Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Friday Facts is a  weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Matthew 5.13

13 You are the salt of the earth. If ever salt becomes tasteless, with what can it be made salty again? It is good for nothing except to be thrown out to be trampled on by people.

Over the next few weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary presents different selections from the Sermon on the Mount, and so I have taken the liberty of presenting a selection of a selection here. This particular verse, a miniature, salty parable, contains an interesting verb. That verb is ἁλισθήσεται. The word that Jesus uses for salt in this passage is ἅλας, and so, ἁλισθήσεται means literally “to make salty.” Or, if we wanted to be a little more clever with our English usage, we could say to “saltify.” In other words, Jesus is saying if “salt loses its saltiness, how it be saltified again?” Saltiness, of course, is an intrinsic quality of salt. It seems nonsensical to talk about salt without its salty taste. But, remembering that this is a parable, and that Jesus is not actually talking about salt, things get more interesting. Jesus’ parable is aimed right at the paradox of the human condition: “If a human loses their humanity, how can they be humanized again?” or perhaps more biblically, “If a creature loses their creatureliness, how can they be creaturified” again? As humans in revolt against our God, we live a monstrous existence. We’re as nonsensical as salt that’s not salty. But, what can make us salty again? Despite their salt content, not our sweat and tears. Nothing but the blood of Jesus can do it.

Friday Facts: Christmas Edition!

Friday Facts is a new weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Luke 2.7

And she gave birth to her son, her firstborn, and she swaddled him and she laid him down in a feeding-trough, because there was not a place for them in the guest room.

Because this Sunday is Christmas, and we all have many things to do, I’ll try to keep it short today. I like concordance studies, i.e. looking up a word in the Bible and seeing where else in the Bible it appears. They certainly can be done in English, but I appreciate them most in Greek because they often throw light on nuances of translation. The Christmas story is a great example, because the translation of one word in the text changes our idea of what’s actually going on. That word is καταλύματι, and it comes at the end of verse 7. For those of us who do the majority of our reading from translations heavily influenced by the King James Version (the NRSV included), the standard rendering of καταλύματι has been “inn.” And this translation conjures up images of “No Vacancy” signs, callous inn-keepers turning the young couple away, and a remarkable lack of hospitality on the part of the city of Bethlehem.

Image my surprise when I looked up where else καταλύματι occurs in Luke and found it in Luke 22.10-12: And [Jesus] said to them, “Behold, when you go into the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house into which he goes. And you will say to the master of the house, ‘Our teacher says to you, ‘Where is the κατάλυμα where I can eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And that one will show you a large, furnished upstairs room. Prepare there.” Here, the κατάλυμα is clearly not an “inn,” but a specific room inside of a house. Moreover, Luke has another word he uses when he clearly means ‘inn.’ In the parable of the Good Samaritan, he writes “And going to him, he bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine [on them]. And having placed the man on his own donkey, he led him into an inn (Gk. πανδοχεῖον).”

So what’s going on here? It seems that instead of looking for a Motel 6, Mary and Joseph were staying with relatives in Bethlehem. And it just so happened that their house was stuffed with all the relatives who had arrived in town for the census. Because there was no room in the upstairs guest bedroom, Mary and Joseph had to stay in another room in the house, which, as was common in ancient Palestine, was the room that also housed the animals.

Does this radically change the Christmas story? No. The central fact is the same: Our Lord was born into humble circumstances in the midst of beasts of burden. But, Jesus was also born into a house overwhelmed by out-of-town relatives, which just goes to show that He really does know all of our hopes and cares. Merry Christmas indeed!

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Advent 4

Friday Facts is a new weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Romans 1.1-7

1 Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called, an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 who long ago promised through his prophets in the holy writings 3 concerning his son, the one who became the offspring of David, according to the flesh, 4 the one appointed son of God according to the Spirit, consecrated by means of the resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and a calling into the obedience of faith among all the gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 in whom you also are called by Jesus Christ, 7 to all the beloved of God who are in Rome, the called saints, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

In reading my translation, you may notice that the opening seven verses of Romans are long, rambling, and not quite a sentence. The reason for Paul’s rambling lies in the genre. Romans is an ancient letter, and at the beginning of an ancient letter, the author often listed three things: 1) their name 2) their credentials 3) to whom they wrote. In today’s post, I’d like to focus on number two, Paul’s credentials, and one of the credentials in particular.

