Nigeria Bible Translation Trust–Week One

I am in Jos, Nigeria for an Old Testament workshop on biblical law at the Nigeria Bible Translation Trust. We have two more weeks to go.

The first week has been eventful as we have had lectures each morning, given by Scott Nikaido, Anne Kompaore, and me. We discussed some introductory material on the first day and then began looking at texts after that. We spent the first week focusing on the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant (Ex 20-23). Our lectures have ranged in topic depending on the presenter. Scott is very knowledgable on background issues related to the Ancient Near Eastern law codes. Anne Kompaore is the translator among the three of us, so she focused on specific translation and linguistic problems that arose in her texts. I focused on the Hebrew text I was covering and worked through my chapter, showing how we get from the Hebrew text to an English translation.

After our morning sessions we have been breaking into small discussion groups to allow the participants to ask questions and discuss particular points of interest. My group on Friday was particularly interesting to me. In the morning session I had been covering Exodus 23, which included a description of three annual feasts. In our group I asked the translators how they have been translating matzot, the unleavened bread used in the first feast. Most of them responded in their local language with some sort of phrase that included bread and indicated that the bread had no yeast. I then asked if any of them had bread in their culture. “Oh, sure,” they all responded. Good. So they know what bread is. “And does your bread have yeast in it?” “Oh, yes, yes. We use yeast in our bread.” “Well, okay, then. Do any of you have bread with no yeast in it?” A few of them thought for a moment, and then one older man to my right said with a big smile, “Yes, we make a type of bread with no yeast.” “And what do you call it in your language?” He answered with a word that sounded to me like mpenpen. “Do you suppose,” I continued, “that you could use mpenpen to translate matzot?” All the men looked at one another. “No, we already have a phrase ‘bread without yeast’.” I then went on to explain that in English we have no bread without yeast. So when we come the word matzot we can’t translate the word. We have two options. We could simply transliterate it and call it matzot. But then we would still have to explain to people what that was. The other option is to explain in the translation what matzot is. The second option is what the English Bible tradition has done by using the phrase unleavened bread. The problem, however, is that these Nigerian translators, at least in some cases, do not have the same problem we do in English. They have bread with no yeast, and they have a perfectly good word for it: mpenpen. But they were reluctant to use it because they had a tendency to work from an English translation as a base text. They were creating unneeded difficulties for themselves because instead of seeing the Hebrew and finding the right translation in their own language, they were following the English, which has to use explanations and figures of speech that are not in the Hebrew language. They were trying to translate our problem, rather than translating the text.

After we talked for a few minutes, a few of the men got very excited and animated. (Our group was called down at one point because our spirited discussion drowned out the work of the other groups!) They began to explain to one another how they could use their own words rather than following the English words. There was a satisfaction, I think, both in the fact that they discovered a simpler way to translate the text, and also that their languages were rich enough to be able to translate the Bible more easily and naturally than English could.

This first week has been a great education for me as I learn to identify translation problems. I also have had to learn to ask questions properly. I have been working in our afternoon sessions with the Gokana translation team. The team consists of two Nigerian translators from the Gokana people group and an American consultant. We were checking their translation of the Ten Commandments on my first day with them. I noticed something odd in the last commandment, “You shall not covet . . .” There was an odd combination of words about an eye and a fire. I brought it to the consultant’s attention. “Oh, yes, that is a good question,” he said. “What does that phrase mean there?” One of the translators began to work through it, but I thought I would cut to the chase, and asked, “Does it mean coveting?” Before the translator could answer me, the consultant interrupted and said, “No, we don’t do it that way. Let me try this.” He then began to work with the translator to apply his phrase in various situations to see what his phrase meant. We fianlly figured out that his phrase, as he translated it into English, was to have a “burning eye.” But when we explored various scenarios, we discovered that to have a burning eye meant you had something that you wanted to protect. You didn’t want anyone else to have it. Well that was the opposite of what we were trying to communicate with “You shall not covet.”

The other translator brought up a related idea. You can have “a burning heart” as well as a “burning eye.” He suggested perhaps that was the better option. The translators became frustrated at this point, because at this level of analysis it is difficult to figure out how one uses language naturally. The dissection kills the patient, so to speak. Finally, the first translator took out his phone and called a Gokana friend back home. The consultant sat back and looked pleased. Now we were getting somewhere. When his friend got on the phone, they had a brief discussion about what a “burning eye” and a “burning heart” meant. The first meant that you wanted something. The second could be used either way, for something you want or for something you wanted to protect. So, as it turned out, they had the proper translation.

That lesson taught me several things. First, you have to ask the right questions. If the translator had been allowed to answer my first question and say, “Yes, it means to covet.” We would not have had the whole discussion. As it was, we learned quite a bit about those figures of speech and perhaps a better way to translate a nearby text, “I am a jealous God.” God has a burning heart in that case. Second, I learned that translatinn and translation checking is hard work. It is time consuming and must be done carefully. But it must be done. I will share more about that later.

