Archive for July, 2013

Luke 1: 26-38

And the people were awaiting Zechariah, and they began to marvel at his delay in the sanctuary. And when he came out he could not speak to them, and they understood that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. And he could only gesture to them, and remained mute. And so it was, when his days of temple-service were complete, he went home.

And after those days Elizabeth his wife conceived, and she confined herself five months, saying, “This is what the Lord has done for me, in the days when he looked upon me to take away my disgrace among the people.”

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to the Galilean town named Nazareth, to a virgin who was betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the name of the virgin was Mary. And coming near her, he said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” But at this word she startled and wondered what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel told her,

Fear not, Mary, 
for you have found favour with God,
And look! you will conceive within your womb 
and bear a son
And you will call his name Jesus.
This one will mighty be,
and ‘Son of the Most High’ will he be called.
And the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father,
and he will reign over the house of Jacob for all ages
and of his kingdom there will be no end.

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since no man have I known?”

And the angel answered her, saying,

The Holy Breath will come upon you
and the power of the Most High overshadow;
And so the holy one born will be called Son of God.

“And look, Elizabeth your relation, even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who is called ‘barren’. For nothing shall be impossible with God.”

And Mary said “Here stands the slave-girl of the Lord. Amen, let it be for me according to your word.” And the angel left her.

What gains are there here?

Elizabeth’s speech actually sounds Jewish. That’s nice. The introduction of Mary occurs in a long, fast-paced sentence, very paratactic. A lot of intro in one breath!

There is the more sensory, aural effect of ‘At this word she startled’  – being greeted by an angel was scarey! There is the concrete bodily imagery of ‘conceive within your womb’ – politely excised by the Holman.

The song brings out the many parallelisms and verse pairings so typical of Jewish poetry: you will conceive/and bear a son. It ends with a triple parallel.

The one line of the poem that doesn’t have a parallel is the naming of the child. By standing alone, this instruction stands out like a highlighted saying. It will of course need to be remembered later, when Luke shows us Mary and Joseph giving their child the name the angel told them. (Luke 2:21)

Mary’s query also sounds Jewish. ‘Servant’ is too weak for doulos: here ‘slave-girl’ is more nuanced and gender-specific as in the greek. Also more interesting!

“Amen” is something Old Testament Jews said a bit, indicating agreement. It didn’t sound especially religious, just emphatic. It’s nice to bring out this Hebraism that Luke puts in his text.

Let’s take a closer look at that saying of Joseph’s.

You planned evil against me; God planned it for good.    Genesis 50:20

Firstly, can we trust Joseph’s words? Are we supposed to? He’s the good guy in the story, and he’s a prophet too, he has insights into the mysteries of God’s purposes. So we’re probably supposed to trust his words. Also this statement comes at the end of the whole story, like a concluding reflection on the meaning of the whole. That gives it weight. So, yes, we probably are supposed to accept Joseph’s assessment of things as a truth statement.

Ok. But what does he actually say? Literally he says

“And you designed upon me evil, but God designed it for good…”

The first thing to notice is that there is no mention of causality here at all. The focus of the saying is on ‘intentions’, or purposes. The brothers had one intention, God had quite another one. So it’s a pretty weak verse to use as a proof text for causality of any sort.

But we could say, the language of design implies here a causality also. ‘You designed evil upon me, and carried it out, but God designed it for good, and brought good to pass.’

That’s fair enough: secondarily, by implication, something is suggested here about causality. It’s not the point of the verse, but it kind of follows from it. Pity though that our doctrine is only implied in the best proof text we have.

But if something is implied about causality, what is it? What can we legitimately infer from Joseph’s words about the causality of the events? That depends on what is being said about design or purpose here. What does Joseph say about intentions here? There are a few possible ways to take his words. They could mean:

1. You designed upon me evil, but behind that was God who intended that you should design that evil, and he all along had a higher plan to do good to me and to others through your crime. God was the first cause of your crime. (The two-layered sponge cake)


2. You designed upon me evil, selling me off as a slave. But God intended a good outcome for me. He was working at the same time, following a very different agenda. God subverted your plans and established his own ones. He made sure my coming to Egypt was a blessing. (A tug of war image?)


3. You designed evil upon me, but only because God allowed you to do that. He hated what you did but permitted it. And it coincided with his own plan that I should become lord of Egypt.

