An advent reflection from Exodus

The more I study the Bible, the more I  appreciate what a masterful piece of art it is, with echoes of salvation and incarnation ringing throughout both testaments. This reflection on waiting and deliverance comes to you from my recent work creating translation resources for the book of Exodus.

“The Israelites groaned because of their slavery and cried out. Their cry went up  to God and
God heard their groaning.
God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
God saw the Israelites.
God knew.” [Exod. 2:23-25]

In these three short verses God is named five times. Up until this point in Exodus the narrative has purposefully avoided ascribing activity or purpose to God (he is mentioned only in 1:17, 20, 21) in order to create a dramatic shift here. The Israelites have been forced into slave labor, enduring persecution and multiple attempts to mass murder their children. Their suffering is unbearable, but there is hope because here God becomes the active subject. For every cry of suffering from the Israelites, God responds—he hears, he remembers, he sees, he knows.

Now, an important question—does “God remembered” mean that God forgot? The verb ‘remember’ does not imply that God had somehow forgotten about the covenant he made. In this context the verb has the connotation of acting on what has been recalled or giving complete attention to something already known. This expression appears throughout the Old Testament. When God “remembers his covenant” it means he is about to act on his promise. And sure enough, a few verses later we see God’s response.

I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt and
I have heard their cry. Indeed,
I know their sufferings.
I have come down to deliver them from Egypt and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, flowing with milk and honey…” [Exod. 3:7-8]

God asserts that he sees, hears, knows—three of the same actions as in Exod. 2:24-25. But now we get an advance in the plot. His remembering has turned to action. God has come down to deliver. He is making himself (and his plan of salvation for the Israelites in Egypt) known to Moses from the midst of a bush on fire without burning. Soon he would come down and make himself known, not just to one man but to all the Israelite people, in a cloud of glory that filled the tabernacle. And one day, he would come down and make himself known as a man that we could touch and talk to and eat with. And this time, his coming down would be salvation for the whole world.

For the next few weeks, we wait. We wait and groan, just like the ancient Israelites in Egypt before us. For this season our hearts live in tents, preparing to be set free from sin and sorrow, wondering what that day will be like when his glory is revealed. With building anticipation we wait for the celebration that God did come, wrapped in humility and humanity. God did save, not just out of physical bondage but of out spiritual separation and despair. We wait with sure hope that he sees, he hears, he knows. And he will come again. With a thrill of hope, creation’s groaning will cease and the weary world will rejoice!

“You will also know of his second glorious and truly divine manifestation to us, when he comes no longer in lowliness but in his own glory, no longer with humility but in his own magnificence, no longer to suffer but to bestow thenceforth the fruit of his own cross..”

[Athanasius, On the Incarnation]

stones of remembrance

When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’  then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.

Joshua 4:21-24

In my orientation for Wycliffe back in 2012, one of the morning speakers gave a talk about stones of remembrance that has stuck with me since.

Quick recap. The Israelites have been living in the desert for 40 years, but God is about to take them on a crazy adventure, fulfilling his promise of giving them a place to settle down–no more slavery, no more wandering. Right before they enter into the land of Canaan, God performs a miracle harkening back to the crossing of the Red Sea. The Jordan River separated them from Canaan and at that time of year would have been in flood stage. God commands priests go out into the river carrying the ark of the covenant (God’s presence). As soon as their feet hit the water, the river stopped flowing downstream and piled up in a wall, allowing all of Israel to cross on dry ground.

After the people had crossed safely to the other shore but before the priests came out of the riverbed, God commands they send twelve men to take twelve stones from the middle of the river. They set up these stones on the other side of the Jordan as a reminder of how God provided for them and how he is powerful.

The Israelites were pretty forgetful people, as are we. The speaker back at my orientation encouraged us to keep track of our own “stones of remembrance.” When we are facing difficult situations it is so helpful to remember how God has provided for us in the past. We can trust that he will continue to do so in the future.

