September 22, 2016

Context is important in interpretation

Twice this week I’ve noticed how variations in Bible translations can affect understanding. The first one was this verse in Proverbs from two translations:

“Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” Proverbs 25:20 (ESV)

“Like vinegar on a wound is one who sings songs to a heavy heart. Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood, sorrow gnaws at the human heart.” Proverbs 25:20 (NRSV)

Research. The first translation used from Hebrew texts. The second used the LXX which is a Greek translation from the Hebrew. They say basically the same thing, but use different metaphors. However a woman in our Bible study thought the first one was an error. She noted that singing hymns and spiritual songs to sorrowful people often lifts their spirits. While both are correct, for her the second verse was clearer.

The second example is from today’s devotional reading. Chambers uses the King James Version:

“Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.” John 13:13 (KJV)

“You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.” John 13:13 (ESV)

While a master can be a headmaster in a school and thus a teacher, these two terms don’t usually mean the same thing in English. Chambers used KJV with “Master” and from that translation discusses what it means to have a master.

However, the ESV translates the same Greek word as “teacher” which gives a different sense to what Jesus is saying. While disciples need to obey Him as master and as teacher, Chambers’ slant heavily leans toward having a master and how that is like having a boss.
For me, the context is far more helpful in understanding which translation is better . . .

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (John 13:3–14)

Jesus is teaching His disciples by example. He tells his followers to love one another and then demonstrates how to do it by washing their feet. This was a task normally performed by a servant. Peter thought this was beneath Jesus, but Jesus told him that accepting a loving act was just as important as performing it.

From my perspective, a command given by a master is different from a command given by a teacher with an example of how to obey it. Jesus knows how easy I slip into doing things as my duty or as an obligation, rather than being motivated by His love. He also knows that most of us learn better by example.

Jesus tells me to love others. He sometimes gives commands as Lord of all, but in this passage He demonstrates the mark of an excellent teacher. He passes on what He wants of me AND then shows me how to do it by doing it Himself.  

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