An ancient poem on the ruins of Jerusalem reads as if describing today’s Middle East.
The New York Times recently devoted the entire issue of its weekly magazine to the devastation unfolding in today’s Middle East. In a long story titled “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart,” Scott Anderson tells that story through the lens of six Arabs and Kurds whose lives have been forever altered by the deadly forces unleashed by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Their stories trigger powerful emotions. One reads and begins to grieve. For their tales illumine the anguish and terror that millions in these lands have come to experience as their homelands have descended into chaos. No one knows if we have even reached the nadir yet.
When I read their stories, I found myself turning back to the Old Testament book of Lamentations. This book of five chapters is an extended reflection on the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian armies in 587 B.C. After a long, two-year siege, those armies breached the city’s walls and poured into the city like tsunami wave.
In its wake all that constituted the kingdom and culture of ancient Judah was obliterated. The Davidic line of kings ceased. The city’s walls were demolished along with its houses and palaces. The glorious temple of Solomon was left a heap of ashes and scattered stone blocks. And any people who survived the massacre were carried into exile into Mesopotamia.
The poet surveys the scene afterwards and his opening words are:
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal. (Lamentations 1:1)
Everywhere the poet looks he sees ruin, devastation, and disappointed hope. It is scant comfort that he understands why all this has happened. It is a manifestation of God’s wrath upon the people’s failure to be faithful to their covenant with God. Still it all represents a wasteland, both literally as well as spiritually. And he pours out his heart in a searing lament.
If we were to substitute the words Middle East for the word city, I think we might be able to read the poet’s language as a description of today’s Middle East. How lonely indeed does its land sit that were once so full of people, people living in cultures comprised of diverse tribes, religions, languages, and ethnic identities. As the New York Times story details, all that is coming apart today.
This is an example of how the Biblical text, written so long, long ago, continues to provide us with the words for expressing our own experience today. Maybe this is why we continue to read and cherish this ancient book.
A sensitive translation turns a bad-news message into a good-news message in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Good writers and speakers know that words can be tricky things. When we use a specific word in our speech, we first of all have in mind its explicit or primary meaning. That meaning would be expressed in its dictionary definition.
But words also carry an aura of emotional associations that you may not find expressed in the dictionary definition. Those associations, however, affect how other people hear the word and how they react to it.
Let me give an example. When I was in the army, I was being trained to do counter-intelligence work. Our schooling involved training in conducting interviews as part of security checks we might pursue in determining whether a specific person should be given clearance to classified material.
When you conduct those interviews, the instructor told us, never open the conversation with the question: What is your relationship to so-and-so? If we did, we ran the risk of the interviewee clamming up. Why? Because the English word relationship is the word we usually use in referring to a romantic or sexual connection. If we use the word relationship, the interviewee is likely to get defensive and say little. They will feel we are prying into something very intimate.
Instead the instructor taught us to use the word association. What is your association with so-and-so? This question will likely get the interviewee to open up and talk freely. Why? Because the word association is a more neutral and less intimate way of describing a personal connection. A sensitivity to the choice of word we use is critical to the effect we want to make.
This sensitivity is also important to translators, especially Bible translators. Translators have to be aware of both the denotative and the connotative meaning of words both in the original language and in the receptor language. Carelessness here can end up in a Bible translation saying something very different than what the original Hebrew or Greek wants to say.
Translating the Sermon on the Mount
One clear example is a famous sentence from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus gives his famous (or infamous, depending upon your point of view) counsel that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We usually find it one of the most difficult things Jesus ever taught.
He ends his discussion with a sentence in verse 48 that reads in the Kings James Version: Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. This classic phrasing has been preserved in later English translations, including the modern New Revised Standard Version which I customarily use.
The Greek word that is translated perfect is the word teleios. One of its meanings is perfect in the sense of complete or having fulfilled its purpose. But in English, the word perfect has the connotations of something that is statically flawless but also lifeless, like a diamond without any imperfections.
That translation, however, makes this verse in Jesus’ teaching off-putting for the average reader and the average person sitting in a church pew. We think Jesus is advocating something impossible. None of us is flawless in our personalities or our actions. To be human is to be imperfect. And if to be perfect is to be statically lifeless, who wants to be perfect? So we are inclined to brush off Jesus at this point.
An Alternate Translation
But there are other legitimate translations for the word teleios. When it is used in association with persons, its meaning can be full-grown or mature. If we translate the sentence using this choice of word, then Jesus is saying Be mature, therefore, as your heavenly Father is mature.
Now to my book, that gives the sentence is totally different emotional flavor. When we use the word mature, it conveys less the sense of flawlessness, but more an association with the process of growing up. There is nothing of the static about growing mature. It is a journey. It bubbles with life and life-shaping experiences.
This translation is fully consistent, I contend, with its context. In 5:43-48, Jesus is teaching his disciples to love their enemies. The rationale he gives for this counsel is that that is how God loves humanity. God makes his sun shine on both the evil and the good. He sends rain on both the righteousness and unrighteous. God loves even those who hate him.