Reading 1 has a problem of grammar: On this reading, ‘God meant it’ should be referring to the brothers’ ‘crime’ – the word they have just used repeatedly. But ‘crime’ is a masculine word in Hebrew, while the ‘it’ here is a feminine: ‘God meant it’ can’t be referring to the word ‘crime’. But it’s hard to see what else ‘it’ might refer to. The grammar seems to be against this reading.

Personally, I think Readings 1 and 3 are over-readings, unnecessarily complicated, reading into the text ideas and concerns that are not there. While I think 3 is probably true in fact, I don’t think it’s what Joseph says here.

I think Reading 2 is the most natural and simplest way to take Joseph’s saying. ‘God meant it’ refers not to the crime, but to the outcome God intended for Joseph. In fact, the rest of the saying pushes us to read God’s intention in terms of outcomes: “God meant it for good, to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” (HCSB)

And the LXX seems to agree with this reading. It renders Joseph’s words:

“You planned against me for evil,

 but God planned for me for good.”

While you could read this as compatible with double causality, it’s not actually asserting anything so complex. This LXX version reads as a much simpler claim, theologically speaking, than the sophisticated ideas which would be invoked in Reading 1. There are two competing plans for Joseph’s life: that’s all.

But whichever you think is more likely Joseph’s meaning, the main point is that there are a range of options for interpreting his words. We are by no means forced to adopt Reading 1, the reading that might imply double causality.

So Genesis 50:20 is not really a very good proof text for our favourite doctrine of God as first cause of everything. It’s not talking about causes as such, and what it says about design doesn’t seem to be structured in the ‘layer cake’ way that double causality requires. It seems more like a tug-of-war than a sponge cake!

Also, Genesis 50:20 is a comment on one particular event. It does not generalise to say that God behaves in the same way for other events (let alone all events). Using this verse to build our doctrine of double causality involves a massive extrapolation from the text.

But if Genesis 50 is the best proof text for this doctrine, and it’s not really a good one, then… what?

Could it be that the doctrine of double causality is actually without biblical support – that it is a foreign import, a cuckoo’s egg laid in the nest of Christian faith?

What do you think?

Q. 7. What are the decrees of God?
A. The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.

So goes the Westminster shorter catechism. It’s a big, magisterial statement: ‘he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.’ Whatsoever. Impressive. If a little difficult to substantiate from Scripture.

This is the doctrine of double causality. Think of reality like a sponge cake with two layers. The top layer is God’s plans. The bottom layer is our choices and decisions, and everything else that goes on down here.

Whenever something happens, it has two sets of causes  (the Greeks identified more than two sorts, but two will do for now). There are immediate causes, such as your decision to get out of bed in the morning. It was your decision. But behind that decision there is the first cause. God ordained that you should get up, and so that you should make that decision, and moved or caused you to do so. God is the first cause of everything. Whatsoever comes to pass.

This idea of double causation is pretty deeply entrenched in the western mindset. When someone’s house gets burgled, they might ask. ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ A common question in our culture is, ‘If God is good, why are there wars?’ The common assumption here is of God as first cause. Of everything.

It’s a nice tidy doctrine that seems to tie everything together powerfully. Appealing. People like it.

It does have problems however. Moral problems: it’s pretty hard for a first cause to avoid responsibility for the things the cause causes. Like wars…

But the problem I want to explore is about Scriptural backing for this idea. For a concept so foundational to western thinking about God, it’s surprising how little there is in the Bible that expresses or even implies double causality.

Of course in our tradition we like proof texts, and this is particularly embarrassing, because, I mean…where are they?

They’re so thin on the ground, people end up going back to the Joseph story from Genesis to find one. That’s not a good sign, when your doctrine can only found in the OT not the NT, and when it’s only in the oldest part of the OT. Progressive revelation suggests that we should have found out a whole lot more about such an important truth later in the Scriptures. And yet Genesis seems to have to clearest example of this doctrine being taught.

Or does it?

Let’s take a look. We’re in Genesis 50, the final chapter, and Joseph’s brothers are panicking. Their dad has just died, and they’re worried that Joseph will take that as a cue for pay-back time. They sold their brother into slavery once – what will he do to them now he’s in power?

