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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Did God do it? (plus a Chinese lesson!)

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In Psalm 88, the psalmist is crying out to God for help, but, strangely enough, also saying it was God who caused bad things to happen to him.

Take a look:

"You have put me in the lowest pit,
    in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
    you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
    and have made me repulsive to them."

Well that's... odd. God did those bad things to him? Really? What does the writer mean by that?

Here's the thing: I highly suspect that, as this was written thousands of years ago, in another language and in the context of a culture completely foreign to me, I can't just take this "God did it" idea and run with it. When an American Christian says God did something, I'm willing to bet that has a different meaning than an ancient middle-eastern person saying God did something.

So there's no point in speculating and analyzing this until we know more about the culture.

Here's another example: 2 Samuel 24:1 says, "Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, 'Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.'"

But when the same story is recorded in 1 Chronicles 21, it says, "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel." So which is it? God or satan?

And how about when Moses was confronting Pharaoh about the "let my people go" thing? Sometimes it says God hardened Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4, 14:8), sometimes it says Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15, 8:32, 9:34), and sometimes it sounds like it just happens on its own (Exodus 7:13, 7:22, 8:19). So which is it? (And isn't it kind of messed-up for God to punish Pharaoh for something God did?)

Who did it? Who caused it? I bet this confusion is because the biblical writers had a different understanding about what it means to say God caused something.

So unfortunately, I can't start to make a big deal out of "oh my gosh, God caused that?" Because I don't know their culture and what they meant by that.

Image source.
Here's an example from Chinese. Suppose you went on vacation, but unfortunately there was a typhoon while you were there. In English we say, "There was a typhoon." Chinese people would say, "我遇到了台风 (wǒ yù dào le táifēng)" which literally means "I met a typhoon."

(And this is why, even though I can speak Chinese, I structure my sentences differently than a native speaker. My brain's OS is English.)

To me, as a native speaker of American English, "there was" has a slightly different feel than "I met." Maybe Chinese people would say it does too. But that's not something I can really understand until I spend a lot more time studying Chinese.

At any rate, it wouldn't make any sense for me to say "wow this translation says 'I met', that is super interesting, it puts the focus of the sentence on the person who's telling the story, I wonder why." Umm, no, that's just a very normal thing to say if you're speaking Chinese. There's no magical hidden meaning. It's just a different language.

Same thing with Psalm 88 and how it says God made bad things happen to the psalmist. How would the original audience have understood it? I don't know. Maybe it's a big deal, maybe it presents a crazy view of God that we need to wrestle with- or maybe not. We can't know without knowing their culture.

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This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 88. To read other people's posts, click here: Depression is Biblical.

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