Why the Old Testament – Ethnic Tensions

Three weeks ago, I introduced a series of blogs on the rationale for translating the Old Testament into the languages of Africa. As I stated in the introduction, there are a number of good reasons to translate the Old Testament. I am limiting myself to one proposition – that God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has little to say on those issues. Last week, I dealt with the issue of corrupt oppression. This week, my topic is ethnic tensions and rivalries.

Some people think that Africa is full of ethnic conflicts. (They are sometimes called “tribal conflicts”, but the word “tribal” is inexact and out-of-favor, so I will used “ethnic” in place of “tribal” and “peoples” or “ethnic groups” in place of “tribes”.) But most of Africa’s almost 2000 peoples live peacefully with each other year in and year out. This is not to say that there are not tensions and rivalries between them, but it does mean that they don’t escalate to conflicts. The rivalries between neighboring ethnic groups are not purely ethnic. Instead they are usually about resources such as land, jobs, water, cattle, political favor or even just respect.

Most Africans rub shoulders every day with people of different ethnic groups. Those relationships are cordial. They know that there is always potential for escalating ethnic rivalry into conflict through careless action or words. As in all places, there are sometimes a few hotheads who stir things up and some people ready to follow them.

After the division of the humanity into male and female, the next most noticeable division is into race and ethnicity. Yet few books on Christian theology make any mention of ethnicity or race. They may have a whole chapter on what the Bible teaches about human beings without hardly a mention of race or ethnicity. This is in spite of the fact that a word laden with ethnic connotations – Goy – is used throughout the Old Testament and another with similar connotations (εφνοσ ethnos) is used throughout the New, and in spite of the fact the Bible is full of ethnic conflict and rivalries, especially the Old Testament. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the Old Testament tells the story of hundreds of years of ethnic conflict between the descendants of Abraham and the Philistines. That conflict ebbs and flows throughout the books of Samuel, I Kings, II Kings, I Chronicles and II Chronicles. Furthermore, the conflict with the Philistines is not the only ethnic conflict in the Old Testament.

Bunia Storm

A rain storm brewing in Bunia

In the 1990s, an ethnic war had engulfed the town of Bunia in northeastern Congo. The town would switch hands from one side to the other, causing those belonging to the other ethnic group to flee or risk facing acts of ethnic vengeance. Perhaps I need to say something about this ethnic war and most such conflicts. Those actively taking part in ethnic conflicts are usual only a small minority from each ethnic group. Rather, some members of each ethnic group formed a militia composed of people from that ethnic group. Those militias had varying degrees of support from the people in that ethnic group. Some gave active support while many remained passive, and others tried to stay neutral. Some even covertly helped people from the other ethnic group, and a few openly opposed the militias. The militias sometimes killed or harassed people from their own ethnic group who opposed them, aided the other side, or who tried to stay neutral. I know one pastor who was targeted for assassination by people from his own ethnic group (and his own church!) because he took a meal to a member of his church from the other ethnic group who was in prison. They perceived his action as aiding and abetting the enemy.

Worship at a church in Bunia

Worship at a church in Bunia

Bunia was also the place where a translation of the Old Testament into the language of one of the opposing ethnic groups was taking place. The New Testament had been published a few years earlier. One day, the son of one of the translators disappeared. When his body was found some days later, it was obvious that he had been tortured and mutilated before dying. The translator buried his son knowing that he had suffered greatly merely for belonging to his ethnic group. The translator is an expert in the Old Testament, having gained a doctorate in that topic at a university in the Netherlands. So he was well acquainted with the ethnic conflicts recorded in the Old Testament and what God says about them. The translator is also a member of a church with members from both of the warring ethnic groups. By God’s grace, he found a way to keep fellowship with believers from the other ethnic group who were members of his church.

Dr. Sule-Saa's doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

Dr. Sule-Saa’s doctoral thesis which explored the impact of the translation of the Bible in two languages of northern Ghana

None of the ethnic groups involved in this war had the whole Bible in their language. I find that fact pertinent. The fact that ethnic rivalries are a part of life is an excellent reason to translate the Old Testament into more languages in Africa. It just might help Africans create a more harmonious continent.

As a matter of fact, a Ghanaian researcher, Dr. Solomon Sule-Saa, studied the impact of translations of the whole Bible into languages in northern Ghana where ethnic tensions regularly broke out into conflict. He found that the translations contributed greatly to peace and reduced tensions.

