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Invisible Wordplay in Hebrews 12

August 23, 2016

The last verse of the second reading in the Roman Catholic lectionary this weekend caught my attention, because the wording (from the NABre, Heb 12:5-7, 11-13) seemed so odd:

So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees.
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.

Disjointed? What an odd word to use there. Do people’s lame wrists and knees become dis-jointed if they are not strengthened by exercise? I’m imagining dislocated shoulders here; can wrists and knees become dislocated? What an odd image to use in a reading that is mostly about discipline, trials, and training.

So of course I went off to compare translations. The NKJV does say dislocated; NIV disabled; several translations say “put out of joint”, and several say “turned aside” or “out of the way”.

What does the Greek say, though? Ektrepo, ἐκτρέπω, which looks like it means out-something, or out-of-something. It’s G1624 in Strong’s lexicon, with a root word of G5157, trope, τροπή, which means “turning”.

It seems this is a word with both a literal medical meaning of dislocated, and a figurative meaning of being turned out or turned aside. What a perfectly apt word choice in a passage that is using the metaphor of physical training for spiritual discipline. It resonates with and sheds new light on the gospel passage that follows, Luke 13:22-30, in which those who have not practiced spiritual discipline are, indeed, turned aside by the master of the house, turned out from the kingdom of God.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2016 2:41 am


  2. August 24, 2016 1:33 pm

    Brings to mind Jacob’s hip becoming dislocated during his night of wrestling. Interesting.

  3. August 24, 2016 1:47 pm

    Wonderful post, Victoria!

    There’s a third way this Greek phrase is used in the literature, yet another meaning that also fits fine in an English translation of Hebrews 12:13.

    Here it is in the Greek Homeric Hymns 2:166 (translated by Daryl Hine) and then in the Septuagint’s Hellene rendering of 1 Kings 12:10, which is identical to 2 Chronicles 10:10 (translated from Greek into English by Lancelot Brenton):

    εἰ τόν γ’ ἐκθρέψαιο καὶ ἥβης μέτρον ἵκοιτο
    “If you should bring the boy up till he came to the measure of manhood,”

    τὰ παιδάρια τὰ ἐκτραφέντα μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ
    “… the young men who had been brought up with him… “

    And so here is Hebrews 12:13 (translated from Greek into English first by Richmond Lattimore and then by Willis Barnstone, both classicists and translators, with renderings more like the KJV and ASV):

    καὶ τροχιὰς ὀρθὰς ποιεῖτε τοῖς ποσὶν ὑμῶν, ἵνα μὴ τὸ χωλὸν ἐκτραπῇ, ἰαθῇ δὲ μᾶλλον.
    “… and take straight steps with your feet, so that your lameness may not put you off, but rather be set right.”

    καὶ τροχιὰς ὀρθὰς ποιεῖτε τοῖς ποσὶν ὑμῶν, ἵνα μὴ τὸ χωλὸν ἐκτραπῇ, ἰαθῇ δὲ μᾶλλον.
    “Make straight paths for your feet so that your lameness / Does not dissuade but makes you heal it.”

    And now here is Hebrews 12:13 (brought up and over by me into English from the Greek with nods to Lattimore and even more so to the Homeric Hymn writer and the LXX translators):

    καὶ τροχιὰς ὀρθὰς ποιεῖτε τοῖς ποσὶν ὑμῶν, ἵνα μὴ τὸ χωλὸν ἐκτραπῇ, ἰαθῇ δὲ μᾶλλον.
    “… and take straight steps with your feet, so that you are not brought up in lameness but much more in health.”

  4. August 24, 2016 11:42 pm

    Great connection to Jacob’s dislocated hip, @cwoverfi! Thanks for bringing that up.

    I’ve been mostly making NT connections: Paul’s “running the race” metaphor, and the imagery of the church as the Body of Christ which might indeed have weak/lame members that are turned aside (…and plucked out?)

    Thanks for bringing in that third meaning, Kurk! Your translation makes much more sense to me: it’s actually coherent with the previous passages about fathers raising their sons with discipline.

    I was bemused by the notion that this word, which is built on a base that means “turn”, could also mean “brought up” or “raised”. But then I remembered the phrase “turned out” that means the result or outcome of a process, and is even often applied to parenting: Well, your son has turned out to be quite a fine young man!

    So I might paraphrase the text this way:

    So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees.
    Walk straight paths with your feet,
    so they turn out healthy, instead of crooked.

    which is its own sort of wordplay with “turn out” and “crooked”. 🙂

  5. August 31, 2016 6:36 pm

    so they turn out healthy, instead of crooked.

    Brilliant, Victoria.

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