The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Dec 31, 2015

Why I'm thinking of having my Hermeneutics students read an article in the NSA Technical Journal

Language is rarely logical! That's one of the mantras I occasionally try to drill into my students, and one of the key examples of that is how words usually have multiple meanings. Consequently,very rarely is there a 1-to-1 correspondence between two words in two different languages. While occasionally this can lead to humorous consequences, in many cases the results are tragic. Shortly after the Potsdam Declaration, July 1945, Japanese reporters stood waiting to hear a comment from Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki. His one-word response was "mokumatsu," which can be translated as either "no comment" or "not worthy of comment" (big difference). Ten days later, the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima.

My father John R. Himes, a former missionary to Japan, uses this incident as an opening illustration in his essay "A Translator Takes a Linguistic Look at Mark's Gospel" in the book Digging for the Truth: Collected Essays Regarding the Byzantine Text of the New Testament--A Festschrift in Honor of Maurice A. Robinson. Today, I found (surprisingly, via Wikipedia) that a short article in the (now partially declassified) NSA Technical Journal is devoted to this one word and its consequences. The article, by an unknown author (his name is the only part of the document that is classified), is entitled "Mokumatsu: One Word, Two Lessons," in volume 13.4 (Fall 1968) of the NSA Technical Journal. The full text of the article may be accessed here.

While the article is hardly what you'd expect in a "technical" journal, it is an excellent piece of writing (occasionally humorous) that drives home an extremely  important point: words have multiple meanings, and the resultant ambiguity can cause problems if we are careless. Surprisingly, the author discusses Bible translation in passing, including the now famous (though perhaps apocryphal) stories about translating "Lamb" as "Seal Pup" in an Eskimo dialect and translating "I stand at the door and knock" (Rev 3:20) as "I stand at the door and call" (in an African cultural context). 

From a military and diplomatic perspective, the author's point is that careless translation, or the assumption that we automatically know what a word means without further clarification, can have extreme consequences. Furthermore, when precision is required, one must avoid ambiguous words at all cost! The author chastises both politicians and newspaper reporters for exploiting words that are so ambiguous that they can be made to mean almost anything. Regarding Prime Minister Suzuki, the unknown author states, ". . . the fault for the mokusatsu incident is not entirely the translator's. Believe it or not, the real culprit is no less a personage than Kantaro Suzuki, the Japanese Prime Minister himself! After all, there would have been no translation problem if he had not used an ambiguous word for such an important statement" (p. 98).

The reason I am thinking of requiring my college Biblical Hermeneutics students to read this article (sans the one swear word, which I shall "classify" and edit out) is not for the discussion of Bible translation (personally, I believe that when translating Scripture, words that are ambiguous in the original languages should keep their ambiguity in the target language as much as possible, within reason. This is not always possible, of course, but often it is). Rather, the value of this short article lies in its clear illustration that words have multiple meanings. This is a point on which many would-be Bible translators are woefully ignorant: you cannot automatically translate a word in the original language the same way every time in the receptor language! 

Furthermore, the article underscores the difference between "word" and "concept"--the same word may, in different contexts, point to totally different concepts. As I have explained to my past Hermeneutics classes, the verb "fire," in English, may point to the concept of "discharge a firearm" or "dismiss somebody from their job." Conversely, as has been pointed out by many biblical linguists, studying a concept (e.g., "love") in the Bible must not be limited to just a single world. Multiple words (e.g., both agapaw and philew) and phrases must be included in the study, or one's study of "the Biblical concept of love" remains incomplete.

As a side-note, Bible translation remains a high-priority task for those who take the Great Commission seriously. For those of you who have shown evidence of skill in languages, why not consider this ministry? English, of course, has more than enough translations (though in my opinion there's room for a Byzantine-based translation); however, many languages are starved for the Word of God in their own tongue based on the original languages of Scripture (translations based on English are only a stop-gap measure, though they're certainly better than nothing!). The school I teach at, Baptist College of Ministry, has been emphasizing Bible translation more and more these past couple years, and my doctoral alma mater, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was at one point considering offering a master's in Bible translation (not sure if they've gotten around to it yet). Currently, I have the privilege of assisting my father in translating a new Japanese New Testament based off of the Greek. Nevertheless, this is still a neglected (and not as glamorous) field that is essential to the Great Commission task!

