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Translating Metaphors and the NLT of Isaiah 43:2

Translating Metaphors and the NLT of Isaiah 43:2

is43-2I am very slow to criticize translations in broad terms. Every time I point out what I consider to be a problematic rendering in some Bible translation, someone will ask me if they should discard that version in exchange for a more accurate one. Any translation will contain renderings that can be questioned. In many cases there were people on the translation committee who questioned the chosen rendering. Translation has a great deal of art to it. Keep that in mind as I criticize this rendering in the New Living Translation.

Here’s the NLT of Isaiah 43:2 —

When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you. (via

Now I think the NLT has captured some of the meaning very clearly. The interesting thing is the translation of the metaphors. The words [of difficulty] and [of oppression] are not explicit in the Hebrew. Now the metaphor probably justifies this reading as a good option for understanding the text. My problem with it is that the metaphor is, in my opinion, equally comprehensible in English as it is in Hebrew. That is, in reading this passage, an English-speaking reader would probably feel free to choose from the same set of events or experiences that might be referenced by the metaphor.

On the other hand, the modern reader might tend not to see the same range of literal understandings. “Through deep waters” doubtless would evoke the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) and possibly the flood. “Through rivers” would likely evoke the story of crossing the Jordan, while “fire of oppression” might well draw on the story of the three Hebrews (Daniel 3), though of course based on dating, that story might even be said to draw on this. In this way the NLT rendering takes away some literal connections to the narrative of Israel’s history/traditions which might easily be missed.

The three metaphors are each translated with a different impact. The first, “deep waters” is left literal. This is perhaps due to the flood, Red Sea (Sea of Reeds), and the Jordan. In the second case we break out the metaphor, though it is closely parallel to the first, but we break it out in a generic sense, “of difficulty,” which says to the reader, “Don’t take this literally, but it has broad application.” Finally, in discussing fire, we get very specific, and say, “fire of oppression.”

But does not that third option reduce the potential for the English reader to less than the Hebrew intends? Yes, sometimes translators have to make this sort of choice, but in this case, I think we take a passage that can be clearly understood when rendered in a largely formal fashion, and actually diminish its impact with explanatory prepositional phrases.

This isn’t a terrible rendering, but at the same time, it struck me as not being one of the better ones in the NLT.


Biblical Culture Shock?

Biblical Culture Shock?


Before I went overseas with my parents at 14 years of age we were all required to be briefed about culture shock. Sometimes people have very negative reactions to encountering cultures different than their own. We saw this happen with people who went to Guyana (where I was for three years and my parents for seven), who would come to really despise everything Guyanese. It was hard for me to comprehend, because the Guyanese people, while they did things differently than Americans, were not really all that shocking. You adjusted slightly to the local norms, and life went on.

We saw this happen with people who went to Guyana (where I was for three years and my parents for seven), who would come to really despise everything Guyanese. It was hard for me to comprehend, because the Guyanese people, while they did things differently than Americans, were not really all that shocking. You adjusted slightly to the local norms, and life went on. My parents were accused of letting me go too “native,” whatever that meant.

Since then I’ve seen this happen to people experiencing different regions of the United States. It doesn’t take huge differences to cause some shock. It really doesn’t have as much to do with the amount of difference, but rather with how one reacts to the differences. To live with those differences you don’t actually have to change your values or your personality. You just have to recognize who the other person is. You can even disapprove, if you keep it in bounds, and especially if you recognize that the person from another culture has every bit the right to their cultural norms as you have to yours. If you’re visiting, they have more!

Sometimes visiting the worlds of Bible writers can result in culture shock. The cultures of biblical writers were quite different from ours, more different than anything we’d likely experience in traveling in the modern world. I would suggest that the goal must be not to get so shocked by the differences in culture that we fail to hear the people behind these events.

In fact, I find that frequently our tendency to stand in judgment on the characters in stories and even the authors often diminishes our ability to truly experience the value of the story itself. And even many didactic passages are, in essence, story.

Since I’m talking so much about Hebrews, let me apply this to that book. I’ve been searching for metaphors to express two things: 1) The overall message and 2) The role of sacrifice in the book. Here are some ideas. I’ll refine them as I go.

