‘How oppression in the bible is translated away’ is part of a lecture originally given during the 1986 Catholic Theological Winter School and published in apartheid South Africa by the Order of Preachers. The author is the head of the Dominicans, Albert Nolan, a man whose writings have inspired much of what appears in Zingcreed.


Set yourself some homework: go through different translations of the good book with a concordance (I use Crudens, the best, which I picked up for a couple of quid in a second hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road ) and see if Nolan is right. (Even better: learn Hebrew and Greek, 2 new alphabets – why not?!)

How oppression in  the Bible is translated away

by Albert Nolan, OP

In both the Old and New Testaments the idea of the poor as oppressed is touched upon literally thousands of times – directly or indirectly. One of the reasons why this is not immediately obvious to the modern reader, nor even to the poor and oppressed themselves when they read the Bible today, is that in our modern translations the words for ‘oppression’, ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressor’ have frequently been translated away.

For example, the Hebrew and Greek words for ‘oppressed’ are often translated into English as ‘afflicted’, ‘distressed’ or ‘troubled’. And the words for ‘oppressor’ are translated as ‘wicked man’, ‘foe’, ‘enemy’ or ‘taskmaster’. This gives the impression that what the Bible is speaking about is merely some personal troubles or personal distress that one individual is afflicted with because of the wickedness of another individual. In fact what the Bible is speaking about is the social and political reality of oppression.

When we study the Hebrew and Greek words for oppression in the Bible, the first thing that becomes clear is that most of the Bible must have been written originally by people who were themselves oppressed and persecuted. Only oppressed people could have given us such vivid and graphic descriptions of oppression, using such a variety of expressive, concrete and earthy words. An analysis of these words and descriptions reveals the following types of image.

  1. In the first place oppression is described as the experience of being crushed, pushed down, even  pulverised. Sometimes this is experienced as being weighed down by an enormous burden or yoke. At other times it is experienced as being hammered, beaten, trampled upon or massacred – as violence. Closely linked to this is the experience of being degraded, humiliated, scoffed at and stripped naked. Rape and sexual abuse are also experienced as a crushing form of oppression.
  2. Another very common image to describe the experience of oppression  is the image of being surrounded and hemmed in. People feel that hostile forces are closing in on them like lions. They are captives – imprisoned, controlled, chained down, enslaved, helpless and unable to escape.
  3. From another point of view the oppressed of the Bible see themselves as people who are being cheated and robbed. The rich exploit them again and again so even the little they have is taken away from them as they stand by helpless and powerless. This they experience quite simply as theft, or what we would call, colloquially, daylight robbery.
  4. And finally the oppressed in the Bible describe their experience of being hopeless and helpless victims of lies, deceit, ignorance and fraud. They feel their oppressors lie to them and about them all the time, that the truth is being covered up and that nobody outside knows what is really happening to them.


These descriptions would be recognised immediately by the people who live in the slums of Latin America and the townships of South Africa as precisely how they too experience their oppression. The same can be said of the Biblical descriptions of the oppressor.  They are the kind of descriptions that are always made only by the oppressed. Thus the Bible does not simply describe the oppressors as rich and powerful but as truly wicked people who, because of their insatiable greed for wealth and luxury, exploit and rob the poor of their land and their livelihood. They grab power by violent means and maintain their power by even more violent means. They become cruel and merciless, killing and massacring people. The oppressor is the sinner, the wicked man (person), the enemy.

Nolan, Albert “To nourish our faith. Theological reflections on the theology of liberation” CAFOD (1989)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Alphabetical index for other ‘Red Christian document’ Posts
Structural sin
Causes of poverty
Jesus and the wealthy
Prophets attack profits
Who is my brother?
What is a favela?
London’s homeless speak #6 Frank
Red Christian documents #15: ‘Taking Sides’ (Nolan, S. Af. 1984)

[308, linked & indexed, T&C]



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