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Happy Labor Day: Take on the Yoke

September 5, 2011

It’s Labor Day here in the USA.  Here’s a little history from a US Department of Labor webpage.

And here’s a big notice from the Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ), “a national public foundation guided by Jewish history and tradition,” of a “Labor Day program, ‘Jewish Values at Work,’ [which] is a component of the nationwide Labor in the Pulpits program, in which thousands of Jewish, Muslim and Christian congregations participate.”  The Labor Day program is a several-day study to focus on “domestic labor.”  And it’s an applied, action-oriented study:  “Some congregations are planning to follow up with house meetings, in which employers of housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers for aging or disabled relatives can share experiences and ideas for how to be sure that the traditional Jewish values of equity and respect are observed in these work relationships.”  (I’m excited because this is going on in LA, where my eldest daughter is starting her undergraduate studies tomorrow.)

And here’s some Jewish Bible on labor, for Labor Day:

Come to me, all who labor and are sorely burdened,
And I will give you rest.  [Jer. 31:25]
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me
Because I am gentle and humble in heart,
And you will find rest for your souls
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

You recognize these verses, don’t you?  It’s Yeshua (aka Joshua of Nazareth) talking.  It’s Mattityahu Chapter 11 verses 28, 29, and 30.  It’s the English translation of the New Covenant by Willis Barnstone.  Notice how the new is a development of the older, how Barnstone’s footnote [which I’ve put in brackets above] alludes to the Hebrew verse which in English can be rendered:  “For I have satiated the weary soul, and every pining soul have I replenished.”  The original Jewish concept of a Labor Day and of rest is very old indeed.  In what we call today the 1st century, Yeshua’s articulation of this Hebrew concept was translated into written Greek.  With some editing, that went something like this:

Δεῦτε πρός με πάντες οἱ κοπιῶντες καὶ πεφορτισμένοι,
κἀγὼ ἀναπαύσω ὑμᾶς.
Ἄρατε τὸν ζυγόν μου ἐφ’ ὑμᾶς καὶ μάθετε ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ,
ὅτι πρᾷός [or possibly πραΰς] εἰμι καὶ ταπεινὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ·
καὶ εὑρήσετε ἀνάπαυσιν ταῖς ψυχαῖς ὑμῶν.
Ὁ γὰρ ζυγός μου χρηστός,
καὶ τὸ φορτίον μου ἐλαφρόν ἐστιν.

The curious thing is what Mattityahu [aka ΜΑΤΘΑΙΟS, or possibly ΜΑΘΘΑΙΟS, aka Matthew] could have possibly intended by his twice used word, ζυγός [aka zygos or zugos].  He never uses it again, and none of the other gospel writers ever use it once in their gospels.  John does use the word once for his Apocalypse [aka The Book of Revelation] in Chapter 6, verse 5 for a sort of instrument, like scales, to measure weight; or is that an entirely different Greek word?  Luke uses the word in Acts 10:15 to translate something Peter said accusingly in Hebrew Aramaic to some of the Pharisees, who were putting this thing (i.e., the ζυγός) on the necks of the apprentices in the new Jewish sect, requiring penis circumcision of the men who were goyim converts.  And Paul used the Greek word once in writing to the half-Greek and half-Jew Timothy, of whom he required circumcision, and Paul used the word once again in writing to the Greek readers in Galatia, both times referring, it seems, to the context of metphorical enslavement and freedom from slavery.

Quite literally, not so figurally or dynamically or necessarily functionally, certain LXX translators of Torah make the Hebrew word עֹל [aka al] mean the Greek word ζυγός.  So maybe that’s what Mattityahu is doing too, and maybe Yeshua was saying something literally like the Hebrew Aramaic equivalent to the Hebrew which the gospel writer puts in literally equivalent Greek.

If we read Numbers 19:2 and Deuteronomy 21:3, then the image conveyed by the Hebrew and literally-equivalent Greek word is something like this:

If we read Genesis 27:40 and Leviticus 26:13 and Deuteronomy 28:24, then the image conveyed by the Hebrew and the literally-equivalent Hebraic Hellene is something a bit more human (but not at all humane), like this:

Some of these images you get by reading the admittedly horrible Greek translation from the original Hebrew (the translator himself admits it’s bad Greek for originally good Hebrew), when you read ΣΟΦΙΑ ΣΕΙΡΑΧ (aka SOPHIA SEIRACH or   Wisdom of Sirach or Sirach or Siracides or Ecclesiasticus, translated by Jesus, aka Joshua or Yeshua, the son of Sirach).  Take a look at Chapters 28, 33, 40, and 51.

