Are We Misreading Scripture?

An old Greek professor of Randy’s used to comment sagely, “Language is a lot of things, but mostly it’s words.”

That is true, and it isn’t. Of course, the first order of business for a student new to any language is the arduous task of learning vocabulary. Often the very smallest words—conjunctions and prepositions and the like—are the hardest to master. The flexibility of our own prepositions, which make perfect sense to us, illustrates the challenge well. On and in mean different things, and the difference is clear: “the book is on the table” versus “the book is in the drawer.” Yet in America we ride in a car but on a bus, in a canoe but on a ship. These uses seem the opposite of the basic meanings. Americans hang on a branch, but most other people hang under or hang from a branch. (Hang on: we still haven’t discussed idioms!) After long hours spent with flashcards, you eventually learn grammar and syntax that allow you to combine words to form phrases and sentences that express meaning. But it all starts with words. Words are indeed the raw materials of language.

But language is much more than words. As we have argued in these first chapters, the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said. Ironically, this is as true of language as of any other aspect of culture—and perhaps more so. Behind the words that make up language is a complex system of values, assumptions and habits of mind that reveal themselves in the words we use and leave unsaid. When we cross a culture, as when we read the Bible, we often assume that what goes without being said in our culture and language also goes without being said in other cultures and languages. This can lead to profound misunderstanding.

Matters become even more complex when you consider that grammar and syntax, as well as ethnicity and social class, not only reflect but also determine the way people in a given culture think and speak. While it may seem a chicken-or-egg type of question, linguists have long pondered if our worldview shapes our language or the other way around. Ever since the pioneering work of Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941) in linguistic relativity, most scholars concede that our culture (via our language) shapes our worldview, which in turn filters what we notice and how we interpret reality.1 Our worldview tells us what to notice and what is not worth noticing. Linguists generally conclude that our heart language—the language we learn first (up to about age seven)—sets most of the parameters of our worldview. We have an “American” worldview because our parents imparted it to us, both through ideas they taught us and through our shared language. Middle-class American English, for example, prefers the active voice, direct statements and connecting words like since, because and although.2 Suffice it to say that language is a lot of things, but that many of the most important aspects of language are not words.

Language is the most obvious cultural difference that separates us from the Bible. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek (with a few Aramaic words). Because language differences are so obvious, so visible, you might wonder why we didn’t discuss them first. Are they not the very tip of the iceberg? Yes and no. While it is easy to tell that you are hearing or reading a foreign language, what is not at all obvious is how our language, and our understanding of how language works, affects everything else we think and do. Few of us ever reflect on the mechanics of our native languages or the values and patterns that lie beneath them. These things reside further down the iceberg, under the water. So we are unlikely to recognize what it is about our own language that goes without being said.

You begin to pick up on these things when you learn another language. So some of the things we’ll discuss in this chapter are things you will discover if you study Greek and Hebrew—or any second language, for that matter. It is important for us to remember that when we read the Bible in our native language, mostly what has been changed is the words. Behind the words, now in a language we understand, remains that complex structure of cultural values, assumptions and habits of mind that does not translate easily, if at all. If we fail to recognize this—and we very often do—we risk misreading the Bible by reading foreign assumptions into it. Like Procrustes of Greek mythology, who shortened or stretched his guests to fit his bed, our unconscious assumptions about language encourage us to reshape the biblical narrative to fit our framework.

In this chapter we will identify a few instinctive Western language habits. There is more we could say, but for now, we’ll look at three assumptions regarding the way we view language: sufficiency, equivalency and clarity.

Sufficiency: Our Language Adequately Describes Reality

To state our first point simply: Western readers typically believe that if something is important, then we’ll have a word for it. And the more important something is in our culture, the more likely we are to develop specialized language to describe it. Take the automobile, for example. The automobile is an important aspect of Western—especially American—life. On the whole, the word car is a useful catchall for all vehicle types. But we can be more specific. You might drive a compact, subcompact, economy, sedan, wagon, coupe, convertible, SUV, pickup, crossover or hybrid.

Here is where cultural differences begin to show. Many Americans eat rice. But rice isn’t particularly important to the majority of Americans. So we just have one word for it. When it’s in the field, we call it rice. When the grains are harvested, we have trucks of rice. When the grains are milled and packaged to sell in stores, we buy bags of rice. When we cook it, we serve plates of rice. But rice is very important in Indonesia, as in most of Asia, and so Indonesians have specialized vocabulary to describe it. In Indonesia there are fields of padi, bags of beras and plates of nasi. These distinctions may seem unnecessary to us, but we make distinctions that seem equally unnecessary to Indonesians. Because Indonesia is a majority Muslim nation, pigs are not important in Indonesian culture. So the language has one word for them: pigs. We, by contrast, see pigs when they are in a barn. Slaughtered, we have pork. On the plate we have chops, loin, ribs, roast, bacon and sausage.

