Sometimes Bible translators run into problems where an audience seriously misunderstands an important issue in Scripture, and the translators look to see if they can solve this problem by modifying the translation. This makes perfect sense if, for example, the translators had chosen the wrong word (say, if they thought the “burning bush” meant “the burning countryside,” because they use “the bush” to refer to the countryside). 1 However, misunderstandings often arise instead from fundamental worldview differences, and the only way to resolve the issue is for people to come to understand the truth of God’s Word in contrast with the beliefs they formerly held. Let’s explore this dynamic with a hypothetical example from the story of the Fall in Genesis 2-3, and then apply it to a hotly debated yet crucial topic: the translation of “Father” and “Son.”
“You will surely die”
After placing Adam in the Garden of Eden, the LORD God tells Adam:
“From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—you must not eat from it, because on the day you eat from it, you will surely die.”(Genesis 2:17)
Then, along comes the snake (that is, Satan—see Revelation 12:9), and says to Eve, “Surely you will not die” (Genesis 3:4, NET). The snake’s words in the Hebrew are a direct contradiction of God’s words. So who is right?
As it turns out, Adam and Eve didn’t keel over “on the day” they ate from it. Was Satan right, then?
“Hmm…” you think. “Let’s check the commentaries…Aha! It says here that ‘on the day’ (Hebrew b’yom) is sometimes an idiomatic way to simply say ‘when,’ and doesn’t require that the death happen on that very day.”
True enough 2—but was God simply being idiomatic here? Most of the time, b’yom just means “on the day.” Even if the meaning is a more general “when” in this verse, there is nothing in the text to suggest that God was communicating anything other than an immediate effect of death.
We can therefore understand God’s warning in two ways:
- The act of rebellion led to immediate spiritual death and separation from the LORD, and this is what God meant when He said, “On the day you eat from it, you will surely die.”
- The act of rebellion led to the immediate certainty of eventual physical death, but the Lord in His mercy gave a reprieve to Adam and Eve—and by extension all humanity. This reprieve, and the covering of clothing that presumably came through the death of an innocent animal (Genesis 3:21), foreshadows the new life that God offers to all in Christ.
It is very likely that both of these meanings are included in the words “On the day you eat from it, you will surely die.” Verses like Ephesians 2:1-3, Colossians 2:13, Matthew 8:22, Luke 15:32, 1 Timothy 5:6, and others make clear that “death” in the Bible often refers to a spiritual state of separation from God because of sin. This consequence of spiritual death was immediate and sure for Adam and Eve.
But it is also clear that physical death came through their rebellion as well, for they were cut off from the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22-24). Moreover, Paul strongly ties Adam’s rebellion to physical death, not spiritual only, by contrasting the death that comes through Adam with the physical resurrection that comes through Christ: “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22, NIV).
Community Testing and “Death”
Now, let us imagine we have a group of people without the Bible called the “Tamut.” They get connected to a translation organization, and a translation team forms an initial draft. They read the draft of Genesis 2 and 3 to “uninitiated native speakers” of Tamut (that is, speakers who haven’t been involved in the drafting and aren’t familiar with the Bible), and then ask them comprehension questions. Many Tamut speakers respond: “Adam and Eve didn’t die, so the snake was telling the truth, and God was lying.”
Alarmed, the translation team asks further questions, and realizes that to Tamut speakers, the word “die” means physical death alone. Unlike Hebrew, Tamut doesn’t use “death” metaphorically to represent spiritual alienation from the life God gives. The translation team attempts to resolve this by translating b’yom with a more general “when” rather than “on the day,” but the people still insist that the translation is saying that God is wrong and Satan is right. So, in order to create a proper “meaning-based translation,” they finally decide they need to clarify that God’s warning did not involve immediate physical death, and translate: “When you eat from it, you will surely be cut off from spiritual life.”
The effects of redefinition
The decision to rephrase the idea of “death” here is clearly well-intentioned, and is driven by a desire to avoid people drawing wrong conclusions from the text. However, as is often the case, a change in one place leads to problems elsewhere.
For example, when a new batch of uninitiated native speakers get to the part about God cutting off access from the Tree of Life so that they won’t “live forever” (3:22), and then Adam dies (5:5), they complain—“Hey! That wasn’t fair of God! He told them they would be ‘cut off from spiritual life,’ but he never told them they would die!”
Recognizing the problem, our translators go back to drafting, and decide that instead of removing the concept of “death” entirely, they will retain “death” terms, but will instead clarify these terms with a modifying adjective: “When you eat from it, you will surely die spiritually,” they add.