When one ethnic group gets military dominance over another, the underdog can feel that God has abandoned them. A mostly Christian ethnic group can feel that God has cursed when they are overtaken by another ethnic group with few Christians. But the Old Testament refutes the conclusion that God abandoned them or cursed them because in its stories Israel was many times under the military dominance of others. That situation may have been God’s correction, but it was never his abandonment or curse.

So why translate the Old Testament? Because it gives God’s counsel about ethnic tensions and conflicts to people who desperately need it, whereas the New Testament says little.

Why the Old Testament – Part 1

Genesis 1 in the 1611 edition of the King James Bible

Genesis 1 in the 1611 edition of the King James Bible

A renewal of interest in translating the Bible into all languages started in 1800 with the creation of Bible Societies in many countries. In addition to the work of the Bible Societies, throughout the 1800s and 1900s missionaries translated the Bible into many languages for the first time. Wycliffe Bible Translators joined this movement in the 1930s with a focus on more remote and smaller languages. However, Wycliffe’s approach was to translate only the New Testament. In more recent years, they also translate some Old Testament books too. But Wycliffe has been involved in the translation of only a small number of whole Bibles. Wycliffe’s choice to give priority to the New Testament reflects the preference which Western Christians have for the New Testament.

Western Christians comprise most of Wycliffe’s staff and financial supporters. For many Western Christians the Old Testament (or at least large portions of it) seems irrelevant or not understandable. It seems to me that the face that the Old Testament is perceived as irrelevant accounts for much of the reason why Western missionary translators have tended to translate on the New Testament. Recently, there is renewed interest in translating the Old Testament. Those promoting more translation of the Old Testament in Africa often cite two reasons:

  • All Scripture is inspired by God, not just the New Testament
  • African cultures bear a lot of similarities to the Old Testament so African’s prefer it. One study of sermon texts in Nigeria found that over 80% came from the Old Testament.
Genesis 1 in the Lelemi language of Ghana

Genesis 1 in the Lelemi language of Ghana

One would think that the first argument – that all Scriptures is inspired, not just the New Testament – would be enough for translators and their financial supporters. But it has not been.

While the second reason – the cultural similarities between the Old Testament and African culture – is true, it doesn’t carry much weight, not even with me. I can like something without that being what I need.

I plan to write a series of blog posts giving other reasons why translation of the whole Old Testament, or at least significant parts of it, it crucial for the health of the church in Africa, and why it is absolutely necessary for African Christians to flourish in their faith.

I will not be treating the two reasons above because I will be assuming that they are valid, the first one especially. I will not be treating other reasons for translating the Old Testament, like:

  • It is mostly in the Old Testament that we learn about God’s character
  • Parts of the New Testament are impossible to understand without reference to parts of the Old

Those propositions are true and important, but others have written about them. So I will be limiting myself to one proposition

God has revealed himself in the Old Testament in ways that give his comfort, encouragement and instruction for many of the most burning issues facing African Christians, while the New Testament has much less to say on those burning issues.

In other words, the Old Testament is not just relevant to much of the context in Africa, it contains what God says about things which are not the common experience of Western Christians in ways that the New Testament does not. God has reached out to all his people with revelation dealing with their most pressing issues of life and faith, so that they could love and follow him in everything. We should not, therefore, translate only the parts in which God addresses our issues, but also the parts where he addresses the issue of the people for whom we are translating.

The issues to be covered are:

  • Living in conflict and war
  • Living with corruption and oppression
  • Living with ethnic strife and tensions
  • Living with poverty
  • Living surrounded by traditional religion

Selling out

GILLBT Projects 150 KonkombaIn 1977 the New Testament was completed in the Konkomba language of Ghana. At the time, there were very few Christians among the Konkomba. In fact, the Konkomba people first gave passive resistance to the translation of the Bible in their language. So when the translation was finished, only 2,000 New Testaments were printed, even though Konkomba is spoken by over 600,000 people.

In six years, those 2,000 New Testaments sold out. So 10,000 more were printed in 1984. They sold out by 1997, at which time the translation of the whole Bible was finished. So the first Konkomba Bible appeared in 1997. 10,000 copies were printed. It took just over 10 years to sell them all. This was quite amazing as there probably aren’t more than 10,000 evangelical Christian families among the Konkomba. But the Bible did sell out. So another 10,000 were printed in 2009. They sold out last year – in five years.

