Sunday, November 20, 2016

Like a Flood; Or a Thief; Or Both

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary notes for Matthew 24:36-44, the gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent.

I find myself reacting to my childhood history of growing up in a church that preached the “Second Coming” and “Rapture” as imminent events, partly because of this text. Part of the reason that I named this blog (as well as my second book) “Left Behind and Loving It” is because I think this text offers a variety of ways to think about the coming of the Son of Man, and it not as simple or straightforward as “Left Behind Theology” trains us to think. Several key words here can go any number of directions in their meaning. The “hermeneutical circle” between interpreting individual words by the larger story and interpreting the larger story by the individual words is truly at play here.

As always, your comments are welcomed and helpful to me.

36 Περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν, οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι τῶν 
οὐρανῶν οὐδὲ  υἱός, εἰ μὴ  πατὴρ μόνος.
Yet concerning that day and hour nobody has known, neither the angels of the heavens nor the son, except the father alone.
οἶδεν: PerfAI 3s, εἴδω, ἴδω, to know, to find. See v.43, note 1.

 37 ὥσπερ γὰρ αἱ ἡμέραι τοῦ Νῶε, οὕτως ἔσται  παρουσία τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ 
For just as the days the days of Noah, so shall be the parousia of the son of man.
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The word Parousia, is an English transliteration of παρουσία, from the verb πάρειμι, “to be present.” Talking about the parousia is like a secret handshake among theologians and bible scholars, whereby we can talk about the “coming of Christ” without sounding like those big-haired kooks on television. παρουσία can mean a variety of things. In Phil.2:12 it means ‘presence’ and α-παρουσία means ‘absence,’ with no overtones of a dramatic end-o-the-world scenario. In II Cor.7:6 it refers to the “arrival” of Titus. In our pericope, it certainly takes on the feel of an impending crisis because Jesus has set it within the interpretive context of the days of Noah. Later, we will hear a reference to a thief who sneaks in during the night. Those two referents mean that the Parousia could be cataclysmic or it could be undetectable.

 38 ὡς γὰρ ἦσαν ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις [ἐκείναις] ταῖς πρὸ τοῦ κατακλυσμοῦ 
τρώγοντες καὶ πίνοντες, γαμοῦντες καὶ γαμίζοντες, ἄχρι ἧς ἡμέρας 
εἰσῆλθεν Νῶε εἰς τὴν κιβωτόν,
For as they were in the [those] days before the cataclysm eating and drinking, marrying and being in marriage, until the day Noah entered into the ark,
ἦσαν: IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
τρώγοντες: PAPart nmp, τρώγω, 1) to gnaw, crunch, chew raw vegetables or fruits (as nuts, almonds)  1a) of animals feeding  1b) of men  2) to eat 
πίνοντες: PAPart npm, πίνω, 1) to drink  2) figuratively, to receive into the soul what serves to refresh  strengthen, nourish it unto life eternal 
γαμοῦντες: PAPart nmp, γαμέω, 1) to lead in marriage, take to wife  1a) to get married, to marry
γαμίζοντες: PAPart npm, γαμίζω, to marry (the termination marking the having, being, or becoming what the noun, γάμος denotes
εἰσῆλθεν: AAI 3s, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 
1. I am transliterating κατακλυσμοῦ as “cataclysm” where most translations make it “flood.” It certainly does refer to the Noah story, but if that story has any power it is because that “flood” was an absolute catastrophe.  It was, to the “world” in the story, what Katrina was to the residents of New Orleans and what hurricane Mitch was to Latin Americans or the 2010 earthquake was to Haiti.
2. For “married and being in marriage” se Mt 22:30, οὔτε γαμοῦσιν οὔτε γαμίζονται, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” The use of this phrase may denote that life is being lived in a pre-resurrection, non-angelic way. That is, it may not denote anything negative, but most like ‘life as normal.’

 39 καὶ οὐκ ἔγνωσαν ἕως ἦλθεν  κατακλυσμὸς καὶ ἦρεν ἅπαντας, οὕτως 
ἔσται [καὶ] ἡ παρουσία τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.
and they did not comprehend until the cataclysm came and they were all carried away, so shall be [also] the parousia of the son of man.
ἔγνωσαν: AAI 3p, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel. See v.43, note 1.
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
ἦρεν: AAI 3s αἴρω, 1) to raise up, elevate, lift up  1a) to raise from the ground,
take up: stones 
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present

 40  τότε δύο ἔσονται ἐν τῷ ἀγρῷ, εἷς παραλαμβάνεται καὶ εἷς ἀφίεται:
There will be two in the field, one being taken/received/hauled off and one being left/rejected/forgiven;
ἔσονται: FMI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
παραλαμβάνεται : PPI 3s παραλαμβάνω, See v.41, note 1.
ἀφίεται: PPI 3s, ἀφίημι, See v.41, note 2.

