Prepare for Battle!
Check out these ancient artistic renderings of a West African warrior and Assyrian soldier.
Notice any differences? Both are dressed for battle, but the West African outfit seems more suited for agility, stealth, and speed with a sword and spear. Other than his ceremonial helmet, he wears little protection on his body. On the other hand, the Assyrian looks like he's wearing his entire armory on his person (with the agility of an armored tank, maybe)!
Last month, we completed a mentored consultant check of the last verses of Ephesians with a Nigerian translation team. "The whole armor of God" in Paul's context is usually described as the image of the imposing Roman soldier. There are countless sermons and articles diagramming Roman armor with the spiritual armor Paul describes.
But Paul may have been thinking more closely of the Assyrian soldier above from his own Jewish history. Rewind 700 years to the prophet Isaiah:
The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
-Isaiah 59:15b-17 (during the time of the Assyrian attack on Israel)
When I asked the Nigerian team what their warriors might put on to prepare for a battle they said, "Nothing! You take your bow and arrow, maybe a spear or big knife, and go!" There is no time for strapping on scaled breastplates and iron greaves. Without a word in their language for "armor," they'd translated it, "Put on the things for fighting!"
Is It About Armor or the Person Wearing It?
When I heard their response, I was a little apprehensive about how we were going to render these verses. We could have easily gotten bogged down trying to phrase each piece of armor that doesn't exist in their culture: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of readiness of the gospel of peace, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and sword of the Spirit. This people group and language has no words for these items!
Was it more important for the team to try to render ancient Near-eastern battle outfits into their language (where they make little practical sense)? Or should they focus on communicating that Christians can stand firm because God is giving us his own armor? He clothes us (Isaiah 61:10) with salvation and righteousness: his own!
I brought their attention to the Isaiah passage describing what God puts on to fight injustice when there was "no one to intercede." He enters the battle himself, clothed with the same garments that Paul is describing in Ephesians 6.
Their rendering focuses on "stand strong" and repeats the word "let." Let truth. Let righteousness. Let the gospel and faith and salvation.
"Stand strong, let the seed talk (truth) be like the thing for tighting your waist, let doing right be for you like the thing for covering chest. Let living/readiness for going for telling the special talk (good news) of living in peace be like shoes on your foot. In addition to all these, let leaning on God (faith) be for you like the thing for stopping the arrow of the one with bitter stomach (the wicked one). Let finding deliverance be for you like head bag (cap) on your head, the word of God also to be for you like big knife of the Spirit in your hand."
-Ephesians 6:14-17, Back Translation to English
All these beautiful pieces of God's wardrobe are already in the Christian's closet and Paul is exhorting believers to put them on. Nigerian, Assyrian, Roman, or American, we stand with the same strength and power when we wear God's own armor, just like him.
This reminds me of another experience in translating Paul's exhortation to victory in Nigeria and the lasting message that believers have nothing to fear from spiritual enemies.
Using the Bible to Inform Bible Translation
As I work with the Nigerian teams, I'm learning that training of translators is just as important to the consultant role as checking translations. When translators are equipped to exegete well, referring to other parts of the Bible to inform their translations, those translations are better.
Thank you for your support and prayers for wisdom for translation consultants and translators around the world.