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The Man Born Blind

January 21, 2014

Our draft of the first verses of John 9 looked quite a bit like many translations. I’ll quote the NIV, just for convenience:

9:2 – His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

9:3a – “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus.

9:3b – “But this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”

But, as always, there are “some issues” in these verses that needed some adjustment.

In 9:2, the disciples ask a question that reveals an assumption that was apparently current in Jesus’ day – and of course still is: that specific hardships in life are punishment for specific sins. The disciples speculated that maybe the man’s parents had done some evil thing, with the result that they were punished by having a blind child. Or maybe the man (somehow?) had done something wrong (or maybe, would do something wrong?) with the result that he was punished by being born blind. Either way, the premise of the question is false: Yes, general hardships in life are the result of sin in general, and many sins have natural consequences that make life harder. But specific hardships aren’t linked to specific sins as punishment.

So, how best to make Jesus’ answer mean, essentially, “None of the above; your whole question is flawed”? John 9:3a, as written, tries to do the job, but ends up making a statement that, taken out of context, is patently false – this man and his parents had obviously both sinned. The (implied but obvious) point of Jesus’ answer is that no one’s sin caused the man to be born blind. So that’s what we wrote. Our back-translation of 9:3a is, “This man is not blind because of his sins, nor the sins of his parents.”

Even more dicey, perhaps, is the second half of verse 3. The Greek particle ἵνα can indicate either purpose or result: “in order that” or “with the result that.” In v2, it clearly indicated result: “Who sinned (with the result) that he was born blind?” But many translations take ἵνα to indicate purpose in v3: “…this happened so that…”

Now, this puts us in an interesting place. Did God cause this man to be born blind in order that later he might display his power by healing him? God certainly could have done so. But the usual promise in Scripture is that God will work through our hardships to bring us blessing – not that God actually causes those hardships in the first place. Put another way, God allows bad things, and promises to work blessing in spite of them. Implying that God caused this man’s blindness in order to demonstrate his glory in curing him is a bit like me sneaking into your garage at night and disconnecting the spark plugs on your car, and then when you call me because your car won’t start I fix it easily – and aren’t I a great mechanic?

Maybe I’m reading a little too much into “so that” in 9:3b. But I’d rather prefer to think that Jesus is using the ἵνα in his answer the same way the disciples were in their question: to indicate result. So, taking the last two words from the disciples’ question in v2 and supplying them again as the first half of Jesus’ answer in 9:3b, we get, “He was born blind; as a result, the works of God will be revealed in him.”

With a few adjustments, then, we get roughly this as our Nsenga version of John 9:2-3 (note the consistent use of “because of” as the “result” translation of ἵνα):

9:2 – His disciples asked him, “Teacher, this man was born blind because of the sins of whom? His sins, or his parents’?”

9:3a – Jesus said, “This man is not blind because of his sins, nor those of his parents, no.

9:3b – “But, because of his blindness, God will show his glory in him.”

In Nsenga:

9:2 – Asambili ŵake emukonsha kuti, “Asambizyi, munthu wamene uyu evyalika mphofu cikomo ca macimo a ŵani? Macimo ŵake, keno ŵa vyazi ŵake?”

9:3a – Yesu eciti, “Uyu munthu alilini mphofu cikomo ca macimo ŵake, keno ŵa vyazi ŵake, yayi.

9:3b – “Koma, cikomo ca umphofu wake, Mulungu awoneshe nchito zake mwa yeve.”

What do you think? Is this a satisfactory exegesis/understanding of the verse? Or have we made a mountain out of a molehill?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Lawrenz permalink
    January 21, 2014 5:47 am

    Tuesday, January 21, 2014.


    Interesting. Interesting indeed.

    Steve Lawrenz, Blantyre, Malawi.

  2. January 21, 2014 8:35 am

    The problem with seeing God as the cause of the man’s blindness is that doing so requires assuming an entire clause or more that Jesus didn’t speak, something like, “But God did this (so that)”. The NIV doesn’t overstep in this by translating, “this happened”, nor does the HCSB with “this came about”, and the NASB and others use a more opaque “it was” in order to make the sentence grammatical in English — all of these very passively just refer to the reality without responsibility. Now you can still assign responsibility for the man’s blindness to God if your theology (as opposed to your translation) is off, and this is where a good review of God’s will in regard to evil should come in.

    However, I could see “God as cause” slipping in another way by translating “works of God revealed” as “God show his glory”, if this is approached with a Calvinistic/Reformed point of view. Since for the Calvinist so much is about the sovereignty of God, then something showing God’s glory would more likely imply God’s activity or at least approval in it (as opposed to his merely using it). Keeping closer to the original “works”, in my thinking, allows us to keep this more about God’s *grace* than his glory — Jesus acts to deliver a man from the effects of sin (an illustration of God’s greater works to deliver all the world from sin and its effects), rather than Jesus acting to say, “Hey, look at what God can do because, well, he’s God!”

    Just my two cents as my brain gets going on a Tuesday morning …

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