41 δύο ἀλήθουσαι ἐν τῷ μύλῳ, μία παραλαμβάνεται καὶ μία ἀφίεται.
two [women] will be grinding in the mill, one is being taken/received/hauled off and one is being left/rejected/forgiven;
ἀλήθουσαι : PAPart nfp, ἀλήθω, 1) to grind   It was the custom to send women and female slaves to the mill houses to turn the hand mills. 
παραλαμβάνεται : PPI 3s παραλαμβάνω, See note 1.
ἀφίεται: PPI 3s, ἀφίημι, See note 2.
1. The verb παραλαμβάνω is extremely versatile. Here are some of the possibilities that offers: to take to, to take with one's self, to join to one's self, an associate, a companion, to accept, 2) not to reject, 2) to receive something transmitted, an office to be discharged, to receive with the mind. And from greattreasures, here are more possibilities: to take to, to take with one's self, to join to one's self: one to be led off as a prisoner, to take with one in order to carry away. While παραλαμβάνω is typically translated as ‘taken’ in this verse, there are numerous questions facing the translator/interpreter in order to capture the meaning.
2. The verb ἀφίημι is equally versatile. It can be translated in terms as wide-ranging as 1) to send away  1a) to bid going away or depart let go, let alone, let be  1c1) to disregard  1c2) to leave, ... to let go, give up a debt,
forgive, to remit. The most popular way to translate it – whenever it is connected to sins – is as “forgive.” 
3. So, for verses 40 and 41, the interpretive question is what to do with the couplet of παραλαμβάνω and ἀφίημι. The words themselves are so multivalent that there is no simple “x in Greek means y in English” formula. People in the “Left Behind Theology” camp have argued that παραλαμβάνω means “swept away’” and ἀφίημι means “left behind.” At the level of possible word choices, that would be possible. (The further conjecture that “swept away” means the “rapture” and “left behind” means “facing the tribulation” is a move that goes well beyond this text.) But, also at that level of possible word choices, it is equally warranted to translate παραλαμβάνω as “taken away as a prisoner” and ἀφίημι as “forgiven.”
4. Even if we go with “taken” and “left” as translations for παραλαμβάνω and ἀφίημι, another way to interpret their meaning is to identify what the determinative context is. Since chapters 24 and 25 are a single discourse in Matthew, we can look at possibilities from the stories in which παραλαμβάνω and ἀφίημι are embedded. In 24:31, Jesus speaks of the Son of Man “gathering (ἐπι-συνάγω) his elect ... from one end of the heavens to the other.” In the Noah story, echoed in 24:38-39, those who were ‘taken’ were drowned in the flood and those who were ‘left’ were saved in the ark to begin humanity anew. In the parable of the thief in 24:43, the ‘taken’ are stolen items. In the story of the bridesmaids in 25:1-13, those who are ‘taken’ get to go and party with the bridegroom while those who are ‘left’ miss out on the party. In the story of the returning householder in 25:14-30 and the parable of the sheep and goats in 25:31-46, it’s hard to see any direct reference to the couplet of παραλαμβάνω and ἀφίημι. Ah, the promise and peril of translation: What is the best context?

 42  γρηγορεῖτε οὖν, ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε ποίᾳ ἡμέρᾳ  κύριος ὑμῶν ἔρχεται.
Therefore stay awake, because you do not know what day your lord will return.
γρηγορεῖτε : PAImpv 2p, watch; to keep awake, to watch.
οἶδεν: PerfAI 3s, εἴδω, ἴδω, to know, to find. See v.43, note 1.
ἔρχεται: FMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons  1a1) to come from one place to another, and used both of  persons arriving and of those returning  1a2) to appear, make one's appearance, come before the public 
1. The adjective ποίᾳ can mean “what” or “which” or “of what sort” or “what manner,” etc.  

