Walking Through the Desert

As of right now, I’ve completed 76 days of a read the Bible in 90 days challenge. This is the first in a series of two or three posts in which I reflect on the experience.

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As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I’m passionate about New Testament Greek. I’ve done Hebrew, and I’m not shoddy at it, but Koine Greek and I just seem to get along well. It means that I spend a lot of time reading the New Testament. In addition, as a preacher (like many others), I have the tendency to gravitate towards the Gospel lesson for the focus of my sermons.

Luckily for me, the challenge of reading through the Bible in 90 days has not let me escape the Old Testament. In fact, of the 76 days that I’ve spent so far, it’s taken 67 of them to get me from Genesis to Malachi. The past two months of reading has caused me to reflect on the way that I read the Old Testament, and how I use it in my own devotional life.

There is a tendency and, in this respect, I am the chief of sinners, to treat the Old Testament like a desert. You wander in it for a long time. Mostly it’s an odd collection of scary, spiky things and endless sage brush(or in this case, the slaughtering of Canaanites interspersed with endless censuses and genealogies). But, every now and then, there’s an oasis:  Joseph and his coat with long sleeves! Psalm 23! Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones!

But, as someone who’s spent his fair share of time hiking around California’s high desert, I know that the desert has more to offer than meets the eye. And, the same is going on with the Old Testament. If we take seriously Christ’s words that the Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) all testify to him, then we need to stop and reconsider. Maybe that cactus has something to teach us. Maybe there’s something to be learned in endless sagebrush and endless genealogies. And maybe, just maybe, the promises of Christ are hiding in plain sight in the desert of the Old Testament, following us around like the rock that followed the Israelites.

Wadi you do? Elijah, the Drought, and Problems in Translation

“And it shall be that you will drink from the intermittent water course/wadi/torrent/creek, and I will command the ravens to nourish you there.” – 1 Kings 17.4

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Not a nachal

As the rain has steadily fallen over the past few days, I have been translating 1 Kings 17, the story of Elijah and the drought in Israel. As I’ve worked through the Hebrew, I’ve run into a problem both linguistic and cultural: How do you translate a uniquely desert vocabulary into understandable terms for the land of 10,000 lakes.

At the heart of the problem lies the Hebrew word nachal. A nachal is body of water that flows in the rainy season and dries up during times of drought. Like most Germanic languages, English doesn’t have a word for intermittent water courses. In his German Bible, Luther translated nachal as Bach, literally “stream” or “creek.” Stream or creek gets the flowing part across, but not the intermittent part. We do have several loan words in English that get both parts across: From Arabic, we’ve borrowed the word wadi, and from Spanish, we’ve borrowed arroyo. But, neither wadi or arroyo is common parlance in the upper Midwest; I’m doubtful that either one would provide greater clarity than simply leaving nachal untranslated (although a reader would have an easier time looking up wadi and arroyo).

In short, there is always a tension between elegance and explanation. “Intermittent water course” lack elegance, but explains the idea. “Stream” or “creek” immediately conjure up images for English speakers, but don’t convey the dynamic of the Hebrew word. “Arroyo” and “wadi” get the idea across and are sort of English words, but will be lost on segments of readers. In other words, there’s no slick solution for translating nachal for the Minnesota mind, but it’s a good example of why learning the biblical languages can be a fruitful endeavor.