Week One has gone well. Pray that Week Two goes as well or better. Blessings.

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The New Year

It is time to resurrect this old blog. It is a new year, and our God is a God of new things. He enjoys creating and re-creating things anew. He created us and brought us into the world. When he saves us, he makes us into new creations. As his sons and daughters, we should be in the same business, so to speak.
Today is the first day of my second semester Biblical Hebrew course. It is a January course, so we will go every day for thirteen days.
In today’s class we be introducing ourselves to one another, making sentences of the this is that variety, telling where things are located using prepositional phrases, asking simple yes/no questions, and making simple sentences using participles. All of these things are review from the first semester.
We will spend the last hour or so of class today learning how to listen to and carry out a simple command. You know, if that’s what learning Biblical Hebrew is all about, then maybe we should learn Hebrew from the Lord!
Shalom lekha.

Romans 5:6-8

Romans 5:7 has long puzzled me. “Scarcely (or, with difficulty) would someone die for a righteous man; though for a good man someone perhaps would dare to die.”

As a casual reader of scripture, I thought the thinking in that verse was counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t it be the good person that someone would die for? If you were in a situation to sacrifice your life, wouldn’t it make sense for you to sacrifice it for the person that in some sense deserved it?

James Dunn says that Paul has in mind here with the term “righteous man” his own past. Paul knew well his life as a self-righteous Jew. Nobody needed to die on behalf of that person, from the perspective of the self-righteous, and nobody wanted to die for that person, from the perspective of the potential martyr.

Dunn points out that the grammar is rough between this sentence and the next. He believes that Paul’s train of thought may have been broken, and he picked up his dictation without clear thought of the previous grammatical structure. Or, Dunn suggests, perhaps Paul realized that he may have overstated his point. When he said that no one would give his life for a righteous man, he seemed to exclude any form of martyrdom. So then he add that, perhaps, for that rare man–the truly good man, as opposed to the self-righteous man–someone might dare to die.

But the significance lies not so much in the relationship between the righteous man and the good man, but between both of them and the next category, the sinners. Paul is saying that self-sacrifice on behalf of the righteous is unknown, although we might be able to envision a situation where someone might give themselves up on behalf of a good person. But God went so far beyond our understanding of martyrdom by sending his son Jesus to die on behalf of a world full of hateful sinners who were God’s enemies. The most precious was sacrificed on behalf of the most worthless.

But one of the beauties of the gospel is that while we were once worthless, the preciousness of Christ has been transferred to us and we have been made truly righteous in our standing before God. While we were once powerless (v.6), godless (v. 6), and sinners (v. 8), we now have the righteousness of Christ (v. 9) and can be safe from the wrath of God (v. 9), for we have now received reconciliation with God (v. 10-11).

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.

Shalom.

Romans 5:3-5

Paul’s boasting continues.

In verse 2 of this chapter Paul said that we boast in the hope of the glory of God. But we boast not only in that glory. He continues in verse 3 to say that we also boast in affliction.

As we think about what that might mean, a few words are in order about what it couldn’t mean. I don’t see that Paul could have meant that we are to draw attention to our affliction. For Jesus said that when we fast we are not to go about like the hypocrites with long faces, letting all know that we are going without food. Instead, he says that we are to wash our face and go on with life as usual. Of course, there is a difference between affliction and fasting. Fasting is a form of religious service, just as prayer and making offerings are religious services. And each of these, Jesus said, ought to be done privately so that we are not seen by men and we are not praised by men for our service. Affliction, on the other hand, is not self-imposed, or shouldn’t be, at least. It is circumstantial in our life.

But seen in the context of Romans 3:27, where Paul asks the rhetorical question, “Where then is our boasting?” it is fair to say that for Paul there is a connection between our boasting and our relationship to the Lord. We are not to bring something, our religious obedience, for example, to the Lord and attempt to curry God’s favor. There is nothing that we can hold up to God and say, “See what I did?”

Paul says, however, that we do boast in some things. Romans 5:2 says we are to boast in hope. Now he adds affliction. Our daughter, Anna, referred to people as being broken. She called her grandparents old and broken. When telling us about a certain teacher at her school, she said that that teacher “taught all of the broken children.” She was a special education teacher working with children with various physical or mental disabilities. What Anna was pointing out was that there is with mankind a kind of ideal humanness that includes full physical and mental well-being. We do not judge the blind person as the normal man, and those who see as having some special ability. Rather, seeing is the norm. Those who cannot see have been deprived of something. (Please understand that I am not trying to demean those that have some type of disability, or to ignore the fact that those who have lost one ability often compensate by showing a super-ability in some other area.)