But Joseph reassures them:

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear.”    Genesis 50:20-21 (NRSV)

That seems to capture the shape of the doctrine: two parallel causes working simultaneously but for different ends. God in heaven, and J’s brothers on earth. I remember as a youngster hearing Don Carson use this text to teach that exact doctrine. Double causality.

But is that really what Genesis 50:20 teaches? Let’s look more closely.

Tomorrow: conclusion

Robert Alter has spent a lifetime thinking about how Hebrew texts work. He has helped a lot of us read these texts better through his book, The Art of Biblical NarrativeIn his own translations he shows us the fruit of his thinking, shows what can be done with a sensitive and informed reading of the texts.

The results are a little surprising. Reading Alter’s translation is not like reading anyone else’s. It may take some time to get used to. It took me a while. That’s because he’s doing a whole bunch of stuff other translations aren’t doing. In fact, he’s doing stuff other translations never even dreamed of.

Most of our translations take an ‘engineers’ approach. They’re a bit mathematical. They consider the Hebrew word or phrase, they ask, what does it mean? Language is about meaning, so the great task of the translator is clarity.

So they analyse the grammar, find out who is subject and what is object, how the grammatical machinery is working, they determine word meaning – and then they try to render the whole in English. Then they move on to the next word or phrase. That’s about it. When the text has complexities such as imagery, they often end up giving an English ‘explanation’ or decoding of them – committing what Alter calls ‘the heresy of explanation.’ The end result is hopefully nice to read, but it communicates pretty much just through word and phrase meanings: very limited as a piece of writing. A bit mathematical.

So the reading is limited, and the writing is limited. There is communication loss at both ends. And the ‘decoding’ approach means that there is loss in the middle also. Overall, too much is lost. Alter writes, ‘The general result…is to reduce, simplify and denature the Bible’. And, I would add, to ‘de-culture’ it.

Alter starts his project with a different approach to reading. For Alter, the text communicates and functions in many different ways, not just by word and phrase meaning. So he tries to employ as many of these dimensions as possible to render the text in English. The result is a complex expressive creation – like the Hebrew!

Clarity is not always the goal. In fact it is only one aspect of a translation, for language is a quirky and playful thing. Often it functions by obscuring meaning, encoding it in metaphor, blurring it in ambiguity, veiling it in enigma etc. This playfulness is an integral part of language and should itself be translated as much as possible.

Here are some of the many ways the Hebrew text functions and conveys meaning.

cultural flavour – one thing about the Pentateuch writing is that it’s Jewish. Very Jewish! The flavour of that culture, the fact that the stories are about and by and for those particular people, that’s important, and worth translating. It gives us the cultural setting or context in which the stories make sense. Alter does this in many ways, one of the chief of which is:

rhythm – texts use rhythm to convey meaning. When Joseph is propositioned by Potiphar’s wife, his stream-of-consciousness, wordy reply strongly suggests panic: he’s in a flap. The rhythm gives it away. Also, the Semitic flavour of the texts is partly encoded in the Semitic rhythms which they employ. Notable in this regard is the frequent use of the same conjunction, waw, (= and). Where English likes to vary, Hebrew likes the rhythmic effect produced by sameness of conjunction. Alter creates this rhythm in English, and it’s a bit weird at first. Feels foreign! Which is the point. Stay with that rhythm for a bit, and you’re back in the Ancient Near East!

The other distinctive thing about Hebrew rhythm is its briefness. Hebrew prose won’t use three syllables where two will do. It tends to avoid wordy phrases. This makes for a streamlined, fast-moving, compact narrative style that sounds well out loud.

metaphor – Hebrew is fond of earthy metaphor, imagery taken from everyday life, and especially from the human body. These images have their own cognitive and emotive effects on the reader/hearer. Texts don’t just mean things: they do things. If you ‘decode’ these metaphors, you lose a whole dimension of meaning and function in the text. The Holman and the NIV are especially bad in this regard. More paraphrased translations in general are bad here.

repetition – where English loves the variety of synonyms, Hebrew loves repetition. A tightly limited vocabulary is deliberately used again and again. This gives an earthy simplicity and rhythmic musicality to the writing which makes it listenable and memorisable.

intertextuality – a specialised form of repetition. A word or phrase or image from one place will recur in another narrative context, creating an echo. The Joseph cycle is full of such echoes, regarding hands, memory, lordship, etc. These echoes convey meaning, they create links. Intertextual echoes are a device by which the writer can comment on the action and its significance. If the word or phrase is translated the same way each time, the echoes can be heard. If the word or image is translated differently each time, the echoes are lost.

