Burning Coals redux

Wow, way back in 2006, Suzanne looked at this verse. She wisely writes:

It has been my feeling for a long time that we should not worry about understanding the more difficult parts of the Bible until after we have obeyed the parts that are crystal clear. Since I have personally not yet accomplished this, I have never been in a position to say, “Lord, I will follow your word when I can understand it”, but rather, “Help me to follow that which I understand.” Coals of Fire

I found out on Saturday that  I was the preacher on Sunday so I chose this passage, especially verse 21. But I did linger on the burning coals business. It’s an enigma. Suzanne linked to a wonderful collection of interpretations of this verse. I’ve heard most of them and none has convinced me. The leadership of the Bible college meets on Sunday nights to pray and discuss the sermon of the morning. Apparently some of them had been debating my sermon during the day.

In Afrikaans there is a marked difference between the 1953 and 1983 versions:

1953: As jou vyand dan honger het, gee hom iets om te eet; as hy dors het, gee hom iets om te drink, want sodoende sal jy op sy hoof vurige kole ophoop.

1983: As jou vyand honger is, gee hom iets om te eet; as hy dors is, gee hom iets om te drink; want deur dit te doen, maak jy hom vuurrooi van skaamte.

In 1983, the burning coals turned into “red with shame.” (Source)

In cases where the interpretation is ambiguous it’s best in my opinion for translators to choose the option they think is best and then footnote alternate readings. I’m not sure if the 1983 has a footnote.

In Chichewa, the traditional version has been heaping burning coals. I mentioned the Nyungwe word for neighbor, nyakupala moto literally “the one who scrapes some fire” i.e. from your fire to make their own. And Pastor Manasse mentioned that there is an old tradition of carrying coals in a clay pot on your head when you go out to work in the fields.

Origen said only God knows who wrote Hebrews. And possibly God only knows what this verse means.

My question is, “Can you take the phrase out without changing the meaning of the passage?” What I mean is, If as I understand it the passage can mean any of three contradictory things how crucial is the phrase to interpretation of the passage as a whole?

  1. Your enemy will be punished.
  2. Your enemy will be blessed.
  3. Your enemy will be ashamed.

It seems that most modern translations choose option three.

What do you think?

There’s a fine comment section on Suzanne’s post that you might want to browse before commenting here: Coals of Fire

26 thoughts on “Burning Coals redux

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    There is a refrain in the psalms – let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul or words to that effect. It always has I think the image of shame leading to change of heart and therefore is ultimately a wish for good.

    In a recent summary of psalms I wrote this: One question to leave open. Shame is a theme as is the issue of enemy, trouble, and distress. Does the psalter avoid the objectification of the enemy? We frequently see phrases like this: Let them be ashamed and confounded who seek my hurt. What is the good of shame and distress for another? I think that overall, there is a recognition of the complicity of the individual addressing God in the troubles. The psalmist notes (after due reflection) that being afflicted was a good experience though miserable at the time. So it is possible that the prayer with respect to enemies could be translated into transformation of the enemy rather than vengeance. That would make praying the psalms a practice of critical value in our times.

    I am about to take on Psalm 137 again with respect to its content and the allusions in Revelation 18. I have a recent set of posts on the reception history (which I have extended in an unbloglike fashion.) Some things are too hard to think about.

  2. Mike Sangrey says:

    There very well might be a chiasm wrapped around the center of the paragraph–verse 15. And it develops the concept of “sincere love.”

    As one reads down through the first half of the chiasm, Rom. 12:9 to 14, the adjectival phrase structure is quite repetitive. Most are participles, of course, but Greek participles are adjectival, nonetheless. Sincere love is being defined.

    Then one gets to 15 to find two infinitives. These somewhat startle in their structural contrast and beautiful rhythm.

    χαίρειν μετὰ χαιρόντων
    κλαίειν μετὰ κλαιόντων

    This reads like one has just ascended to the top step. The rhetorical effect is quite strong. I’ve pictured Paul preaching this text as a sermon and reaching a climactic crescendo right here.

    Then one proceeds down the other side.

    I’m not going to develop all of it here, but notice the book ends (A – A’) of the chiasm, how verse 21 grasps the hand of verse 9B (NIV):

    Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.

    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    If this analysis has merit, then that means that verse 20 grasps the hand of verse 10 (NIV):

    Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.


    On the contrary:
    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

    The concept of “brotherly love” would then synch with the idea of gathering together some of your burning coals, putting them in some kind of carrying vessel, putting that on the person’s head, and thereby meeting a most basic need.