We all have affliction. We are all broken. We all face trials and suffering. It will take various forms and come at various stages of life, but we all suffer. Paul is saying that we as believers should boast in that affliction. Our brokenness, that which makes us less than the ideal human, is what we present to God.

We do this, Paul continues, because we know that our affliction produces perseverance. Affliction teaches us, or produces in us, the ability to withstand the affliction. The antidote, it might be said, is in the poison. And our perseverance produces character. Character might not be the right word here. Testedness, if it weren’t such a clumsy word to say, might be better. The meaning here is that the affliction produces in us perseverance. And our perseverance produces in us the attribute of having been tested and having passed the test. We are proved strong.

Paul does not stop there, however, but adds that this testedness produces in us hope. So we are back where we started, so to speak. Paul had said that we are to boast in the hope of the glory of God. But then adds that we are to boast in our affliction, that produces perseverance, that produces character, that produces hope. The train terminals are affliction and hope. The stations on the way are perseverance and testedness.

What Paul has not made clear here, but will elsewhere, is that we can boast in our affliction-turned-to-hope because precisely there that we are being most Christ-like. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. And he was not merely a servant, but according to Old Testament prophecy he came as a suffering servant. Jesus was identified and had his identity in the fact that, while he was here on earth, he suffered. He was afflicted. But his affliction, which resulted in his perseverance, which resulted in his testedness, then resulted in hope. This hope is a certainty about our future. And, as Paul said earlier in verse two, it is a glorious hope. It is God’s glorious hope. And it is now our hope. And we should boast in it all day long.

Shalom.

Romans 5:1-2: Some quick thoughts

Being justified [made right, made righteous, made just, etc.], therefore, by faith, we have peace towards God through our Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom we also have access in faith into this grace in which we stand, and we boast on the hope of the glory of God.

Paul has been explaining how we have no righteousness in ourselves. All of us, rather, are sinners. But God revealed a righteousness apart from the law by sending Jesus Christ. This righteousness is by faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

Now that we have been made right before God, apart from the law, we have a new relationship with Him. Before we were objects of his wrath. Now we have peace. Before we were closed off to Him. Now we have access to Him. Before we had no basis for boasting. Now we boast in the hope of God’s glory (or God’s glorious hope).

The access that we have gained is not, literally speaking, access to God, but is access into the grace in which we now stand. This is an odd turn for Paul since he speaks elsewhere of grace as being the initiative that God takes on our behalf. It precedes our faith. It is because of God’s grace that we are able to believe. But now, he seems to be saying that, because of our faith, we are able to stand in grace. The answer would seem to be that grace stands at both ends of our faith. It is the source, or the grounds, of our faith. But it is also the goal of our faith. We believe because God was gracious to us. And because we believe we are able to stand in God’s grace. It encompasses us all around.

And Paul has one more strange turn. At the end of Romans 3 he argued quite forcefully that we have nothing in which to boast. We have nothing of our own to bring to God by which we might gain God’s favor. But now, looking at the word that is translated as “rejoice” at least by the NIV, Paul says that we “boast” in the hope of the glory of God. So then, as Paul will say elsewhere, we have nothing in which to boast except for God himself. Paul answered the question at the end of Romans 3, “Where then is our boasting?” by saying that it is excluded. But that is really only a preliminary response. For the unredeemed it is true that there is no boasting. We have nothing in ourselves to bring to God. But for those who have been made right before God–the audience of Romans 5:1–we do have something in which to boast, namely the hope we have in the glory of God.

One more note on verbs. We have four verbs in this passage. Five verbs if we count the opening participle, which we will do just for kicks. The participle connects us to the previous context. “Now that we have been made righteous” or “since we have been made righteous.” The remaining four indicative verbs are of two kinds. We have two perfect verbs indicating a past completed action, but which have continuing results. “Have” or “have been” as auxiliaries in English helps us get the sense. So we get “We have had” or “we have gained” or simply “we got” access into God’s grace. This is a past event that has been completed but which is still in force now. So we could say, “We got [in the past] access to God’s grace, and we still have that access now.” The second perfect verb is what describes that grace. It is the grace “in which we stand.” “Stand” is a perfect verb and I suppose could just as easily be translated “we have stood”, resulting in a translation “in which we have stood, and are still standing now.” The complete idea could be expressed, “In the past we got access to God’s grace in which we stood, and we still have that same access now to that same grace in which we are still standing.

I would take these past actions to be part of what Paul is saying with the opening participle “having been made righteous.”

The other two verbs are present tense. They are telling what we are presently doing. The result of all this is that now “we have” peace with God through Jesus our Lord, and “we boast” in God’s glorious hope [or the hope of God’s glory]. Our peace and boasting are the present results of those past actions.

Thanks be to God for his glorious grace on our behalf, that enabled us to believe in his son Jesus, and that became the goal of our faith–that grace in which we have stood. Thanks be to God that we now have peace with him and we are able to boast, but only in hope.

Shalom.