The Judeo-Christian Book of the Dead

I happen to have — for once — a copy of the King James Bible at my elbow. I open it at random while I’m waiting for the computer to boot up, and read this:

The burden of the valley of vision.
What aileth thee now, that thou art wholly gone
up to the housetops?
Thou that art full of stirs,
a tumultuous city, joyous city:
thy slain men are not slain with the sword,
nor dead in battle.
All thy rulers are fled together,
they are bound by the archers:
all that are found in thee are bound together,
which have fled from far.
Therefore said I, Look away from me;
I will weep bitterly, labour not to comfort me,
because of the spoiling of the daughter of my people.
For it is a day of trouble, and of treading down,
and of perplexity by the Lord God of hosts
in the valley of vision, breaking down the walls,
and of crying to the mountains.

That was from Isaiah, the beginning of Chapter 22. I really don’t know what the hell it means — nor, I’m afraid, do I particularly care. Though I do kind of admire the way Isaiah and the other prophets challenged the authorities and institutions of their day, they were all basically a bunch of fanatical whack-jobs, as far as I’m concerned. But isn’t it terrific poetry? “Thou that art full of stirs, a tumultuous city, joyous city” — the way this is phrased, all metaphorical possibilities remain open. Compare the New International Version, that favorite of modern evangelicals: “O town full of commotion, O city of tumult and revelry.” Gone is the familiar, affectionate “thou,” replaced by the affected “O.” Any suggestion that this “thou” might be a female, tapping into that city/woman metaphor so popular among the literary prophets, has been eliminated as well.

Then of course there is the inaptly titled New Living Translation, an almost unspeakable abomination among “translations.” If any book should ever be burned, this nuance-destroying exercise in tone-deaf exegetical hubris tops the list. Here’s what it does with the verse: “The whole city is in a terrible uproar. What do I see in this reveling city?”


Maybe this is why, when I try to explain why I love the Old Testament, I get puzzled looks.

But I guess I’m a mystery-monger and an obscurantist at heart, because it occurs to me that one of the things I most love about the King James Version is the near-impenetrability of many of its archaic phrases. Last week, a post at Read Write Poem asked poets to list the four books that most influenced their writing. My list led off with the great anthology Roots and Wings: Poetry from Spain 1900-1975, edited by Hardie St. Martin, but I forgot to mention the book which had prepared me for all that surrealism in the first place, by whetting my appetite for difficult language and nightmarish visions. And I’m quite sure that the kind of rhythmic free verse I specialize in was strongly marked by my youthful reading of the KJV.


I had the Bible out this morning because yesterday I’d been to a funeral, and the choice of readings struck me as a little unusual. Instead of the nauseatingly familar 23rd Psalm, the minister read Psalm 140 — one of the vengeful Psalms. This seemed especially incongruous given that the sermon that followed took the parable of the Good Samaritan as its text, extolling the kind and generous spirit of the departed. And the other reading could not have been more different: Ecclesiastes 3, in its entirety. That’s the one that begins, “To every thing there is a season.” It was, I thought, an inspired choice for a funeral.

I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

As most regular readers of this blog are probably aware, I’m not a conventionally religious person; I can’t see having a man or woman of the cloth officiating at my funeral, with all the usual assurances about an afterlife in which I do not believe. But if the Bible had to be part of the last rites for my small portion of supernova excrement, which verses could I stand to have read? Psalm 139 is a favorite — at least up until the 19th verse, when it turns hateful and paranoid. It’s got that whole pantheist vibe going on. And Verse 8 might be especially interesting at a funeral:

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there;
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

Job 14 might be good for mourners to hear, as well:

Man that is born of a woman is of few days,
and full of trouble.
He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down:
he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not…

But my top choice would probably be Ecclesiastes 11, beginning as it does with an exhortation to be generous, followed by a defense of religious agnosticism, and concluding with the Biblical version of “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

Cast thy bread upon the waters:
for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight;
for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth:
and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north,
in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.

He that observeth the wind shall not sow;
and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.
As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit,
nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child:
even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
In the morning sow thy seed,
and in the evening withhold not thine hand:
for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that,
or whether they both shall be alike good.

Truly the light is sweet,
and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all;
yet let him remember the days of darkness;
for they shall be many.
All that cometh is vanity.
Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth;
and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth,
and walk in the ways of thine heart,
and in the sight of thine eyes:
but know thou, that for all these things
God will bring thee into judgment.
Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart,
and put away evil from thy flesh:
for childhood and youth are vanity.