    So, I go with number 2.

  3. Dan Sindlinger says:

    In the Better Life Bible, I suggest a meaning closely related to #2:

    [Your enemy will know that] “you sincerely care about them.”

  4. David Ker says:

    @Bob, what do you think about Paul leaving out the final line of Prov 25:22, “and the LORD will reward you”?

    @Mike, I love that chaismus stuff. I have noticed the chiasm b/t 9 and 21. I’m having a harder time seeing the one b/t 20 and 10.

    I started analyzing this once with 21 being the pivot. The wrath of God in chapter 12 and the wrath of the authorities in chapter 13 seemed interesting.

    @Dan, that certainly fits with the context. I can’t justify taking out such a live metaphor especially where the meaning is ambiguous. Did you footnote this in any way?

  5. Bob MacDonald says:

    what do you think about Paul leaving out the final line of Prov 25:22
    How about this: that the listeners have already been rewarded with the anointing of the Spirit. With such a reward, the understanding of love is a given. And if not, then the listeners if trained in the Scriptures would hear these lines – of course I know that I don’t have such training or memory, so I go for the first thought.

  6. jkgayle says:

    I was the preacher on Sunday so I chose this passage, especially verse 21. But I did linger on the burning coals business. It’s an enigma…. If as I understand it the passage can mean any of three contradictory things how crucial is the phrase to interpretation of the passage as a whole?

    Is it such a problem to let what Paul is quoting remain an enigma? Since you and your congregation lingered on this, then isn’t it okay just to agree, “This is a Jewish proverb, and we don’t know what it means, or what Paul meant by it, but he seems to be saying these other things here generally”? And why would a translator, or a preacher, find it useful to leave it out?

    And can we really be sure Paul is leaving out all of that final line of the Proverb (as in the LXX)? Doesn’t he bring back in the “good” word ἀγαθά? And doesn’t he seem to do so with a sort of paraphrase of the “reward” verb ἀνταποδώσει by his own “winning, victorious” verb set (i.e., Μὴ νικῶ / ἀλλὰ νίκα)?

  7. David Ker says:

    I have to say that it’s not OK for Paul to be ambiguous here because I don’t believe human communication works that way. If someone leaves something out, it’s because they assume it’s understood (implicit information). And if they add something that the hearer already knows then this over-communication “means” something. The writer is being pedantic. Or he’s emphasizing the point. I would say there is zero chance that Paul was being ambiguous here.

    Burning coals on their head MEANT something to Paul and his readers. But it doesn’t to us. We can take a stab at it (heat+head=shame?) or try to do some fancy discourse analysis (Mike’s chiasmus). But the average reader is going to be grasping at interpretation. And after looking at what the experts have come up with I’d say they are grasping too. So that brings me back to my original question: If the phrase can be interpreted any which way, does the passage stand without it?

  8. jkgayle says:

    I have to say that it’s not OK for Paul to be ambiguous here because I don’t believe human communication works that way.

    C.S. Lewis complained in the third edition of his allegorical autobiography The Pilgrim’s Regress the following:

    “The map on the end leaves has puzzled some readers because, as they say, ‘it marks all sorts of places not mentioned in the text’. But so do all maps in travel books. John’s route [i.e., the protagonist’s route, or allegorically Lewis’s own route] is marked with a dotted line: those who are not interested in the places off that route need not bother with them.”

    Besides unexplained map on the leaves at the book’s end, Lewis adds plenty of quotations from various sources as epigraphs at chapter beginnings and as support material within. Many, many of these (and not just the untranslated Latin and Greek quotations but also the very clear English ones) are left unexplained. After the first edition, Lewis’s editor had complained that readers weren’t getting it. Lewis complied and put in all the pedantic footnotes. Nonetheless, he did not make the book clear enough yet apparently. But this was his author’s choice. And in a correspondence of letters with his friend Owen Barfield, Lewis makes clear that Barfield and other readers (not the all of the general public reading) did get exactly what he meant.

    Lewis’s friends and literary readers got what he MEANT. He wasn’t always being ambiguous. But he wasn’t always writing to “the average reader” or always helping his or her “grasping at interpretation.”

    Could The Pilgrim’s Regress stand without the enigmatic quotes or the unlabeled map at the end? But it’s still human communication! And brilliant.