For the overall message, I’ve been using the train. I recall in my first visit to Germany I was met at the Frankfort airport by my translator, who was about 20 years old and one of the few people I’ve encountered who walk faster than I do on a regular basis. We had to catch a train, and to do so we crossed numerous tracks, passed numerous trains, and finally jumped on one at the last minute, just before it started to roll.

My German is good enough to read signs and follow directions, but I couldn’t keep up. By the time we got on the train I was thoroughly lost and couldn’t have told you the destination. I was completely dependent on my translator. After we left the station, for a disturbing moment, she thought she had gotten on the wrong train, but then she determined we were head to the right place and we settled down.

I think I could translate much of the message of Hebrews into a train metaphor. It’s all about getting on the right train and staying on there until it reaches the destination. You have doubts, perhaps, along the way, but you double check (as the author of Hebrews is doing) and you realize you’re still headed in the right direction. There’s nothing more to be done. Just stay on the train. It will take you where you’re going.

I’ll apply this metaphor in a number of texts, though I will note that there are rough edges. Still, I’m finding it more helpful than not.

Second is the metaphor of sacrifice, particularly animal sacrifice. I have discussed atonement and the death of Jesus elsewhere and will doubtless do so many times more. Here I’m referring only to animal sacrifice as part of a general cultic experience. This is something that modern minds find difficult to embrace, or even to observe from a distance. What can all those slaughtered lambs, goats, rams, and bulls have to do with a positive experience?

There are two directions in which I think we fail in relating to sacrifice in scripture. The first is to reduce sacrifice to blood atonement for sin. There are sin offerings, and sacrifices did relate to sin, but blood atonement for sin was not the exclusive view. To see sacrifice as just about blood atonement is just as much a misunderstanding as to dismiss it entirely, which is the second direction in which we often fail.

My metaphor here is community, specifically mutual support and communication in community. The cultic system involves the divine in the activities of the community and the sacrifices relate to the various aspect of this set of relationships. Atonement (and I’ll discuss various words at some later time) doesn’t just involve dealing with specific sinful acts, but rather with a restoration of those relationships and those communications.

We tend to separate prayer and hearing God speak from the activities of the cult. Prophet and priest have different roles, never to meet. But the priest also had a role in communication and the cult supported community.

I think that without this fuller aspect of sacrifice we are likely to misunderstand Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. He is not just a bigger, stronger, better blood sacrifice for sin. He is the only one who can by nature perfect the lines of communication between God and humanity.

Much more on that later as well!

The Value (or not) of the Spiritual Warfare Metaphor

The Value (or not) of the Spiritual Warfare Metaphor

My daily lectionary readings for the day included both Ephesians 6:10-24 and Mark 5:1-20. (I get my readings from The Voice.) It’s an interesting combination, because the Ephesians passage is the famous one about the armor of God and thus features in just about any discussion of spiritual warfare, while the passage in Mark, regarding the healing of the demoniac on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, is spiritual warfare.

Now what interests me here is the demonstration of what is meant. In his just released study guide to Ephesians, Bob Cornwall notes:

For Christians uncomfortable with military imagery, this passage can prove challenging. The ingenuity of it, however, needs to be recognized. The author took a picture that every one of his readers would immediately recognize, and used it to encourage them to become actively engaged in their faith, thereby helping to bring to an end the rule of the evil one. Such a calling would be difficult, which is why the word of encouragement is central to this message: Stand firm.

There are several points here that I’d like to emphasize, because I believe spiritual warfare is often misunderstood and certainly misapplied.

  1. Spiritual warfare is a metaphor. It is not intended as an endorsement of violence. Notice how Jesus behaves in Mark. There is no violence or fighting, except on the part of the demonized man.
  2. Spiritual warfare is not a method. We’re not the ones who defeat evil by practicing some set of techniques. I know people who feel that they need to “pray on” the armor of God every morning or they might be susceptible to the attacks of the devil that day. Now as a spiritual exercise, I see no problem with praying through this passage, but this is not some magical ritual that protects you. It’s about belonging to Christ. Bob uses the excellent phrase “actively engaged in their faith.”
  3. A metaphor may be especially valuable to a particular time. I think spiritual warfare provides one way of understanding the conflict with evil. Unfortunately, when it gets into the hands of those who think violence solves everything, it just imports ungodly habits and behavior into our spiritual lives and the damage can be substantial.