This is not merely a matter of vocabulary but of values. The words we use are a good indication of what we consider important. As our values change, so does our language. When we really need a word, we invent one. Think of all the new vocabulary we’ve developed in the digital age—words like Internet, software and mp3. What we don’t see as important, we don’t bother to invent words for. In other words, the frequency and number of words we have for a given thing or experience and its value in our worldview are connected.

What does this have to do with the Bible? Problems arise for interpretation when another language has several words for something and ours has only one. Greek has four words for love: agape, philia, eros and storge. Or perhaps the better way to say it is that English has only one word for four different kinds of love. This may explain why Americans often confuse them in their relationships. While we recognize that philia, the friendship kind of love, is wonderful, it may be hard (culturally) for two American male friends to say they love each other. To do so, they must use the same English word they use to describe their relationships with their parents, wives or children. Since American culture is pushing guys to express true friendship-love, we are searching for a good expression. At the moment, “Love you, man” seems to be winning.

To use another example, most cultures have a traditional form of dancing. Where I (Randy) grew up, it was line dancing or square dancing. There was also modern dancing, which was basically a young couple making out while shuffling their feet to music. My parents believed the second form of dancing was not conducive to healthy Christian courtship; thus, they concluded, dancing is sin. Because we have only one word for dancing, all manner of dancing was regarded as sin, leading to lots of generational Christian squabbling. Indonesian Christians don’t have this problem. They celebrate traditional dance, called tarian. They also recognize the inappropriate form, which they call dancing (merely borrowing the English word). Having the vocabulary to distinguish between forms of dancing makes it possible for them to make more nuanced decisions about appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

We also perceive a corollary point to be true: if we don’t have a word for something, then it is likely not very important to us. Maybe pigs and rice aren’t that important in every culture, but biblical values should be. Old Testament scholars will be quick to point out the challenge of translating chesed (pronounced KHEH-sed). In the NASB, we see it translated lots of ways: lovingkindness (Genesis 24:27), loyalty (Hosea 6:4), loveliness (Isaiah 40:6) and mercy (2 Samuel 15:20). Chesed doesn’t mean lots of things. But we need lots of English words to circle around a concept for which we don’t have a word. Chesed is “a kindly-loyal-merciful-faithful-(the-sort-that-shows-up-in-actions) kind of love.” Certainly chesed is important—even if English doesn’t have a word for it—both for understanding the Bible and living the Christian life. This isn’t merely an English problem. Paul struggles for a Greek word to describe the fruit (singular) of the Spirit. He describes it as a “love-joy-peace-patience-kindness-goodness-faithfulness-gentleness-self-control kind of fruit” (Galatians 5:22). Paul is not giving us a list of various fruits, from which we may pick a few. Rather, he gives us a list of words that circle around the one character of a Spirit-filled life he is trying to describe.

This seemingly simple matter of vocabulary has serious implications for the Christian life. Sociologists suggest that people have a difficult time describing or even identifying something that they don’t have the vocabulary for. Some even suggest that one can have a hard time experiencing something for which one has no corresponding word.3 The Greeks had a word for the feeling one has when one is happy: makarios. It is a feeling of contentment, when one knows one’s place in the world and is satisfied with that place. If your life has been fortunate, you should feel makarios. We use idioms in English to try to approximate this experience. We’ll say, “My life has really come together,” or “I’m in a happy place,” or “Life has been good to me.” We are not really discussing the details of our life; we are trying to describe a feeling we have. Happy sounds trite, so we avoid it. Actually, we are makarios.

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that if you are a peacemaker, then you are makarios. Since English doesn’t have a word for this feeling, translators have struggled to find one. What do you call it when you feel happy, content, balanced, harmonious and fortunate? Well, translators have concluded, you are blessed. Thus our English translations say, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). Unfortunately, this introduces another problem. The English language prefers clear subjects for its verbs. So the missing puzzle piece in the Beatitudes is, How is one blessed? What goes without saying in our culture is that God blesses people. Consequently, we often interpret this verse to mean, “If you are a peacemaker, then God will bless you.” But this isn’t what Jesus meant. Jesus meant, “If you are a peacemaker, then you are in your happy place.” It just doesn’t work well in English. Alas, here is the bigger problem: maybe the reason we North Americans struggle to find makarios in our personal lives is because we don’t have a word in our native language to denote it.

