Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bad translation snares a good Bible teacher

Listening to a favorite preacher I'm having a problem with his use of one of the modern translations.

He's quoting Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 and instead of "the world was without form and void" he says "the world BECAME shapeless, empty and dark" and goes on to make much of how this supposedly reflects the fact that God doesn't make anything that isn't perfect, and how its becoming ugly and dark shows the entrance of sin into the world. Sort of as a parable of what was to come later.

But that point is pretty strained it seems to me, and the translation "became" isn't supported in any Bible version I have easy access to. All those at Blue Letter Bible, for instance, say it WAS without form and dark. The NIV, however, does have one of its famous footnotes at this point, saying it could possibly mean "became." Yeah, and Strong's has "become" as one of the possibilities too. So we're all made translators these days.

Why isn't it respected that eminent scholars and translators chose "WAS?" Why is the ordinary Christian given this option to translate the Bible over the experts who did so already? Especially the KJV scholars who were head and shoulders above the translators of any subsequent version, certainly above Westcott and Hort according to Dean Burgon who ought to know. So the ordinary preacher is given all this power to make judgments he's in no position to make, even if he learned some basic Greek in seminary. If Westcott and Hort's Greek was on the schoolboy level, as Burgon judged it, why should any pastor think his is any better than theirs? (This favorite Bible teacher I'm talking about did not go to seminary or Bible school, just for the record).

And then I have to ask why this Biblically grounded and highly spiritual teacher would go with a footnote anyway -- unless he's using a translation that's not on Blue Letter Bible's list. In any case it leads him into some questionable reasoning: God makes everything perfect so it MUST be that it was sin that brought the void and darkness at the beginning of creation. I'm afraid this is probably a case of his LIKING the idea of a certain kind of perfection, defending God's honor as it were, but really leaning to his own understanding. Happens all too easily to the human race. And the situation in which we're all invited to make our own decisions about what God really said certainly plays into this human weakness.

I dunno. Other explanations for the pre-world formlessness occur to me that don't challenge God's mastery. Anything in the first stages of existence might be describable as formless and void. How about the blastocyst stage before the embryo takes shape? In fact how about the early embryo itself, that doesn't yet show the form of the creature it is going to become? In fact I also think of stages of cooking, simple chemical operations. The first stages are pretty formless before the egg in a sauce thickens it or a cake emerges from the batter. I'm sure the same thing is true in chemistry in general. Or how about the example of the formless lump of clay before it becomes pottery? The biblical image of the Creation is of the Holy Spirit brooding over this unformed earth to bring it to birth, which even the human creator imitates in making something from unorganized material.

As usual, just because he has spiritual sense and basic Biblical knowledge, this preacher is able to go on to make valid points about the effects of sin and especially the sin of pride, even spiritually powerful points, but in relation to the Bible it's more of a rescue operation than a true building on the word of God, but of course the preacher who doesn't have Biblical grounding or spiritual sense has no hope of getting on track at all.

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