In a conversation recently, the question of the meaning of certain words in the Bible came up. In this particular case, predestination. I was asked: why don’t you preach about predestination, since it’s in the Bible? Well, there’s a word there translated as “predestination,” but there is not a theory of predestination in the Bible.
How do I know that? Because I know biblical Greek and have read Paul many times in the original. As the post Sounding Out the Readings showed, there are simply things in the Bible you will not learn in English. To put it bluntly — the Bible in English, French, Spanish, etc is not the Bible. It is a translation of the Bible and thus, open to legitimate literary criticism.
So, then, wouldn’t God want his message to be translated into as many languages so as to reach as many people as possible?
Here is the issue. Maybe this is the wrong question.
In Decoding Genesis 1 – 11, Father Tarazi engages in a magisterial overview of the opening chapters of the first Book of Scripture. Lamenting the abuse (yes, abuse!) of the Scriptures by Europeans and North Americans who not only failed to submit to the original text, but also appropriated it for their own ends, he takes us back to one of the most important passages in the early chapters of Genesis — Noah’s blessing upon Shem, his conditional blessing of Japheth, and the cursing of Ham’s son Canaan.
In Genesis 9 we hear:
When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said,
‘Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’
26He also said,
‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.
27 May God make space for* Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.’
Well, who are the descendants of Shem? Simply, in the Bible, they are the peoples who inhabit the Syrian desert and surrounding regions, for whom shepherdism is a way of life.
And the Japhethites? Well, in the Bible, they come to be known as he “island peoples,” whom we would recognize today as the sea-faring Greeks and Romans. There are no North Americans or Northern/Central Europeans in the Scriptures. But they must function as if they were Japhethites. Why? Because they are not part of the Scriptural story at baseline but must be invited into it.
And that is the issue here. Anyone outside the story of the Bible has, in order to share in the blessings of Shem, to actually dwell in the tents of Shem — where the scroll of Scripture is unveiled and read in its original languages.
And so, Noah’s (i.e, Scripture’s) blessing of Shem as the “gold-standard” for those outside of the original purview of Scripture to embrace, holds lessons for us when it comes to biblical translations.
The translation will always, like the Japhethites, be by invitation, and will receive a blessing only by being fully within the tents of Shem. And that means knowing the original languages.
In an earlier post, Baseline, I argued that the West appropriated so many of the treasures of the peoples of the Middle East — most recently since 2003 with the invasion of Iraq — that we have again come to see everything out there as belonging to us. To walk with the God of Scripture, it would help if we entered fully the tents of Shem, instead of thinking we made those tents and that they belong to us.