Equivalency: Reality Can be Expressed in Our Language

Viewed from one perspective, the Protestant Reformation began as an effort to correct a mistaken assumption about equivalency in language. Over time, the Roman Catholic church had developed a doctrine of confession that included works of penance, such as reciting a certain number of prayers (think “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers”) and, most disturbing, the purchase of indulgences to assure forgiveness of sins. By the late Middle Ages, church leaders insisted this system is what Jesus had in mind when he called sinners to repent—that do penance was equivalent to (meant the same thing as) repent. Martin Luther’s history-changing ninety-five theses addressed this issue head-on. “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance,” Luther argued in the opening sentences of his disputation. “This word cannot be understood to mean the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.”4 The medieval church had superimposed certain presuppositions onto Scripture by mistakenly assuming that the Latin term for do penance was equivalent to the Greek term for repent. Because repentance is necessary for salvation (Isaiah 30:15; 2 Corinthians 7:10), their mistake undermined Christian faith and identity at its core. Is it possible that we risk equally dangerous misreadings by assuming equivalency between languages?

People who speak only one language, which is most Americans, often assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between languages. This derives from how we understand reality. We assume that everyone interprets reality like we do. So when we run across a concept in a foreign language that describes an experience that’s familiar to us, we assume they mean what we mean. Well, they don’t.

Sometimes there is no equivalent. Several Eastern languages have no word for privacy. How could that be? To begin with, people in these cultures rarely experience it. As a missionary, I (Randy) “slept late,” often not arising until 6 a.m. When I staggered out of the bedroom, I commonly found an Indonesian pastor sitting politely in my living room, awaiting the (lazy) missionary. While bedrooms were for family, the rest of the house was viewed much more like we would view a college dorm lobby. People walked in and out of my house. Many times I came home for lunch to find some stranger helping out in the kitchen or washing clothes on my back porch. Early in my career, I would ask, “Who are you?” The person would stop, go out back and bathe, change clothes and then sit in my living room to explain. After tea (and a lot of what seemed to me to be beating around the bush), he or she would explain what problem had brought them to the city. Their problem was now my problem—after all, I did ask who they were. (I learned not to ask.) “My personal business” was a nonsensical expression. Everybody knew what everybody was doing. I could stop a student on our campus and ask what my wife was cooking for lunch, and they would know. They would likely add that she had paid too much for the chicken.

You see why there is no Indonesian equivalent to our word private. Of course, someone could find himself in a private location. In that case, an Indonesian would say he is in “a place where he feels lonely.” But it doesn’t happen as often as we might think. I had an Indonesian friend who owned three miles of beachfront property on a remote island. His neighbor also owned three miles of adjacent beachfront. When I stayed in my friend’s house, I could reach out the window and actually touch the wall of his neighbor’s house. On the other side of each house stretched miles of deserted sandy beaches. I was flabbergasted and one time blurted, “Why didn’t you build your house two miles that way?”

He looked at me and said, “We would be lonely.”

For most North Americans, space is to be guarded, protected and preserved. “Stay out of my personal space!” is a common sentiment. But for the ancient world (and most of the non-Western world), space is to be used. That’s why they drive on the shoulders of the road. Why waste usable space? In other words, while Westerners crave privacy, privacy is a situation that Indonesians, for example, seek to avoid. They even have a word for “going on an errand with a friend so that your friend doesn’t have to go alone.” That may be surprising enough, but the real shock for me came when my Indonesian colleagues explained that this was an excused absence for the accompanying student. Surely I couldn’t expect a student to go somewhere alone!

These different cultural associations with privacy affect the way Westerners and non-Westerners read Scripture. We Westerners commonly think that Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, went to a private place in the garden of Gethsemane to pray (Matthew 26:36-39). Actually, none of the Gospels say the place he prayed was private or solitary: “Sit here while I go over there” (Matthew 26:36); “withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them” (Luke 22:41); “he took Peter, James and John along with him,” and then “going a little farther” (Mark 14:33-35). It is clear only that he separated from the disciples. At Passover, the garden was likely packed with people; it was not a good place to find privacy. When my Indonesian students heard the traditional Western view—that Jesus was alone—they responded, “How dreadful Jesus must have felt.” We Americans assume that “Jesus needed a little alone time” to get ready to face his dreadful trial. We read our preferences into the story. We like to pray in solitary places, so we assume Jesus did too.