These are some of the main ways in which, for Alter, the Hebrew text communicates. It doesn’t just mean something, it does things: it surprises, puzzles, delights, confuses, and moves. It dances and sings, and skips along at a cracking pace. It penetrates the mind with its terse and emphatic rhythms. It subtly betrays the feelings, intentions, and motives of the characters.

And all of this, all of these dimensions, are waiting to be rendered in English. This is the sophisticated, indeed breath-takingly demanding task that Alter has taken upon himself. Other translators, it seems, aren’t even aware of half of these dimensions of the language. But Alter is, and he is at least trying to translate them.

How does he do? Pretty well, actually. It’s not perfect. He is constantly stretching the expressive capacities of English, and sometimes the stretch is a bit far. But overall, this is a work of genius. It conveys so much more of the Hebrew text than our usual versions do, that there’s really no comparison. This is translating at a different level altogether.

It’s not in easy English. You may not wish to read it in your church. But read it at home, and be enriched and refreshed. Give it some time, and it will reward you with new riches from the glories of the Hebrew Scriptures.

joseph-and-his-coat-of-many-coloursThe Joseph story is full of vivid and poignant images. Until our translations iron them out. Here are some of them:

Genesis 37:19    They said to one another “Here comes that dream-lord!” 

Joseph is only lord in his dream-world: that’s the point of the brothers’ sarcastic remark. ‘Let’s kill him. Then we’ll see how his dreams turn out.’ This sets the great question for the Joseph saga: are Joseph’s visions of lordship just a dream, or is it future reality?

At least it would set that question, if only our translations managed it. But actually they give us ‘Here comes that dreamer.’ So the whole lordship question is watered down.

Potiphar’s wife’s advance on Joseph is breathtakingly vivid:

Genesis 39:6     Now Joseph was handsome in form and handsome to behold.

And it happened after these things that his master’s wife raised her eyes to Joseph and said ‘Lie with me’.

Those eyes! And that aggressive sexual imperative. Just two Hebrew words. Leaves you tingling.

Or maybe not. In the TNIV it becomes ‘after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!” ‘

Next she disrobes Joseph:

39:12 She seized him by his tunic, saying “Lie with me!” But he left his tunic in her hand and he fled and got out… And she called out to the servants and said “Look…he left his tunic beside me and fled and got out.”

The significance of the garment is clearly sexual. She disrobes him, and then claims that he had disrobed himself, the abandoned tunic being the ‘evidence’ of a sexual assault. Meanwhile Joseph is out there somewhere in his undies, like the disciple in Gethsemane in Mark’s Gospel.

The TNIV chastely covers all this by translating. “But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.” A cloak. Nice one. Why not go for ‘cardigan’?

There is an image running through the Joseph story, the bodily image of hands.

Genesis 39:22 The prison warden placed in Joseph’s hands all the prisoners…

Whose hands things are in – that’s a big deal in the Joseph stories. The image is used over 30 times. But not in the Holman!

“The warden put all the prisoners who were in the prison under Joseph’s authority”

The concrete, bodily image is nowhere to be found. It is routinely suppressed:

Genesis 41:42   “Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger.” (TNIV)

Should be ‘on Joseph’s hand’. And so on. Perhaps the key image of the whole cycle – missing.

When Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt, Joseph accuses them using a repeated bodily image:

Genesis 42:9      You are spies! To see the land’s nakedness you have come!

This image of ‘seeing the nakedness’ comes from the vocabulary of sex crimes. Joseph claims they have come to spy on the land in its famine-struck condition, and this is a violation.

The TNIV once again erases the vivid imagery, and also misses the point of the saying: It reads “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

Joseph and his brothers have a night of drinking:

43:34        and they drank, and they got drunk with him.

Our Bibles don’t like to see a Patriarch getting drunk, so we get

“So they drank and were merry with him.” (NRSV)   Merry. Cheerful. Like Robin Hood and his men. Merry as a newt.