In Chapter 51, verses 26 and 27, we see something a little more positive.  For all of the misogyny and the slavery that one finds in Ecclesiasticus earlier, here we finally have a reprieve.  What we see has that Labor Day feel with an emphasis on lightening the load, on helping one’s neighbor out, on giving and on having a bit of rest from time to time.  It’s something suspiciously close to Mattitayhu’s translation of his Yeshua.  The earlier Yeshua (aka the earlier Jesus) had translated into Greek something that Wisdom was saying.  She, Wisdom herself, was saying,

τὸν τράχηλον ὑμῶν ὑπόθετε ὑπὸ ζυγόν,
καὶ ἐπιδεξάσθω ἡ ψυχὴ ὑμῶν παιδείαν.
ἐγγύς ἐστιν εὑρεῖν αὐτήν.
ἴδετε ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖς ὑμῶν ὅτι ὀλίγον ἐκοπίασα,
καὶ εὗρον ἐμαυτῷ πολλὴν ἀνάπαυσιν.

The Revised Standard Version bible translation team has rendered that Greek into this fairly literal English:

Put your neck under the yoke,
and let your souls receive instruction;
it is to be found close by.
See with your eyes that I have laboured little
and found myself much rest.

The cultural pattern here is an ancient one, a Jewish one, one that favors all humans, women and men, of all cultures, races, religions, and languages.


Now, what if the translator from Hebrew or from Aramaic into Greek had not followed the original written or spoken words so literally.

Or what if the translator from Greek into English had not understood the Jewish literary contexts and the Hebrew history and the Semitic patterns of culture here?

Simple.  Then we’d get something pretty different from this recognizably Jewish literature:

Come to me, all who labor and are sorely burdened,
And I will give you rest.  [Jer. 31:25]
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me
Because I am gentle and humble in heart,
And you will find rest for your souls
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Instead, we’d get something like this:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Or something like this:

Come to me, all of you who are frustrated and have had a bellyful, and I will give you zest, Get in the harness with me and let me Leach you, for I am trained and have a cooperative spirit, and you will find zest for your lives. For my harness is practical, and my assignment is joyful.

Or even something in natural and perhaps more demotic English like this:

If you are tired and weighed down, come to me and have a rest!  Harness up with me at the reins, and learn from me.  I am gentle and kind, and you will have a break from work.  I harness you up with kindness and don’t weigh you down.

The “Burned out on religion?” translation is Eugene Peterson’s “The Message.”  The “all of you who are frustrated and have had a bellyful” translation is Clarence Jordan’s “Cotton Patch” translation.  And the “Harness up with me at the reins” translation is Ann Nyland’s “Source New Testament” translation.  Peterson is trying to make the Greek readable for children.  Jordan is trying to imagine the Greek if the whole context were shifted to the Southern United States during and before the Civil Rights conflicts there.  And Nyland is hoping to show how the Greek word ζυγός is associated with the Greek word ἵππος (aka hippos, or horse) in Greek literature (such in as the works of Hesiod, of Homer, of Xenophon, and of Sophocles).  Do these translations work?  Of course they do.  They also work to rid the Jewish literature (albeit in Greek translation to begin with) from all its Jewishness.

And each one loses the absolute terror and horrors and abuses implied by the metaphors of Yeshua as translated by Mattityahu and of Wisdom as translated by Yeshua.  Which translation of the Jewish literature on labor and rest quoted here do you think speaks more to universal liberty and shabbat?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2011 5:11 pm

    Now the Adlai Stevenson quote is stuck in my head: “Eggheads of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your yolks.”

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 5, 2011 7:58 pm

    This is pretty interesting considering how the word “yoke” was used in Psalm of Solomon 17 – here is a link to the NETS version. referring to the son of David, it says,

    “And he shall have the peoples of the nations to be subject under his yoke, and he shall glorify the Lord in the mark (episemos) of all the earth, and he shall purify Ierusalem in holiness as it was at the beginning. …. And he shall be a righteous king, taught by God, ever them, and there shall be no injustice in his days in their midst, for all shall be holy, and their king the anointed of the Lord.” (Pss, of Solomon 17:30, 32.)

    30 καὶ ἕξει λαοὺς ἐθνῶν δουλεύειν αὐτῷ ὑπὸ τὸν ζυγὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸν κύριον δοξάσει ἐν ἐπισήμῳ πάσης τῆς γῆς καὶ καθαριεῖ Ιερουσαλημ ἐν ἁγιασμῷ ὡς καὶ τὸ ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς

    32 καὶ αὐτὸς βασιλεὺς δίκαιος διδακτὸς ὑπὸ θεοῦ ἐπ᾽ αὐτούς καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ἀδικία ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις αὐτοῦ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν ὅτι πάντες ἅγιοι καὶ βασιλεὺς αὐτῶν χριστὸς κυρίου


  1. Labo(u)r Day blog posts « BLT

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