Interpretation leads to practice. Indonesian ministers have a great word for “quiet time”: saat teduh. Interestingly, teduh means “quiet” and “calm,” but it has no connotation of individual or private space. Indeed, Indonesians almost always have their quiet times with others. As an American Christian, my best “devotional time” is alone. In fact, many of us wonder whether a Christian can grow without private time. Even if we could be with others, wouldn’t it be better to spend time alone with the Lord? Yet verses that we think support this idea, such as “Be still, and know that I am God,” do not require a private time of stillness (Psalms 46:10). Indonesians also love that verse. They like to remind me that God said that it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18). In fact, the Bible frequently uses “alone” as a negative term. Jacob was left alone (Genesis 32:24); Moses was critiqued for working alone (Exodus 18:14). Indonesians would say, “Even if we could be alone, wouldn’t it be better to spend time together with the Lord?” Our cultural value for privacy is strictly a Western value; it is not derived from the Bible. This is not to say that privacy is wrong, just that it is a neutral value. But when we impose it on the text, we can come away with unbiblical interpretations.

What it says is not always what it means. The translator repeatedly has to decide between translating what a word or phrase says and what it means. I (Randy) was once translating between an Indonesian guide and a North American pastor. The pastor asked if the guide could take him to Tomohon the next day.

The guide said, “Yes.” I translated, “Maybe.”

The pastor then asked if the guide was available the following day.

The guide replied, “Maybe.” I translated, “Probably not.” That’s what the guide meant.

Western readers are sometimes bothered by what appear to be discrepancies between the sayings of Jesus. In Luke 14:26, Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Matthew records the saying differently: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). These two statements don’t mean the same thing in English. In English, to hate is not the same as to love one thing less than something else. I love my cat less than I love my wife, but that doesn’t mean that I hate my cat. So it may seem to us that we have two different sayings of Jesus.

Not necessarily. One likely explanation is that Luke translated (from Aramaic into Greek) what Jesus said and that Matthew translated what Jesus meant. Assuming that the first Gospel was written by the disciple Matthew, he was a native speaker of Aramaic. Matthew was already accustomed to moving between languages. Luke, a native Greek speaker, didn’t know what went without being said in the usage of Aramaic. Middle Easterners then (and now) prefer dramatic language, what Bruce Metzger calls “picturesque speech.” We were reminded recently in a dramatic way when CNN covered elections in Afghanistan. There were some irregularities at one of the polling stations, and protestors were shouting. The English subtitles read: “Death to the Vote Counters!” Really? Death? Well, that was probably a literal translation. We suspect what they meant was, “We’re really upset!”

This problem—that language doesn’t always say what is meant—is due in part to the way the English language works. English is a subject-verb language; it is actor- and action-oriented. We prefer sentences with a clear subject and a clear predicate, and we like it best when the verb is in the active voice. It is difficult to construct a meaningful sentence in English without a subject. Even when we describe the weather (“It is raining”), we supply a subject (“it”). Other languages can manage without a subject in these situations; in Indonesian, one can say, “Exists rain.” More significant than mere grammar, many languages are content with no real subject or actor in a sentence. One day as the sun broke out after the afternoon rains, I (Randy) looked out into the front yard of our house in Indonesia and saw that our young son’s tricycle was broken. We had brought it from the United States, and it would not be easy to replace. I was exasperated. I asked Jacob’s Indonesian friends what happened. They replied, “The tricycle is broken”—a perfectly good Indonesian sentence. I asked, “Who broke the tricycle?” The question caught them by surprise. Indonesian isn’t set up to express that kind of cause and effect. The proper way to state it was, “The tricycle is broken.”

But English cries out for a subject. In sentences without a stated subject, one is always implied (“[You] Bring me that stapler”). Because English “needs” a subject, we tend to provide one. This is why, as we pointed out above, “Blessed are the peacemakers” turns in our minds to “God blesses the peacemakers.” We don’t make this adjustment on purpose. But it goes to show how thoroughly our English language (even grammar, which we might not be able to explain) affects the way we think. This also helps to explain why teachers and professors systematically beat the passive voice out of students’ writing. Instead of writing “The epistle to the Romans was written by the apostle Paul,” our grammar teachers have told us to write, “Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans.” We prefer clear, direct language in which agency and action is easy to understand. When we run across writing in the passive voice, we might suspect the author is trying to be vague and confusing on purpose (as in so-called legalese).

