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Walls, trees, and snakes
July 25, 2011
by Rev. Richard Flynn, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Delano

One of the young people in my youth group asked me the other day about the purchase of a Bible. They wanted one that was the “most accurate” translation.

They wanted to know exactly what had been written so many years ago, apart from any “interpretation” by a translator. They wanted to be able to make up their own mind about the meaning of the text. A very worthy goal, I should say.

But, not that easy a goal to achieve, for translating our holy scriptures is not a simple thing. It is very hard, demanding work. Translating documents is not just simple word substitution from one language to another.

We are separated from the original manuscripts by 2,000 to 3,000 years. We speak very different languages. We live in a very different culture. We understand the world differently because of the advances in scientific knowledge.

Science has been able to show us, for instance, that the world isn’t flat, as the author of the Book of Job seems to describe. That alone makes knowing where Heaven is difficult. Which way is “up?” We point to the sky, but on the other side of the planet, do they not point to “up” in the opposite direction, what would be “down” to us?

Up and down are not the only words made difficult. The English language if full of problems for translators. Take the word “ship.” What does it mean? Does it refer to a large seagoing vessel, or does it refer to the process of moving a package from one place to another? To understand which definition would be an accurate representation in translation requires additional information and context.

Translating the Bible requires context, too. All too often, a well-meaning Christian will pull out a verse and announce that “this is the final truth” on whatever the subject is at hand. Once in a while, perhaps we can do that. But most of the time, we need more context, more understanding.

I am mindful of this as we wrestle with the great moral issues of our day. I would caution us all to be careful about final pronouncements from the scriptures about war, marriage, abortion, sexual orientation, other religions, and a host of other issues. Rather, let us very carefully share our understanding and then very respectfully listen to another faithful person’s understanding. Perhaps, together, we can expand our mutual faiths.

I am reminded of the old story of the three blind men who stumbled upon an elephant. Each called out to the other what an elephant was.

One ran his hands over the side of the animal and cried out, “Elephants are like large, hairy walls!”

The second man held his hands around a large hind leg and he called out, “No, elephants are like tree trunks!”

And the third blind man wrestled with the elephant’s flexible trunk and yelled, “No! No! Elephants are like giants snakes!”

Well, which one was right? They were all right in a sense. They just didn’t have the whole picture. But if they combined their discoveries, they would have been a little closer to the truth than with just their own personal understanding.

Walls. Tree trunks. Giant snakes. Hard to imagine how those things might go together, don’t you think? So it may be with my understanding of the scriptures, and yours, and our neighbors. Let’s try to find out more of the whole picture, together.