There is a climactic moment when Jacob hears the news that his long-lost son is alive – and the ruler of Egypt!

Genesis 45:26   And his heart stopped, for he could not believe them.

So much intensity and complexity of feeling and thought conveyed in this one powerful bodily image. Erased in all our translations:

“He was stunned; he could not believe them.” (NRSV, Holman, TNIV). Unforgivable. Inexcusable.

Where can you go for a full colour coat on Joseph? Once again the NRSV isn’t too bad. And once again we recommend Robert Alter’s translation for full colour.

jacobsDreamThe second half of Genesis has the spicy story of Jacob. Watch how your translation takes out the spice.

When Jacob goes wife-hunting, we get this beautiful evocative description:

Genesis 29:1      And Jacob lifted his feet and journeyed to the land of the sons of the east.

What does the Holman to do here? ‘Jacob resumed his journey and went to the eastern country.’

As usual, the vivid, concrete body-reference omitted, and gone are the poor old sons of the east.

Jacob’s married life is dominated by  the competing fertility of Leah and Rachel, introduced with this arresting opener:

Genesis 29:31      And Yahweh saw that Leah was hated, and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.

Charged emotions, rejection, competition, jealousy, and the concrete vividness of bodily description. Dynamite. Until the TNIV gets to it:

‘When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive’.  Yawn.

How wealthy did Jacob get?

Genesis 30:43      And the man swelled out very much, very much, and he had many flocks…

This intense physical image of wealth, in the hands of the Holman, becomes… wait for it…

‘And the man became very rich…’       Slap forehead here.

When Jacob makes covenant with Laban,

Genesis 31:53           And Jacob swore by the Dread of his father Isaac.

Jacob uses this strange name for God. The word ‘dread’ is reserved for occasions of great terror. It’s a ‘bones shaking’ sort of word. Luckily our translations all water it down to the safer

‘So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac.’

When Jacob is afraid of being massacred by Esau his brother, he sends gifts ahead for his brother to find:

Genesis 32:20       “and after I shall look on his face: perhaps he will show a welcoming face.”

This is intensely personal stuff, the brother thinking about what his brother’s face will tell him, whether of welcome or of violence. How does the TNIV try to capture the colour and emotion of this bodily imagery?

“later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.”

The moment of Esau’s appearing is one of intense panic, the emotion conjured up by the careful writing:

Genesis 33:1       And Jacob raised his eyes and saw and – look: Esau coming! And with him 400 men!

Thankfully the Holman keeps everything as calm as possible: ‘Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming toward him with 400 men’.

This is all very bland and boring. How can we get Jacob back in full colour, without having to learn Hebrew? The NRSV is better than most. But for full colour, read Robert Alter’s translation.

Why do so few of our people want to read their bible? Let’s take a look at some of the quirky and colourful writing in early Genesis. See how good it could be, and how it gets blanded:

Genesis 3:6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, (TNIV)

except it really says, “the woman saw that that the tree was good for food, and a lust to the eyes“.

The tree is an object of strong desire. ‘Pleasing’ or ‘delightful’ sanitises this of its sense of lust. And how memorable it would have been if they’d left it in!

Genesis 4:5 Cain was furious, and he was downcast.  (Holman)

except it really says, “Cain was furious and his face fell.”

A vivid bodily image. Lost.

When Seth comes along Eve sings:

Genesis 4:25  “God has given me another child in place of Abel” (Holman)

which is really   “God has given me other seed in place of Abel”.

Seed is such a key Jewish concept. So frequently used, from Genesis 1 onwards. And so earthy and memorable. Translated out of existence.

Genesis 15:4 “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” (TNIV)

is really “one coming forth from your belly/loins will be your heir.”

The graphic and particular sexual connection of this, who could ever forget it? We all could, once it becomes the more general and asexual ‘coming from your own body’. Thanks TNIV.

Genesis 16:4        When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. (TNIV)

is really  “And she saw that she had conceived, and her mistress became slight in her eyes.”

The verse is all about what Hagar sees, and how she sees things. What a delicious eastern phrase for despising: ‘became slight in her eyes’. All gone in the TNIV. It gives a nice bland paraphrase of the whole thing.

Genesis 18:3     Abraham said, “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant.   (NRSV)

is really  “My lord, if I find favour in your eyes

The concrete bodily imagery of eyes is just erased.

