In The Face of Water, Sarah Ruden brilliantly and elegantly explains and celebrates the Bible’s writings. Singling out the most famous passages, such as the Genesis creation story, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Beatitudes, Ruden reexamines and retranslates from the Hebrew and Greek what has been obscured and misunderstood over time.
Making clear that she is not a Biblical scholar, cleric, theologian, or philosopher, Ruden—a Quaker—speaks plainly in this illuminating and inspiring book. She writes that while the Bible has always mattered profoundly, it is a book that in modern translations often lacks vitality, and she sets out here to make it less a thing of paper and glue and ink and more a live and loving text.
Ruden writes of the early evolution, literary beauty, and transcendent ideals of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, exploring how the Jews came to establish the greatest, most enduring book on earth as their regional strategic weakness found a paradoxical moral and spiritual strength through their writings, and how the Christians inherited and adapted this remarkable literary tradition. She writes as well about the crucial purposes of translation, not only for availability of texts but also for accountability in public life and as a reflection of society’s current concerns.
She shows that it is the original texts that most clearly reveal our cherished values (both religious and secular), unlike the standard English translations of the Bible that mask even the yearning for freedom from slavery. The word “redemption” translated from Hebrew and Greek, meaning mercy for the exploited and oppressed, is more abstract than its original meaning—to buy a person back from captivity or slavery or some other distress.
The Face of Water is as much a book about poetry, music, drama, raw humor, and passion as it is about the idealism of the Bible. Ruden’s book gives us an unprecedented, nuanced understanding of what this extraordinary document was for its earliest readers and what it can still be for us today.