Monday, August 8, 2016

The Tongues of Men and of Angels

Sacchi Green

I grew up with the King James edition of the Bible.  I love the language, the poetry, and any newer translation doesn’t sound quite right to me, but one word that puzzled me in the King James version does seem to make more sense as it's been translated in every newer one I’ve encountered--not that I’ve actually read Bibles much since I grew up and lost the urge to show off by memorizing verses and entire chapters. Okay, just one chapter, actually, possibly the shortest one in the whole book, which made it a favorite of show-off geeky kids like me.

The puzzling word is “charity,’ from I Corinthians 13:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Ah, the nostalgia! All those glorious phrases that have become imbedded in literary culture!  The Apostle Paul certainly seemed to “speak with the tongues of men and of angels” from time to time. He also saw visions. One wonders whether there were some good herbs around back then that nobody bothered to record in the Book. “Through a glass darkly…” What the heck, why not share the whole thing?

4Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

But what, exactly, is meant here by “charity”? Why doesn’t bestowing all one’s goods to feed the poor count? We generally associate the term with giving aid to the poor, and to a lesser extent to general kindness. Humans being the contrary creatures we are, charity has also taken on a negative connotation at times, with being charitable considered a virtue but accepting charity considered shameful, an admission of poverty that one should never make. I think that attitude is largely a thing of the past, which is just as well, although we still see a widespread attitude of disdain for the poor. Tax-deductible giving through large organizations seems more in favor these day than direct giving.

But back to my puzzlement about the word. I eventually figured out that the “vaunteth not itself” part was the key. Acts of charity motivated by the wish to be seen as charitable, to be praised, maybe even to buy your way into some type of heaven, are not true charity. Charity must come from the heart. Okay.

And then the all those “revised” editions went and dropped “charity” in favor of “love.” I guess that does make more sense; charity is a form or manifestation of love, while love encompasses far more than just charity. But is there any accurate definition of “love?” Much of the New Testament has been translated from Greek rather than Hebrew or Latin, and the Bible isn’t the only text to have problems grappling with the various words in Old Greek that mean “love” but have subtle differences. One definition of “charity” (charitas in Latin) gives its etymology as “influenced by Ancient Greek χάρις ‎(kháris)” and meaning 'love (of God)'”. That’s not much help. It reminds me of the “Concordance” of commentary in my old King James Bible which insisted that the Old Testament book “The Song of Solomon” was about God’s love for the Church. Or maybe vice versa. Yeah, right.

I admit that none of what I’ve written about charity here fits in with our general focus on erotica, unless your mind went off on a nice little tangent thinking about “the tongues of men and of angels,” but just give me a topic where I can reference The Song of Solomon from the Old Testament! I may have memorized I Corinthians 13, but my adolescent self absolutely devoured The Song of Solomon, over and over. I even quoted from it extensively in my very first published erotica story, in Best Lesbian Erotica 1999. Whatever long ago poet actually wrote what’s also known as The Song of Songs certainly knew a great deal about love. And sex. Charity…well, maybe.


  1. This is one of my favorite scripture passages. Truly gorgeous, however you interpret it.

    And I think "The Tongues of Men and Angels" would make a dynamite story title.

    1. Yes, someone please write this story!

    2. Feel free to use it! I don't usually write that much about the tongues of men. Angels, however, can be imagined in any way we want to.

  2. Seems the bible values intent more than results. Makes one wonder about the more vitriolic Christian groups and how they justify not only their actions, but their intentions as well. Christ himself obviously promoted love and understanding but those groups seem to center on the few times The Dude got angry, usually at

    And yes, I'll confess to originally reading your title expecting a little cunnilingus.


  3. Interesting post, Sacchi. We could have a whole other topic: Biblical interpretations, or how to skate around sex (not to mention violence) in the King James version. On that note, is anyone here watching Oprah Winfrey's church drama, "Greenleaf," on TV? In one episode, a teenage girl is disturbed by the Old Testament description of a "concubine" being cut to pieces. the girl asks her elders (older family members and founding members of the church) why that episode is there, and what she is supposed to learn from it. Good question. No one gives her a clear answer.

    1. One does have to wonder about the process of deciding which writings became collected into what is now the 'official" Bible for Christians. I find the parts that reveal what life was like iso long ago in the Middle East very interesting, but not particularly useful in a religious or philosophical sense.

  4. "charity has also taken on a negative connotation at times, with being charitable considered a virtue but accepting charity considered shameful"

    This isn't your main point, but it's a really interesting one. I'd noticed both these things, but hadn't put them next to each other to consider the true double bind they represent.

    And thanks for going into all those translation questions. That's some of my favorite stuff to think about.

  5. Though I'm an atheist from a Jewish family, I also am fond of the King James Bible, arguably the most significant book in Western culture and literature. Beautifully written. When I was tasked with reading the Jerusalem Bible for a religion class, I was sadly disappointed with the dryness of the prose.


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