Genesis 18:11          Sarah had passed the age of childbearing.   (Holman)

is really  “Sarah had ceased to have the woman’s way.”

Holman chastely backs off from this menstrual reference. And then we get

Genesis 18:12    “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”   (NRSV)

which is really   “After I am shrivelled/wasted, shall I have pleasure, and my lord is old?”

Sarah chooses this very physical word ‘wasted’ to describe herself, probably to describe her vagina. Can they still perform the deed? – and then an afterthought: Abe himself is an old cogger!

The TNIV tries to sanitise further with “Will I now have this pleasure?” – implying the pleasure of a child.

-whereas Sarah is likely thinking of the improbable pleasure of sexual intercourse. First things first! “Shall I have pleasure in my condition – and he in his?!”

This remarkable and memorable scene loses much of its intimacy and impact through these stale paraphrases.

When Abraham goes to sacrifice Isaac, Yahweh tells him:

Genesis 22: 18         “all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”   (TNIV)

which is really  “all nations on earth will be blessed because you listened to my voice.”

The TNIV loses this concrete, body-related phrase ‘listened to my voice’. This vivid phrase also revisits the vivid encounter scenes from earlier in the episode, in which God spoke out loud to Abram, and he answered. There were three of them  – which one is Yahweh refering to here? Possibly all three. One reason the nations will be blessed through Isaac is because Abram listened when the angel called out ‘Stop!’

When Abraham loses his wife, we get a scene full of fascinating detail, bargaining with the Hittites:

Genesis 23:8   “If you have it in your hearts that I should bury my dead here before me…”

– at least it would be fascinating except that the Holman cuts it to 

“If you are willing for me to bury my dead, ”  

Again a concrete bodily image ‘if you have it in your hearts’, and a visual presence-heightening device ‘here before me’  are both erased, leaving a bland result.

Abraham pays the Hittites for a burial site:

Genesis 23:16    400 silver shekels passed by the merchant

A vivid detail: the silver or its weight has to be approved by the expert.  Vivid, that is, until the Holman gets to it:

400 shekels of silver, at the current commercial rate  (Holman).

Gone is the merchant, and his approval process. Never mind that the Holman phrase is meaningless: even worse, it’s boring.

When Abraham’s servant suggests taking Isaac back to Mesopotamia, Abe reacts strongly:

Genesis 24:6     “Watch yourself, lest you take my son back there!”

Helpfully toned down by the Holman, to remove the visual element and the strong emotion:

“Make sure that you don’t take my son back there.

When the servant arrives in Nahor’s town, he stands at the well and prays a memorable prayer:

Genesis 24:12     “Yahweh God of my master Abraham, make something happen before me this day.”

Not so memorable  in the NRSV: “…please grant me success today”.

So much for Abraham’s story. Wait till you hear  what they did to Jacob!

Is there no way out of this morass of blandness? There is. Robert Alter’s translation.

Why do so few of our people read the bible? Even the keen Christians. So few.

I don’t know the whole answer, but I reckon our translations are part of the problem. We have more choices in English bible translation than ever before, but I reckon our people are reading them less than ever. Let’s be honest: we are not finding the bible to be compelling reading.

It’s not easy to translate any text let alone the Scriptures, and I’m sure the translators do their best, but there are problems emerging, aren’t there? More translations, less reading. Somehow things are not going the right direction.

I have had the privilege of learning both Greek and Hebrew (though not Aramaic!) and perhaps the thing that has surprised me most is how good so much of the bible’s writing is. It’s racy, colourful, quirky, creative, earthy, full of vivid metaphor, memorable one-liners. It’s so rich, I love it. It keeps me going back for more.

Then I turn to the NIV. Or the Holman. Sigh. So much is missing.

I know something is always lost in translation. But so much? So much of the colour and immediacy, ironed out by the committees. So much that might startle or puzzle or catch the attention, smoothed out in the name of ‘clarity’ or ‘reading age’. Anything arresting or memorable in the language, anything that might fire the imagination, tends to be neutered. Anything that stands out is very likely to get the chop.

It’s especially bad in the OT. Hebrew is a wonderfully concrete language, full of earthy imagery and characteristic turns of phrase. The Jewish mindset is very much built into the language. There’s not much abstract or academic in the Hebrew Scriptures.