  9. David Ker says:

    Apples and aren’t yas, if you ask me. Paul was quite capable of enigma but not here. It’s a quote. It’s shared culture between writer and recipients. He’s being in your face didactic here. Feed them. Give them something to drink. For in so doing, bzzz bzzz bzzz. It’s propositional logic not mystic mumbo-jumbo.

  10. jkgayle says:

    It’s shared culture between writer and recipients. He’s being in your face didactic here.

    Agreed, David. Paul was writing to teach a group who, mostly, got what he wrote to them. The question is Who else really shares his culture? Of all writers of the “NT,” Paul was the most logical, and actually used the word “logic” in the very same chapter you preached from here. He was clear to himself and probably to the other Jewish readers of a perhaps-clear Jewish proverb. Perhaps the Greeks reading, and the Romans eavesdropping, got some of it too – perhaps. (2 Peter 3:16 in Greek suggests that Paul was not always easy to understand to Greek readers — sort of like what CS Lewis’s editor suggests).

    Paul’s use of this Greek translated Hebrew Proverb (and the proverb itself) is enigmatic to us. His culture is the apples culture; ours is oranges. I don’t think that means we get to core this proverb and make apple juice from what he wrote.

  11. David Ker says:

    I’m enjoying this. 🙂

    I think we’d both agree that a reductionist translation like “they will see how kind you are” is not acceptable here. And on the other end of the apple cart is a translation that just gives us the word-for-word without telling readers how this might be interpreted. Footnotes. Or a recipe for apple pie. You’ve got to have something here to help the reader.

    There’s a difference between interpretive uncertainty on our part and intended ambiguity on the writer’s part. A good translation will be up front about either of those without creating ambiguity where it didn’t exist in the original.

    Shouldn’t we be making puns about coals to Newcastle?

  12. jkgayle says:

    Shouldn’t we be making puns about coals to Newcastle?

    I have no idea what you mean. Wanna ‘nekspluhnashun 🙂

    Footnotes… You’ve got to have something here to help the reader.

    You sound like Lewis’s editor here. He wanted to sell the autobiographer’s books for a profit and assumed easy reading meant more royal Pounds in the royalties coffers. Why do you have to make Paul so easy? It’s bordering on what Robert Alter calls the heresy of explanation. What if Paul wants to jar his readers (to drop jars and jars of difficult hot coals on their emic-Hebraic insider heads)? It’s genius; it’s good teaching, no? Granted, it’s not Christian Sunday School stuff. And you’d make it easy? We may want to remember how they burned Joan of Arc at the stake, coals on her feet first, for forgetting to foot-note her sources or to explain them. As translator Anne Carson puts it:

    “Joan wanted to convey the jar on the nerves without translating it into theological cliché. It is her rage against cliché that draws me to her. A genius is in her rage.”

  13. David Ker says:

    As J Alfred said, “That’s not what I meant at all.” Far be it from me to footnote my own Cyber-Psalms or explicate Pounds pedals on a whet blank bow. But this is translation 101. Translate the meaning as best you can and fess up if you’re fudging. He could have said, “I’ve got happy feet!” or “More cowbell!” But instead he quoted one of the bedrock texts of their culture. There’s no red wheelbarrow and there’s no white chickens. This is just a metaphor. Trouble is we don’t know what it means. He did. They did. We don’t. Paul is serving something easy as apple pie and you’re trying to turn it into an ice cream koan.

  14. Mike Sangrey says:

    Isn’t the norm that the author intends to communicate to his/her audience? Obviously, given a specific speech event, the author may fail or the audience may fail in each of their respective roles in the event; but, surely, a sane and rational author intends to communicate.

    If that is true, then the burden of proof rests with the person saying the author does not intend to communicate.

    “What if” questions focused on not communicating don’t move toward a solution.

    Otherwise, you have panettones dreaming in three beats to the blue side of flavor eight and three forks.[1]

    [1] see ‘fish’ in the surreal dictionary of left.

  15. jkgayle says:

    You guys are making me hungry, but observe my clear reluctance in swallowing what you’re selling, as communication, lest my hair catches on fire. David, Did you as easily speak to to your congregation of our troubles? – “Trouble is we don’t know what it means. He did. They did. We don’t.” (I would as easily advise not to say to Aristotle, “This is just a metaphor.” It’s hardly even a complex metaphor. It may be more like a parable, which some translators call a fable, which Aristotle chided Aesop and the Africans for. I realize I’m using a simile but thought you said it was logic?) I’ll go with Mike’s “three beats” or with David’s footnote, provided it gives all “three” Christian possibilities he notes above, and provided he continues with “Trouble is….”

