Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Now at last there is a translation of the Bible that puts everything into plain modern everyday English, so that anyone can understand it.

Even better, most other modern English translations make this claim too.

Maybe its standard inclusion in these things is because language changes so rapidly, that we regularly need a new version to replace all those quickly-outdated pieces of slang.

But Eugene H Peterson's The Message: The Bible In Contemporary Language – published in full in 2002 - has an edge.

He's translated the whole thing on his lonesome. Free from the constraints of being responsible to a team (and having to write to a consistent, agreed voice with each of them), Peterson's work feels much more personal. He's on-record as aiming for vitality and freshness with which to impact the reader, and after a decade of hard work, the result is a translation that surely reclaims the freedom and personal voice of the original texts.

Ahab answered Elijah, "My enemy! So, you've run me down!"

"Yes, I've found you out," said Elijah. "And because you've bought into the business of evil, defying GOD. 'I will most certainly bring doom upon you, make mincemeat of your descendants, kill off every sorry male wretch who's even remotely connected with the name Ahab. And I'll bring down on you the same fate that fell on Jeroboam son of Nebat and Baasha son of Ahijah—you've made me that angry by making Israel sin.'"

- 1 Kings 21:20-22

This translation may be many things - including controversial - but one adjective it never deserves is boring. Jeremiah 43 begins with the heading "Death! Exile! Slaughter!"

I think it was sometime last decade, at some Christian event or other, that I first came across a copy of the Message's New Testament, because he was initially publishing the whole thing in stages as he got it down. It wasn't until early '04 in New Zealand that I saw a copy of the whole completed work though – without any verse-numbers! Now the Bible really was starting to look like a more readable book.

Fig. 1: The Message Bible. Many things, but never boring.

Dipping into it on the internet, I'm afraid I began to enjoy it a little too much. Going initially to and selecting the Message translation started to make the Bible interesting for the wrong reasons. You see, bits of it were, how do I put this, perhaps unintentionally funny.

The governor invited Barnabas and Saul in, wanting to hear God's Word firsthand from them. But Dr. Know-It-All (that's the wizard's name in plain English) stirred up a ruckus, trying to divert the governor from becoming a believer. But Saul (or Paul), full of the Holy Spirit and looking him straight in the eye, said, "You bag of wind, you parody of a devil—why, you stay up nights inventing schemes to cheat people out of God. But now you've come up against God himself, and your game is up.

- Acts 13:7-11a

The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt.

- Matthew 18:34

How well God must like you— you don't hang out at Sin Saloon, you don't slink along Dead-End Road, you don't go to Smart-Mouth College.

- Psalm 1:1

Look at that guy!
He had sex with sin,
he's pregnant with evil.
Oh, look! He's having
the baby—a Lie-Baby!

- Psalm 7:14

Well okay, so maybe those passages were written with the intention of being humourous, but the book's propensity for inventing new words still made me feel as though I was actually chuckling at its jamminess.

She answered GOD by name, praying to the God who spoke to her, "You're the God who sees me!

"Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!"

That's how that desert spring got named "God-Alive-Sees-Me Spring."

- Genesis 16:13-14a

In October '07 I was invited to read the whole of the Book Of Ruth across three services at Cession. We were coming at the services from the angle of storytelling, so I went through a heap of different translations looking for the one that sounded easiest on the ears.

I generally found the Message's chatty syntax the most natural to convey out loud, and it quickly won me over. It even had lines where Peterson had gently slipped-in the odd explanation of unfamiliar local customs.

Ruth quietly followed; she lay down to signal her availability for marriage.

- Ruth 3:7b

But there would still occasionally be moments that I could only describe at the time as "toe-curling". For example, straight after the above helpful line came this one:

In the middle of the night the man was suddenly startled and sat up. Surprise! This woman asleep at his feet!

- Ruth 3:8

In the end, I gave up and did the reading from the God's Word translation instead. Less gripping, but I think I also floundered less. It has now been nearly two years since I first wrestled with how to deliver that line effectively, and I'm still at a complete loss.