But time and again, our translators take the solid, concrete, vivid, Jewish-sounding phrases, and turn them into colourless, abstract, mid-Atlantic news-feed-sounding and completely unmemorable pap. Instead of translating the metaphors, they try to explain them. Duh!

Fellas, this does not good reading make…

Sure the texts are easier to make some sense of at first glance, this way. But a first glance is all they invite. There’s often not enough of interest there to warrant a second reading. Let alone repeated reading over the years. Or memorisation. Who reads newsprint more than once?

It’s hard to get excited when most of the visual hooks have been excised. When abstract nouns are so dominant.

I’m not surprised people don’t feel like reading these translations: let’s be honest, they’re boring. They read like the findings of a committee. That’s because they are the findings of a committee!

It’s hard to feel that we are even reading Jewish literature: there’s not much of a Jewish feel to the language of the NIV Old Testament. It’s as though we think that the only way for these writings to speak to people today is if they are stripped of their Jewish culture. What’s going on there?

I’m going to call it: when you take the most important Jewish text, and turn it into something that doesn’t sound remotely Jewish, there’s anti-Semitism at work here isn’t there. Think about it.

I would never say all this to the people in our church. They’ve got to use these translations, no sense making them feel dissatisfied about them. But here at The Grit, it’s a forum for open discussion and critique.

Are they all so bad? The ESV is better, but only in the patches where the modernisers ran out of time, and didn’t get around to updating it! There are plenty of those. But all the rest, they have carefully blandified. The NRSV is also more restrained than most in the blandifying department. But it’s a relative thing – they all do it.

The King James had the wisdom to retain many of the Jewish turns of phrase, it avoids abstract nouns, the result being a text that is harder to read at first, sounds unusual at times, and is totally fascinating and memorisable. But a bit old for contemporary use. The NRSV where it follows the KJV is better than most others.

Robert Alter’s translations are so much better. But I’ve only found the Pentateuch, Psalms and David stories done by him. Hoping for more!

Maybe you’re not convinced by my ranting. Don’t blame you. I am going to start listing examples of where the modern English committee-translations blandify the original. There are thousands of them, so I might need to be selective!

You’re making an effort to be clear about family expectations, set some routines and boundaries. You’re trying to do it calmly. Is that going to lower stress levels?

Not immediately! Family systems theory (FST) talks about an initial reaction in the system when someone self-defines in this way. People are not used to it, they don’t know how to understand what you’re doing, it’s new and they don’t like new. It’s true for your kids. Initially they will react. There may be an increase in conflict.

That’s the bad news. The good news is it won’t last. No system can keep reacting to a stable non-anxious presence. Take a look at this graph:

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 8.57.11 PM

FST is very interested in stress levels. It makes the point that they normally go up and down a lot, as conflict moments come and go. But the average stays stable. When someone in the system (say, the parent) articulates clearly their expectations, and becomes a self-defined presence, there is a reaction. Even the average stress level goes up. But not for long. The whole system soon adjusts, and becomes more stable: less ups and downs, less conflict moments. And best of all, the new stable level is lower than the old average. Average stress levels have fallen.

So here’s the challenge. According to FST, if you can find the strength to self-define, articulate expectations, stick to them, and weather the initial storm, you can improve the health of the family.

Interestingly, this is also the story of the gospel of Jesus. God announces that new conditions are in place: he has appointed his Son Jesus as lord of all, heir of the creation. Jesus is being placed in charge. This announcement leads to a crisis reaction, strong opposition from both the demonic and from human rulers. The couple of years of this reaction are recorded in the Gospel accounts. This crisis comes to a head when Jesus has to put up with the pain and shame of crucifixion. But God our Father persists in his purpose. He places Jesus on the throne through resurrection. He has defined the family system of his creation, made his intentions clear. The world is going to have to come to terms with it. And the new system is much better than the old!

So how about you? Feeling ready for some (brief) stormy weather?

Low-stress parenting 3: Routine

Posted: July 10, 2013 by J in General, Pastoral issues

So you’re getting good at noticing stress in your family, and you’re having a go at defining your expectations. How can you make this self-definition easier and more effective, so that the family stress-levels keep coming down?

Consider this principle:

The more predictable the expectations are, the more powerfully they function to lower family stress levels.