  16. David Ker says:

    Yep. I did give them the three options. It wasn’t really the focus of my message just the context of 21. The pulpit is a different platform than the professor’s lectern. I’m there to proclaim Christ not show off my exegetical jukes.

    The intent of my question and all the obscure references in my previous comment was to show that communication happens even when specific parts are missed or misunderstood.

    I was told once that I was a good language learner because I have a “high tolerance for ambiguity.” Don’t Bible readers have to have that same characteristic? There is way too much cultural information that we aren’t familiar with and I think that for the most part we very often just keep on reading when we hit a strange part because we get the overall picture of the passage. It’s only when someone does something so out of character or says something that seems at odds with our overall understanding of the worldview and belief system of the Scriptures that we have invest extra energy in trying to make things match up.

    Three examples from Jesus:
    1. Cursing a fig tree. –Mark 11:13
    2. Calling a woman a dog. –Matt 15:26
    3. “Wherever the corpse is there the vultures will gather.” –Matt 24:28.

    Bible translators feel an obligation to make sense. And sometimes that entails creating meaning or narrowing interpretation rather than leaving enigmas and ambiguities for the reader to puzzle over.

  17. Bob MacDonald says:

    “Bible translators feel an obligation to make sense.”

    They should stop feeling that obligation – they have forgot what feeling and sense mean.

    It is God that makes known his word – not the translator or the preacher. Bible translators need to be a prayer when they are translating if they are anything. They need to be honest and say – we don’t know what these words mean in a footnote if that’s the case. They have no warrant to correct the text. It is better for the text to be corrupt than for it to be changed – not because there was any perfect autograph – but because that’s the witness we have in the text. The Spirit will take care of the conviction and the joy.

    I am also happy with unbelieving translators who don’t know they are mediating someone else’s prayer and song. They will get it eventually – for the word never goes forth without bearing fruit. (I enjoyed your little repartee too – keep it in party mode lest there be a mining accident – and do pray for the miners in Chile.)

    Bob from Newcastle

    There was a presentation at the Psalms conference on translating Hebrew poetry – I did give you guys a plug on my reporting of this session. All my reports over 30 of them are here at my dust and flowers blog.

  18. Dan Sindlinger says:

    David Ker asked: @Dan, that certainly fits with the context. I can’t justify taking out such a live metaphor especially where the meaning is ambiguous. Did you footnote this in any way?

    I couldn’t, Dave, because The Better Life Bible is written for people who don’t read footnotes.

  19. Iver Larsen says:

    An interesting series of comments. I am listening in to native speakers of English talking to one another. I don’t understand many of the words, phrases and idioms. So what? I just skip them. I don’t expect to understand them. Now, if I considered what was said to be very important, I would make an effort to dig for the meaning from somewhere. As it is, I am thinking: let them enjoy themselves. They are not trying to communicate to me anyway. It is the same when I read an English novel. The more “literary” it is, the more I skip.

    Idioms, of course, are pretty impossible if you don’t know them. If you do know them, they can sometimes be rendered by similar idioms. Carrying coals to Newcastle would in my language correspond more or less to “Don’t give bread to the children of a baker.” (It is a poetic saying in Danish, but that is lost in translation into English.)

    Now, if I was asked to translate these comments, I would be in big trouble. I am glad that this is not the case. However, I am asked to translate Rom 12, and have done so. I cannot just be like an average reader and skip what is not immediately clear. Well, I suppose I could, since that is what has been the tradition in Bible translation for centuries. In that case, the characterization of many parts of my translation would be “meaning lost in translation.”

    I do believe that context helps us a lot to make a reasonable guess at the intended meaning. In the case of Rom 12:20, I would say there is some aspect of all three possibilities present.

    In Psalm 140:10 burning coals fall on people’s heads as punishment from God. But is God’s prerogative. This meaning does not fit Rom 12, since it is a person (me) doing this action to an enemy. It is not God doing it. Revenge/punishment belongs to God (v. 19).

    In my view, verse 21 gives an adequate explanation of v. 20: “overcome evil with good.” You do that by feeding a hungry enemy. Similar ideas are found in v. 14, 17 and 19. There is a lot of cohesion in section 14-21 as well as an inclusio, (i.e. v. 14 corresponds in thought to v. 21). 14-21 should or could be marked off as a separate section. With Jesus, mercy and forgiveness has replaced revenge. So, even though the meaning of the idiom is not clear because we are not familiar with it, the most likely meaning IMO is that it refers to a feeling of shame (option 3). This in turn may be felt as a kind (of) punishment, since the enemy may well realize his wrongdoings (option 1). If he repents and a relationship is restored, it will turn out to be a blessing (option 2). So, it is a way of blessing your enemy (v. 14), but that to me is an implication from context or a possible result rather than a translation of the idiom.

