Formations 11.08.2015: “My Feet Are a Big Fabric”

Nehemiah 8:1, 5-8; Acts 8:26-31

Panel of Jeremiah or Ezra, holding/reading a scroll, in the Dura-Europos synagogue

Panel of Jeremiah or Ezra, holding/reading a scroll, in the Dura-Europos synagogue

The Universal Translator is a staple of the Star Trek science fiction franchise. It is a device that instantly translates speech from one language to another, allowing Captain Kirk and his crew to communicate easily with members of hundreds of intelligent species throughout the galaxy.

Recently, Skype has taken a tentative step toward making this technology a reality. Skype Translator is designed to interpret speech in real time and provide instant audio translation for English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Mandarin.

Nikhil Sonnad of Quartz put Skype to the test by conversing (in English) with native Mandarin-speaker Zheping Huang. Though the two agreed the technology worked fairly well for a short, simple dialogue intended for beginning learners of English, things went downhill from there.

Skype didn’t fare as well when the team moved from pre-written dialogue to unscripted chatting at a normal pace. It was generally able to translate English into Chinese, but the Chinese-to-English responses often came back as gibberish. Things got even worse with university-level technical writing. After rendering a line from a novel by Mo Yan, a Nobel Prize-winning Chinese writer, as an unintelligible string of words, Ping commented in Mandarin, “I don’t think it can translate this.” Skype translated that into, “My feet are a big fabric.”

Skype Translator will no doubt improve as its designers fine-tune the system. For now, however, it looks like Captain Kirk is going to have wait a while longer for that Universal Translator.

Faithful translation and interpretation are crucial if we are to understand Scripture. We can have the best biblical texts available, but these count for little if we can’t understand what they are saying. In this week’s texts, we read two stories about people who worked to make the message of Scripture accessible to others. These stories remind us that we still need others to help making the message of Scripture clear.

Nikhil Sonnad, “How Good is Skype’s Instant Translation? We Put It to the Chinese Stress Test,” Quartz, 21 Oct 2015


• What are some of the challenges involved in learning a foreign language?
• Do you think we’ll ever have a Universal Translator that works as well as the ones on Star Trek? Why or why not?
• When have you been frustrated by a language barrier?
• Who has translated the message of Scripture so that you could understand and respond to it?

Reference Shelf

Ezra the Priest

A Jewish priest and scribe and a Persian governmental secretary during the time of the restoration of Jewish life in Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. His story is told in chaps. 7–10 of the Book of Ezra and chaps. 8–9 of the book of Nehemiah. Although these stories do not specifically say so, it is probable that while in exile Ezra and other religious leaders had revised and edited the Torah, the law codes and stories of Israel’s origins found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy….

The story in Neh 8–10 tells of a…much more significant work of Ezra. At the Festival of Tabernacles, celebrating both the beginning of the New Year and the renewal of the covenant with God, Ezra read from the exilic revision of the ancient law that he had brought with him to Jerusalem. The initial response to this reading of the law was grief. The people were instructed not to mourn but to pledge their loyalty to God by observance of his commandments. In effect this was an important, climactic moment in the process of canonization of the Law, the first section of the Jewish scriptures. The at first mournful and then joyful study of and response to the Law continued throughout the days of the Festival of Tabernacles and was followed by further reforms. Ezra thus had led the struggling returned exiles in solemn but joyful renewal of their commitment to God.

David A. Smith, “Ezra,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 285.

Philip Approaches the Eunuch

The Spirit explicitly directs Philip to approach this man (v. 29). As Philip approaches, he hears (ancients tended to read aloud, even when reading to themselves) the eunuch as he reads from Isaiah (v. 30). More importantly, he is reading a text he cannot understand (vv. 31, 34). The text is about the Suffering Servant (vv. 32-33; Isa 53:7- 8). Further, the two verses the narrator identifies give clear expression to what lies at the heart of the gospel: the suffering/death and vindication/resurrection of God’s servant. Isaiah speaks about the humiliation and denial of justice (v. 33a), as well as the servant’s life being taken up from the earth (v. 33b). All of this provides Philip the opportunity to open the eunuch’s mind to understand the Scriptures (cf. Luke 24:45).

Another indication of the divine direction is the coming upon water for baptism (vv. 36-39a). The narrative offers one final reminder of the Spirit’s direct involvement in the action as it tells readers that the Spirit moved Philip on to yet other opportunities to preach the gospel “to all the towns till he came to Caesarea” (v. 40). Perhaps notification of Philip’s preaching to other towns serves to provide readers what they need to know to fill some gaps that come later in the narrative. Acts speaks later of saints in the cities of Lydda (9:32) and Joppa (9:36), as well as Caesarea (10:1). Perhaps the man who brought the gospel to Caesarea brought it to Lydda and Joppa as well.

Tannehill’s reading of this story as a foreshadowing of the witness to the ends of the earth is on target. The story prepares readers for what is coming in Acts 10–11 and beyond. In the many stories to follow, the gospel will confront essentially three types of people: Jews, Gentiles who sympathize with Judaism, and Gentiles who live in darkness of idolatry and demonic deception. The Jerusalem section (Acts 1–7) has prepared readers for what they will see when the Jews around the world hear the gospel. This gospel will create division and, regrettably, meet mostly with rejection. The word of the gospel will also divide the Gentiles. Yet the overall movement of the narrative will impress upon the reader that the Gentile world is more receptive to the gospel. And this is precisely what Acts 8 prepares readers to see. The Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch, respectively, represent the kinds of non-Jewish folk readers will meet in the ensuing chapters: those who live in the total darkness of demonic deception and those who live sympathetically on fringes of Judaism. And these two representatives also foreshadow in their response to the gospel the response of the Gentiles that readers will meet in later chapters: joyfully (see vv. 8, 39) they receive the good news.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 137–39

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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