But this, too, concedes far too much to the snake’s thinking. Our uninitiated Tamut readers could still object that God hadn’t truly warned them of the full consequences of their rebellion. Translators also must now decide in every instance whether spiritual or physical death is intended, even when both are likely intended in many passages. Stories like the dry bones in Ezekiel 37 become a story only about physical resurrection and not spiritual renewal. The idea of “dying to sin” turns into nonsense. Paul’s meaning in passages like Romans 6:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 become much more difficult to sort out, and are subject to the whims of particular translators’ fallible interpretations. Giving into the rejection of death as an image of our spiritual state has deeply negative implications for translation, even when the words “death” or “die” are maintained with modifiers. Such redefinition wreaks havoc on all manner of biblical teaching.
All this trouble comes about because the translators have unwittingly allowed the doubts that Satan inspires to drive their understanding of what “death” truly means. Because Satan places no value on our relationship with God, 3 spiritual death means nothing to him. Yes, the proximate cause is the limited sense that the word “death” had in Tamut before biblical teaching entered into the culture. 4 But ultimately, without realizing it, the translators were giving into the lie of the snake that Adam and Eve would “surely not die.” If only physical death is allowed to count as “true” death, then Satan’s definition of death wins out over God’s, since God’s definition included both spiritual and physical meanings, whereas Satan’s definition minimizes the true effects of rebellion.
In seeking to avoid misunderstanding, the translators who make changes like this unwittingly forfeit deeper comprehension of an entire, deep truth of Scripture that God wants us to know, and acquiesce to an overly restricted definition that suits Satan’s purposes more than God’s purposes.
We should expect that God’s truth will at times require people to stretch their concepts and understanding of things, just as the confused disciples had to expand their understanding of what Jesus meant by “yeast” (Matthew 16:6), “food” (John 4:32), being “born again” (John 3:3-4), or “eat[ing] my flesh and drink[ing] my blood” (John 6:51-58), before they could understand His teaching. This is not to say that Jesus never spoke clearly, or that he didn’t care about comprehension—far from it! But rather, He knew that there were certain key points that could only be truly comprehended by those who were puzzled enough to seek the deeper meaning, and ask Him for help. New wine needs new wineskins, which at times will stretch a language, and the cultural concepts that go along with it, in new ways.
In light of this truth, translators need not acquiesce to the limitations of the Tamut worldview on death. Instead, they can have confidence that God will help Tamut people—people that He loved and knew before time—to understand the fullness of His truth, as translators and others persist in preaching and teaching the biblical concept of “death” as having both physical and spiritual dimensions, a concept of “death” shaped by God’s Word. Only in this way will the full riches of the teaching of the Word of God on matters of life and death be available to the Tamut believers.
“If you are the Son of God”
The sad truth is that while the Tamut example is purely hypothetical, it is inspired by a very real issue in Bible translation today. Just as the hypothetical Tamut misunderstood “you will surely die” to only refer to physical death, so too do some people misunderstand what the Bible means when it calls Jesus the “Son of God.” For most people, a simple explanation of what this means and doesn’t mean is enough to clear up the issue. But some Muslims have been told over and over that Christians believe in the “Trinity” of God, Mary, and Jesus, and that we believe that Jesus was produced by some sort of divine-human “fling” between God and Mary, just as Zeus would have had with various mortals and nymphs to produce the myriad pantheon of Greece. This, of course, is a blasphemous lie—Christians believe nothing of the sort. Nonetheless, sometimes people who have been told this often enough believe it so strongly that no amount of explanation will convince them otherwise, and if Jesus is described as the “Son of God” in their language, they believe it can mean nothing other than a sonship produced by the normal human means of sexual reproduction.
The same translation philosophy that led our hypothetical translators to “correct” the translation of “death” in Tamut has in reality been implemented to modify, qualify, or entirely remove “Father” and “Son” from the Bible. The reasoning is that if translators use the same normal terms used for human father-son relationships to refer to Jesus and the Father, then an incorrect understanding will inevitably result, and therefore, they feel that the best solution is to replace or modify the “Father/Son” idea.
But just as “you will surely die” normally means physical death, and yet can be understood to mean something broader—even if such a broader understanding goes against the linguistic grain of a language before the gospel has had an impact—even so, “son” normally means physical sonship produced via marital relations, yet can, with an open mind, be understood to mean the deeper, eternal kind of sonship that exists between the Father and the Son. And just as rephrasing to avoid a “literal” translation of “die” leads to a loss of connection to key biblical themes, changing the translation of “Father” and “Son” to other terms leads to a loss of connection to many themes such as our adoption and inheritance as children of God, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Abraham’s offering of Isaac, and Jesus as the heir, firstborn, and “only [son]” (Hebrew yachid, Greek monogenes) of God.