I confess that for a long time I even jokingly referred to it as "da funky message bible", often whilst waving both hands in the peace gesture. Not very nice of me really.

And yet, the more I read it, the more it won me over. If you only read the Bible once in your life, make it this translation!

So what are the elements that make-up the Message's own unique voice? There are four that I perceive:

1. Its engaging prose:

This is what Hezekiah king of Judah wrote after he'd been sick and then recovered from his sickness:
In the very prime of life
I have to leave.
Whatever time I have left
is spent in death's waiting room.
No more glimpses of God
in the land of the living,
No more meetings with my neighbors,
no more rubbing shoulders with friends.
This body I inhabit is taken down
and packed away like a camper's tent.
Like a weaver, I've rolled up the carpet of my life
as God cuts me free of the loom
And at day's end sweeps up the scraps and pieces.
I cry for help until morning.
Like a lion, God pummels and pounds me,
relentlessly finishing me off.
I squawk like a doomed hen,
moan like a dove.
My eyes ache from looking up for help:
"Master, I'm in trouble! Get me out of this!"
But what's the use? God himself gave me the word.
He's done it to me.
I can't sleep—
I'm that upset, that troubled.

- Isaiah 38:9-15

Hezekiah rallied the people, saying, "Be strong! Take courage! Don't be intimidated by the king of Assyria and his troops—there are more on our side than on their side. He only has a bunch of mere men; we have our GOD to help us and fight for us!"

Morale surged. Hezekiah's words put steel in their spines.

- 2 Chronicles 32:6-8

Trying to take all this in, the disciples said, "Master, where?"

He told them, "Watch for the circling of the vultures. They'll spot the corpse first. The action will begin around my dead body."

- Luke 17:37

2. Its clarity of teaching, which sometimes includes more of an interpretation than is usual:

"When times get bad, people cry out for help.
They cry for relief from being kicked around,
But never give God a thought when things go well,
when God puts spontaneous songs in their hearts,
When God sets out the entire creation as a science classroom,
using birds and beasts to teach wisdom.
People are arrogantly indifferent to God—
until, of course, they're in trouble,
and then God is indifferent to them.
There's nothing behind such prayers except panic;
the Almighty pays them no mind.
So why would he notice you
just because you say you're tired of waiting to be heard,
Or waiting for him to get good and angry
and do something about the world's problems?

- Job 35:9-15

The skeptic swore, "There is no God! No God!—I can do anything I want!
I'm more animal than human;
so-called human intelligence escapes me.

- Proverbs 30:1-2

"The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They're full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don't fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.

- Matthew 6:7-8

"Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God's Law and Prophets and this is what you get.

- Matthew 7:12

"There is far more at stake here than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant—'I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual'—you wouldn't be nitpicking like this. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath; he's in charge."

- Matthew 12:6-8

"You have minds like a snake pit! How do you suppose what you say is worth anything when you are so foul-minded? It's your heart, not the dictionary, that gives meaning to your words. A good person produces good deeds and words season after season. An evil person is a blight on the orchard. Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation."

- Matthew 12:34-37

Then David prayed, "I have sinned badly in what I have just done, substituting statistics for trust; forgive my sin—I've been really stupid."

- 1 Chronicles 21:8

(that bit used to really confuse me in other translations)

Don't, by the way, read too much into the differences here between men and women. Neither man nor woman can go it alone or claim priority. Man was created first, as a beautiful shining reflection of God—that is true. But the head on a woman's body clearly outshines in beauty the head of her "head," her husband. The first woman came from man, true—but ever since then, every man comes from a woman! And since virtually everything comes from God anyway, let's quit going through these "who's first" routines.

Don't you agree there is something naturally powerful in the symbolism—a woman, her beautiful hair reminiscent of angels, praying in adoration; a man, his head bared in reverence, praying in submission? I hope you're not going to be argumentative about this. All God's churches see it this way; I don't want you standing out as an exception.

