The First Testament: A Pastor’s Take

The First Testament: A Pastor’s Take February 11, 2019

So begins a series of reviews of John Goldingay, The First Testament.

This post is by Dan Hanlon, an Anglican missioner to Rwanda, and a student at Northern Seminary.

What is your go-to translation for teaching, for preaching, for writing? How does FT compare with your go-to translation?

Recently my go-to translation for preaching and Bible teaching has been the English Standard Version (ESV). This isn’t necessarily my favorite, although the longer I use it the more I have gotten used to it. I use this translation mainly because it is the translation used by the church where I pastor and the community where I teach Bible. I live in Kigali, Rwanda and serve in an English speaking church and Bible school I think the ESV was chosen in these contexts for its readability for people for whom English is not a first language. The First Testament (FT) is definitely different from the ESV. While the ESV tries to be a middle-of-the-road English translation, the FT tries to maintain a tension between wooden closeness to the Hebrew, as well as similarity to common English.

How can this translation help students, pastors/preachers, and Bible readers in general?

As a pastor, preacher/teacher I think this translation is helpful for the way it defamiliarizes us with the text of Scripture. I’m an Anglican priest and serve in an Anglican church. We follow a lectionary (the Revised Common Lectionary) for our Sunday readings and sermons. As I’m sure many people are aware, the lectionary progresses in a three year cycle, returning over and over to the same passages. After years of reading and preaching the lectionary those passages become pretty familiar. I think the FT slows the reader down and defamiliarizes the reader in a way that will help in sermon preparations. Preachers who are familiar with passages of the OT may see them from a new perspective, with alternative language.

What surprised you about FT in what you read?

I was surprised by the way Goldingay mixes modern language with a closeness to the Hebrew text. He uses abbreviations (“I’m here”, Genesis 22:1), as well as transliterated names (“Mosheh” instead of Moses), and Hebrew sentence structure. As I was reading I had to pause and wonder, “I think I know this verse, but I’m not sure.” I found that I had to go back and re-read. I found that this slowed the pace of reading and forced thoughtful reflection.

What value is there in turning conventional translations of conventional theological terms (holy, law, covenant, etc) into less conventional and more common terms?

Pastorally, I think the value of turning conventional theological terms into less conventional and more common terms is that it gives us fresh ways to preach and teach familiar passages. The FT is full of opportunities to make use of alternative terms. I think the effect of this could be that preachers will have broader range of vocabulary for communicating familiar passages in fresh ways. Recently, Nehamiah 8:1-10 came up in the lectionary. According to the ESV, Ezra reads from the “Book of the Law of Moses,” while the FT calls it “Mosheh’s instruction document” (8:1). While “instruction” may be an appropriate way to translate Torah, the real advantage of the FT translation in this case is that it gives alternative words to something familiar. In this way the reader/ hearer is forced to think twice about the text.

How has his translation jolted or jarred you into thinking differently about a given Hebrew term or conventional translation? (He did this for me with “smartness” for wisdom.)

There are a few Hebrew terms that caught my attention in the FT for the different way they are translated. Here I list a few.

Goldingay renders לבב (levav) as “mind” instead of “heart,” and נפש (nefesh) as “being” instead of “soul” (ESV; see at Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12). I think this is really helpful alternative language. For me, “mind” instead of “heart” moves the action out of the realm of feelings and into the realm of intentions. This is similar to the effect of translating אהב (ahav) as “loyalty” instead of “love” in the same passage Western English speakers may agree that love involves loyalty, but the alternative translation gets closer to the heart of the kind of love that the Bible envisions. “Being” instead of “soul” not only breaks the influence of Greek philosophy on the Scripture, but it also indicates that the the whole person is involved in following God.

Additionally, צדקה ,צדיק (tsadiq, tsadaqah) are rendered in the FT as “faithful,” “faithfulness” instead of “righteous,” “righteousness” (ESV). Righteous and Righteousness are terms caked with meaning for most Christian readers of the Old Testament. On the other hand, I think faithfulness gets to the heart of what is meant without all the possible associations. In a way, Goldingay has de-Christianized righteousness terminology, while at the same time giving us new ways to think about what it really means to live righteously.

What do you think of using transliterated names?

I really like the transliterated names and even the occasions where the Hebrew place name is used instead of the familiar English, as in the case of “Misrayim” for “Egypt.” I think it is all part of the FT’s ability to defamiliarize us with the text of Scripture. As I was reading Genesis, it felt more like reading about people I didn’t know. Which I think is helpful. Since the names are familiar we may think that we know the Biblical people and their culture. But the FT reminds us that we don’t know them or their culture as well as we think we do. They are foreign to us. We need to get to know them as they are presented in the text. Perhaps a result of this could be that readers of the FT will develop cultural awareness and a desire to encounter other cultures that are different from their own. It should definitely help us to stop reading the Bible with images of white people in our heads.

Can this translation help in classroom teaching of the “Old Testament”?

I can definitely see the FT as a helpful tool for classroom teaching or a church Bible study. I would not however make it my church’s pew Bible. It really isn’t meant to be read aloud. I tried this, reading a passage to my wife. I got caught up on unfamiliar names, the sentence structure was different, and I miss-read parts when I thought I knew what it should say. I also don’t think it would be helpful for a pastor to quote from it often. Perhaps the one-off verse as sometimes is done with Eugene Peterson’s The Message. But the congregation may get suspicious if the pastor is constantly referring to some version of their Old Testament called the First Testament. Personally, I will continue to use it in personal study and sermon preparations.

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