This loss occurs even if the word “son” is retained but modifiers like “spiritual” are added. Such modifiers add an unnecessary distinction between “sons” plain and simple, and “spiritual sons,” separating out aspects of sonship that are joined in the biblical text, and thereby weakening allusions to the (unmodified) sons throughout Scripture that point to Jesus. The idea that modifiers like “spiritual” are necessary also ignores the real ways in which the meaning of Jesus being the “Son of God” includes physical or biological elements as well: just as Adam (who is called “[son] of God” in Luke 3:38) had no human father but was created directly by God from the dust, so too, the Last Adam had no human father, but was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and will “therefore…be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35, CSB).
Even more, phrases like “spiritual son” subtly shift the linguistic ground away from God’s definition of fatherhood and sonship, by making sexual procreation the “norm” for the father-son relationship, and labeling other types of father-son relationships (whether the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, our relationship as children of God adopted through faith in Christ, or the relationship between parents and children through adoption) with special modifiers that set them apart from the norm. Certainly there are differences between these types of relationships, but there are deep gospel truths found in the fact that the Holy Spirit has breathed out the same simple, unmodified terms for each of them in many passages. Insisting that only the sexually procreated sons can retain the unmodified, normal status goes against God’s purposes in calling Jesus His “Son,” in calling us “sons” and “children,” and allowing adoptive parents and children to joyfully use the terms “father,” “mother,” “son,” and “daughter” on equal linguistic footing with natural-born parent-child relationships.
God Defines Truth
Satan enticed Eve to doubt that she and Adam would “surely die,” and in doing so gained a crucial advantage in his scheme to twist humanity against God. So, too, does Satan seek to entice people into denying that Jesus truly is the Son of God: “If you are the Son of God,” he says (Matthew 4:6, Luke 4:3). Translators may wish to concede this point to Satan by “clarifying” that “Jesus isn’t really the ‘Son’ of God; that’s just a metaphor.” But in doing so, they unwittingly allow Satan to define what being a “father” and “son” truly means. We could say the same of our “die” example: “You won’t really die, that’s just a metaphor.” Tell me: Whose voice do you hear in those words? God’s, or Satan’s?
The teaching of Islam in many areas directly attacks key Christian truth, in particular the divinity and nature of Jesus Christ. We can choose to allow these attacks—which, like the snake’s lies in the garden, have their ultimate origin in the Father of Lies—to cause us to redefine what a true “Father” and “Son” look like. But if we look at God’s perfect Word, we can see that the Holy Spirit categorically denies that only sons produced by sexual relations are “true” sons. Our ability to understand God’s Word depends crucially on our willingness to let God define the nature of fatherhood and sonship, just as we must let Him define what it truly means to “die.”
None of this is to say that those who redefine fatherhood and sonship in the Bible at all intend to allow Satan’s redefinition of the terms. 5 But that does not make it any safer to allow Satan to cause anyone to doubt whether Jesus truly is the “Son of God,” or to define that in ways that make fathers and sons through sexual procreation the only possible relationship worthy of the words “father” and “son.” The Bible’s perspective on death, fatherhood and sonship are not merely Hebrew or Greek concepts; they are God’s concepts.
God wants translators to use the skills He has given them to carefully consider the ways that the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek differ from the language being translated into, and how those language differences need to be dealt with in translation, in order to be faithful to the pattern of the text He breathed out. But He has not given translators the authority to restructure key concepts simply because a group of people has not yet learned to see the world from God’s perspective. Such a change of thinking will take time, patience, and teaching, all empowered by the Holy Spirit, but those who persevere will help reap a far greater harvest for the Kingdom of God than they ever could if they shortcut the transformation necessary in all of us by ceding ground to the Father of Lies.
Editor’s note: The translation of “Son of God” as “spiritual Son of God,” as well as the complete elimination of Father-Son terms from some translations, is one of the issues addressed in the Arlington Statement on Bible Translation, of which Biblical Missiology is an initial signer. If you agree that these practices are unfaithful, we welcome you to sign the statement and share it with others.
- A real example. ↩
- See, for example, Numbers 3:1, where “b’yom” refers to a 40-day period. ↩
- Note, for example, the way that the text in Genesis 2 refers throughout to the “LORD God,” including the personal, covenant name of YHWH, emblematic of God’s faithfulness, presence, and relationship with His people. However, Satan merely refers to “God” without His covenant name that evokes the personal relationship based on the LORD’s faithfulness to His promise—and Eve quickly follows suit, mirroring Satan’s language of referring only to “God” without the personal name YHWH. ↩
- This assumes, of course, that in our hypothetical example, the claim that “death” can only be used exclusively for physical death in Motu is actually true. Sometimes analogous claims made about real languages don’t stand up to scrutiny. But even if it were true, the problems with allowing such an idea to go unchallenged by Scripture remain. ↩
- Nor does it mean that community testing is not a helpful tool, that there are no metaphors in Scripture, or that one should always translate “literally.” There are good, faithful reasons, for example, why no English translation translates erek appayim as “long-nostriled” in Exodus 34:6. ↩