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Words and the Lord’s Prayer

October 15, 2013

According to Elliot Hannon of Slate, French bishops have been concerned about their language’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer; the way that Matthew 6:13 is rendered could be considered blasphemous.  As such, the Vatican has approved a new translation of the Bible which changes the verb from soumettre (to submit) to laisser entrer (to let enter).

I admit, when I first saw the headline, I figured the story would just be a good laugh.  The Lord’s Prayer, out of everything, blasphemous?  Now that’d be a riot.  But then I actually read article, and there is a legitimate point to the new translation.  Asking God not to submit one to temptation suggests that God can submit one to temptation; it goes against the Christian notion of an all-loving deity.  Asking God not to let one enter into temptation better agrees with that notion.

Reading this story made me question the English translation.  It asks that God “lead us not into temptation”.  While it’s not the overtly malicious God which the older French translation could suggest, “lead” may not be the best verb.  God would lead us to temptation, like sheep to the slaughter?  At the very least he sounds deceitful.  Why not ask God to protect us from temptation?  There’s a positive thing to pray for.

In fairness, I’m not a Biblical scholar, and I have no knowledge of the Bible’s original languages.  (Also, I’m not a Christian, so I’ve no stake in upholding religious doctrine.)  Maybe “lead” is the best verb in English for the job.  But I feel this incident raises important questions about our relationship with words.

Much like the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer is the sort of thing I learned by rote, without ever thinking about what it meant.  At the time, I remember being confused about why we forgave “debtors” of all people, or why we “hallowed” God’s name.  Even the phrase “Thy will be done” didn’t make sense.  I didn’t know “will” could be used a noun; to me it just marked the future tense.  The Lord’s Prayer may as well have been a random string of words.  But I memorized it, and can still recite it now.

And only recently have I even thought about its content.  I may be nonreligious now, but Christianity was an important part of my childhood.  It’s a little–a little, I stress–disturbing that I’ve the Lord’s Prayer rest in my brain without due consideration.

As someone who hangs out with words, I can only hope that the French clergy goes farther than adopting a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer.  They should explain the translation, explain what they are asking God to do and why they are asking for it.  Let us always be clear about what we’re saying, and why we’re saying it.  Amen.

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