Old Testament Gap

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Participants talk in between sessions

Last month in Accra, I attended a consultation on accelerating Old Testament translation. It was attended by people with wide-ranging interests: Bible agencies, organizations training people in biblical and modern Hebrew in Isreal, and church leaders. One of the topics was the Old Testament gap; that is, the gap between the number of languages which have a translation of just the New Testament and those that have the whole Bible. There are 1,442 languages in the world with a translation of only the New Testament. Of those, 1,188 have no active translation work on the Old Testament. Of those, approximately 300 are in Africa and about 90 have more than 500,000 speakers. Some languages have had the New Testament for many decades and still have no translation of the Bible and none in progress.

The gap is due to several factors. One is training. Many translators and consultants who work on New Testament translation lack the skills to be involved in Old Testament translation, especially the Hebrew language. One of the saddest parts of the gap is that when the translation of the New Testament in a language was completed and the missionaries left, the churches were often left without anyone qualified to translate the Old Testament even if they wanted to continue on their own.

The biggest gap, in my opinion is the transformation gap. Most sermons in African churches are based on Old Testament texts. The Old Testament deals with issues which most Africans face every day. I call this is impact or transformational gap – the gap between the transformation which could be happening with a translation of the whole Bible and the lesser impact that is happening now. Did you know that during the Reformation, there was a major push for more just and democratic government and that a lot of the ideas that created that movement came from the Old Testament? You can even download the Geneva Bible which preceded the King James translation and see the footnotes on fair and just government it contains.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how a sermon on the first chapter of Genesis brought a lawyer to faith.

The consultation called for a number of actions to remedy the situation. Some of them, like training more people to help with Old Testament translation, started not long after the consultation closed.

Why the Old Testament – Traditional Religion

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.

Why the Old Testament – Poverty

Four 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 ethnic tensions and rivalries. This week, my topic is poverty.

Combined HDI and Translation mapsThe map to the right shows the human development index for the countries of the world. The places in red score low on the index, meaning that people there are poor not just in terms of income, but also in terms of access to health care and in many other ways. If you compare the red and orange zones on that map with the map below it showing where there are the most languages without a translation of the Bible, you will see that there is a very significant overlap. In other words, poverty is a part of life for most peoples without the Bible.

The Old Testament deals extensively with the subject of poverty. Much of the Old Testament treatment of poverty is in the form of story. The whole book of Ruth, for example, is a story of a family falling into poverty through a set of circumstances over which they had no control – a famine and then the death of the men in the family – followed by a partial recovery of prosperity. The Old Testament is rich in stories of oppression, wars, famines, widows, and orphans — all of which are related to poverty. As a rural farming society, God’s people were subject to the changing “fortunes” of the weather. Their crops were also subject to disease and insect pests. So we read of famines caused by lack of rain, and by pests, especially locusts. Africa is 60% rural and much of Africa’s rural population lives through subsistence farming. So its people face many of the same issues.

Mobiot QuoteThe Old Testament lists several causes of poverty in addition to kinds of calamities listed in the previous paragraph. The book of Proverbs lists laziness as a cause of poverty. Poverty is also attributed to unjust economic practices and shows how that can be eliminated through righteous and unselfish leadership.

The Old Testament paints a very realistic picture of poverty and its causes. Neither God nor the human authors of the Old Testament books hid the hard times God’s people went through. Many traditional religions say that calamities come when a person breaks the taboos of the religion. Or they may attribute them to the evil actions of others (i.e. witchcraft). The first blames the poor person for his the poverty caused by calamity and the second sows discord. The health and wealth gospel tends in the same direction – blaming the poor person for their poverty saying that they don’t have enough faith. Hardly any churches, however, go as far down that road as does the JCC church in Kenya where the pastor warns poor people not to attend.

The Old Testament warns of the poverty-inducing effects of laziness and foolish decisions. But it also  displays a great deal of sympathy toward the poor. It has a message which poor believers in many parts of the world need, and need desperately — that their poverty is no their fault nor is it necessarily a judgment from God. The following verses are a good example of the Old Testament approach to poverty:

But you are a tower of refuge to the poor, O  lord , a tower of refuge to the needy in distress. You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat. For the oppressive acts of ruthless people are like a storm beating against a wall, or like the relentless heat of the desert. But you silence the roar of foreign nations. As the shade of a cloud cools relentless heat, so the boastful songs of ruthless people are stilled.
(Isa 25:4-5)

Why translate the Old Testament? First, to counter the wrong messages about calamity and poverty found in traditional religions and even in the teachings of some churches. The messages about poverty in the Old Testament  give the world’s poorest people, including its poorest Christians, the comfort and instruction God has given for their situation, while the New Testament has much less to say on the topic.

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