Teaching Hermeneutics in Masaka, Uganda.

I was teaching Hermeneutics in Masaka in southwest Uganda a couple of weeks ago when the oddest question came up. Hermeneutics is the science/art of Biblical interpretation. There are specific principles of interpretation that are used to interpret the Bible properly. I have worked hard to condense this sometimes complex and abstract information down to seven clearly illustrated principles.

Usually, when I teach this subject, the students aren’t that interested until I actually begin illustrating the lesson with scripture examples where the principles can clear up confusion about the meaning. Once they see how practical this can be to them, they perk up and begin to “get into it.” With education limited for many church leaders, discovering what the Bible is actually saying can be a wild ride. They are bound by many poor interpretations that they have heard and simply repeated without ever knowing how to interpret the scripture for themselves. This produces a very authoritative passing on of bad teaching from one generation of believers to the next.

Any church leader here in Uganda who is in the front line of teaching the Bible desperately needs these guidelines. As interest catches on in the crowd, the teaching gets lively as questions start rising up, one sparking another for sometimes an hour at a time.

I was in just such a situation in Masaka. Very good questions about this scripture and that scripture were popping up like popcorn all around the sanctuary. Then a man stood up and asked why Elijah, who was faithful to God, was punished by demons at the end of his life. As always, when I am astonished by a question, I asked for the scriptural reference. Many times they can’t come up with a reference because, just like in the U.S., many people quote verses from the Bible to prove their points that aren’t even in the Bible. I once worked with a deacon whose favorite Bible verse was, “God helps those who help themselves.” I was very young at the time and it took me a while to figure out that this was from Benjamin Franklin, not the Bible. This was, in fact, where I learned to always request the verse reference.

However, getting the verse reference from the Elijah question did not clear up the confusion. It took a serious bit of investigation AND hermeneutics to solve the mystery behind the demons who punished Elijah at the end of his life. Here is the verse from 2 Kings 2:1 and 11, so you can keep up with me here:

1 And it came to pass, when the LORD was about to take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal…

11 Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. (NKJV)

The crux of the interpretive problem arises from the culture and the way it influenced the translation of the term whirlwind. In Ugandan culture, a whirlwind has always been considered the work of demons. In fact, I am told that when they witness a whirlwind or tornado-style wind, the parents typically tell the children that the demons of their ancestors are walking in the wind or walking across the land or even in their village. I get the impression that they don’t have truly devastating tornadoes like those that annually flatten whole communities in the U.S., but that a really big one in Uganda can perhaps destroy a house or tear a roof off.

It seems their language lacks any exact word for “tornado” or “cyclone.” Apparently, when the translators came to this passage in 2 Kings, for some reason they chose the very colorful Lugandan cultural term for a whirlwind, “wind of the demons,” to translate the Hebrew word. This mistranslation occurs in the most used Bible in Uganda, the Luganda Bible. Luganda is as close to a national language, after English, that Ugandans have. Though there are about 50 tribal languages spoken in different regions of Uganda, many can read Luganda and understand it when it is spoken. As a result, the Luganda Bible is very popular even among those who don’t speak Luganda as their first language. Up until now, I have tested this version many times and found it to be very accurate to the original languages. Up until now, that is!

When a Ugandan reads this passage in their traditionally favored Luganda Bible, they read,  “Elijah was taken up to heaven by a wind of the demons.” They, of course, find this to be extremely perplexing and disconcerting. Over the years the verse has spawned a wide range of false teachings from non-hermeneutical and wildly imaginative attempts to explain this verse. Needless to say, Ugandans tend to be less impressed by Elijah than westerners might be when reading their Bibles. They almost have the attitude of “poor Elijah!”

I went through the hermeneutics of this verse with them, showing them the Hebrew word and the accurate translation, but even then many were skeptical. After all, there it was right there in their Bibles! It is sometimes hard for them to grasp that their favorite Bible version could be wrong. The day was saved when another student stood and said he had just gotten a new Luganda translation of the Bible, and he held it up for all to see. It seems it has just recently been released. When he read 2 Kings 2:11 in his Bible, it read: “Elijah went up by a strong wind into heaven.” This mollified the crowd considerably and finally allowed us to move on to other questions, neatly making a strong point about the value of proper hermeneutics for accurate interpretation.

It’s a bit of a shock when I tell students here that their versions of the Bible aren’t inspired, but only the original writings were. But with many examples of translation issues like the one mentioned here, which mystified all of us until we applied proper hermeneutics and some cultural investigation, they came to understand the value, at least partly, of becoming good students of the Bible, rightly dividing the word of truth.