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23rd August, 2010

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The difference a word makes

Big trees out of little acorns grow, and huge concepts from little words flow. Words represent ideas; when people converse they are trading ideas. Often, communication of ideas is seriously hampered by different people having a different idea in their heads as to what a word or phrase means. How many people have any idea what the word "abject" actually is meant to mean? What is the difference in its meaning when it is used with, respectively, the words poverty, liar and apology? People who don't know the different meanings cannot properly understand what someone else who does know the meaning is trying to say when they use the word - and vice versa! Due to widespread misuse over time, some words have lost all value as tools of meaningful communication and should be banned. "Legalism" and "fundamentalism", for example, convey no specific meaning any more.

Bible readers are confronted with a huge challenge trying to understand what the writer meant. Ask ten people to explain what is meant by the proverb, "The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity." (18:14) and you will get ten different interpretations. Even experts in Hebrew would probably disagree as to the intended meaning. Contrary to what some fundamentalists might say (yes, I know), understanding the Word of God is not a simple task. Sometimes a single word causes problems. Consider a classical case - the word "righteous/ness". What did Jesus mean when He said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. (Gk: dikaiosune )" (Matt. 5:6). What exactly was He talking about? Most believers would probably understand Him to be commending uprightness or holiness (whatever that may mean, exactly) of behavior, or something like that.

As a result of many studies into the usage of the Greek dikaiosune and, more importantly, its closest Old Testament Hebrew equivalent, tsedeq, experts generally agree that Jesus was not talking about individual holiness at all, but about something far broader and more "communal" in meaning. (Note the word "closest" in the previous sentence. A simple fact of language is that "there are no exact correspondences between related words in different languages"1) The English word that most closely expresses the most common usage of tsedeq in the Old Testament is "justice". Intriguingly, the standard Spanish translation of the Bible (Reina Valera)

has rendered the Hebrew tsedeq as justicia (justice) for generations. Two examples from the Old Testament demonstrate quite well that tsedeq connotes justice:

Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice (tsedeq) to the afflicted and needy (Ps. 82:3).

Let the heavens declare His righteousness (tsedeq), for God Himself is Judge. Selah (Ps. 50:6).

The context makes it clear that "justice" is the most appropriate English word to use. (One wonders why the translators rendered tsedeq as "righteousness" in the second case.)

As Scorgie et al point out, not only does the English word "righteousness" mean very little to people today, we cannot even be sure exactly what it meant to the translators of the King James Version way back in the early 1600s. Indeed, ". until 1604 the English language did not have English dictionaries as we know them today. The lack of a systematic treatment of any given word makes it doubly difficult to discern its meaning at any given time" (p. 330). All agree, though, that at its centre lies the idea of individualism. You can maintain your piety while all about are losing theirs (and maybe blaming it on you). You can be "righteous" within yourself and forget about everybody else. You can feel confident that you are pleasing God merely by maintaining your integrity. But the real meaning of tsedeq is something like "communal responsibility" or "being faithful to the community".2 By taking individual piety as the centre of gravity of tsedeq, the church as a whole has emphasized individual uprightness at the expense of community responsibility. In a nutshell, churches have failed to recognize the enormous responsibility that God places upon believing communities to administer justice within their community. Whereas the church of God should be a haven of justice in an unjust world, churches almost universally are exemplars of injustice.

The church must face up to its responsibility to hunger and thirst after justice or it will have no impact on the unbelieving world around it. There's not much point in working hard to catch fish and turn them into sheep if those sheep are going to end up losing faith when injustice rears its ugly head — and it will.

1 Scorgie, Strauss & Voth, The Challenge of Bible Translation, p. 321

2 Scorgie et al, p. 328


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