What about you? What Bible verses can you imagine being read at your funeral?

24 Replies to “The Judeo-Christian Book of the Dead”

  1. There’s a passage from Job that’s part of the traditional Jewish funeral liturgy: Adonai natan v’Adonai lakakh; yehi shem Adonai m’vorakh. God gives, and God takes away; blessed be the name of God. Gives me shivers every time.

    I’m generally not a fan of the KJV, but that’s because I see it — well, the first half of it, anyway — as a poor rendition of the Hebrew Scriptures. (I don’t know Greek, so I don’t know how well or poorly that committee rendered the Christian Scriptures.) It’s full of phrases that strike me as hopeless misunderstandings of the original Hebrew, and as a result I tend to scowl at it. But you’re right that it has a majesty to its language which isn’t present in a lot of the newer versions. I can respect the KJV as a work of great literature, even if I think it’s imperfect as a rendition of Hebrew scripture.

    Have you seen Everett Fox’s Hebrew Bible? It’s just the Torah, the five books of Moses — no prophets or writings, alas, though I hope someday he’ll get around to those. The poetry is quite wonderful, and he does things with wordplay in the English which intentionally mimic the wordplay of the Hebrew. I like it a lot.

  2. The first several times I read Job, as a kid, I zeroed in on that same verse: “The Lord gave; the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” in the KJV. Powerful stuff.

    Yeah, I agree that the KJV isn’t all that great as a translation — I’ve read enough of the Anchor Bible to realize that. Everett Fox is good, but Robert Alter’s Torah is even better IMO. I only hope either or both gentlemen find the energy to complete the Tanakh. Because they tend to preserve what most modern translators, eager to have their bibles used by congregations, exclude: all the parts that don’t make much sense in the orignal, whether because the text is corrupted or because it was rather haphazardly pasted together in the first place. They are also rather like the KJV translators in staying as close to the word-for-word meaning as possible, the difference being that they know a hell of a lot more Hebrew than their 17th-century predecessors. A telling example that someone (I forget who) once gave: where the KJV has All flesh is grass, virtually all modern translations “interpret” as something along the lines of “All men are like grass,” (New International) or “people are like the grass” (Living Bible). But I’m told that the original in fact says, “all flesh is grass.”

  3. Great post, Dave. I don’t think I really want scripture read at my funeral except a psalm and maybe the Beatitudes, though if it’s according to a BCP liturgy (which I do approve of, having gone to too many random-feeling secular services) there will be scripture, and that’s that. I had a hard time picking the readings for Mom’s funeral; none of the choices we were offered by the minister felt right to me. I’m a fan of Psalm 139, like you, and good bits of Isaiah. Maybe some Jeremiah, just in case anyone thought they were going to get off easy! I’ll have to think harder about it.

  4. :-) Well mine would be the beatitudes. Because they strike me as exactly the same kind of demented defiance that any funeral is: we get together to say “we’ll remember old so-and-so forever and he’ll always be in our hearts.” Absurd, ridiculous lie, but what sort of monster wouldn’t tell it, and teach his kids to tell it? Some lies are more important than the truth.

  5. I was wondering about the purpose, or if there even is one, for reading scripture or anything else at a funeral. I would surmise that funerals are for the living that remain and what is done at a funeral is for them, as the dead will have no benefit, but may hope to have a purpose from the grave. There may be many purposes that could drive what is said at a funeral service, such as solace, revenge, love, hate, much like life itself. Even if you choose how you want your funeral to be, those who actually execute it may or may not follow your wishes without fearing retribution from you. And what does it matter to you? You no longer exist and all that you are is memories in the minds of others that will soon die, and those memories will die with them. As the teacher says in Ecclesiastes, “Meaningless, meanlingless, all is meaningless.” or “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity”. But then there is the strong possibility that the truth is that we all are immortal souls, and the choices of our mortal lives are meaningless, except that they are precursors that will lead us to eternal bliss or eternal agony. In that case the funeral may serve to celebrate the beginning of eternal joy or mourn the beginning of eternal hell. Then the words could express either sentiment. But if there is no immortality and death is the end, then just like life is meaningless, then what is said at the end of life is meaningless, so why bother.

    I just read Dale’s thoughts. I,m curoius how he knows what is truth and what is a lie and how he knows that a liar is a monster. Who says?

