Mae West, Jerry Seinfeld And The Bible

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
15th January 2010

Tagged: sin temptation testing

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Like everybody I have a problem with temptation.  But the problem is not just the difficulty of facing temptation: the problem is of understanding what is meant by the word ‘temptation’.

Dictionaries describe for us how the word is being used today.  Some words have entered or been popularised in English by their Biblical usage.  But over time words change their meaning.  This is especially worrying when the word is a key Biblical term such as ‘temptation’.  So it becomes important for the Bible to be retranslated into modern English if we are to understand what the original author meant.  Modern translations have frequently, though not completely or consistently, replaced the word to ‘tempt’ by the word to ‘test’. 

It is interesting to compare the Oxford and Macquarie dictionaries in their entries on ‘tempt’.

Oxford:
1 (archaic) Make trial of, try the resolution of, (God did tempt Abraham). 
2. Provoke, defy, (shalt not tempt the Lord; would be tempting Providence or fate to try it). 
3. Entice, incite esp. to sin (to do, to action esp. evil one) I am tempted (strongly disposed) to question this
4. Allure, attract

Macquarie
1. to induce or persuade by enticement or allurement
2. to allure, appeal strongly to, or invite: the offer tempts me
3. to render strongly disposed (to do something)
4. to do or try to incite; assail with enticements, esp to evil
5. to put to the test in a venturesome way; to risk provoking; provoke: to tempt one’s fate
6 (Obsolete) to try or test

Both dictionaries go on to explain that the word is derived from the Latin ‘temprare’ meaning ‘handle, touch, try or test’.  And both mention that this meaning is now obsolete or archaic in modern English. 

In general, the common usage of the word today is ‘to entice or persuade to do something, especially something sinful’ (Oxford meanings 3,4 and Macquarie 1,2,3,4).  However in the Bible, the word means either ‘to test or to try’ or ‘to provoke and defy’ (Oxford 1,2 and Macquarie 5,6). 

The modern English word ‘temptation’ has two emphases that significantly narrow and shift the meaning of the Biblical word.  Firstly, temptation is now about testing in the negative sense of testing with evil intent. And so it is difficult to understand God testing Abraham or Jesus being sent by the Holy Spirit to be tempted, or why we need to pray that God would “lead us not into temptation”.  Secondly, it is now about the internal seduction by our own sinful desires (Mark 7:15-23, James 1:12-15), rather than the external pressures of the devil, circumstances or suffering.  So ‘temptation’ today means ‘seduction, enticement and allurement’.  In this sense the Bible is clear that God cannot be tempted, nor does he tempt anybody (James 1:13), for God is without sinful desires and does not wish the death of a sinner but that all may repent and live (Ezekiel 18:32).  Furthermore, when the word is narrowed like this, it is difficult to see how the sinless Jesus could be tempted at all, let alone “in every respect” as we are (Hebrews 4:15, Titus 1:15).

Here then is a problem for the modern Bible reader.  The Bible’s meaning is now the archaic/obsolete meaning and the modern meaning is very rare, if present at all, in the Bible.  So a word that has come into the language from the Bible is now used primarily to mean something akin to but significantly different from the Bible.

Once this shift in meaning is understood, the Bible’s old (archaic/obsolete) way of speaking makes sense of verses about God testing Abraham (Genesis 22:1, Hebrews 11:17) and Israel (Deuteronomy 8:3) and our need to “examine” and “test” ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5).  He tests us (i.e. tries, proves, even refines) not with evil intent but for our good.  Similarly we can understand more clearly what is meant by not putting God to the “test” (Psalm 95, Deuteronomy 6:16, Luke 4:12).  That is, we are not to provoke him or to insist that he prove himself. We are to trust him rather than test him. 

Often in life, tests and examinations are conducted for the good purposes of discovery, teaching, strengthening and proving the character, quality and resolve of people (Deuteronomy 8:1-3).  A good teacher will use tests to assist students’ education, in hope that through the testing all will grow in their knowledge and show their increased understanding by passing their exams.   

But sometimes tests are conducted with evil intent to catch out, trick or find fault (Mark 8:11, 12:15).  Here is the Tempter’s work – the liar and deceiver, Satan our adversary and accuser.  He is not interested in the welfare of the people he is testing but rather in defeating them and bringing them under his power and control.  A bad examination is one that has no educational value but is set to catch people out and make them fail especially by trick questions.

God undoubtedly does test us for our good.  And within God’s tests, Satan attempts, by lies, to seduce us to do evil and to test God’s patience and faithfulness to his word.  This seduction works upon the sinful soul, for it invites us to enter into our own desires (Ephesians 2:1-3). 

It is not surprising that sinful people are more aware of the enticing allure of Satan to do evil than of the blessing of God’s testing.  Over several centuries even our language of temptation has been restricted to this internal desire to do evil.  It is now astonishing to read the King James Version of the Bible “count it all joy when ye fall into diverse temptations” (James 1:2-4).  It sounds more like Mae West or Jerry Seinfeld than the Bible.