The weakest expectations are the ones you just mentioned today. Who knows – maybe you’ll change them tomorrow. That’s a fairly stressful situation for the family. But the expectations that are well-worn, that rarely need to be discussed because everyone is so used to them: those ones are truly powerful and comforting.

We can call those super-stable expectations routines.

Do you have any routines in your family? I’ll bet you do.

God treats his children in this way, and it is a great kindness to us. Israel’s law was supposed to guide national life long-term. Now we connect with God through the ministry of Jesus his son, and the arrangements are similarly stable:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever          Hebrew 13:8

That’s good news for us. No worries about the deal changing on us, we can trust in Jesus and relax. How about with your kids?

Kids love routines. They love knowing the rules, knowing what to do; being able to check if others have done their bit! Routines lower stress because they empower everybody in the family. They are egalitarian: once established, everyone must submit to them equally. They create expectations in all directions. There are no secrets, everyone knows the same things, knows what is going on. An unknown future is stressful, but a predictable one is reassuring.

(Routines also help kids learn to self-regulate. I.e. manage their own behaviour. Instead of needing to be told what to do every time, kids can refer to the routine, and know what to do for themselves. Self-regulating is the holy grail of child-rearing.)

You can use routines to lower the stress in your family. They are powerful tools to help you ‘self-define’ as a parental presence (see previous post). They create clarity and minimise conflict.

In our family we have lots of routines. Our kids are fairly young so the routines reflect that. Here are some of them:

  • Each child has an assigned task to help prepare for breakfast. Takes about 30 seconds each.
  • At breakfast we will thank God and say the Lord’s prayer together. We hold hands.
  • Our children go to school five days/week whether they feel like it or not (this one’s not as obvious as you might think)
  • Mum or Dad has to get dinner
  • If our daughter eats her meal without assistance, she gets a sticker on her chart
  • Kids have a bath if they didn’t have one the night before
  • Before bed, we have lots of routine. After dinner it goes like this:
-clean hands (messy from messy eating!)
-read story together on the lounge – kids take turns choosing book
-bible story and prayer together as family
-children tidy a set number of items from bedroom floor, varies depending on age.
-children visit toilet before bed.
-bedtimes: 7.30 for younger ones, 8.30 for older one.
-Mum and Dad are required to tuck kids in bed and kiss them, and probably to hear about the favourite event from the day.

That’s not all our routines, but you get the idea!

Pretty mundane stuff, most of it. But here’s the thing worth knowing about these routines: we rarely have conflict about any of them. Everyone accepts them, everyone normally complies. (Occasionally I fall asleep and fail to tuck kids in!) I don’t think the kids see them as ‘mum and dad’s expecations’, I think they feel them as ‘the way our family operates’. It’s just the rules. We all have to follow them! We kind of like them.

We still have to remind the kids to do lots of these things. Compliance is not always automatic! But the point is that once it’s been said, there’s generally no argument, no conflict, because everyone knows that those are our family patterns.

Over the years we have added routines, some short term, others permanent. Nearly always this has been a blessing to the family. In fact, I think we need to add a couple more. Like teeth brushing! (shame)

So, how could you use routines to lower the stress in your family? You already do this, but could you benefit from a few more? It’s actually quite simple (not easy, simple!). You just need to

1. articulate the expectation clearly and regularly

2. stick to it like glue regardless of complaints

At first there will be complaints. They won’t last long. Kids are very quick to learn the routines. They’ll feel like it’s a natural law long before you do. Within ten repetitions you’ll have a new routine.

The best area to establish a new routine is probably the area where you have the most conflict at the moment. That’s the point where you need a powerful stress-reducing tool like this one.

Here are some examples of routines, that might spark your imagination:

You can have half an hour screen time each day. When you want it to start, come tell me, and we’ll start this timer. When the alarm goes off, you stop. (possible addition, If you don’t stop at the alarm, you will not have screen time tomorrow.)

After you have done these three morning jobs, you can have your phone. Until then it will sit here. It will be the same every school morning.

If you call me from another room I will not answer. If you come to where I am I will talk to you.

Eight o’clock is piano practice time.

Friday and Saturday are the nights available for going out.

You get $10 pocket money each week, for your social life etc. That is all. You manage the details.