tormented me with suspicion and worry. Oh, how then I loathed my treacherous head!

The wording here—“though boon or ill i cannot say”—suggests to me an allusion from earlier in the Budge-Nuzzard, whether intentional or subconscious. i present to you this clue:

I was awakened this morning by a strange gnawing sensation in my lower left foot. My first thought was that the end had come sooner than I had foreseen and I was being slowly consumed by my wicked progeny. I was fairly wrong. The source of the gnawing, I discovered, was a small rotund Englishman in a shiny black bowler (and little else!). This odd little man had the greater portion of my lower left foot firmly seated in his mouth and was patiently gnawing away at it as if it were no more than a cup of afternoon tea.

“Good Heavens!” I said, and the gnawing Englishman kindly slipped my lower left foot out of his mouth and dried it with his handkerchief in a most gentlemanly fashion.

“Yes, quite,” he replied, then promptly disappeared leaving no sign at all of his former presence, other than the merest smell of wet hanky.

I knew at once that this was no coincidence. This was an omen. Whether ill or otherwise I couldn’t guess. I shall have to contact the Samurai. He will know what to do.

“Though boon or ill I cannot say.” “Whether ill or otherwise I couldn’t guess.” Hrrmm.

Can we then suppose that the word urblementary reflects the uncertainty and apprehension of a portent which cannot yet be interpreted, and thereby torments one’s upper head? Note also that the earlier passage is the first canonical appearance of—no. i shall not name him. Spoilers!

Given that i’ve been stalking Pete Peterson for over a year and a half now, this word choice seems fair. He has publicly said that he looks forward to my heresy “with a great and terrible anticipation.” What horrors or insights will he see in my words? And am i a boon or ill companion? Well. i guess we’ll find out on November 25.

Textual criticism

Note: This is a prologue of sorts to an upcoming series of posts regarding my synthesis of Hebrew language studies and the Budge-Nuzzard. Next Friday i will post an announcement regarding this series.

A brief (well, sort of) lecture on the importance of textual criticism, with an example from the Budge-Nuzzard:

i’m currently translating 2 Samuel 11, and in verse 24 there are two variants known as ketiv-qere. This means that what is written (ketiv) and what is to be read aloud (qere) are slightly different. There can be a variety of reasons for this. The most common, which occurs so frequently that scribes do not even bother noting it in the margin, is the Name of G-d (the vowels have been swapped out so that no-one will accidentally pronounce the Name and risk using it in vain). There are other kinds of ketiv-qere differences, including spelling. And there are other types of variants besides ketiv-qere. One non-ketiv-qere difference occurs in verse 4, where the Hebrew text says Bathsheba came to David, and the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) says she was brought to him. This difference opens up the question of her culpability. Textual scholars and translators work to understand these variants and give them the appropriate weight. i will have to do some of this work in the chapter i’m translating.

In my Budge-Nuzzard editing i have adopted the ketiv-qere terminology to describe differences between the written (blog) and oral (podcast) traditions of the text. Unlike the OT, where there are hundreds of scrolls which can be compared, i have only one example of each tradition, so weighting the variants requires more subjective judgment calls. But here is a very interesting example of a ketiv-qere in the Budge-Nuzzard.

In the entry titled “Jouncey,” dated April 26, 2006, there are three ketiv-qeres. Two of them are insignificant, but one stands out as an important interpretive difference.

In the ketiv (written/blog): “Then did i learn of terrible things. The Budge-Nuzzard has laid foul plans upon the Pan Dimension (and all the innocent Pans within), and the Hegemony of Pan….”

In the qere (oral/podcast): “Then did i learn of terrible things. The Budge-Nuzzard has laid foul plans upon the Pan Dimension, and the Hegemony of Pan….”

The written tradition stresses the lives of the Pans, and names them innocent. Part of the scandal of the Budge-Nuzzard’s foul plans is thus its threat against vulnerable and innocent noncombatants. But the oral tradition omits this parenthetical entirely. (By the way, parentheticals in Hebrew, called waw-disjunctives, provide contrast, or background or interpretive asides, for the reader. One example is in 2 Samuel 11:4, where the reader is led to understand that Bathsheba was fertile at the time of her encounter with David, and thus is led to anticipate that something is about to go wrong—which does in fact happen in the next verse. This is true in the Budge-Nuzzard as well—this parenthetical increases the tension in the story and creates interpretive suggestions in the mind of the reader.)

Does the oral tradition devalue the lives of innocent Pans, showing concern only for the larger container? Does the notable omission of the natural and expected assertion of the civilians’ innocence instead suggest to the hearer that the Pans may not be innocent? Does the written tradition rightly or exploitatively prejudice the reader against the Budge-Nuzzard by using inflammatory images of suffering innocents to arouse sympathy?

Textual criticism is important.


Second semester starts tomorrow. i stand on the stairtop and look out over the flight to come. There will be a breaking, and there will be a soaring. i know this, and i embrace them both.

i have turned my back on my turning back.

Finals, finally

This morning i intended to wake at 6:30 (and be coiffied and preened), spend time with Scripture and prayer and coffee after showering, and then dive into writing and reading. Instead, i hit snooze twice, made tea instead of coffee, and at 9:am, i am just about to begin today’s work. i have a whole book to read and internalize before the end of the week, when i hope to test out of one seminary class. Classes begin next Monday. i feel overwhelmed, and i know i did this to myself.

But in the mail this morning was my Molehill and a note from a Rabbit. That Molehill moved me to intercession, and the Rabbit-note moved me to tears and gave me the courage i needed to finally open an envelope i received before Christmas. i feared it—it lurked in the corner of my mind and whispered failure to me. It was the final exam for the class that broke me last semester. But after that note, i went to it. i held it in my hands. i poked my finger under the flap and tore it, then slipped the blue book from the envelope.

When i saw the grade, i laughed. When i saw the note at the end of my essay, i laughed again.

Then, a month and a half after the end of my first semester, i checked my grades online: An A in each class.

Grace. Hope. Resurrection.

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