 43 ἐκεῖνο δὲ γινώσκετε ὅτι εἰ ᾔδει  οἰκοδεσπότης ποίᾳ φυλακῇ ὁ κλέπτης 
ἔρχεται, ἐγρηγόρησεν ἂν καὶ οὐκ ἂν εἴασεν διορυχθῆναι τὴν οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ.
Yet comprehend this that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief would arrive, then he would have kept awake and would not have allowed him to plunder the house. 
γινώσκετε: PAImpv 2p, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel. See note 1.
ᾔδει: PlupAI 3s, εἴδω, ἴδω, to know, to find. See note 1.
ἔρχεται: FMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons  1a1) to come from one place to another, and used both of  persons arriving and of those returning  1a2) to appear, make one's appearance, come before the public 
φυλακῇ: As the earlier Greeks divided the night commonly into three parts, so, previous to the exile, the Israelites also had three watches in a night; subsequently, after they became subject to the Romans, they adopted the Roman custom of dividing the night into four watches
ἐγρηγόρησεν: AAI 3s, to keep awake, to watch
εἴασεν : AAI 3s, ἐάω, 1) to allow, permit, let  2) to allow one to do as he wishes, not to restrain, to let alone  3) to give up, let go, leave 
διορυχθῆναι: APInf, διορύσσω, 1) to dig through: a house 
1. εἴδω is a word that – in Greek as in its English equivalents – uses the language of ‘sight’ to signify ‘knowledge.’ (As in, “Oh, I see what you mean.”) It is used in vv. 36, 42, and 43 in our pericope. In vv.39 and 43, however, Matthew uses the verb γινώσκω, which I have translated as “comprehend” in order to show the distinction. It would be interesting to know the significance of why Matthew uses εἴδω in some cases and γινώσκω in others. Anybody?

 44 διὰ τοῦτο καὶ ὑμεῖς γίνεσθε ἕτοιμοι, ὅτι  οὐ δοκεῖτε ὥρᾳ  υἱὸς τοῦ 
ἀνθρώπου ἔρχεται.
Through this you likewise get yourself ready, because in the hour you are not expecting the son of man returns.
γίνεσθε: PMImpv 2p, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen
δοκεῖτε: PAI 2p, δοκέω, 1) to be of opinion, think, suppose  2) to seem, to be accounted, reputed  3) it seems to me  3a) I think, judge: thus in question  3b) it seems good to, pleased me, I determined 
ἔρχεται: FMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons  1a1) to come from one place to another, and used both of  persons arriving and of those returning  1a2) to appear, make one's appearance, come before the public
I know that this translation reads horribly. However, I want to pick up on 2 things.
1. “Get yourself”: While the verb γίνομαι is deponent (i.e. it takes the passive form even if it is used actively), I think the middle voice is intended here. It is overkill to say “you get yourself ready” but this is the imperative that concludes the declarations and parables before it.
2. “You are not expecting”: Matthew introduces yet another word for ‘knowing,’ δοκέω. Only, as the definitions above show, δοκέω has more of a ‘guessing, expecting, supposing’ feel than ‘comprehending.’ So, compare “you do not know what day your lord will return” of v.42 with “in the hour you are not expecting the son of man returns.”


  1. hey nice post mehn. I love your style of blogging here. The way you writes reminds me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog: How To Make Your Impossible Dreams To Become Possible .
    keep up the good work.


  2. Wow, not as cut-and-dried as I had always thought. This is a very intriguing take on a familiar verse - thanks!

  3. That God would leave those on the earth as blessing, rather than thinking of them as the left overs? What a wondrous comment of grace, rather than judgement, or blessing in the midst of the work of God as God is present in the darkness.

    1. Thanks, David. As someone who is 50% deaf, I have said "I can't hear in the dark," because I depend on seeing lips move. I think there are lots of time when, metaphorically as well, I can neither see nor hear in the dark.

  4. Dieter Adelaide South AustraliaNovember 25, 2016 at 3:53 AM

    I wonder if Matthew's use of "comprehend" in this particular passage over "seeing" simply reflects the Lord's absence to our sight in this final parousia he is instructing his disciples about.

    1. That sounds promising, actually. Thanks Dieter.

  5. I find the ambiguity of this passage interesting, as if the text itself paints the mystery it describes--will the cataclysm (presence?) slip in like a thief or crash in like a tsunami? Will the "sheep and goats" be gathered in and forgiven or received and sent away? How do we know what we see and see what we know? The kingdom in our midst is always with us and always hits us by surprise.

  6. Thanks Jeanne. I do wonder how this text and the final parable of the next chapter interpret one another. In the sheep and goats story, they see and they don't see. They see the hungry, naked, imprisoned, etc., but don't see that they are looking at the Son of Man the whole time.


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