Earth ought to be translated as “Earth Oven” in today’s Gospel.
Earth. What does it mean? Certainly, it is important to know the meaning of a word. Communication depends on it. But even more importantly we must grasp the cultural connotation of a word.
Translation problems abound in English versions of the Bible, in a great part due to anachronism and ethnocentrism. Today’s Gospel selection, Luke 12:49-53, gives an example of this unfortunate tendency at work. Culturally informed scholars such as John Pilch tell us that, maybe, “earth” in this section should be read as “earth oven.”
Why is this? Take the Arabic word for “oven,” arsa. It describes the kind of clay oven familiar in that part of the world used for millennia. Given its proximity and shared cultural meanings, arsa suggests that the Aramaic and Hebrew terms for “earth” might likewise bear the meaning of “oven.” Maybe what the Matthean Jesus was saying in Matthew 5:13 was, “You are [like] salt in the earth oven!”
How Middle Eastern Ovens Work
Things become clearer when you realize how traditional Middle Eastern earthen ovens function. Wood, much less firewood, wasn’t abundant in first century Israel. The same was true therefore of charcoal. But people there still keep supplies of animal dung. This is the fuel for the earth oven.
Middle Eastern village girls—think Mary—collect the dung and mold it into patties. As they do this, salt gets added before drying the patties in the sun. Inside the oven, at its base, sits a block of salt—this is the catalyst for the fuel-patties. Given this, we can see that, throughout the New Testament, “salt” passages deal with the operation of an oven’s fire.
What should be obvious is that such associations would be difficult for Western Bible readers who are unfamiliar with cooking food this way. United States people in post-Industrial 21st century superabundance enjoy cooking. We binge watch FOOD NETWORK cooking shows and therefore associate salt with flavoring. Some health-minded Americans might even associate salt with psychological guilt due to its link with high blood pressure. Italian Americans, fond of baccaià, might understand salt as a preservative. But Jesus, “Matthew,” and “Luke” were not Western, or American, or Italian American. They had different associations.
John Pilch’s Matthew 5:13
[Jesus said] You are the catalyst (salt) in the earth oven. But if the catalyst (salt) has lost its catalytic ability (saltiness), how shall its catalytic ability (saltiness) be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by human beings.
John Pilch’s Mark 9:49-50
[Jesus said] For everyone will be salted for the fire. Salt is good, but if salt looses its catalytic ability, how will you restore that? Have salt in yourselves (= be a catalyst), but be at peace with one another.”
John Pilch’s Luke 14:34-35
[Jesus said] Salt is good, but if salt has lost its catalytic ability, how will that be restored? It is good neither for the earth oven nor for preparing fuel cakes (‘for the dunghill’). People just throw it away.”
Salt never loses its taste or flavor. But what happens when the catalyst (or block of salt) on the floor of the earth oven degrades in its chemical consistency and can no longer stoke fires? Then peasants recognize it is no longer fit for the oven, but should be thrown out to help stabilize muddy roads.
The Burning “Peace” of Jesus
The Lukan Jesus speaks about discipleship in today’s Gospel. Disciples of Jesus need to complete the project of fire-starting. Jesus is saying, “I came to light the oven (or ‘set fire in the earth oven’)” and “How I wish it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49). This is not a nice Jesus, folks. This is a Jesus that burns people up. This is a Jesus who pisses people off!
The Lukan Jesus continues by talking about “peace.” We translate the Hebrew word shalom into English as “peace.” The Bible offers eight different meanings or interpretations of shalom, none of which include nice and neat American cultural scenarios we associate with our culturally-familiar “peace,” such as well-ordered silence, stillness, or everything kept in good order!
Etymologies offer us little help! Seen etymologically, shalom suggests “completeness,” “wholeness,” or “soundness.” But look at 2 Samuel 11:7 when David summons Uriah back from battle, and asks him about, the shalom (לִשְׁלֹ֤ום) of Joab, the shalom (וְלִשְׁלֹ֣ום) of the army, and the shalom (וְלִשְׁלֹ֖ום) of the war! The shalom of the war? Looking for the radical meaning of Biblical words via dictionaries and concordances (the standard stress of interpretation) is frankly unfounded and misinformed.
The Middle Eastern world of Jesus is agonistic, prone to conflict. This world is full of noise and very loud. It is a spontaneous, charged, and dynamic society. Do you imagine “peace” as having children running everywhere and screaming all around you, constant arguments with shouting nearby, people singing and quarreling, everything in a happy mess? No? Well, the you won’t understand the kind of “peace” Jesus is talking about.
Respecting the Culture
Despite being repeatedly warned not to by specialists, American Bible readers continually lift words or sentences right out of their literary contexts. We have a nasty habit of completely disregarding the context in which they appear. In ignorance, we forsake the social or cultural context and lose the meaning opting rather to happily plug into the Bible our own culturally-congenial meanings.
The result is we do terrible violence to the sacred texts. No words in any language have one-to-one equivalents in any other language!
When it comes to Jesus even messy Middle Eastern “peace” is not assured. Actually, division is. Jesus sets fires and burns through households and villages. In today’s Gospel Jesus notes that his presence does not deliver “peace” (Middle Eastern style shalom, right?) as much as it splits apart and divides. When Jesus comes on the scene, suffocatingly close-knit Mediterranean family loyalties are jeopardized.
We have discussed before how “salt,” “oven,” “fire,” and “peace”—read in culturally informed ways—help us to better appreciate the New Testament. The world of Jesus is prone to conflict. How often Jesus gets involved in violent, angry conflicts in the Gospel narratives! The nice Jesus of Sunday School and devotions we promote is alien to the real deal. Such a fake Jesus would never have been crucified by the Romans. He would have certainly been laughed at, but not crucified.
The followers of Jesus are to light fires. They are to piss people off. What fires have you lit today, trouble makers ( = disciples)? What Jesus will you follow? Take care not to follow the one of your own making.