  6. beth – Yeah, I know what you mean about the randomness of some secular services. Some of the more religious folks in attendance were bothered by the informality at the gravesite “service” for my paternal grandmother, who was quite anti-religious for reasons she never shared with anybody. We took turns telling funny stories abut her, then dropped the urn into the pre-dug hole and shoveled it in. The religious folks were bothered when a couple of us jumped on the filled-in hole to tamp it down.

    I do like the idea of a regular liturgy; I realize that planning out one’s funeral is an enormously self-indulgent exercise, when, as Dale says, the concern should really be for the survivors.

    dale – I don’t agree – but then I’ve never had kids, so my opinion isn’t worth much here. I’d like to think I’d never lie to kids about Santa Claus, etc., but maybe I would.

    Karl – This was meant as a fun, if slightly morbid, way to get people thinking about the Bible and how we use it or abuse it. I’m always looking for ways to try and get people who like poetry to give the Bible another chance. It is the foundational text of Western civilization, and I find the general loss of familiarity with it alarming.

    Of course in a certain sense all religious ritual is, as Qoheleth put it, a grasping at the wind (a shame the KJV forsook that image and chose to gloss with “vanities”). That such clinging is a pitfall especially for those with religious impulses is perhaps the point of the commandment against graven images, too.

    there is the strong possibility that the truth is that we all are immortal souls, and the choices of our mortal lives are meaningless, except that they are precursors that will lead us to eternal bliss or eternal agony
    It seems to me that there is a vanishingly slight possibility of this, and that by reducing all of life to such a rehearsal, you risk demeaning the wonder of Creation, whose purposes can never be fully known to us. Any God who oversees such a cosmic torture chamber as you describe is nothing but a tyrant, against whom we would have a moral duty to rebel.

    But I doubt this is a point on which we will find much common ground, since our worldviews are obviously so fundamentally opposed. To me, life with an afterlife is just as potentially meaningless as life without it, and I’m far from alone in feeling this way: to millions of Hindus and Buddhists, the prospect of unending rebirth is terrifying, and their religious behavior is largely shaped by the desire to escape personal immortality. Saivites, for example, seek the complete dissolution of their identity in the Godhead, which they compare to a drop entering the ocean. Of course, some Christian mystics have sought similar goals over the centuries.

    Feel free to leave additional comments if you wish, but please realize that I will eliminate any that don’t seem intended to contribute to the give-and-take of genuine conversation, which I define as an exchange in which all parties are willing to admit the possibility that they are wrong.

  7. I so much agree with you about the King James version of the Bible. It informs all that is best in English prose. The words ring down the years. You are quite right about the feebleness of subsequent translations. What always amazes me about the Authorised Version is that, in all its sublimity, it should have been produced by a committee.

  8. Ooh, “full of stirs,” I love that.

    At mine? How about a heartfelt “Jesus wept!” as a mourner is overcome with grief, but can’t bring himself to curse at a funeral?

    The one they use the most around here is “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” I’ve heard it so often at funerals that it makes me teary now, just to read it.

  9. Actually, the Greek testament in the KJV is just as bad if not worse than the Hebrew section, Rachel. Bart Ehrman has written an excellent critique/expose of the KJV and other Textus Receptus-burdened editions. The Greek section has plenty of anti-Semitic, anti-women, anti-pagan slurs. I’ve linked to his book on my blog.

    FWIW, Dave, you could check out the New KJV (NKJV), which is an edition that had changed a lot of the errors and crap that were in the KJV. I think the poetry is intact, however, and like you, I find the poetry very important. I like the Jerusalem Bible, despite its rather clunky British-English translation from the French.

    I agree, too, with Karl, that funerals are for the living, not the dead. However, if a Biblical section is associated with the deceased and it helps invoke his/her memory among the living, then go with it. My wife, who is a minister and has presided at umpteen funerals, aims for whatever will offer comfort to the mourners. As Karen said, there are those verses that, in a ground zero sort of situation like a funeral, do just that. Most of us leave our heads at the cemetery gate, so to speak: we bring our hearts and these words speak to them.

    If I may throw in something more that’s slightly tangential here: if you don’t want to burden your survivors unnecessarily, plan your funeral even if you’re 20 something–you can always change the plans if need be. Plan the music you’d like, Bible verses (or Qran or whatever), pick somebody to do a eulogy, etc etc. The less survivors have to try to plan something in such a difficult time, the better for them.

  10. I refused to pretend about Santa; in fact, I put Warren into a mild depression when he was three by answering one of his questions with, “There is no Santa.” Victoria still gives me holy hell for it on occasion.

