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Gnashing of Teeth

October 2, 2012

Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 22:13, ESV)

What do you understand by the phrase “gnashing of teeth”? Easton’s Bible Dictionary says that “gnashing” is equivalent to “grating,” and is a gesture denoting rage or despair. Another commentator calls it an “aggressive expression of hostility and anger.” Most English speakers see it as an uncommon, though understandable, gesture of frustration, anger, and/or pain.

However, I heard a sermon recently from an African preacher who assumed “gnashing of teeth” was referring to biting and eating – in this case, by wild animals. In his version of events, this man without wedding clothes was thrown outside of the wedding hall. Since it was night and he had nowhere to go, he was set upon by wild animals and eaten. It is the wild animals’ teeth that were “gnashing” as they tore the man apart.

All of this weighs heavily on the Bible translator. I’m sure “gnashing of teeth” is a perfectly defensible way of rendering the Greek phrase in this verse of Matthew. The question is, though, “what does this mean?” – you can translate a set of Greek words with a given set of agreed-upon English words, but unless you really communicate meaning, all you’ve done is replace one set of incomprehensible syllables with a different set of incomprehensible syllables.

In fact, you’re actually lucky if your rendering is “incomprehensible.” If there is zero meaning in a given Bible verse, your reader will likely look for some assistance – a footnote, a glossary, a pastor, a commentary – to help him/her understand what s/he just read. Zero meaning might not be the worst thing, since it might create a need to study further to find the meaning.

Zero meaning is usually better than wrong meaning. If the passage is “perfectly misunderstood,” the reader thinks s/he has figured out what is meant – without the tell-tale gap of incomprehensibility that would drive him/her to find the (real) meaning. If a wrong meaning is communicated, there is no need to find the right meaning – since the first, and most relevant, meaning will be assumed to be correct.

It’s like your keys are always in the last place you look, because after you find them you quit looking. The meaning you get out of a passage is usually the first meaning you find, because after you find one relevant interpretation you quit looking for more.

Wild animals tearing apart a helpless man trapped outside at night is a perfectly relevant reading in an African context – unfortunately, it is also a perfectly misunderstood reading in this particular case.

Just some food for thought… (pun intended)

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