Yet biblical writers often liked the passive voice. “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Western scholars call this the “divine passive,” in which the agent/subject (God) is implied. “All things work together for our good” is probably the better way to translate Romans 8:28. Yet we commonly read it as “God works all things together for our good.” Sometimes we assign agency (and thus motives) where the biblical text is actually silent. Sometimes we also imply that direct action is required on our part when the text is less direct. A frequent translation of John 14:1 reads, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” The English suggests that I need to take action over my heart. Yet, in John’s text, Jesus is giving the command to the hearts of his disciples to stop being troubled. In our minds, that doesn’t even really make sense. But perhaps Jesus understood that we humans have less control of our hearts than we like to admit.

The whole is more than the sum of the parts. The meanings of words change when you combine them. We know this is true on a basic level. We can define the words up and with. So we can figure out a sentence like, “Put this book up with the others.” We also know that put up with can have a completely different meaning: for example, why we put up with English being so complex is a mystery to us! We instinctively adjust to these flexible meanings in our own language. But when we approach other languages, we tend to look for the literal, dictionary definitions of the words in question.

Joining words together, though, can be far more significant than merely vocabulary. Some words have special meanings when they are paired with other words. In the New Testament, for example, the word charis means “grace.” Pistis means “faith.” What we didn’t know until recently—what went without being said in Paul’s day—was that those two words together described the relationship between a patron and his or her client.

In the Roman world of the New Testament, business was conducted through an elaborate system of patrons and clients.5 When we watch the movie The Godfather, we are seeing the modern remains of the ancient Roman patronage system. Like Marlon Brando who played the godfather in the movie, the ancient patron was a wealthy and powerful individual (male or female) who looked after his or her “friends” (clients). The complex world of Roman governmental bureaucracy, the far-reaching tentacles of the banking system (usually temples) and the pervasive and powerful grasp of the trade guilds made it impossible for ordinary craftspeople or farmers to conduct business on their own. They were entirely dependent upon their patrons. Like most unwritten cultural rules, everyone knew what was expected of a patron and a client, even though expectations weren’t engraved on a wall. Everyone knew a patron’s role was to solve problems for his or her clients, whether it was trouble with the local trade guilds, refinancing a loan or smoothing over tensions with city leaders. When Paul was staying in Thessalonica, it was reasonable to expect Jason to handle the “Paul problem,” which he did by asking Paul to leave town (Acts 17).

In that world, an ordinary craftsman or farmer didn’t have the social skills or connections or wealth to negotiate with the various powerbrokers of a city. He would seek out an individual, a patron, to help. Marlon Brando captures the sentiment well. The local merchant wants help. The godfather says, “So you want me to do you this favor?” Both sides understand the agreement: the godfather solves the problem, and the merchant now must be loyal to the godfather and be ready to help if he is ever summoned. In the Roman system, likewise, the client couldn’t earn the “favor”; the patron showed “kindness” to help. Seneca, a philosopher from Paul’s time, said the patron and the client had a relationship, a form of friendship.6 The client was now a “friend” of the patron, but not a peer. The client was expected to reciprocate with loyalty, public praise, readiness to help the patron (as much as he could) and, most importantly, gratitude.7 This kind gift had strings attached. (All gifts in antiquity had strings attached.8) Seneca called it “a sacred bond.”9 The recipient of the gift was obligated to reciprocate. Paul introduced Lydia to Christianity (Acts 16). She reciprocated by hosting Paul and his team at her estate.

The language of patronage permeated everyday life. We know well the Christian terms grace and faith, but these were common before Paul used them. They were part of the language of patronage. When the patron gave unmerited gifts of assistance, these were commonly called charis, meaning “grace/gift.”10 The client responded with faithfulness to the patron, called pistis, or “faith.”11 We see that when Paul explained our new relationship with God, he used something everyone understood: the ancient system of patronage.12 Taken together, this vocabulary—so central to the Christian faith—means something different than the sum of its parts.13

Clarity over Ambiguity: Hard Facts Are Better Than Frilly Words

Americans have a divided mind when it comes to language. On the one hand, the English language is full of remarkable figures of speech and metaphorical language. For example, the folks I (Brandon) grew up with in the South had a simile or metaphor for nearly every occasion. If someone appeared shocked or surprised about something, an onlooker might observe he “looks like a calf at a new gate.” If there was something not quite right about someone, we might say she was “a half-bubble off plumb.” If someone’s work had been particularly hectic, he might say he’d been “busier than a one-armed paper hanger on a windy day.” You could be as “nervous as a cat in a room full of rockers.” This colorful, colloquial language is proudly preserved in casual conversation. But when it comes to formal dialogue, or talking about things we consider important (God, for example), English speakers tend to privilege clear, propositional language over colorful, metaphorical language. That concrete, propositional language is better than ambiguous, metaphorical language is just one more thing about language that goes without being said in the West.

