The Bible appears in 2020 in numerous guises and in literally hundreds of translations. There are: The Blue Jeans Bible, The Soccer Mom Bible, the Salvation Bible, among many I have never and will never encounter. The New International Version nearly has a stranglehold on the Bible market, representing over 450,000,000 sales worldwide since its appearance in the 1970’s. Several updates of the translation have occurred, the latest in 2011, where attempts at gender neutral language for human beings were made. This change caused the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Missouri Synod Lutheran denominations to reject the translation, and made them ask for Christian bookstores to discontinue sales of the NIV. The demand did not work. So many versions of the NIV translation are in existence as to make it the dominant Bible of the day.
I wish to propose the existence of another Bible version. I am not aware which translation this version employs, nor have I ever seen it advertised as such in any shop window, Christian or otherwise. But yesterday in the USA that particular version was on full display, waved by the current occupant of the White House in front of an Episcopal Church in Washington DC, and was earlier quoted by the president’s daughter, Ivanka, with appropriate solemnity and gravity befitting the use of sacred scripture. Both she and her father were using the famous, though too often unnamed, Talisman Bible. Ivanka, not known as a consistent user of any Bible, nevertheless discovered a verse in the Hebrew Bible’s book of 2 Kings 20:5 that reads: “This is what the Lord said, ‘I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you.’” I do not know whether or not Ms. Trump knows the context of this quotation—one of the usual facets of the Talisman Bible is the context means little or nothing—but in this part of the convoluted stories of the kings of Israel and Judah, Hezekiah, one of the few reformers lauded in the books of Kings, has become ill, right after Jerusalem has miraculously been spared a destructive onslaught of the Assyrian general Sennacherib in the year 701BCE.
The king’s illness, perhaps a malignant boil, is apparently deadly, because the prophet Isaiah tells him to set his house in order; “YHWH has said you will die,” and with that cheery news the prophet turns to leave. But before he can get far from the king’s chamber, YHWH comes to the prophet to tell him that Hezekiah’s fervent prayers and actions for righteousness have moved God to change the divine mind about the king’s death. YHWH promises 15 more years of life to the king (2 Kings 20:6), and as a sign of his cure, Isaiah is able to make a sundial’s shadow go backwards 10 intervals, after it had already moved ten intervals forward with the passing of the sun. In other words, the prophet has in effect made the sun reverse its course in the sky (see a similar magic act in Joshua 10). This magic occurs right after Isaiah calls for a “lump of figs” to be placed on the deadly boil to effect a cure. Hence, magic figs and bizarre sundial reverses suggest that YHWH through the power of Isaiah has changed the course of Judah’s history.
Now it could be that Ivanka Trump knows precisely all this context for her chosen verse, and hopes against hope that God and some prophet or other will effect a magic cure for the multiple disasters that America finds itself in at the moment. As if COVID-19 were not painful enough, the very public murder of George Floyd by a uniformed officer of the law, has now greatly multiplied the dilemmas that our fractured society is encountering. Anger, outright fury, riots, looting, confusion, and hatred for all things governmental and official make these days both very sad and very dangerous. Ivanka may well have found this rather obscure verse from the Talisman Bible comforting to her, and she perhaps quoted it as her way of offering comfort in a vastly troubled time. I do wish to give her the benefit of the doubt on her use of the Bible in this way. Still, I cannot quite imagine that she really knows that complex context, and that she quoted the verse as a way to call for God magically to cure us all of our racism and hatred, either by prophet or fig. The verse to her, I am sure, is a nice religious sentiment: prayer and tears lead to God’s healing. Would that it all were so simple.
This is so patently ludicrous, so clearly blasphemous, so comically absurd on its face, that that image of the president of the United States, balefully raising that Bible, should be an image that will haunt Mr. Trump for the rest of his days. Everyone knows that Donald Trump has no relationship to the Bible at all, has seldom if ever read it, and surely knows very little of what might be found within its pages. For him, it is only talisman, an amulet, a charm, a fetish, juju for those of his followers who think of the Bible in precisely the same way. What the Bible says is quite irrelevant; that it is the Bible, the “Word o’God,” the source of all good things, the backbone rabbit’s foot that if we all just accepted and revered we would, with a copious application of figs and the hope for a divine sign or two, would save the day, would turn all those looters into Republicans and all those “Democrat” liberals to ash. For in the Talisman Bible of Donald Trump is to be found the source of unlimited power, unquestioned authority, and the origin of amazing and magical skills to stop any virus, control any mob, make a country great again. You just need to raise a Bible, and all will fall at your feet in awe and reverence.
I genuinely hope that Ivanka Trump’s quotation from the Bible was heartfelt, and that prayer and tears may help the dire days we are living through. However, I am quite sure that a raised Bible in the right hand of Donald Trump, though it may offer vast opportunities for comedic assault, will do exactly nothing to assuage any of us in our pain and anger and disgust at the sad and chaotic and divided world that that same Donald Trump has greatly helped to create. I was horrified, as a lover of the old Bible, as one who has dedicated his entire life to its study and expression, when Mr. Trump raised that Bible in talismanic fashion, expressing not his reverence at its power or its possible guidance toward possible resolutions of the struggles his nation is now experiencing, but rather as a statement that in the Bible he had found the source of power and complete authority, dispensed to him by a God who is as far from the Bible’s God as can be conjured. Mr. Trump, please, please put down that Bible, for you know not what is in it, and if you did, you would run from it as fast as your legs would carry you.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)