Barry Newman's Blog

March 20, 2013

The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep (part IX)

Filed under: Parables of Jesus,The Parable(s) of the Lost Sheep — barrynewman @ 7:01 am

       “The Desert”

In Luke’s parable of the lost sheep, the 99 are left in the desert (eremos). But is “desert” an appropriate translation for “eremos”?

In the New Testament, the word “eremos” occurs 49 times and the NIV has numerous ways of translating it: as a noun – “desert” (32 x), “deserts”, “desert region”, “lonely places”, “solitary places”, “desolate woman” and “open country” (1x each) and as an adjective – “solitary” (4 x), “remote” (3 x), “desolate”, “lonely”, “quiet” and “deserted” (1 x each).  Related forms are “eremia” translated as “remote place” (2 x) and “deserts” and “country” (1 x each), “eremoo” translated as “bring to ruin” (5 x) and “eremosis” translated as “desolation” (3 x).

The general sense being conveyed by “eremos” according to the NIV is one of either a remote region or a desolate region.  The 99 do not have to be left in a desert but wherever they are left it is a region of some difficulty for sheep – they are left in a remote and isolated place; they are left substantially in a lonely place.  It is interesting however that the only terms used by the NIV in their translation of “eremos” that are not in accordance with this general understanding, are “quiet” and “open country” and the latter is their choice in Luke 15: 4 where the reference is to the 99 sheep.  The NIV translators have decided that they will fill out the parable for the reader by indicating that the 99 sheep would not have be left in difficult circumstances!!

The New American Standard Bible is little different.  Preferring to use the word “wilderness” rather than “desert”, “eremos” is translated “wilderness” (32 x), “secluded place” (5 x), “desolate” (6 x), “desert” and “deserts” (2 x each) and “unpopulated areas” and “open pasture” (1 x each).  You guessed correctly – “open pasture” is the translation used in Luke 15: 4.

Kittel in his article on “eremos” and related forms, writes, “The adj. eremos … and the subst. he eremos refer to “abandonment”, whether of a person … or a cause … or a locality.  The latter does not have to be a desert.  It is a place ‘without inhabitants’, ‘empty,’ e.g. an ‘abandoned city or a ‘thinly populated district’”[1].

If Luke, in his retelling of the parable, wished to convey an understanding that where the 99 were left was simply out in “the country”, he could have used the word “chora”.  While “chora” is more commonly used in the sense of “a region” it can refer to something like “countryside” – see Luke 21: 21 (“Let those in the countryside not enter the city”) or even “fields” – see John 4: 35 (“See how the fields are already white for harvest”) and Luke 2: 8 (There were shepherds in the field, watching over their flock by night”).  Presumably he could also have used the word “agros” generally translated “field”.   However Luke chose the word “eremos” and consequently we cannot avoid the notion that in the parable that Jesus told, according to Luke, the 99 sheep were left in desolate surroundings.  Given that the definite article is used, translating “en te eremo” as “in the desert” or similar, such as “in the wilderness”, is not at all inappropriate.  Of course by “desert” we should not conjure up the image of rolling sand hills or vast tracks of nothing but sand. The wilderness regions of Palestine were not devoid of vegetation but they were not lush with pasture either and were certainly not the most desirable of places to inhabit, to choose for feeding sheep or in which to leave sheep.

Bailey, as noted above, believes that a reference to “in the wilderness” is not at all out of place.


[1] Kittel, G., eremos, eremia, eremoo, eremosis in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume II, (trans. and ed. Bromiley, G.W.), Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1964, pp. 657 – 660

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