Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gird up the Loins of your Mind

English translations of ancient texts often conceal interesting expressions in the original languages.  A nice example of this is I encountered recently is 1 Peter 1:13.  In the NIV we read:

"Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming."

The NRSV renders it:

"Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed."

The Greek phrase behind "with minds that are alert" or "prepare your minds for action" is: anazōsamenoi tas osphuas tēs dianoias humōn.  We could more literally translate this as "girding up the loins/waist of your mind."

The "girding of loins" might be familiar to some Bible readers.  We see it as part of the Passover instructions (Exodus 12:11), it is something Elijah does before running (1 Kings 18:46), and God tells Job to "gird up now thy loins like a man" in the little heart to heart they have at the end of the book (Job 38:3; 40:7).  Other examples: 2 Kings 4:29; 2 Kings 9:1; Jeremiah 1:17; Luke 12:35; Ephesians 6:14 (and this is only some of the "girding" that happens in the Bible).

The general idea is that when you're wearing flowing clothing that covers your legs, like different kinds of skirts or robes, it can be hard to run or engage in other movements (which is why Elijah does it before running).  So, tying your clothing up around your waist area frees up your movement.  This Huffington Post article features some visuals of what this process might look like.  

Peter is using this image metaphorically: gird up the loins of your mind.  The sense is probably to prepare one's mind, perhaps, as the NRSV suggests, for some kind of action.  Or, it may just communicate, as the NIV suggests, a level of alertness.  It's an interesting image, and one which we would entirely miss if we only relied on some of these translations!  A few English translations have brought the phrase out in different ways.  The KJV rendered it literally:

"Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

The Message, which is a radical paraphrase, offers this:

"So roll up your sleeves, put your mind in gear, be totally ready to receive the gift that's coming when Jesus arrives."

I particularly like what the Message does, because it translates the language into an image that makes more sense to many of us in English.  This example serves as a good reminder to use as many different translations as you can, and another good reason to learn the original language of ancient texts you like to read!

Something I am left curious about is questions of gender and this expression.  Is "girding up one's loins" masculine?  A lot of interpreters explain the phrase as meaning "man up" (check out the use in Job).  Would this have been a masculine image for Peter?  Would ancient women also have had the experience of needing to tie up some forms of clothing to increase mobility? (See line 286 of Atrahasis).

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