Dec 17, 2015

Rethinking Esther

The discussion below does not question the divine inspiration, the accuracy, or the place in the canon of the book of Esther. Indeed, as Randall Bush points out in his Bulletin for Biblical Research article (vol. 8, 1998), it is a shame that Esther has by-and-large been neglected (click here to read Bush's article). What I'm asking below is not whether Esther belongs in the Bible and in our pulpit, but whether or not it has more in common with Judges than Joshua--i.e., not "look at the awesome faith-filled hero/heroine" but rather "God saving Israel in spite of her disloyalty to the Torah." Much of my thinking in this post was stimulated by the excellent An Old Testament Theology by Bruce Waltke and Charles Yu, though I do not quote or paraphrase from it directly. In addition, I draw some from the fascinating article by Ronald W. Pierce, "The Politics of Esther and Mordecai: Courage or Compromise?" also in Bulletin for Biblical Research vol. 2 (1992). Click here to read Pierce's article.

Without a doubt (lack of direct mention notwithstanding), the hand of God is evident throughout Esther. Bush, in his BBR article puts it best: "The book nonetheless predicates the providence of God, as does the rest of the OT, for the deliverance of the Jews is effected not only by the loyalty of Mordecai and the courage of Esther but also by the series of truly remarkable and dramatic coincidences with which the story abounds" (Bush, 49). 

Yet as to the human protagonists, evangelical Christians generally have a "rosy" view of queen Esther--heroine, faith-filled, persevering in the midst of adversity, savior of her people, etc. Indeed, the courage of both her and Mordecai cannot be disputed. Yet doubts persist, and these doubts persist not because some of us are evil revisionists, asking with forked tongues "Has God really said?" Rather, these doubts persist because of the centrality of the Torah in Old Testament theology. In other words, when Daniel and his friends refuse to eat the king's meat, they do so because of their loyalty to the Torah and the God who wrote it. The problem with Esther, then, is first and foremost that she violates the Torah, and this is the center of the wheel around which the entire plot revolves around.

To be clear, Haman is a villain of horrible proportions (though I doubt he was seeking divine worship when he demanded others bow to him)--seeking the genocide of an entire race puts him on a level with Hitler and other modern tyrants. Furthermore, clearly the Jewish people are the "good guys" [and gals] of the plot--we are meant to root for them, and we rightfully breathe a sigh of relief when they are delivered.

However, this is no different from the book of Judges (it's not as if a reader/listener during the first century AD would be rooting against the people of Israel in Judges!). Yet the protagonists in Judges (with the exception of Deborah), at least those with an extended section, are not role models! (For any pastors reading--please, someday preach the "second half" of the Gideon story; it's just as much inspired as the first half, but greatly neglected). The point, then, is this: the author can make a negative point about the protagonists while still making a positive point about the graciousness of God.

This, indeed, would seem to me what is happening in Esther. As  Pierce states in his BBR article, "It is not the book of Esther that is secular, but its characters" (page 77). That Esther is secular, or at least does not revere the Torah, is seen in the fact that she is violating it by marrying a pagan--remember, this is the very point that was such a big deal at the end of Ezra and Nehemiah! 

It is, of course, possible that Esther was dragged away against her will and had no choice in the matter, in which case she is a victim and blameless in this matter. While this is possible, it does not follow from the tone of the narrative (see Pierce, 83-84). Furthermore, I firmly believe that most pious Jews, men and women, would have said, "It is better to die (and be tortured) than to violate the Torah" (This is the whole point of 4 Maccabees, after all!) I need not point out that "marrying a non-believer" is hardly a minor issue in the Torah (remember: the issue was never inter-racial marriage, but inter-"faith" marriage. I.e., as seen with Moses, Boaz, etc., marrying somebody of a different ethnicity, nationality, or skin color is not a problem if they are a believer in the one true God. Marrying somebody who is not a believer is a huge deal, however).

Consequently, the divinely-inspired point of Esther is not "may our daughters be like that faith-filled heroine [who just so happens to be named after the Babylonian goddess of love, Ishtar]," but rather, "God rescues the Jewish race in spite of their failure to honor him; behold the graciousness of God!" I close with this excellent quote from Pierce:
"Sometimes it is easy to take as normative situations that in fact require immediate and radical change. So it was with the secular direction in which the Jewish people were heading at this time in their history. The events in the Book of Esther are carefully structured so as to communicate not only such a failure on the part of Esther and Mordecai, but also the providential activity meant to shake them from their lethargy and to make them more fully aware of their calling as God's people" (Pierce, 89).