    I’ve never thought about what Scriptures I’d have read at my funeral, though I’ve thought about what hymns I’d like sung. I think of the hymns that way only while I’m singing them, though, possibly because many hymns put me in a suitably maudlin mood – a mood that I have always welcomed and enjoyed.

    My favorite modern English translation is the Revised English Bible, which came out in 1989. (Like Rachel, I like Fox for the Torah; I haven’t read Alter yet.) Reynolds Price, whose worthy translation Three Gospels you turned me on to, says there that the New English Bible, which was the REB’s first edition – a quite different edition, though – and funny how Bibles can’t have “editions” like other books – often “resort[s] to loose paraphrase.” I find that, when I compare the REB’s renderings to a few other versions on my parallel software, Price has a good point, but I’m not sure how I can complain too loudly about accuracy in translation since I have never bothered to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. The REB is often enlightening or elegant or both, and it’s a pleasure to read aloud.

    I love the King James, but I find most arguments about its beauty to be somewhat circular. The English-speaking world almost universally accepted the KJV in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and its phrasing and cadences made their way into the literature of those centuries. It’s hard for us to get enough distance from the King James to see it as anything but beautiful.

    What a fun post. Thanks, Dave.

  11. Joe – Though I have seen some great examples of committees producing the worst possible results through an over-zealous emphasis on reaching consensus, I think it’s important to realize, too, that a lot of truly inspired works come out of teams: improvised jazz, for example, or Japanese renga poetry. Or any theatre production. So maybe it’s less surprising that the KJV turned out reasonably well than that the collaborative model hasn’t been followed more often in Western literature.

    Karen – Yeah, actually I thought about “Jesus wept” during the funeral the other day. Weeping isn’t just the simplest and most honest response to death, but it’s healing, as well.

    I’m pretty sure I remember reading that that line, “In my father’s house are many mansions,” is a good example of a mistake in the KJV translation leading to a felicitous and indelible image. I’m too lazy to look it up at the moment, though.

    Black_Pete – Yeah, but as I think Ehrman makes clear, many of those problems aren’t in the translations we use but in the translations into Greek from the lost originals in Aramaic. And even worse, the deliberate fudging of later scribes, including the false attributions of the pseudo-Pauline letters. It’s a shame that word about these kinds of findings, routine now among Biblical scholars, haven’t made it to the mass of believers. I think Christianity in general would be the better for it.

    Maybe I will check out the New KJV – sounds good! I would encourage you, in turn, to check out the authoritative Anchor Bible series, if you like that kind of scholarly criticism. Your local library should have at least some of the volumes.

    I like your wife’s attitude. And I’m interested by your suggestion that we plan our own funerals for real. Personally, I think the classical New Orleans funeral had it right: a slow dirge on the way to the graveyard and a rolicking dance tune on the way back.

    Peter – Ah, good to hear you refused to sanction Santolatry!

    I must tell you that my distaste for most standard Protestant religious music is the single biggest thing keeping me unchurched (I love that term). Then again, I’d probably attend a Quaker meeting if I went anywhere. Their kind of music just can’t be improved upon, if you ask me. :)

    A guilty secret: I too used to prefer the New English Bible, before I read Reynolds Price’s scathing assessment. It’s damn readable, isn’t it? But Price says John is somewhat awkward and stilted in the original Greek, and who am I to argue? (Similar criticisms have been levelled at Burton Watson’s graceful and engaging translation of my other favorite sacred text, the Chuang Tzu.)

    I think you have a good point about the circularity of arguments. It’s hard for those of us who don’t know the original languages to assess how much of that perceived beauty might also be due to qualities in the orignal, but I know that what I typically look for in poetry is striking metaphor and concrete imagery, and the Bible has that in spades.

  12. I hate “unchurched,” at least in the mouths of Christians. Oy! Jesus was “unchurched,” and he turned out fine. To “church” someone? Most American churches are clubs, so we may as well “club” someone.

  13. we may as well “club” someone
    Um, you mean you don’t? :)

    Seriously, I thik it would be great if other religions picked this up, too. “Unsynagogued” and “untempled” have a real ring to them – to say nothing of “unmosqued.”

  14. I’d like my funeral to be a party. I’ve never really talked about it, but I guess I would like people to bring a favorite song on a record, there would be a set of decks and everyone would get to DJ. I’d like people to have a good time.

