One advantage of reading familiar scripture in a foreign language is linguistic: You pretty much know what your reading, and when you come across new vocabulary, you can easily fill in the blanks for comprehension.
Another advantage of reading familiar scripture in a foreign language is spiritual: It forces you to think outside of some well-worn ruts in your mind. I have found new insights come to me often as a result of struggling to understand a portion of scripture where my own familiarity with the text has bred laziness.
One such text is Matthew 4:1-11, the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In verse 8 the devil takes Christ to a high mountain from which he can see all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. All this the Devil offers to Jesus, if he will but worship him.
Sometime in my childhood, I read this story in a picture Bible, and there was an artist’s rather fantastical impression of what the view from the mountain must have looked like. And ever since, reading this text, I called to mind a glistening watercolor Babylon, about 4″ to a side, printed on glossy paper.
Fortunately, a couple weeks ago, at our dinner table, we read this account again in Portuguese, where verse 8 is as follows:
Novamente, o transportou o diabo a um monte muito alto;
e mostrou-lhe todos os reinos do mundo e a glória deles.
I read “diabo” and “monte,” and suddenly in my mind, I was standing on top of Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County, east of the San Francisco Bay.
This mountain is not even 4000 ft. high, but because there are no other mountains around it, from its elevation, you really do have the sense that you can look down and see all the kingdoms of the world. To the west, you look out to Concord and Walnut Creek, and beyond that, Oakland, the Bay, San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. Inland, you see California’s San Joaquin Valley with the cities of Stockton, and Sacramento, and beyond them, the towering Sierra Nevada. In fact, when a winter storm clears the air, one can see Mount Lassen some 180 miles to the North in the Cascade Range. Because of its unique vantage point, land surveyors in the 1850’s used the peak of Mount Diablo as their starting point to survey large portions of California, Oregon and Nevada.
Even though the official story of how Mount Diablo got its name has nothing to do with Matthew 4, as I read aloud to my family, I found myself imagining a Spanish padre making the climb, with decomposed granite filling his sandals, and leaning on his walking stick all the way to the top. When the Franciscan reaches the summit, he looks down the other side, and then back where he came from, and then all around, and–still catching his breath–observes what appears to him to be the whole world fairly spread out before him. Recalling the account of the temptation of Christ, he names the mountain under his dusty sandals Monte del Diablo.
Now the scene my mind created in an instant is quite likely fiction. But the former image of a four-inch watercolor Babylon is fiction of a far worse sort. I do not know how Satan transported Jesus to the top of that mountain in verse 8, or what the view looked like from there. But whereas before, my mind plodded through these verses like a cow beating a well-worn path to pasture, now I find myself standing on top of that mountain with Jesus seeing those kingdoms with him!
And if the scripture came alive like this because I read the text in Portuguese and recalled standing upon a hill in Contra Costa, what would happen if I could actually read it in Greek or Hebrew and call upon memories of hillsides in Galilee?!?