Failing for Success

One word can make all the difference in how we understand a passage in the Bible. Sometimes words have multiple meanings in the original languages. For example, the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach) also means wind or breath. How you choose to translate this word, can change the meaning of some important passages—especially Genesis 1:2. Recently, I learned about another one. In Exodus 7, YHWH is giving instructions to Moses about an upcoming meeting with Pharaoh. God tells him:

“When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a wonder,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake.’”

Exodus 7:9, NRSV

The word here for “snake” is tannin (תַנִּין). It can mean a venomous serpent or a sea monster. But it’s also a term used for the Nile crocodile. Given the Egyptian context of this passage, some suggest the better translation is crocodile. This adds a whole new dimension to the following scene where Aaron’s “crocodile” eats the “crocodiles” produced by Pharaoh’s magicians! Admittedly, the earlier reference to this “wonder” in Exodus 4 uses a different word for snake (nachash). But in that passage, it’s also not Aaron’s staff that performs the miracle; it’s Moses’s staff. The reason for those discrepancies is a post for another time–maybe.

The Importance of Precision

Studying Biblical Hebrew and Greek has made me more aware of the deficiencies of the English language. As any non-native English speaker will tell you, learning English can be exceptionally difficult. The exceptions to the rules are numerous and inconsistent. At other times, the generalizations make English an imprecise language. For example, English has a single definite article: “the.” It doesn’t matter if the noun is singular or plural, masculine, feminine, or neuter; the article is “the.” It also doesn’t matter if the noun is the subject or object of the sentence. By comparison, Biblical Greek has 19. Technically it has 24, but some of them pull double (or triple)-duty.

English is also imprecise with some relative pronouns. For example, if I were to ask, “Did you go to the store today?” I could mean you, as an individual, or you, meaning a group of people. Northerners think that people in the South have solved this problem with “y’all” as the plural of you. When I moved to Texas, I was informed that this wasn’t exactly correct. “Y’all” is singular. “All y’all” is the plural. Biblical Greek designates the difference between singular and plural relative pronouns and how they function within the sentence.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “So what?!?” Well, it turns out these details can be critical in how we translate and understand Scripture. In many instances, we miss the word plays and nuances of the original language. There is a literary beauty to the texts that can be difficult to translate into English. In other places, English’s imprecision can lead to translation difficulties or vagueness. This vagary in translation can lead to a poor understanding of the original language. This imprecision can lead to lousy interpretation.

One example of this imprecision shows up in a number of English translations of Luke’s account of the Last Supper. In Luke’s Gospel, the meal was winding down, and Jesus was using this opportunity to instruct and encourage the Disciples. It’s during this after-dinner conversation that Jesus drops a bomb about one of his closest disciples, Simon Peter:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”

Luke 22:31-34, ESV

Bless His Heart…

If you’ve spent any time in church, you may have a mixed view of Peter. Peter is clearly a leader in the early Christian movement. But we often think of Peter as rash and impulsive. He’s the first to answer a question. At times he seems to “get out over his skis.” We can identify with Peter and his imperfections. If God can use someone like Peter, then there’s hope for the rest of us!

I think Peter gets a bum rap. There are hints in the text that Peter might be the oldest of the twelve Apostles. As such, it’s natural (and maybe expected) that he would be the first to respond to any question or request made by Jesus. On top of that, I doubt that he was much older than 23. So, his immaturity and rashness are not unexpected. Perhaps we need to cut the guy some slack. I know I’d rather people didn’t judge me for eternity based upon my 23 year-old self.

This passage in Luke 22 is one that influences our view of Peter. As the ESV translates these verses, it appears that Satan has Peter in his sights. Satan seems to know that Peter is the weak link, and he’s going after him. True to Jesus’s prediction, Peter will deny that he knows Jesus three times before the rooster crows. Peter has failed and goes away, weeping bitterly (Luke 22:54-62).

But is this understanding correct? Well, not exactly. It’s misleading based upon how it translates a single word. That word is “you.” In Luke 22:31, Jesus says, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat” (my translation). In this verse, “you” is plural (ὑμᾶς). In other words, Satan has not singled out Simon Peter. Satan is targeting the Twelve as a group. All the other instances of “you” in these verses are singular. So this passage is better understood as follows:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have all y’all, that he might sift all y’all like wheat, but I have prayed for you (Peter) that your (Peter’s) faith may not fail. And when you (Peter) have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Luke 22:31-32

While Satan has not singled out Simon Peter, Jesus has singled him out. Although Luke doesn’t explicitly state it, all of the disciples abandon Jesus. Only Peter follows at a distance to see where they took Jesus after his arrest. According to Luke, Jesus uses this opportunity to give Peter a particular assignment: strengthen your brothers (v 32). Jesus has prayed for Peter’s faith for a specific purpose: he needs to strengthen the rest of the group when he returns. They are going to depend upon his leadership.