I really liked having these passages together, because the way Jesus is portrayed in the gospels is peaceful and confident. The evil spiritual realm falls, not to combat, but to a confident faith in God.

Stand firm indeed!

In Case of Murder, Attack Some Metaphors

In Case of Murder, Attack Some Metaphors

I haven’t yet commented on the shootings in Tucson. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, all of them, not just those in federal service. I’m concerned when people are killed because of senseless or unnecessary violence wherever that occurs. I don’t say this to diminish the importance of an attack on a member of congress. There is a special importance to such an attack, and we should be deeply concerned. This we ought to have done, but not to have left the other undone (Matt. 23:23).

But how should we respond? Too frequently we look for some sort of law that is going to make us completely safe from such things. But such safety, like complete safety from terrorist attacks will remain elusive. We need to reflect soberly on what will actually accomplish useful goals. I’m perfectly happy with the idea of looking at the type of weapons available and the people who can legally purchase them, though we again need to make sure that any such restrictions actually accomplish their goal.

But then there’s the attack on certain target maps, or on certain ways of talking about one’s opponents. I think there’s a good summary of the maps over at Unsettled Christianity. They aren’t just made by one side. That’s important. But even more important, in my view, is this: They weren’t intended to incite or encourage violence.

We use violent metaphors in much of our speech. There is even the entire Christian metaphor of spiritual warfare. Though there are some that seem to miss the metaphorical side, or the fact that spiritual warfare is not “against flesh and blood,” the vast majority of those who use this language intend no violence by it. I don’t believe that New Testament writers intended any such thing by it either.

Now Congressman Robert Brady (D, PA) has introduced a law to prohibit certain expressions regarding public officials. One of his particular concerns is the maps I referenced above:

“You can’t put bulls eyes or crosshairs on a United States congressman or a federal official,” Brady said. “I understand this web site that had it on there is no longer in existence. Someone is feeling a little guilty” (Source).

I don’t know about feeling a little bit guilty. I’d rather say that, under the circumstances, the makers of the map though displaying it was in bad taste. That’s their decision.

But making a law against metaphor, which is what this is, is not going to accomplish anything. It may make people feel like they have done something. It may make people feel more secure, but it shouldn’t. Some may think it’s insensitive to oppose something like this at a time like this. Proponents of such measures count on that feeling.

But just because a law claims that it will make us safer doesn’t mean it will. No law will make us safe from craziness or evil.

From the same CNN article:

As for support for the bill, Brady said, “Why would you be against it?”

Because it simply creates more laws without providing any more safety. Because it allows us to pretend we’re solving problems when we aren’t.

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Those Gritty Physical Metaphors

Those Gritty Physical Metaphors

The gospel for Proper 14B is John 6:35, 41-51.  This isn’t an exposition of that passage, but something that passage brought back to my mind.

Jesus starts with the bread metaphor.  Now for many of us, comparing spiritual food to bread comes quite naturally.  We’ve read this in the gospel many times, and we’ve heard it in churches.  Such expressions as “fresh bread for the people” or “break the bread of life” are still quite common.  But at the end of this passage Jesus touches on a theme that will become much more common through this gospel and is harder to take:  his flesh (v. 51).  This metaphor gets quite heavy in verses 52-58, as Jesus tells people they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.

The metaphorically challenged get some kind of cannibalism out of all of this.  Yet even many Christians are uncomfortable with strong “blood” metaphors these days.  “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb” is a song lyric that is less popular than it used to be.  We want soft metaphors.

We are also often less anxious to compare the physical and the spiritual.  There’s the saying, “so heavenly he’s of no earthly good.”  The problem with that is that if we read Jesus correctly, being of no earthly good is not, in fact, very heavenly.  Sure, we know what that saying means.  There are many people who are very “spiritual” and don’t really comprehend the things of this earth, or at least so it appears.  But I’m going to suggest that if you don’t comprehend the things of this earth, you’re not going to comprehend the things of heaven.

