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Monday, March 06, 2006

Coals of Fire


    Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves,
    but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written,
    Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
    Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him;
    if he thirst, give him drink:
    for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
    Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21 KJV
There is an excellent commentary on verse 21 here. I am not quite sure what a translator is to do with verse 21 as there seems to be more than one way to understand it. However, the preceding verses are clear.

It has been my feeling for a long time that we should not worry about understanding the more difficult parts of the Bible until after we have obeyed the parts that are crystal clear. Since I have personally not yet accomplished this, I have never been in a position to say, "Lord, I will follow your word when I can understand it", but rather, "Help me to follow that which I understand."

This does not resolve the dilemma of a Bible translator, however, so I would be interested in hearing what one does with the 'coals of fire.'

It is also interesting to note that every single modern translation that I checked adds a word not in the Greek text, so that verse 19 reads 'wrath of God' in English, rather than just 'wrath' as in Greek.

Note: Byzantine Greek Beta Font from Vernon Kooy. For more info on this font see my bookshelf. Someone must have mentionned Byzantine texts recently. :-) Click on image to enlarge. This image portrays some of the 650 letters and ligatures available in this font. It is simply the best resource I have seen on Byzantine Greek ligatures.

13 Comments:

At Tue Mar 07, 06:49:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

I've always taken it to me that by returning kindness for hatred you will infuriate your enemy. The coals of fire on his head would be an allusion to be "hot-headed". I don't know about you, but when someone I'm ticked off at does nice things for me, it often annoys me because they're making me feel guilty about still being angry. IOW, "How dare you not join in my anger?!?" Think of "When Harry Met Sally". Paraphrase: "I hate when you do things like that, Harry. You make it impossible to hate you, I hate you, Harry. I really hate you."

 
At Tue Mar 07, 07:32:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I've understood it to refer to the ancient custom of giving burning coals to a neighbor when their fire had burned out. I've read that coals were carried in a container on the head. So if you give so many coals to a person that there is a heap of them, you have gone beyond the call of duty. And that is how we should treat our enemies. Jesus said the same thing, that we are to love our enemies, showing that by treating them well. One way to do that, in biblical times, was to give them more than enough coals for getting their fire going again.

 
At Tue Mar 07, 10:22:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I guess the question is whether the coals of fire are an extension of the good things that one does, like giving food and drink, or whether in contrast, the food and drink cause the other persons to feel something that can be compared to coals of fire. I have read the interpretation you mention but I am a little worried about it. What kind of container would insulate the head from the heat of the coals?

Do the burning coals represent a benefit or a judgement? What makes better sense in this context?

 
At Tue Mar 07, 10:23:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

Hmm, I don't know about ancient customs dealing with coal, but my bottom line interpretation isn't much different than any of yours...So I guess that's the important thing. I've always understood it as simply referring to remorse i.e. the more you return evil with good, the more you offer peace to war, love to hate, kindness to rudeness, the more the Spirit of God will spark a conscience in your adversary, and make them think twice about their actions and words.

 
At Tue Mar 07, 10:26:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

"Do the burning coals represent a benefit or a judgement? What makes better sense in this context?"

Both. Judgement is a benefit, even though it may take a while for some to realize it. It all depends on the person who is being burned, I think.

 
At Tue Mar 07, 10:50:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

I remember the the time I was studying that passage with my wife, Kathy, and she said, "What do I get to do to my enemies?"

She was kidding of course, but it's never good to have her mad at you, nonetheless :)

 
At Tue Mar 07, 03:36:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Suzanne,

FWIW, a few years ago I worked out a chiastic form for Rom. 12:9-21. The infinitives in verse 15 are in the middle. If this is true, then verse 20 semantically reflects verse 10. Therefore the idea of brotherly love is behind the heaping of burning coals on someone's head.

 
At Tue Mar 07, 04:05:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

Suzanne,

FWIW, a few years ago I worked out a chiastic form for Rom. 12:9-21. The infinitives in verse 15 are in the middle. If this is true, then verse 20 semantically reflects verse 10. Therefore the idea of brotherly love is behind the heaping of burning coals on someone's head.


Hmm...No offense, of course, but that isn't at all how I see it. "Brotherly love" in verse 10 seems to be something specifically devoted to the encouragement of fellow Christians. Verses 10-13 have camaraderie, charity, and friendship within the church in mind.

Verse 20 is an extension of verse 18...i.e. love as it pertains retaliation, vengeance, and to our dealings with people in general (and more specifically spelled out: our enemies...hostile people).

The hot coals of verse 20 are defined by verse 21

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 
At Tue Mar 07, 04:16:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Tue Mar 07, 04:18:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

Err....Or maybe I'm misunderstanding what you're saying, Mike? :)

 
At Tue Mar 07, 05:07:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Straylight,

Rhetorically, Mike asks, "Why did I go this direction?"

Well, glad I asked. <laugh>

When I read down through it in the Greek (not that that is the answer--it's not) three things jumped out at me.

One: there's adjectives and participles (verbal adjectives) leading up to verse 15--that is, they're very syntactically parallel. If Paul was writing this in HTML or a word processor, he would have used a list.

Two: the infinitives in verse 15 radically break the flow (again, this is syntactically). It feels all the world like Paul is turning a corner or reaching a cresendo.

Three: note the use of 'evil' and 'good' in both verse 9 and verse 21. Either that's a form of inclusio, or it might just be it's bigger brother, the chiasm. That makes the first three words of verse 9 a heading. (see Chiasmus in Exegesis for another example of a chiastic structure with a heading.)

So, I proceeded from there to analyze the text to see if it was, in fact, a chiasm using the adjectival list as a guide.

Having said that, frankly, it's good to question what I'm saying. I really do need to work it out again and write something up (or conclude I'm wrong). I originally worked it out on one of those big artist pads using multiple color pens. But, I've since thrown the paper away. <grumble>

It's not a stretch, at least as I see it, for Paul to focus on fellow believers in the one half of a chiasm and to focus on unbelievers in the second half. The love we would show each would be quite similar (semantically parallel, perhaps). That actually strengthens the argument for a chiasm folded around the middle.

 
At Tue Mar 07, 06:17:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Mike,

I think this kind of discourse analysis is the way to go. However, I see verses 9 and 21 as the frame, and 15 is, as you say the centre. But rather than chiastic in detail, I think that verse 10 - 14 are the first set, and verses 16 - 20 are the second set.

In which case verse 14 and verse 20 are parallel verses. That would make more sense.

Having said that the 'coals of fire' are a quote, so it is hard to tell if they have any parallel in verse 14.

However, the sense must be "bless them that persecute you."

 
At Wed Mar 08, 04:27:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Suzanne wrote:

But rather than chiastic in detail, I think that verse 10 - 14 are the first set, and verses 16 - 20 are the second set.

Hmmmmm...that's a good suggestion. I might try to analyze the clauses this way and see if that fits (to convince myself). An initial peek at it suggests you're right.

Thanks!

 

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