- 1 Corinthians 11:10-16

3. Its unashamedly modern perspective. See how many modern perspectives you can spot in these next four clips:

Moses said, "If your presence doesn't take the lead here, call this trip off right now. How else will it be known that you're with me in this, with me and your people? Are you traveling with us or not? How else will we know that we're special, I and your people, among all other people on this planet Earth?"

- Exodus 33:15-16

I looked at the earth—
it was back to pre-Genesis chaos and emptiness.

- Jeremiah 4:23a

"But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don't work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards."

- Matthew 7:26-27

(slightly mixed-metaphor there)

When you're given a box of candy, don't gulp it all down;
eat too much chocolate and you'll make yourself sick;

- Proverbs 25:16

4. Lastly, its huge sense of fun:

GOD took one look and said, "One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they'll come up with next—they'll stop at nothing! Come, we'll go down and garble their speech so they won't understand each other." Then GOD scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building the city. That's how it came to be called Babel, because there GOD turned their language into "babble."

- Genesis 11:6-9a

He also installed the latest in military technology on the towers and corners of Jerusalem for shooting arrows and hurling stones.

- 2 Chronicles 26:15a

For David had lived an exemplary life before GOD all his days, not going off on his own in willful defiance of GOD's clear directions (except for that time with Uriah the Hittite).

- 1 Kings 15:5

After the death of his father, he attended the sin school of Ahab, and graduated with a degree in doom.

- 2 Chronicles 22:4

A proverb quoted by fools
is limp as a wet noodle.

- Proverbs 26:7

This is God's earlier Message on Moab. God's updated Message is, "In three years, no longer than the term of an enlisted soldier, Moab's impressive presence will be gone, that splendid hot-air balloon will be punctured, and instead of a vigorous population, just a few shuffling bums cadging handouts."

- Isaiah 16:13-14

"Gilead has become Crime City—
blood on the sidewalks, blood on the streets.
It used to be robbers who mugged pedestrians.
Now it's gangs of priests
Assaulting worshipers on their way to Shechem.
Nothing is sacred to them.

- Hosea 6:8-9

The Sheer Nothingness of Moab

"Turn Moab into a drunken sot, drunk on the wine of my wrath, a dung-faced drunk, filling the country with vomit—Moab a falling-down drunk, a joke in bad taste.

- Jeremiah 48:26

And finally…

War to the death on her water supply—drained dry!
A land of make-believe gods gone crazy—hobgoblins!
The place will be haunted with jackals and scorpions,
night-owls and vampire bats.

- Jeremiah 50:38-39a

When is the Marvel Comic version coming out?


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2 comment(s):

At 1:46 am, Anonymous Rhett said...

Great review Steve. :-)

Psalm 7:14 in the Message has long been a favourite of mine. My current bible is an NIV/Message Parallel. The Message is fun but I don't really treat it as a "proper" bible. It offers too much interpretation and strays too far from the original texts for that. But, it is fun, helpful and worth reading, for sure.

My favourite "plain English" translation is the New Living Translation. That's the one I'd give a new Christian who hadn't read the bible before, for instance. It's very readable in a normal way. Which is the funny thing... the Message is readable too, but it lives in a land where everyone speaks in hyper-slang language. It's almost too quirky for it's own good.

But then that's what makes it fun. I imagine Eugene Peterson would be a cool guy to meet. I've often wondered if you sat down and had a beer with him, whether he would talk like The Message.

At 1:35 pm, Blogger Steve Goble said...

Thanks as always for your positive words Rhett.

Not sure which translation I'd give a new Christian to read - I guess it would depend upon the individual. I haven't spent much time in the NLV, so can't comment on it. I think the Message is the last translation I would recommend to someone who was going to re-read it tons and study it in depth. However as I suggested in the post, if a hypothetical person were going to read it and then never open a Bible again (ie. if they were going to literally read it just like a regular book) then I think it's the one that would rub-off on the casual reader the most. The layout of some editions, such as the return to having no verse-numbers, would seem to be aiming for that market too.

Translating the entire Bible from the original texts has got to be a cool thing to have done, no matter how personal your speech-patterns.


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