This is the fifth in a series of six 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 poverty. This week, my topic is living surrounded by traditional religion. To Westerners, it may be the least understandable of my blogs on this topic. But it may also be the most important reason to translate the Old Testament into more languages in Africa.
Africans live surrounded by religion. This is because their worldview does not separate the religious from the secular. This is one of the features of all primal religions around the world. Every ethnic group (the word “tribe” is considered inaccurate and pejorative) in Africa has its own religious beliefs. Everyone knows that the spirits they venerate and the religious rites they practices are different from their neighboring ethnic groups.
This is a situation very much like the Old Testament, where the Israel worshiped Jehovah using specific religious rituals while other ethnic groups worshiped different gods using different rituals. The Philistines, for example, worshiped Dagon. Every ethnic group follows its god and its religious practices. In this system, a person is born into his ethnicity, language and religion. Religion is not a choice, it is something people inherit.
The stage on which much of the Old Testament plays out is one of multiple religions. In this multi-religious setting, the God of Israel vies for his rightful place while the people of Israel sometimes adopt the gods and religious practices of neighboring groups, having lost confidence that they can trust Jehovah alone. There are dramatic stories of the conflict between Jehovah and his prophets and the god Baal and his prophets, such as the one on Mount Carmel. The prophet Isaiah conveys the supremacy of Jehovah in eloquent passages such as Isaiah 40. We love the powerful words of verse 31:
But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint.
But we forget (or perhaps we didn’t know if the first place) that Isaiah wrote these verses as part of a passage comparing the Lord to gods of wood, silver or gold, and touting the value of following the Lord compared to the uselessness of following other Gods. Soaring high on wings of eagles is not promised the followers of other gods.
The Old Testament is a world of rivalry between the One God and other gods. This rivalry is very real. It plays out in the fertility of the land, who wins battles, whose kings is the most prestigious, who has the most righteous laws, etc.
We Westerners need to spiritualize passages about idolatry. For example, we rightly see the love of money as a kind of idolatry. Most Africans need no such spiritualization. The idols, the worship of different gods by different peoples and the conflict with the true and living God are part of their everyday lives. The Old Testament passages about such things hardly need interpretation for them. They match the primal religion out of which many African Christians are moving and the religion in which quite a Africans few still practice. Those who are Christians still find that their former religions tempt them back. In Ghana which is some 70% Christian, there has been a recent resurgence of traditional healers and shrines. There are even a few who claim to be Christian pastors who argue for the practice of traditional religion alongside Christianity. Just as the confrontation between Jehovah and false gods and flowed in the Old Testament, we should expect that African Christians will experience struggles as they put their faith in the one true God.
One of Africa’s most well-known theologians, Prof Kwame Bediako has noted that the Old Testament is rich in instruction for African Christians in dealing with the primal religions in their backgrounds and in their communities. He notes that the Old Testament has a constant call to turn from primal religion to Jehovah.
We only get hints of primal religion in the New Testament. On the other hand, the Old Testament is chocked full of the stories and teaching needed for evangelizing people steeped in primal religion. Those same stories and teaching are needed if African Christians are to grapple effectively with their primal heritage rather than have their Christianity weakened or even destroyed by it.
Why translate the Old Testament? So that the hundreds of millions of new Christians who live every day in the conflict between the one True God and the gods of the religions they have just left will have the parts of the Bible that deal directly with the spiritual conflict in which they live day in and day out.