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Ploughboy Notes and News

Getting into deep water…

David Ireson,
13 March, 2002.

I suppose William took everything he translated as Gospel. I imagine he assumed the ploughboy would believe the biblical stories and the words of Jesus that he translated to be authentic and literally true. The present day “ploughboy” in his air- conditioned, computer controlled tractor, is not likely to accept every word of the Bible as literal truth. Most look upon their local church with complete indifference. It is irrelevant, out of touch, and dying. Sadly he has summed up the reality of the situation. Some think the church of today has little more than a generation left; unless there is another Reformation. If those who are calling for a new Reformation get their way then the words of the Bible will be read again with excitement and joy, and many, like me, will choose to read prayerfully Tyndale’s New Testament every day.

William translated from the Greek and Hebrew, but he did not have the body of scholarship to really understand the Greek or the Hebrew mind. He could not know how each biblical story originated, was fermented over time, then eventually committed to scroll. For the most part the Bible is a Hebrew book and the Gospels are full of the imagery which came from Jewish midrash; the poetic interpretation of events. God in Christ is real enough to me, but now I see Biblical stories from a very different perspective from that which was possible in William’s day. Reading Tyndale as inspired story was not what William intended, but it is where the wonder of his translation becomes a joy for we “ploughboys” of today.

Let me plunge into deep water. The post-modern mind is sceptical of any truth to be expressed in poetry, myth or story, but these are the means by which human-kind can begin to comprehend the experience of God and the sacred. God is rightly explained through story. The question we should ask is “What does this biblical story mean?” rather than “Did this really happen as Tyndale translated it?”

We need to understand what the Jews believed when they heard stories from their scriptures concerning water. From the very first verses of the Bible, in Genesis, we hear of the Spirit of God creating life out of water… out of the dark turbulent waters of chaos:

“In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water.”

There follows the creation story. In this myth are found the simple and the profound: God creates everything, and water is seen as the source of life.

Moving on to Noah and the Flood we have a story of water bring life to Noah and the animals; but death as well. Water is to be feared and deadly, as well as life-giving and beautiful.

Deep in Jewish memory is the story of the Exodus when the Hebrew people had an experience of God leading them to freedom from the power of Egypt through the water of the Sea. This story was passed down for several hundred years before it was recorded. Looking at the text carefully one can see two accounts interwoven… one speaking of a wind holding back the tide… the other of the walls of water which so delighted Cecil B. DeMille:

“When now Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, the Lord carried away the sea with a strong east wind that blew all night, and made the sea dry land and the water divided itself. And the children of Israel went in through the midst of the sea upon the dry ground. And the water was a wall unto them, both on their right hand and on their left hand. And the Egyptians followed and went in after them to the midst of the sea, with all Pharao’s horses, his chariots and his horsemen.” (Exodus 14)

The Exodus experience of God was repeated again and again.

Moses strikes a rock and out of it comes a spring of water. Joshua takes over from Moses and leads the people towards the River Jordan:

“And when the people were departed from their tents to go over Jordan, (the priests bearing the ark of the appointment before the people) as soon as they that bare the ark came unto Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water. Jordan being full over all his banks all the time of the harvest: the water that came down from above did stop and stood upon an heap, a great way from Adam, a city beside Zarathan. And the water that went down vanished into the sea of the wilderness called the salt sea as soon as it was divided: and the people went right over against Jericho. And the priests that bare the ark of the appointment of the Lord stood still upon dry land, until all the people were clean over Jordan.” (Joshua 3)

Thereafter even the prophets are described as experiencing God’s power in the controlling of water. The prophet Elijah literally hands his mantle over to the prophet Elisha and so we read:

“Then said Eliah to Eliseus: tarry here a fellowship, for the Lord hath sent me to Jericho. And he said: as surely as the Lord liveth, and as surely as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee, and so they went to Jericho. And the children of the prophets that were at Jericho came to Eliseus and said unto him: art thou not ware that the Lord will take away thy master from thee this day? And he answered: I know it also, hold your peace. And Eliah said to him: tarry I pray thee here, for the Lord hath sent me to Jordan. But he said: as surely as the Lord liveth, I will not leave thee. And so they went both of them together. And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went and stood in sight afar off, as they two stood by Jordan.

And then Eliah took his mantle and wrapped it together and smote the water, and it divided itself, part one way and part the other, and they two went over on the dry land. And as soon as they were over, Eliah said to Eliseus, ask what I shall do for thee ere I be taken away from thee. And Eliseus said: let me, I pray thee, have thy spirit double in me. And he said: Thou hast asked a hard thing”. Elijah is then swept up into heaven in a whirlwind and Elisha then returns to the River Jordan, and, guess what ! “he took the mantle of Eliah that fell from him, and smote the water and said: where is the Lord God of Eliah where is he? And when he had smitten the water it divided part this way and part that way, and Eliseus went over. And the children of the prophets of Jericho which saw from afar, said: the spirit of Eliah doth rest on Eliseus.” (Tyndale’s 4th Book of Kings Chapter 2)

The power of God and of his prophets over water was deeply embedded in Hebrew thought. When we come to the New Testament, therefore, is it surprising that Jesus too has to enter the water of the River Jordan? He does, and John baptizes him, but Jesus is far more important than Moses, Elijah or Elisha: This time it is not the waters of the Jordan which are parted, but the waters of the heavens above:

“And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth, a city of Galilee: and was baptized of John in Jordan. And as soon as he was come out of the water, John saw heaven open, and the holy ghost descending on him, like a dove. And there came a voice from heaven: Thou art my dear son in whom I delight.” (Mark 1)

The symbolism of water remains to this day. Parents bring their babies to be baptized and I still have bottles of water to use which I filled in the River Jordan some years ago. Recently the ancient sacred St. Decuman’s Well below my church has been restored and opened by the bishop with a baptism. To the modern mind, water symbolizes little more than washing. To the Hebrew mind it had nothing to do with washing at all: Water is the symbol of life and death… of being drowned to all this is evil and coming to new life in Christ. It is, as Paul puts it:

“Remember ye not that all we which are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, are baptized to die with him? We are buried with him by baptism, for to die, that likewise as Christ was raised up from death by the glory of the father: even so we also should walk in a new life. For if we be graft in death like unto him: even so must we be in the resurrection.” (Romans 6)

Water had profound meaning for the Hebrews and is almost certainly still deep in the psyche of people today. There are many who shy away from trying to interpret the stories of Jesus walking on the water, or calming the storm. Knowing the way the Hebrew mind worked I have no problem with these accounts in the least. My faith is not shaken one jot.

I have a problem with people who latch on to one sentence or even one short phrase from Scripture and treat it as “Gospel”. The Gospels points us to the reality of Jesus Christ, but we need to see the reality in the whole and not in the detail. For this reason we can turn to Tyndale’s glorious work in a new way, reading it as story and letting it flow over us like deep water.

Fellow Ploughboys - how do you approach Tyndale’s Scriptures? May I invite you to respond to these thoughts in the next edition?

Note

Biblical extracts from David Daniell’s editions of Tyndale’s Old and New Testaments.

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