A few months ago, we received another 20,000 Konkomba Bibles. They were stored in our offices for a few days and filled the whole building. Within days of their arrival, 9,500 of them are already sold!

Dr. Sule-Saa

Dr. Sule-Saa

So, when all of the the 20,000 are sold, one adult in 10 will have a copy of the Bible, on average. And that is in a people group where only a few decades ago there were hardly any believers.

The Bible in their language has caused big changes. The head of the Presbyterian Church in Ghana’s Northern Region where the Konkomba live says:

Bible translation and literacy in the mother tongue has reshaped the face of the church in the Northern Region

Konkomba is not the only language in Ghana where the Bible has sold out more than once. Siwu, a small language in the Volta Region has sold out two printings of the New Testament. An just a few weeks back we received a shipment of the third printing of the Gikyode New Testament after the first two printings sold out.

While it is legitimate to ask if translating the Bible into the languages of Ghana is a worthwhile endeavor. I propose that we let specific people answer it – those who buy the Bibles till they are sold out. Their opinion is probably more relevant than yours or mine.

DSC09017

Boxes of Gikyode New Testaments just arrived from the printer

Calvin

Title page to Latin edition of Calvin's Institutes

Title page to Latin edition of Calvin’s Institutes

Those of you following this blog will have notice that I have a fascination with the reformers. A lot of that is because of my ministry – helping African churches engage in Bible translation. So I wanted to know what provoked the spate of translation of the Bible surrounding the reformation, thinking that might help me with my goals. I believe that it does.

Today (May 26) in 1564, John Calvin died. He did not translate the Bible but he was a solid supporter of those who did. One of Calvin’s most lasting legacies is his systematic theology, which he entitled Institutes. In fact, it is still for sale today in several languages. As did many theologians of his day, Calvin wrote his theology in Latin. That was, after all, the language of the clergy and other theologians. It was, however, not accessible to the people. So, when Calvin revised his Institutes, he wrote them in his mother tongue – French. At the time, that was very unusual. But it is easy to see Calvin’s logic. He wanted to get theology out of academia and into the street. The best theology is not written by the pens of academics, it is the simple but profound beliefs written on the hearts of ordinary people when the Spirit makes the Scriptures real to them.

Calvin's Institutes in French

Calvin’s Institutes in French

Other reformers did the same – writing at least some of their academic and popular works in their mother tongues. They turned away from the recognition they might have received from the world of clergy and theologians; turning their focus toward ordinary people. This turn toward ordinary people as “worthy bearers of the message” (Lamin Sanneh’s words) and as a force in change, informed not just their translation efforts, but many other things they did.

Today I have the same confidence – that ordinary Africans, even those with little education, can be a force for change in their families, villages, cities and countries through knowledge of the Word of God in their languages. This confidence is not theoretical. In the places in Ghana where the Bible has been translated, ordinary people are changing things. Sometimes educated Ghanaians are surprised to see the degree of change initiated by those with much less education but who have become conversant with the Bible in their languages.

Titles or names

Dayle at the Shalom University of Bunia

Dayle at the Shalom University of Bunia

In early 2009, Dayle and I were traveling into Congo. Our first stop was at the Shalom University of Bunia. When we arrived at the Bunia airport, we found that the university had sent a driver for us. Dayle introduced herself to the driver and asked him, “Who are you?”  He responded, “I’m the driver”.  But Dayle, of course wanted his name so she asked, “But what is your name”.  “Bahati”, he responded.  A few minutes later we were on the campus of the university conversing with some of the professors. We saw the Rector’s wife coming, who we know well and who is a close friend of the families of the professors we are taking with.  One of them says, the Rector’s wife is coming.  Dayle looks up and says, “Oh, its Feli!”.

Note that in this story Dayle prefers calling people by their names, but the Congolese prefer using titles like “driver” and “rector’s wife”. Congolese and many other Africans prefer titles over names. The wife of the most prominent MAF pilot in Bunia is known as “Mrs. Pilot”.  The staff of the University almost always call each other by a shortened form of their title.  So they are “Rector”, “The Academic” (for the academic dean), or “The Administrative” for the Administrative Secretary. When we lived in Burkina Faso, I was known up and down the street we lived on as “Matthieu baba” – “Matthew’s Father”. Everyone knew who Matthew’s father was, but few knew my name. Men there are often there are known as the father of their oldest son. Just the other day, a police officer in Ghana addressed me as Obroni – white man in Twi. He was not being smart or demeaning, just friendly.

