patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

an amusing sermon

I reread Malachi in Wycliffe’s medieval translation—something about reading early vernacular Bibles like Wycliffe’s and Luther’s excites me and makes me feel connected to what must have been the excitement of their first readers—and got moored in the very first, previously innocuous seeming phrase: “The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel, in the hand of Malachi, the prophet.” (In Luther’s 1545 translation, if you’re interested, it’s a Last, which means burden or load.) In the TNIV and most other contemporary translations, it is not a burden but a prophecy or a message.

“What do you make of this?” I asked Kris after I investigated my Exhaustive NIV Concordance and googled around and discovered that there are, supposedly, two different words in Hebrew that are spelled exactly, exactly, the same: one meaning prophecy and the other meaning burden. According to biblical scholars, the only evidence that shows which one is meant is context. And, in a couple of passages, both meanings obtain.

“Well,” Kris said, “a prophecy can be a heavy burden.”

“Yes, but what I mean is, if the only way you can tell which one is meant is by context, why do they think there are two words in the first place?"

I showed him a passage in Jeremiah where one scholar said that either meaning could work and that Jeremiah, who liked to play around with words, probably intended both. A gnarled read even in the NIV, it basically says that you should reject anyone who tells you, “I have a message from God.” In Wycliffe’s translation, the crux of it reads “Therefore if this people, either prophet, either priest, asketh thee, and saith, What is the burden of the Lord? thou shalt say to them, Ye be the burden, for I shall cast you away, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:33).

This business of burdens from prophets and priests—and the fact that the whole segment of Jeremiah begins “Woe to the shepherds, that scatter and draw the flock of my pasture, saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:1 Wycliffe)—landed us, of course, in the mouth of Jesus, who probably spoke Aramaic (a patois of Hebrew and other Semitic languages), likely read scripture in Hebrew (although there were Aramaic texts), but whose words were recorded in Greek, in which language burden and message are two entirely unrelated words.

Jesus began his famous “Seven Woes” sermon with these words: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:2-4 TNIV).

Which to me means Jesus was referencing both the opening of Malachi—a common opening of prophetic books of the Bible—and this burdensome passage from Jeremiah, in which he burdens his readers with the burden that they shouldn’t say God has burdened me to say x or trust someone else who burdens us with such burdens.

Just saying.

The take-home? Kris: “It would make an amusing sermon.”

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