I have a friend who has led many mission trips.  He’s all about providing dental care to needy people.  He gives generously of time and resources to make it happen.  But once when I was on a mission trip with him, he told me and others that he didn’t think he was very spiritual.  Now in the sense of soaring off into heavenly places over a hymn or a praise song, I would agree he’s not.  But if Matthew 25:31-46 is to be believed, he may well be the most spiritual person of us all.

The doctrine of creation tells us that God is the creator.  The greatest thing that heaven has done in relation to us is physical.  Now somebody is sure to point me to salvation as the greatest thing.  But that is another instance of the same sort of thing.  Salvation, recreation, was a restoration of what was supposed to be in the physical universe. No matter how spiritual we make God, if we stick with scripture, he is the creator of the physical universe.  Nobody could be more “heavenly” than God, yet God creates and uses the physical.

Those who think we should retire “blood language” as out of date and out of tune with the modern age should consider what the idea of eating human flesh and drinking human blood would have sounded like to a Jewish audience in 1st century Judea and Galilee.  It would have been very shocking language then.  And the fact is that sometimes we need shocking language to make us take a subject seriously.

You see, we are not sort of spiritual beings who need a little elevation; we are fallen beings who need serious intervention to restore the image of God and bring us back to our spiritual place.  Sin isn’t a mild infection; it is a virulent, deadly plague.  Shocking language is needed about our shocking condition and activities.

And sin occurs here on earth, in the physical universe.  A few shocking physical metaphors are, I believe, good for our souls!

Piper: Suffering is Judicial

Piper: Suffering is Judicial

This is via a summary by Adrian Warnock, but I doubt Adrian would get a whole section wrong. There are a large number of things in this message that are right on target, and a few also with which I disagree.

But the reason I’m posting a brief response is this: As has become standard with those who accept penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), metaphor has been promoted to reality. Everything gets placed in the courtroom. If we cannot distinguish spiritual things from the worldly metaphors used to describe them, then we will always be off track.

Let me quote Piper as summarized by Adrian Warnock:

Suffering is Judicial
John PiperThis is most important, most controversial, and most helpful. In verse 20 it is clear that somebody took the universe and disordered it. Someone brought painful disorder to our relationships, workplaces, etc. GOD did it. We know it must have been God because it was done in hope! There can only be two other candidates—Adam and the devil. Did Adam and Eve sin in the hope of a future new heaven and earth? They didn’t have a clue about that when they fell! Was it the devil’s design to do it in hope? No! Only God did this in hope. God judged the universe because of sin. . . .

Now while there are even some valid points within that selection, there is also a basic error. The courtroom has been imported and made into the reality. If God allows this to happen as a consequence of sin, that is apparently not sufficient for Piper. But God is still doing it, because God is in and behind everything that is. The courtroom metaphor distorts the issue.

Quoting further (after skipping half of a long paragraph), still from Adrian’s summary:

The meaning of all misery in the universe is that sin is horrific. All natural evil such as floods, disease, etc. is a statement about the horror of moral evil. God looked upon sin, and he said, “Here is my response to that.” He subjected the entire creation to this. Until you see the moral outrage of sin in proper proportions, and the magnificence of God in proper proportions, that will seem to you like an over-reaction. The world will say, “That’s ridiculous! He saw one sin and he did all that?” The reason for suffering is to teach you about your heart. You don’t even get close to understanding the horror of the way you treat your wife. There is a moral scandal about falling short of God’s glory.

Here I have to disagree again. The imaginary universe in which no natural disasters occur is just that–imaginary. Again, promotion of a metaphor (the courtroom) to reality distorts our ability to discuss the issue.

I’m wondering if Piper and those who hold a similar view don’t also have to hold a young earth creationism position. Certainly there were natural disasters before the fall of humanity if one holds that the earth is old. The old earth creationism position would suggest physical death as a natural part of the world, not as a consequence of sin, and much of that death historically was caused by natural disasters.