Friday Facts: Lectionary A – Advent 3

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. 

Isaiah 35.1-10

1 The wilderness and the desert will rejoice and the dry steppe will shout in exultation and they will blossom like the crocus. 2 They will blossom continuously and, indeed, they will rejoice continuously and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon will be given to them. They will see the glory of YHWH, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the hands of the weak and make firm stumbling knees. 4 Say to those with a fickle heart “Be strong, be not afraid! Behold your God. Vengeance is coming. The retribution of God will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be restored. 6 Then the limping will leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy because water will break forth in the wilderness and torrents on the dry steppe. 7 The parched ground will become a reed encircled pool and the thirsty ground will become a spring. The jackals’ den will become a swamp and the dry grass will become reeds and rushes. 8 There will be a path there and it will be called the Holy Way. The unclean will not walk on it. It will be for God’s people. No traveler, not even fools, will get lost on it. 9 There will be no lion there, and predators will not be found there. The redeemed will walk there. 10 And the ransomed of YHWH will return, and come to Zion with singing. Everlasting joy will be on their heads; they will attain joy and gladness. Sorrow and sighing will flee.

For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in southern California, a land of dry scrub and chaparral. Every year, I went camping with my father and brother in the White Mountains, a mountain range in the desert that straddles Nevada and California. We camped next to a creek, less than three feet wide in most stretches, but large enough to transform the landscape. On the banks of the creek, green grass and willows flourished. Trout swam in it and voles scurried through the meadows that it watered. But walk 100 feet away, and you’d wander into a wilderness of sage brush and cactus and scrubby pine trees.

This passage from Isaiah makes me think back to those mountain camping trips, but even more so, it makes me reflect on the topography in Minnesota, where I live now. Here in Minnesota, I have to take care not to trip, otherwise I’ll end up in a lake or a river or some other body of water. It presents a question to the translator: where does translation end and interpretation begin? For instance, should I adapt Isaiah 35:6-7 for my Minnesota readers and render it: “Then the limping will leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy because the sun will break forth on the prairie and summer on the frozen hills. The frozen pond will become a swimming hole and the dead grass will become a flowery meadow.” It may get the point across, but it definitely changes the metaphor. It’s a slippery slope that I’m not sure that I want to walk down. But as a preacher, I think it’s important to keep your climate in mind. If your congregants have never been to the desert, you may have to think about whether “jackals’ dens” becoming “swamps” is translating for them.

This is a slippery question, and one that I’ll continue to reflect upon throughout this feature. If you’re interested, I encourage you to take a look at my earlier post on a similar desert problem, translating the Hebrew word nachal (incidentally, the word nachal appears in Isaiah 35:6, where I’ve translated it ‘torrents’).

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.