One such “stone” was when I first moved to Quelimane. My teammate Lisa and I were extremely fortunately to be able to borrow a lot of house stuff from our colleagues who were spending time back in their home country. The biggest thing we still needed to get was bed frames. We had no car and knew very few people in our new city. Where do they even sell beds? Am I going to pay too much? How in the world are we going to get them home? It seems like a simple problem after living there for a few years, but at the time I was very overwhelmed. This was the crux of one of my biggest fears in being a missionary–that I’d be in the middle of Africa and not be able to handle the practical stuff. But God is great.

One problem at a time–where do they sell beds? I went upstairs to ask my neighbor if she knew where the furniture markets were. She grabs her keys, saying that she has been wanting to scope out prices on some furniture for her kid’s rooms and this is the perfect opportunity. So not only do we know where to go, but we have an escort who knows what a reasonable price is!

Once we found two beds, the question was how to get them back to our apartment. Our neighbor’s car is tiny and sending each piece of the bed frame separately on the back of a bike taxi doesn’t seem feasible. Just as Lisa and I were giving each other the “any ideas?” look, the ONE pastor we know who owns a car (a flatbed truck, no less) pulls over. He just happened to be driving by and saw us on the side of the road with all these bed pieces. Voila, transport!

I remain amazed at how God orchestrated that day so perfectly. I began that day doubtful and disheartened, but ended it with a renewed trust that God would always take care of me.

What are your stones of remembrance?



What does a translation consultant do?

Before I went overseas, I thought of a Bible translator as a foreigner who goes to live among a people group for 30 or 40 years, learns the language and then translates the Bible with the help of a few nationals. And until more recently, this probably would have been a fairly accurate description. But God has been doing a new thing. Today the national people we go to serve are able and eager to take a larger role in bringing God’s Word to their own communities in their own language.

Chuwabo translation team

A translation team is usually made up of four mother tongue translators. They are often pastors and are experts in their language. They understand the local context and culture, have relationships with the church and unbelieving communities, and can produce natural speech without agonizing over the correct verb conjugation (or continuing on, oblivious of mistakes, like I often do!).

When the translation team completes a draft, they go through several steps of revision and send it out for community testing. After all of this initial feedback is incorporated, a translation consultant meets with the team to help them further revise the text. A consultant checks the accuracy from the Greek or Hebrew, making sure nothing has been added or left out and that the meaning will be clear. They are a resource for the team as they try to understand the original meaning and render this in their own language.

So, what are the kinds of things a translation consultant looks for?

  1. Key terms. How easy it would be if all languages had an obvious equivalent for every word! Many times there is no apparent translation for the Hebrew/Greek concept. Other times there are too many options! (For a few examples, check out previous posts: Was Jesus hungover? or They put Jesus in a WHAT? or White as Snow)
  2. Parallel passages. If the same story is recorded in multiple gospels, do the two translations reflect the same similarities and differences as the original text?
  3. Discourse features. Is it clear and easy to understand? If it’s poetry, is it written like poetry? If it’s narrative, is it written like narrative?
  4. Spelling, punctuation, formatting, etc.

And much much more! This is a non-exhaustive list from my very limited experience. In future blog posts I hope to give more examples of these translation challenges in action. Stay tuned…

Jesus was hungover?


One of the privileges of a translation consultant is being part of discussions to decide what word in the target language (language being translated into) will best convey the meaning of a Biblical concept. Sometimes the choice is obvious. Many times it requires thoughtful debate and a dose of creativity.

When the Chuwabo translators were drafting the book of John, the word “osisimuwa” came up for discussion. If you ask older speakers, they would say it means “to resurrect” in the same sense you or I understand it–someone who was dead comes back to life. However, among the younger generations this same word has taken a more colloquial meaning. To illustrate, if a person gets so drunk they pass out, the next morning when they wake up they will have “resurrected.”

