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


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.

Ash Wednesday, Elisha and the Chariots of Israel

Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, King Joash of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, crying, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” – 2 Kings 13.14


Now, on the one hand, Joash’s cry is a conscious echo of the Prophet Elisha’s sorrow at the passing of Elijah from this world. But, for Elisha, there was no fiery chariot whisking him away. Just an illness that was coming to take his life. And so, in another sense, Joash’s cry is a nonsensical exclamation. It’s what we so often do when someone we love dies; we cry out in anguish, shouting the words that spring into our mouths, whether they make sense or not. And that’s okay.

As Christians, we stare death in the face and we see a paradox. On the one hand, we see that death is the final, inevitable lot of everything that draws breath on earth, a natural process, as the saying goes. But, on the other hand, we proclaim that death is not how the world should be. Death is a monstrous intrusion on our world. Death devours the ones that we love, before we are ready to let them go, leaving us in tears, shouting nonsense, like the chariots of Israel and its horseman.

You see the problem in our world runs deeper than we sometimes grasp. Death is not simply a problem of people not loving each other. If every single person in the entire world would start loving each other right now, our problems would not be solved. Even if everybody loved each other with their entire heart and soul and mind, death would still lurk outside. No amount of good behavior can take away the fact that cancer still strikes young children. No amount of good behavior can stop hurricanes and tornadoes. No amount of good behavior can stave off the crushing grip of time.

And that dearly beloved is why we have Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is about repentance, but repentance isn’t about behavioral modification. Ash Wednesday and repentance are not about realizing that we’ve done wrong and promising to do better. Repentance is about realizing that the world is broken and that we can’t do anything about it. Repentance is about turning to God and crying out that we can’t do anything to fix the things that tear us apart. Repentance is about falling on your knees and shouting out “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” We have Ash Wednesday to remind us that the problems of the world run deep, to remind us that repentance means relying on God to fix things, most of all, to remind us that setting things right in the world will not take our good intentions and our good behavior, but the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.