    As a translator I have no qualms about choosing option 3. Depending on the audience, I might add a footnote.

  20. WoundedEgo says:

    One thing that we can be sure of is that Paul means to suggest that their kindness will have a large impact on their enemy. He is obviously NOT suggest that they heap something malicious on them (because he is making the opposite point explicitly) though the figure does suggest that the hotness of the coals of kindness will evoke gratefulness, and thus “overcome evil with good.”

    This seems then unambiguos intent of Paul’s use of the proverb. The original proverb does not provide enough context to conclude what it originally meant. There are several negative verses about burning coals, such as this one:

    Psalms 140:10 Let burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire; into deep pits, that they rise not up again.

    and this:

    Habakkuk 3:5 Before him went the pestilence, and burning coals went forth at his feet.

    Others may be positive, but still related to destruction and fear, including these:

    Leviticus 16:12 And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the LORD, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the vail:

    Ezekiel 1:13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.

  21. David Ker says:

    Iver, I really appreciate your comments because they show how insider talk can be glossed over by an outsider and still allow for the gist to be caught. For me, it’s an object lesson in our outsider position as readers of the Bible. All the marketing by Bible sellers rather oversells the “clarity” part. The more we know about Biblical language and times, the less we really know about how to adequately translate a passage. I think most of us subscribe to a “literal as possible, idiomatic as necessary” policy when we wish to make a careful translation. A case like this clearly begs for footnotes. The more our presuppositions about the meaning of the Bible are overthrown, the longer our footnotes are going to become.

  22. WoundedEgo says:

    There is the stuff we know, the stuff we know we don’t know and the stuff we don’t know that we don’t know… and the latter is the what gets us into the most trouble in interpretation. I have found that the most insight comes to me when I focus on the things that I don’t understand, rather than on those things I think I kind of do…

  23. David Ker says:

    Very true, WE. Doing BT we would often get way down the line in the editing process and not realize that we were translating what we thought it meant rather than what it really meant. Part of that is just going with the crowd. If all your reference translations interpret it one way you will tend to follow them.

  24. Rick Ritchie says:

    I think Iver’s understanding makes some sense. I’m currently reading James Alison’s book The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. One thing that Alison argues is that ideas of judgment and wrath change with Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death is a judgment and it is a demonstration of the wrath of God. The powers of the world are judged when Jesus puts himself into the hands of sinful men and they are unjust to him. Their evil is exposed. Now if Alison is right, then in the same way, it is a judgment to treat an enemy well. His evil is exposed. Had you returned evil for evil, he could have gone on thinking he was acting as he was because you deserved it. When you show he does not, he is judged. (And I do think that shame does play a role here.)

  25. Mike Sangrey says:

    Rick, I like what you say.

    I’ll add that I would think that in a guilt based society (like modern Western), judgement is in the audience’s focus. In a shame based one (like the original context), the focus would be shame.

    If I might highlight the chiasm stuff again, the ‘honor’ of the A stands in contrast to the intended result of ‘shame’ by the A’. But, I quickly note this statement (by me) appears to stand as different than my previous statement (“I go with number 2” [provide a blessing upon]). So, which do I think is right?

    That question got me thinking about David’s three categories: judgement, blessing, and shame. What if (as I understand Alison to be saying, or almost saying) the three categories coalesce? What if the author cleverly chooses an idiom that if taken idiomatically, means blessing (helping someone with their household fire); if taken literally (with the attendant reference to the OT passage) speaks of judgement; and what if the intended response in practice is to bring about a repentant sense of shame?

    In other words:

    I heap coals on you, my enemy, to signify the judgement of God upon you, because you are doing something wrong.
    I heap coals on your head as a blessing, since you have a need, and out of love for my enemy, I choose to help you.
    I heap coals on your head intending that the shame (brought about by judgement coalesced with blessing) brings you to a better relationship with God and God’s people (and thus, ultimately, show you honor).

    I’m still leaning to number 2 being my choice. However, the intended response by the audience appears to be 3, and is not the necessary meaning of the idiom.

    So, now I’m at the place of thinking about translation choices which would direct the audience to the right response which I think is 3.

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