Clearly this is not what we want to convey about Jesus’ resurrection! We don’t want anyone misunderstanding that Jesus got so drunk he blacked out and didn’t wake up for three days. Or that Jesus claimed to be “the hangover recovery and the life.” Instead, the Chuwabo translators opted for the more literal and less ambiguous phrase “raise from the dead.”

They put Jesus in a WHAT?

As we move into the Christmas season, may this story be a reminder of the humility of our all powerful God. May it also show us the importance of translating every word with diligence. This is from the Wycliffe USA blog.

Mbe translators discussing a translation pointAs the Mbe translation team in Nigeria was translating the Gospel of Luke, they came to chapter 2, verse 7: “She [Mary] gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.”

The translators took time to ponder how to translate some of the words, but not “manger.” They immediately used the word “ókpáng.”

“What’s an ókpáng?” asked their consultant, John Watters. “Tell me what it looks like.”  One of the translators drew a picture on the whiteboard. It was essentially a cradle hung by ropes so that the newborn could be laid in it and swung.

“Read the Translator’s Notes again,” John suggested. “What do the notes say about the manger?” (“Translator’s Notes” is a series of commentaries in non-technical English that are especially helpful for Bible translators for whom English is a second language.)

The Mbe translators read the notes and saw that “manger” referred to an animal feeding trough. Even as the Mbe team read the notes, they objected. “We have always used the word ókpáng. We have used it for years, and that’s what we should use.”

John pointed out to them that it wasn’t just a matter of tradition. God expects us to find the words that express the original meaning as accurately as possible. Furthermore, this word tells us something profound about God. “When He came to live among us and bring salvation to us, He came in the lowliest way possible. He did not come and sleep in a nice ókpáng like every Mbe mother wants for her newborn. Instead, He showed us his unbelievable humility,” John told them. “So we need to find your best word for an animal feeding trough.”

Suddenly the one who had argued most loudly for the traditional term offered, “We feed our animals out of an old worn-out basket that is not usable anymore except to feed the animals. We call it ‘ɛ́dzábrí.’”

“Then try that term,” said John. “Put it in your rough draft and test it with Mbe speakers.”

Mbe translators going out to test translation

As the Mbe people listened, they were visibly moved. Picturing the newborn Baby lying in the animals’ feeding basket, they recognized in a new way that Jesus was willing to do whatever it took to reach them. As an adult, He would humble Himself by washing the disciples’ feet and then by dying on the cross. And this humility started right from birth, when He was born to a young peasant woman under questionable social conditions and laid in an animal feeding trough.

No word in Scripture is too unimportant to translate carefully and accurately. And no language community is too unimportant to merit the Scriptures in the language they best understand.

Can you guess the parable?

Remember those little booklets we printed in Chuwabo? Well, they’re a hit!  Can you guess which parable is represented here?

These pamphlets are one of the few things available in the Chuwabo language, and are already being used by God in mighty ways.

A group of literate women in Quelimane (my city in Mozambique) are meeting on Saturday afternoons to encourage others in their neighborhood to learn to read. A few weeks ago a 14 year old girl from a Muslim family came with her friends and was offered two of the books to take with her.

When she came home, her mom (Fatima) was very angry, yelling and hitting her. But later that week when Fatima saw the books lying around the house and realized they were written in Chuwabo, her interest was peaked. After reading the parable of the sower, she wanted to know what the story meant. A few days later she arrived at the church leader’s house, full of questions. Two days later the church leader and local pastor went to visit Fatima in her home. They discussed the parable and all her questions about God for two hours and Fatima accepted Christ as her Savior!

I am in awe of how God uses something as simple as a folded half sheet of paper to move so mightily in the heart of this beloved woman. That is the power of God’s truth in the heart language! Let us pray for others reading these booklets and for the translation team as they draft the gospels. The Chuwabo people are so hungry for God’s word in their language.
*Shoutout to my friends at Little Zebra Books for making this booklet in Chuwabo possible!