Bar-Ilan tries to woo AUT members

Friday 20th May: Bar-Ilan University takes out a paid advertisement in the Guardian addressed to AUT delegates, opening with the words "Come now, and let us reason together". How very ironic that they should quote the words of the prophet Isaiah, who of course was an expert at "speaking the truth to power". Bar-Ilan omit the rest of the verse: "How may your sins which are red as blood become white as snow?" The sins of Bar-Ilan University and other Israeli universities are certainly as red as blood, since they are complicit in the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and the oppression of Palestinian students and academic staff.

Since I posted the above, it has apparently made its way onto the internal e-list of Haifa university faculty! Flattered I'm sure. The following message appeared in response:

"Nice try at a droshe, but I fear that Ms. Blackwell doesn't know her bible very well. Perhaps she should stick to English.

"The verse in question doesn't mention blood at all; it mentions "shanim" (= "shani", crimson). A popular Christian interpretation sees this as referring to the blood of Jesus, which had the redeeming power to forgive all sins."

Here is my response:

The version of the text I am familiar with - the King James or Authorised Version - gives "though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow". But when I looked up the verse on the Internet (not having a Bible ready to hand - I used to have a good collection but someone stole them all!!) - I found a site which gives parallel versions of any verse in half a dozen translations of the Bible.

Some translations give "scarlet", others "crimson" and one gave "red as blood". This last is probably poetic licence but I rather liked it. This version also phrased the clause as a question: "How may your sins which are red as blood be white as snow?" - and I liked that too. So I simply chose the translation which suited my purposes best.

Colour terms are notoriously hard to translate because different societies carve up the colour spectrum in different places (Berlin and Kay, Basic colour terms: their universality and evolution, U. of California Press 1969.) Hebrew no doubt has a different range of shades of red from English. So "crimson", "scarlet" and "red as blood" are all attempts to render a colour which doesn't have an exact equivalent in English. Using a simile like "red as blood" is a rather free way of translating but I don't think it's invalid. It's not a question of "mentioning" blood but of conveying the shade more accurately.

And I wouldn't have thought Christians would interpret the "blood" as a reference to Jesus: it's the sins that are the subject of discussion, not the manner of their redemption.

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It was last updated on 3rd June 2005.