To my American ears, titles sound formal, aloof or demeaning. Calling someone “White Man” even sounds bizarre. But to many Africans, titles are completely natural. Plus, the preference for titles gives them an edge in understanding some parts of the Bible.  “Jesus the Christ” makes a LOT of sense to them because Christ is a title, not a name. But many Americans understand Christ as a name.

Not a few missionaries in West Africa have been irritated by being called “White guy”. When we first arrived in Burkina Faso, we used to be irritated by the incessant cries of Toubabou (white man / white woman in Jula) or Nasara (same in Moore). I have even found blogs by Westerners living in Ghana telling their experiences with being called “White”. I just followed the case of two missionaries figuring out how to deal with always being addressed as “Whites”. At first they were irritated. But after getting advice from other missionaries and local people they trust, they got some degree of acceptance. Better, they started using titles more themselves. When in Rome, do as the Romans – or when in Ghana don’t do as an Obroni.

Parts of this blog post were taken from a post originally published in April 2009.

Incorrigible Grammar

Irregular verbs English_eI work with languages, but I hated most of my English classes in high school and beyond. The literature classes were Ok. The grammar classes on the other hand … It always seemed to me that the grammar of English was a lot more slippery and complicated than my English teachers let on. My linguistics studies confirmed me in that opinion.

One definition of grammar is: “A propriety of speech.” Someone suggested that grammar is not a property of speech but rather an impropriety of speech. It is so hard to get your hands on it. There are rules, but also so many exceptions.

A game with rules like English grammar might be considered fixed by the Gaming Commission! This is not just true of English, but of all living languages. Many African languages are not written, but they have complicated grammar all the same. Just ask the missionaries who learn them, or the translators who attempt to describe them. I asked one translator about the number of genders in the language he was working on. He said that he stopped counting at around 120.

One translator was reading a draft translation to people to see if it communicated clearly. They came to a part that said: “Don’t steal from widows”, and everybody laughed. It turned out that the way it was said implied that one should steal from other people than widows! It sounded like “Don’t steal from widows; steal from someone else instead!” To get the right meaning meant using a grammatical structure in that language called topic-comment. In topic-comment, the topic of the sentence is stated first (widows), then the thing one wants to say about the topic (don’t steal from them). In that structure, the verse read “Widows, don’t steal from them.” This communicated clearly and avoided the idea that it is okay to steal from other people.

All translators, even those translating into their own language, need an explicit knowledge of the grammar of their language, or they might not use features like topic-comment even where they are necessary to be faithful to the meaning. So even translators translating into their own language need training.

Laughter

We laugh when things are funny. Right? Doesn’t everybody? Well, actually …

I was at a press conference in Ghana where one the speakers went far too long. The audience expressed its disapproval of the long speech with soft laughter when he opened a new chapter to his talk.

In another instance, a person was bringing greetings from one church to another, but it turned into a speech. A titter of laughter started running through the congregation showing disapproval with the amount of time the person was taking. The person bringing greetings even apologized when she heard the laughter.

I was in a vehicle belonging to an African and the air-conditioning was blowing on me in an uncomfortable way. I tried to change the direction of the vent, but we hit a bump and I ended up messing with the settings. The driver and owner of the vehicle thought that I had changed them on purpose and laughed lightly while looking at me disapprovingly and putting the settings back.

In Ghana and some other places in Africa, laughter sometimes means disapproval.

Language Cloud

This is a language cloud of the names of the languages spoken in Ghana. The size of each name is relative to the number of people who speak the language as their heart language, or mother tongue. Click on the image to bring up an interactive version of the cloud. Click here to download or enlarge.

Languages of Ghana - HL Colors

Scare avoided

While teaching literacy in Dallas one summer in the 1980s, we attended Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, the church of Dr. Tony Evans. We were among the few whites in the congregation. Our first Sunday there, we put our two boys, then 2 and 4, into Sunday school during the worship service. After the service we went to pick them up. A very helpful man was making sure that kids got with their parents. It was pretty obvious that the only two white kids were ours! As we took them, the man looked at me and said in a surprised voice, “Your boys fit right in!” I just said, “They’re used to it.” But I thought, “Boy, did we ever unwittingly give those Sunday School teachers a scare dropping off two white boys and then disappearing.”

One of the advantages of raising our children overseas is that they are very comfortable with many different kinds of people.

Matthew and Mark with playmates in Ouagadougou

Matthew and Mark with playmates in Ouagadougou