So when it comes to communicating the truth, Westerners drift more toward propositions than to artistic expression. Because we are somewhat uncomfortable with the ambiguity of metaphors, we tend to distill propositions out of them. We want to know what they mean, in categorical terms. A philosophical description of God (“omnipresent”) is better than an anthropomorphic one (“his eyes roam to and fro throughout the land”). Or so we think. This is why books on Jesus often talk more about the facts of his life than his parables. To us, things like metaphors and parables sometimes seem like unnecessarily frilly packages for a hard truth. We want to get past the packaging to the content; we want to know what it means. These assumptions about the value of propositions and our unease with ambiguous language put us at something of a disadvantage when it comes to reading the Bible. The biblical writers didn’t make the distinctions we make regarding when metaphorical and potentially ambiguous language is appropriate. We relegate it mainly to informal communication. But the writers of Scripture recorded the profoundest truth in similes, metaphors, parables and other colorful and expressive (and potentially ambiguous) forms of language.

The tension is eased somewhat when we account for differences in genre. Language behaves differently in different literary genres. Imagine that you are playing cards. You see in your hand an ace of spades. Is that good or bad? It depends upon whether you’re playing Spades or Hearts, and actually can be more nuanced than that. Likewise in language: the game determines the rules. “The mountains leaped like rams” is a true, authoritative, relevant and beautiful statement when it is in a poem, but it would be nonsense in a geology textbook (Psalms 114:4). In one historical text, we are told that the Lord “drove the sea back with a strong east wind” until it was divided, but in the subsequent song, we are told, “By the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up. The surging waters stood up like a wall; the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea” (Exodus 14:21; Exodus 15:8). These statements do not contradict each other; the game has simply determined the rules. In a song, you can use phrases like “by the blast of your nostrils.” In fact, sometimes poetry says it better; I like “piling the water up” a lot more than the idea that an east wind just blew back the water.

Technically, when we say the game determines the rules, we are saying that genre influences how something is to be understood. Some biblical genres, such as apocalyptic literature, are not used in our culture today. The book of Revelation is apocalyptic, as are parts of Daniel. Such books reveal or unveil the mysteries of God about the future and make heavy use of symbolism, often involving numbers and animals. The present time is described as dire, and just when it appears things cannot get worse, God intervenes and rescues his people for a glorious future. While we may understand the big picture, the details are very confusing for those unfamiliar with this genre. We struggle to make sense of horsemen and bowls of wrath and strange hybrid animal creatures. Right in the middle of a natural disaster, a guy rides by on a horse. What’s up with that? This genre is foreign to us.

But we have our own unusual genres. While I (Randy) was in the jungles of Indonesia, a new genre of film entered American culture: the slasher film. When you know the genre of something, you can know a lot about it without reading or seeing it. If you know that a movie is a slasher film, then before you even see it you know to expect poorly lit scenes, excessive amounts of cutlery, people closing doors and then items crashing through them, and women who cannot run more than ten feet without falling down. You will also be prepared to close your eyes if someone is shown in the shower—and not just because they are naked. Likewise, people know what to expect when we are told a movie is a chick flick. There will be no automobiles flipping over and exploding in slow motion. If you are told a biblical book is in the apocalyptic genre, you know before you even open it that there will be trumpets, plagues, stars, books, strange animals and lots and lots of numbers.

We have to be careful, though, once we have accounted for genre, not to simply disregard metaphorical language as mere metaphor. The biblical writers were capable of writing in categorical terms, but they often preferred to speak about spiritual things metaphorically. And this made earlier interpreters nervous because ancient readers of the Bible knew that there was a lot at stake in a metaphor. The original Hebrew text of Exodus 15:3 reads, “The Lord is a warrior.” The context is the Song of Moses. The Israelites have just filed through the Red Sea to safety and Pharaoh’s army has drowned in the tide. The Lord, Moses implies, is a more powerful soldier than all the battalions of Egypt. But the Greek translators of Exodus were uncomfortable with this image. So they did just what we tend to do: they translated the verse as a proposition. In the Septuagint, the verse reads, “The Lord . . . shatters wars” or “bring[s] wars to naught.”14 Instead of portraying Yahweh as an armed and bloodied soldier, they highlighted a particular implication of his prowess. While they might be right—perhaps the best soldier is the one who brings war to an end—the Septuagint interpretation narrows the meaning of the text. Resolving the tension of the metaphor actually diminishes the breadth and application of the text. And that’s too bad, as scholar Iain McGilchrist points out; the “point of a metaphor is to bring together the whole of one thing with the whole of another, so that each is looked at in a different light.”15

Metaphors and other artistic expressions can also say more with less. An absolutely delightful expression from Arkansas is, “I ain’t got a dog in that fight.” I (Randy) have used it in Florida as a powerful administrative tool to indicate that (1) the issue at hand is not an integral part of my area of responsibility; (2) this is a messy problem with a lot of upset people; and (3) I could get hurt if I get involved and I am not invested sufficiently to justify the risk. Stating this propositionally takes longer and is often less effective.