    If something were to be read, I think I’d like this poem.

  15. This one from The Big Lebowsky I like:

    Psalm 103:15-16 As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.

  16. I agree with you about Eliot’s cadences, Dave, and even the great Seamus has echoes of it in his verse. The person who seldom gets proper credit is Thomas Cranmer; lots of people identify familiar quotes from the BCP (1552) as being from the Bible when they’re actually not, but it’s all (to my ear anyway) language with a similar music.

    None of the more recent translations make it for me, but except for the familiar passages that are in my memory as KJV (1611) translations, I’ve reluctantly gotten used to the NRSV. Its lack of poetry really makes me cranky. There is a good online site where you can compare versions here:

  17. On the KJV-written by committee thing: 84% of the words in the KJV New Testament are taken directly from the William Tyndale translation, and about 75% of those bits of the OT which he had translated by the time he was burnt for heresy. Tyndale wrote a translation for use in the pulpit and for reading aloud, and preferred simple English words to Latinate ones. Many – most, probably – of the resonant phrases from the bible are his — in the beginning was the word, blessed are the peacemakers, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak…

    Tyndale fans tend to argue that where the committee did alter his language, they generally weakened it and made it wordier. But certainly, his contribution to the language deserves more recognition, I think.

  18. Although they did manage the Psalms without him, so they weren’t completely incompetent.

    He didn’t translate the Song of Songs either, but here’s a bit that he translated in passing in another book. The KJV has:

    ‘My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone’

    Tyndale has:

    ‘Behold my beloved said to me: up and haste my love, my dove, my beautiful and come away, for now is winter gone and rain departed and past’

  19. tomvds – Yep, that’s a good one! Thanks for stopping by.

    beth – You know, I do have a copy of the Book of Common Prayer on my shelf, but I haven’t cracked the cover in years. I’ll take another look at it. I jsut had to refresh my memory about Thomas Cranmer via the Wikipedia.

    Thanks for the link the Bible Study Tools; it has a couple different translations from those on offer at that evangelical Bible Gateway site I linked to here. So I bookmarked it, too.

    Harry – Excellent point. I always forget about poor Tyndale! And yeah, the general avoidance of Latinate phrases has got to be a key reason for the success of his translation and the KJV after him.

    Your comparison from the Canticle is telling. Thanks for taking the time to share it.

  20. I have noticed that the Geneva Bible, which preceded the King James, has most of the King James’s phrasing. There was a pitched battle between the two versions for the first hundred years after the King James came out, mostly on grounds of national, political, and religious affiliation. (National because the English printers preferred the locally printed King James.) But I don’t think that, had the Geneva somehow won, it could have had the impact that the King James had over the subsequent centuries. For one thing, the King James’s spelling is so much more modern than the Geneva’s, despite the relatively short number of years between the versions’ releases. It’s rarely the true innovator who gets the credit, but the adapter, I think! (Though the KJV does have many striking innovations. I enjoyed In The Beginning by Alister McCrath, which takes the English Bible from Wycliffe to the present. (There’s another such book out there, too; I can’t remember the name.))

    (One of my favorite English versions is the Bishop’s Bible, which also preceded the King James. It goes its own way many times.)

  21. Peter – O.K., you and Harry might as well discuss this between yourselves. Thanks to both of you for really adding value to this post – you are obviously way more familiar with early bible versions than I am! I gotta get me a copy of that McCrath book, I guess.

  22. I finally am getting back. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I am close minded and am not willing to admit I am wrong. If anything, I seldom think I am right and am still trying to determine what is true.

    Returning to the origninal subject, My point was that I would not want any Scripture said at my funeral if it would be a grasping at the wind. I would want whatever is read to be true, not just read because it is pretty poetry. But there in lies my dilemna, how do I know it is truth? Yet, I know that truth is independent of what I chose to believe. Truth is truth because it is true, not because I believe it to be true. So if I had a scripture read, I would probably use something like John 5:24 & 25 where Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come to judgement, but has passed from death into life. Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.” Then based on the evidence of Jesus’ life, I would hope that he told the truth.

  23. I would want whatever is read to be true, not just read because it is pretty poetry.
    Same here. If a poem isn’t true at some emotional or experiential level, I have absolutely no time for it. (And as you can see, some of my own poems are far from “pretty.”)

    But I think what you mean by truth here is something altogether different: a universally verifiable proposition about the physical universe. I call that science, and look for it elsewhere than in religious texts.

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