Paul calls himself several titles at the beginning of his letter. While there’s different ways the relationship between them, I’ve chosen to list them separately in my translation, because I’d like to discuss one in particular: “called.” The word that Paul uses for “called” is κλητός and it occurs ten times total in the New Testament. Eight of the occurrences come in letters (seven in Paul, once in Jude), usually during the greeting, as we have here in Romans. It seems to be a standard word to describe Christians in the 1st century AD and in fact, Paul uses it three times in these seven verses alone: Paul is called, the Christians in Rome are both called by Jesus Christ, and called saints. At face value, the adjective (which comes from the verb καλέω “to summon”), simply means that Christians have been summoned by Jesus Christ, just as he summoned the disciples on the lake shore. But, there’s another resonance in the word that comes out when we look at its only occurrence in the Gospels.

κλητός appears only once in the Gospels. It makes its appearance in Matthew 22.14, usually translated “For many are called.” However, in looking at the context of 22.14, coming at the end of the parable of the banquet, it becomes clear that “called” is too blase a translation. Better would be “for many are invited” or even more strongly “for many are summoned to the banquet.” And a look in a lexicon of Koine Greek confirms that the primary sense of κλητός is “to be invited for dinner.” To be κλητός is not simply to have your name read out at the beginning of God’s eternal roll call; to be κλητός is to have your name on the guest list for the eternal feast of the Lamb. Taken together with the Gospel reading for the day, a preacher could even say that God has invited us in for Christmas dinner.

 

Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Advent 2

Friday Facts is a new weekly feature here on Trout and Cast Iron. Every week, I’ll read through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday in their original Hebrew and Greek. On Friday, I’ll choose one of the texts, provide a new translation, and highlight one point of interest from a linguistic, ancient history, or concordance point of view. The hope is that Friday Facts can provide a spark to preachers who find themselves preparing their Sunday sermon on a short schedule. 

Romans 15:4-13

4 For as much has been written before, all of it has been written for our learning, in order that we would have hope through perseverance and through the encouragement of the writings. 5 May the God of encouragement and perseverance give to you the same mind in each other according to Christ Jesus, 6 in order that together in one voice you would praise God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, receive one another, just as Christ also received you into the glory of God. For I say that Christ became a circumcised servant for the sake of the truth of God, in order to confirm the promises to our ancestors 9 and in order that the Gentiles would praise God on account of his mercy, as it is written: On account of this I will sing praise to your name. 10 And again he says, Rejoice, gentiles, with his people 11 and again, Praise the Lord all nations, and give praise to him all peoples. 12 And again, Isaiah says, The root of Jesse will be the one who comes to lead the Gentiles, in him, the Gentiles will hope. 13 May the God of hope fill you with all grace and peace in believing, so that you overflow with hope in the power of the Holy Spirit.

For former Greek students, the mention of the subjunctive may cause flashbacks of angst and woe. Just when you thought you had gotten a handle on the multiplicity of Greek verb endings, your professor revealed that Koine Greek had another complete set of endings for you to learn. And as in many cases where two languages have different manners of expression, the reason for the existence of the subjunctive is not always self-evident to native English speakers. Luckily for us, St. Paul provides an object lesson in the subjunctive in Romans 15.

There are three subjunctive verbs in our pericope: “have,” “give,” and “fill.” If you look up at the translation that I’ve provided, I’ve translated those verbs with words like “May” and “would.” The reason for this choice is that the subjunctive expresses eventuality. Eventuality means that the speaker fully expects the the things he or she has said to come to pass, but acknowledges that they are not yet reality.

So what’s the upshot of all of this (aside from delighting grammar nerds like me)? How can a preacher talk about the subjunctive without boring their congregation to death? In the case of our pericope, the key lies in realizing that Romans 15 comes at the end of the letter. In fact, by Romans 15, Paul has begun the conclusion of his letter, and so, he switches to the subjunctive in order to express his hopes and blessings for the congregation at Rome. Remember, at the time of writing his letter, Paul had never met the Christians in Rome. Thus, he can’t talk about the reality of their situation, but he can talk about the eventuality of their situation. With full confidence, Paul shares his faith that the God of hope will fill them with all grace and piece in believing, so that they overflow with hope in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

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.