There is yet a subtler danger with distilling propositions out of metaphors. Time and time again, the biblical writers use metaphors to connect central truths in Scripture. One of the most famous and enduring images of God is as shepherd (Psalms 23, for example). In Ezekiel 34, God describes himself as the Good Shepherd and all the Jewish leaders as bad shepherds. What is Jesus suggesting, then, when he claims, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:14)? He is not just critiquing the leaders as bad. Is he using the metaphor to identify himself with God? His audience thought so. They picked up rocks to stone him “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33). Once you start noticing the connections between metaphors, you start to see them everywhere. It was Abel, the shepherd, whose offering pleased God. Saul was a bad king—and called a bad shepherd—but King David was a good king who shepherded the people of Israel (1 Chronicles 11:2). If we simply distill the propositions out of each of these accounts (“The Lord provides everything I need”; “Jesus lays down his life for us”; “Saul was a bad king”; “David was a good king”), we can miss the connection. The metaphor is not just a frilly package. In this case, the package is actually the bridge connecting all these ideas. Real misunderstanding is at stake. Classical liberal theologians of the nineteenth century argued that Jesus never claimed to be divine. They missed the crucial point that Jesus made important truth claims—including being God incarnate—through his use of metaphorical language.

Consider another example. The prophet Isaiah sings the “song of the vineyard,” a lament of the unfaithfulness and unrighteousness of the people of Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7). After much care and cultivation, God “looked for a crop of good grapes, but it [the vineyard, i.e., Israel] yielded only bad fruit” (Isaiah 5:2). Centuries later, when Jesus wanted to rebuke Israel’s religious leaders for failing to fulfill God’s will for them, he could have stated it plainly: “You are sinners.” Instead, he summons this metaphor from Isaiah. In Matthew 20, Jesus uses the metaphor of the vineyard to teach about the kingdom of God and about his own ministry and identity (the parable of the workers in the vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16; the parable of the two sons, Matthew 21:28-32; and the parable of the tenants, Matthew 21:33-44). Combining the vineyard metaphor popular with Isaiah and the prophets and another image— “the stone the builders rejected”—from Psalms 118:22, Jesus explains in no uncertain terms that he is God’s chosen son sent to redeem God’s vineyard, Israel. What went without being said in Jesus’ time is that metaphors bring with them the whole weight of the biblical witness—Torah, Wisdom and the Prophets.16 Jesus’ listeners would have recognized immediately that he was drawing together these different strands of Scripture and that they were at risk of sharing the punishment Isaiah pronounced for the unfaithful.17

Conclusion

Of the three blatant cultural differences we discussed in this section, language is at once the most obvious and the most insidious. Serious misunderstanding can occur when we fail to recognize all that goes without being said about language and how we use it. There is no real substitute for becoming familiar with the Bible’s original languages. But that doesn’t mean you can’t become sensitive to the difference language makes in the meantime.

To do this, we offer one simple suggestion: read from a variety of translations. Translators have different goals. Some English translations follow the grammar, syntax and voice of the original languages as faithfully as they can while still rendering readings that make sense in English. Other translations are more concerned that the text be readable, comfortable, idiomatic English. In other words (and to overstate the point a bit): some translations emphasize getting the original languages right, while others emphasize getting the contemporary languages right. For this reason, you can get a good sense for the differences between languages by reading a biblical passage in various English translations. Consider the following translations of the first beatitude (Matthew 5:3):

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NIV). The NIV represents the traditional translation of this beatitude.

“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (NLT). The goal of the New Living Translation is to render the original languages in good, contemporary English. The translators appear to recognize that English readers want a clear subject and a verb in the active voice, so they supply a subject (God) and make the passive Greek verb active.

“The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Holman Christian Standard Bible). In contrast to the NLT, this translation preserves the passive voice of the original Greek. This is a less satisfying English sentence but more faithful to the original Greek.

“Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous—with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions) are the poor in spirit (the humble, who rate themselves insignificant), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!” (Amplified Bible). It would probably be difficult to read long passages from the Amplified Bible. But the value of this translation is that it demonstrates how it sometimes takes many words in one language to approximate or capture the essence of a single word in another language.

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (CEB). The Common English Bible abandons the traditional verb blessed altogether. This gives the verse a different feel.

When you read a passage in different translations, take a few moments to consider the implications of the different renderings. Does the meaning or application of the verse change depending on the translation? Sometimes. This exercise can help you become sensitive to what goes without being said behind the words we use.

Questions to Ponder

1. Westerners are wired, by virtue of our worldview, to seek cause-and-effect connections in everything. We instinctively ask, “Why did this happen?” When we read the story of Job, for example, we tend to emphasize why these things happened to Job. We may be emphasizing the wrong point. Job never does know why those things happened. How might Job’s experience help us face life, since we also are rarely told by God why things happen?

2. A young married student just stopped by to see me (Randy). His wife miscarried last week. My heart is broken for them. Both are strong believers who are confident in God’s abiding presence in the midst of this calamity. As I attempted to comfort them, I noticed how our expressions were metaphors. When he spoke of the deeper bond he and his wife were experiencing, he said things like, “There is a silver lining to this dark cloud.” He added, “We are hearing God sing songs of comfort over us in the night,” and “Our church family has wrapped us up in loving arms.” Is it possible that direct statements of propositional truth aren’t as good as we think? Describe what you might say to a friend in a similar situation.

3. Describe how you would explain to a nonbelieving friend the concept of “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalms 23:1). Try to use propositional statements instead of metaphors, similes or analogies. How easy or difficult is it for you to change this metaphor into propositional language? Do you feel like anything is lost in the process, and if so, what?


Notes

1 See, e.g., John B. Carroll, ed., Language Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (Boston: MIT Press, 1956).

2 The very insightful work of Ruby K. Payne demonstrates how our social class worldview is reflected in our language patterns. For example, Payne shows two very different ways to tell the “Cinderella story,” depending upon one’s social class. See Payne, “The Role of Language and Story,” in A Framework for Understanding Poverty (Highlands, Tex.: aha! Process, Inc, 2005).

3 Most of us have said at some point, “I feel . . . I don’t know . . . It’s hard to describe.” Words like Schadenfreude or Sehnsucht have entered our English conversations because we have felt that way but didn’t know how to describe it in English. It is more than just words, though. Wikipedia defines Sehnsucht as “difficult to translate adequately and describes a deep emotional state . . . The stage director and author Georg Tabori called Sehnsucht one of those quasi-mystical terms in German for which there is no satisfactory corresponding term in another language” (“Sehnsucht,” Wikipedia, last modified March 17, 2012).

4 See Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 206.

5 I have described the Roman patronage system in E. Randolph Richards, “Flattery, Favors and Obligations: Patrons and Clients in Greco-Roman Culture,” The Biblical Illustrator (Spring 2011). See also the fine description in David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

6 Seneca, Ben. 6.16.

7 Ibid., 4.18.

8 Jesus was countercultural when he stressed giving without expecting a return (Luke 14:12-13). The Roman world expected and even required reciprocation. Western culture has largely adopted Jesus’ viewpoint; we despise gifts with strings attached.

9 Seneca, Ben. 2.18.5.

10 Plutarch, Mor. 1101B.

11 Seneca, Ben. 1.1.3.

12 In this same way, Paul used another common aspect of Roman society, adoption, to explain other aspects of our new relationship with God (e.g., Romans 8).

13 For more on the significance of the patron-client relationship for biblical interpretation, see chap. 7.

14 By Septuagint, we are referring to the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in common use in the time of the New Testament.

15 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 117.

16 Note again, in Isaiah, God was looking for fruit from Israel. In the Gospels, Jesus is looking for fruit from Israel (see Mark 11:13).

17 This method of interpretation was called midrash. Its goal was to provide a contemporary application from Scripture. A generation before Jesus, a great Jewish teacher, Hillel, outlined seven “rules” for midrashic interpretation. Jesus’ followers were familiar with this way of reading and applying Scripture.


Misreading ScriptureTaken from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien. Copyright(c) 2012 by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

Biblical scholars Brandon O'Brien and Randy Richards shed light on the ways that Western readers often misunderstand the cultural dynamics of the Bible. They identify nine key areas where modern Westerners have significantly different assumptions about what might be going on in a text. Drawing on their own crosscultural experience in global mission, O'Brien and Richards show how better self-awareness and understanding of cultural differences in language, time and social mores allow us to see the Bible in fresh and unexpected ways.