This is the model for how Jesus’ disciples are to live. But obviously none of us reach that standard instantaneously. We grow into that standard, almost always through a process that involves many failures and setbacks. But if we are serious about growing up, we hang in there with all our failures trusting that God’s Spirit will continue to work a slow transformation within us.
So with this choice of translation, Jesus is commanding us to grow up so that our lives come ever closer to exemplifying the example of maturity set by God. Now that for me is good news counsel, not bad news. And it all hinges on the choice of wording that the translator chooses.
Wrestling matches with God can be part of a spiritual journey too.
The story of Jacob’s wrestling match at the river Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32) is a puzzling and disturbing story. It raises more questions than the text answers. And yet I love this story, because it resonates so strongly with my own spiritual experience.
The match takes place at a major transition point in Jacob’s life. After cheating his brother Esau out of his inheritance, Jacob flees to his uncle’s house in Haran for refuge. He lives there 20 years, becoming a rich man. He also acquires two wives and 12 sons.
Jacob decides to return to Canaan to his father’s house. As the caravan approaches the river Jabbok, Jacob hears that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 armed men. Jacob fears the worse. So he divides his caravan into two parties. On the night before the meeting he also moves his whole household across the river, but crosses back to the other side to spend the night alone.
Jacob Wrestles with a Figure of Mystery
The text says that there Jacob wrestles with a man all through the night. Now this is one of the puzzles. Who is this man? Where does he come from? The text does not say. It leaves us with a mystery. That has fed lots of scholarly speculation.
One suggestion is that the man stands in for Jacob’s guilty conscience. What Jacob wrestles with all night are all the anxieties he has as a legacy of his bad treatment of his brother 20 years before.
Another popular suggestion is that the man is really an angel. Jacob wrestles with this numinous figure of superhuman strength. So people often refer to this story as Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel.
Another suggestion is that in this story we see the biblical writer adopting and adapting an ancient folk tale that saw demonic figures as guardians over river crossings. These demons could be malevolent and cause serious mischief.
The Blessing Conferred on Jacob
As I say, the text gives little clarity as to who this man is. But he is a figure of superior strength. But so is Jacob. They wrestle all night, but the man cannot vanquish Jacob. As dawn approaches, he begs Jacob to let him go. Jacob refuses unless this numinous figure blesses him.
The blessing turns out to be a change of Jacob’s name. The figure says that Jacob will no longer by called by that name, with its associations of deceit and betrayal. Instead his new name will be Israel, “because you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28)
This name change signals that Jacob is entering into a new spiritual status, a new self. His life will not be the same. For the rest of Genesis, Jacob will never again deceive and betray. Instead he will be the victim of deceit and betrayal.
Jacob asks the man’s name, but is denied that knowledge. Here is an odd clue to the mysterious figure’s identity. In the ancient world it was believed that if you knew a person’s name, you gained power over him or her. Jacob can exercise no power over the mysterious figure because he remains nameless.
But Jacob guesses at the figure’s identity. He names the place of the wrestling match Peniel, saying “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” In some mysterious way, Jacob surmises that he has been wrestling all night with none other that God, and he extracts from God the blessing he wants.
An Extraordinary Insight into the Divine-Human Relationship
It is an extraordinary way to describe the relationship between God and a human being–a wrestling match. A wrestling match in which God gives way to Jacob. But Jacob is not left unaffected. The wrestler will put Jacob’s hip out of joint, and Jacob will walk the rest of his life with a limp. Both have striven together, and both experience a change in the relationship.
Now it is this detail what resonates so strongly with me. Sometimes we can experience our relationship with God as a wrestling match, too. We can wrestle with God’s demands and expectations for us. We can wrestle with God’s inexorable love, that hound of heaven that pursues us even when we do not want to be pursued. We can wrestle with God in coming to accept our sins, our flaws, the shadow sides of our personality, coming to forgive ourselves as God forgives us and loving what is unlovable in us as God does.
I say that because that has been exactly my experience numerous times in my spiritual journey. There have been times when I wanted to say to God, “Buzz off. I’m tired of dealing with you. I want to be alone.” Yet God has not let go. I cannot vanquish God.
At the same time, there have been times when I was tempted to throw God overboard, but something inside me could not make that final break. I wrestled on, sometimes for years, experiencing terror and despair. But I could not let go until I received the blessing. And in many ways I have.
I believe that God’s intentions for us as for the whole world are fundamentally and essentially good and loving. But let us never underestimate the depth of God’s love. It is determined and it will not let go until God has conferred the blessing that God has always held in reserve for us.
But the journey to that blessing can be one that involves many social, psychological, and spiritual battles. These battles are the story of divine transformation at work. We can be surprised to find when the wrestling is all done that the demons that we thought we were fighting are none other than angels of blessing.