Beyond the sanitized page: plunging into the letter to Thyatira

Posted: 5th April 2011 by ElShaddai Edwards in Translation
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We’re in the middle of a sermon series at church on the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation. This past Sunday, we looked at the letter to Thyatira — Revelation 2:18-29.  In the middle of the letter is God’s statement of intent to punish a person or source of authority that was leading Christ-followers into some form of physical and/or spiritual immorality.

The intent of this post is not to focus on whether the term “Jezebel” refers to a historical woman or whether it abstractly represents a non-Biblical idea or spiritual principle that represented a threat to the Christian faith. No, instead, I want to focus on something a little more earthy.

After Jezebel has exhausted her time to repent, Revelation 2:22-23a says that God will “cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways.  I will strike her children dead.” (NIV2011)

Seems pretty straightforward and whether the adultery, tribulation and children are physical or spiritual, it’s not a stretch of the imagination in today’s world to picture the literal images of sexual disease, suffering and death. But let’s take a stroll beyond our sanitized evangelical translations, shall we?

Going back a generation, here’s what the Revised English Bible (building on the fine New English Bible) had to say:

So I will throw her on a bed of pain, and I will plunge her lovers into terrible suffering, unless they renounce what she is doing; and her children I will kill with pestilence.”

Ah, now we’re getting some good old-fashioned prophet language, casting off the heavily sanitized “make those who commit adultery with her” for something a little more direct and to the point. Dare I say, half the words and more than twice the literary effect. The NEB’s use of “plunge her lovers into” is referential to, most obviously, the physical action of sex and, more obliquely, a description of being thrust below the surface of the eternal lake of fire coming later in Revelation.

Let’s not continue at the risk of becoming vulgar, but always remember that John is drawing heavily on OT imagery throughout Revelation — it is not the stink of depravity if Ezekiel’s graphic images of the whoring Israel and Judah should come to mind in this warning to the members of a young church.

So what’s the point – that is, beyond finding mere titillation in a Bible translation? Well, the English language is clearly capable of deeper and richer expression than simply adding an adjective or adverb to commonplace nouns and verbs to convey emphasis. Perhaps our Bible translations should likewise plunge us beyond safe word choices to get our full and ready attention to the message at hand.

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