All Translation Is Interpretation

The interpretation of this one word significantly changes the meaning of this passage. It changes the depiction of Peter. It’s also a good reminder that all translation is interpretation. Rather than being one of the least faithful based upon his denial, Peter is charged with strengthening everyone else. Peter is not the weakest link. He is the strongest. According to Luke’s narrative, Jesus places a unique level of trust in Peter and his importance for continuing the mission.

This ambiguity is not unique to the ESV. The Kings James Version, American Standard Version, Holman Christian Study Bible, and New International Version (before 2011) translate this passage similarly. Admittedly, they all have footnotes that note the plural nature of the relative pronoun. Still, they all chose not to reflect it directly within their translations. Other English translations, like the NRSV, NIV-11, and NET Bible, do a better job of reflecting the Greek text in this instance.

Luke’s Change-up

Luke takes some interesting departures from the other Gospel accounts of this pericope. First, the other three Gospels place this conversation on the Mount of Olives. Luke sets it in the Upper Room. None of the other Gospels record Jesus’s instructions to Peter, only that Peter will deny Jesus three times before the rooster crows. In this regard, Luke softens Peter’s denial by adding that he will deny “knowing” Jesus rather than the other Gospels’ absolute denial. The Gospel of John goes one step further and includes a scene where Jesus “restores” Peter (John 21:15-23).

Why does Luke’s account differ? Scholars generally agree that Luke had access to Mark’s Gospel and probably Matthew’s as well. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) share sufficient identical passages to demonstrate some degree of re-use. So when one differs from the other, it’s essential to consider what the author is doing.

So what is Luke doing? While we can’t ask him directly, we can search for clues within the text. First, we need to remember that the Gospel of Luke is volume 1 of a 2-part collection. The Book of Acts is the sequel. It’s an unfortunate error of compilation that they do not appear together in our Bibles. It seems that Luke may be setting the stage for Peter’s prominence in the early part of volume 2. Peter will be the first to take the Good News of Jesus to the Gentiles.

Failing for Success

In his commentary on Luke, Dr. Fred Craddock has some interesting observations. He notes that Peter proclaims that he is ready to fulfill Jesus’s instructions right now. Peter is willing to follow Jesus—even to death. Jesus responds that Peter’s not prepared and will deny he knows Jesus before the night’s over. Craddock notes that leaders need to understand what it means to have fear and doubt. They need to understand failure first-hand. In essence, Peter needs to fail so that he can lead the others when he returns. Peter’s failure prepares him for the mission to come.

I think Craddock is right. Just like Peter, we often need failures to prepare us for what is to come. Failures can teach us more than success does—provided we don’t let our pride get in the way. A leader that has experienced failure may be able to lead more effectively when those under them fail. They are better equipped to avoid similar problems in the future.

Unfortunately, we don’t promote the positive aspects of failure. Over the past year, many have experienced failure due to the pandemic. While the current global crisis might be the primary reason, we are still quick to blame ourselves for failure. If we’re honest, we probably do share in the blame. But accepting responsibility for failures should not be the end of the road.

All too often, failure disqualifies leaders in our culture. We tend to think in terms of winners and losers. Winners succeed, and losers fail. But Jesus sees it differently. Failure today may be necessary for success tomorrow. Failure with something now, may lead to success in some more important endeavor or mission. How might we benefit if we acted like Jesus and recognized the importance of failure to make us more effective leaders? Or better yet, what if failure became a prerequisite for leadership? For Peter, failure was necessary so that he could fulfill his responsibilities to the early Christian community.

4 thoughts

  1. Good lesson! Trials (and errors) should be a path for growth! Other thoughts…
    1. Context seems to support a snake for the staff. I am interested in hearing how croc might be better.
    2. I have really been liking the Lexham English Bible lately and this post helped me see their failure to alert us to plural ‘you.’ I am disappointed.
    3. Could the conversation about sifting and denying have been on the trip to the mount? And could the topic been brought up a few times on that trip? (And could that trip have included a stop at the temple?)


    • Hey Eric,
      Great thoughts! Certainly, snake is certainly viable. I do find the different word usage curious–as with whose staff actually performs the “wonders.” There’s a difference. The difference actually runs throughout the plagues.

      Rather than trying to reconcile Luke with the other Gospels as to where this discussion takes place, I think it’s probably better to look at how and why they use this particular incident. There are numerous places where the Synoptic gospels elect to place events in differing sequences–even when using nearly identical Greek. John is off doing his own thing. John places the entire Last Supper a day earlier than the Synoptic Gospels. Why? A major theme is that Jesus is the Lamb of God. Therefore, the crucifixion happens as the Paschal lambs are being slaughtered. The Synoptics tell it differently.


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