The Fine China Vessel

One Man One Woman available on Amazon.comOh, how much trouble and misery a little bit of misunderstanding causes! Word meanings and intents are sometimes lost in translation, causing consequences. A tremendously sad and horrific event in human history may have been caused by a simple mistranslation of one phrase from Japanese into English that could have brought about the detonation of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Second World War. These nuclear blasts robbed up to two hundred fifty thousand lives and devastated countless more in their aftermath. What if this entire catastrophe was escalated by an elementary misunderstanding of the Japanese word mokusatsu? When asked to surrender by the Americans, the Japanese ruler spoke the word “mokusatsu” in response. In light of other communications that day and the resulting media frenzy around the Potsdam Declaration, what the word mokusatsu actually could have simply meant was: “We will remain silent until after we discuss this,” but the interpreter rendered it to mean “We are treating your message with contempt.”[1] President Truman quickly decided to respond to this perceived contempt with the ultimate sternness—the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! (James 3:5b NIV)

To better understand the Bible and to avoid major controversy over small mistakes, such as the one that may have brought the nuclear catastrophe we just talked about, understanding the culture surrounding any scripture held in question is vitally important. Possibly one of the most misunderstood and oft-times abused snippets of scripture concerning women, and wives in particular, is one found in 1 Peter:

 Giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel. (1 Peter 3:7c NIV)

Taken at face value in the English translation, this segment of scripture can seem to indicate that women are weak physically, mentally, and perhaps even morally, but much like the misunderstood Japanese word mokusatsu, which may have caused so much trouble, this phrase weaker vessel actually means something quite different when understood in light of a cultural view of vessels in Eastern Bible times. The wife is equated to a vessel in the household in 1 Peter. But what kind of vessel is the weaker vessel?

But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. (2 Timothy 2:20 NIV)

The Eastern culture of Bible times placed moral and spiritual meanings upon various vessels and the uses these vessels served in a household. There are the honorable and expensive vessels for storing things like precious ointments and spices; fine China vessels for serving proper meals and entertaining respected guests; vessels for olive oil; small clay lamps that held oil, and when kept burning, represented God’s presence in the household; water pots for collecting and transporting water; less honorable common pots and other vessels for cooking, washing, and bathing; gardening and flower pots; and the ultimate “dishonorable vessel” designated for use as a chamber pot.

Giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker [asthenè„s] vessel … (1 Peter 3:7c KJV)

In Bible times, it wouldn’t have made sense to give honor to a polluted, stained, dishonorable, weak, cracked, or deficient vessel any more than one today would display a chamber pot in the family heirloom China cabinet. The Greek word translated “weaker” is asthenè„s, which would be more correctly translated as “dainty,” as in more finely crafted, fragile, and more aesthetically pleasing. Now this is the vessel you would want to put on display in the family China cabinet! You would take this Ming porcelain vase of a wife and keep her shined up. You would give her a place of prominent honor and protection while displaying her with lights and artful surroundings. You would never dishonor this precious “vessel” by using it to carry dishonorable waste or perhaps use it to dig in the garden. “Giving honor unto the wife, as unto a fine China vessel.” Let’s look at another confusing verse of scripture regarding the wife:

While I was still searching but not finding—I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them all. (Ecclesiastes 7:28 NIV)

Here is another difficult segment of scripture that will perplex the modern mind and perhaps demean women in general with the potential to undermine the husband/wife relationship. However, when viewed in the cultural setting and context, this scripture comes to life with new meaning. The Jewish Targum translates this scripture this way:

There is another thing which yet my soul seeketh, and I have not found; a man perfect and innocent, without corruption, from the days of Adam, till Abraham the righteous was born; who was found faithful and just among the thousand kings who were gathered together to build the tower of Babel; and a woman among all the wives of those kings, as Sarah, I found not.[2]

Now you can see that there is an association between the thousand kings of Abraham’s time, their wives, and Abraham’s wife, Sarah, as you view this scripture enhanced with the ancient Jewish Targum explanation. This scripture does not mean, as some say, that all women are not upright. With a new understanding, this Ecclesiastes verse will fit like a hand in a glove with the rest of the Word of God, strengthening the scriptural position that finding a wife is a good thing!

He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD. (Proverbs 18:22 NIV)

It is evident on the surface of the Word of God that a wife is a great blessing to a man, even a token of divine favor. In the Talmud (the primary source of Jewish religious law and tradition), there is further explanation to this passage: “is a good gift; she shall be given to a man that feareth God.” As Matthew Henry says in An Exposition of the Old and New Testament: “Women were created from the rib of man to be beside him, not from his head to top him, nor from his feet to be trampled by him, but from under his arm to be protected by him, near to his heart to be loved by him.”[3]

In preventing a gross mistranslation of the Word of God concerning this “weaker vessel”, you can now see that this is where the fine China vessel really belongs—near the heart of man.

Many marriages would be better if the husband and the wife clearly understood that they are on the same side.
—Zig Ziglar

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[1] NSA Technical Journal, One Word, Two Lessons, Fall 1968—Vol. XIII, No. 4.

[2] The Jewish Targum is a collection of spoken paraphrases, explanations, and expansions of the ancient Hebrew scriptures that rabbis would give in Aramaic—the common language of the listeners around the time of Christ—and use for schooling and worship.

[3] Matthew Henry's Commentary,

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