03 February 2014

Theological Biblical Ellipses

An ellipsis consists of an omission of one or more words. It is sometimes reflected in writing by three points ( . . . ). In Spanish, they are called puntos suspensivos and in English, ellipsis. The type of ellipsis I wish to speak about do not contain points to make their point. I find the topic of Biblical ellipsis fascinating and greatly illuminating. Even though I do not agree with all of Ethelbert W. Bullinger observations, and excellent book on this and related topics is Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (1898).

In Hebrew one would say “Where child?” instead of “Where is the child?” The listener must insert these missing words to make sense of the sentence. In the KJV these words that have been filled in are indicated by italics in our LDS scriptures. Some of the ellipses go far beyond a single word that is missing. Without the ellipsis being filled in for us, Isaiah 2:12, for instance, would be rendered: “For the day of the LORD of hosts upon every proud and lofty, and upon every lifted up; and he shall be brought low.” With the ellipsis filled in, we have: “For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low.” Another Biblical translation, the Amplified Version, greatly expands on these elliptical helps. Others include the elliptical helps but give the illusion that they are part of the original.

The Prophet Joseph Smith approved some of the elliptical expressions we find in the KJV, but not others. Ellipses may be completely misunderstood, and when they are supplied, we may well call them false ellipsis. The correct translation of John 4:24a is: “God is Spirit.” This is what the Prophet Joseph Smith taught. This is how many versions translate the clause, including ABP. BBE, CEV, CJB, EMTV, ERV, ESV, GNB, HCSB, LEB, NASB, RV60 (and most Spanish translations), and WNT. The KJV is my favorite translation, but in this instance it gives us a theological distortion of the original Greek.

To really understand ellipses, we must increase our understanding of the Holy Scriptures. I have been trying to find a cultural ellipsis. That is, an ellipsis that requires an understanding of a particular aspect of culture to get the message. A few days ago, my boss and I were both putting in our lunches in the workplace refrigerator at the same time. She observed that the refrigerator was somewhat full and then, laughingly commented: “It must be the end of the month.” It took me a second to realize what she was saying so I could join in her laughter. The elliptical expressions included in her humor required an understanding that: (1) people often go out to lunch; (2) people are less likely to spend money as the end of the month approaches because they do not budget well enough; (3) going out to lunch is more expensive; and therefore: (4) people have brought in their lunches because it is the end of the month. I call this a cultural ellipsis. Someone in an agrarian society might not get this at all. And conversely, there are many cultural ellipses in the Bible that we do not understand if we do not understand an agrarian society.

Ellipses are prevalent in almost everything we read. Much humor relies on people understanding the gap between what is said and what is implied. I like this quote from Martha Kolln, “When well used, ellipsis can create a bond of sorts between the writer and the reader. The writer is saying, in effect, I needn’t spell everything out for you; I know you’ll understand” (Rhetorical Grammar, 5th ed. Pearson, 2007).

In a previous paper I wrote about The Book of Mormon as a Key to Gathering Israel and Judah, I made the point that as we increase our understanding of the Bible we will see an increasing number of words and expressions that are loaded with meaning. So it is, for instance, that upon reading Ezekiel 37:21b “Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone,” the person who is familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures will immediately make the connection with the scriptures which speak about the great blessings and cursing that were to come upon the children of Israel as a result of their obedience or disobedience (I call these Rain in Due Season, and they include such scriptures as Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 4:26-31; 11:11-32; and Deuteronomy 28-30). In these verses, and others (e.g., Ezekiel 36:16 ff.) we come to understand that although Israel would be scattered throughout the globe, she would also be gathered in the last days. Understanding these points, one comes to see how the Book of Mormon, along with the Bible, will play a key role in the gathering of Israel in the last days. A role that is clearly spelled out in Ezekiel. As we fall in love with the Scriptures, we begin to see more and more of these elliptical points that are not written, but whose meanings we must prayerfully supply ourselves.

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