Why might someone call down curses on themselves? Fury with God or with self? Despair?
What does it mean for someone to be blighted by witchcraft? Why would anyone ask for that?
These questions pop up when looking at Romans chapter 9:3 in Nigerian languages, because while ‘cursing’ and ‘swearing’ are treated somewhat lightly or figuratively in Western culture, they have a very present and recognisable literal sense in Nigerian contexts.
After all, when bad things happen, everyone knows there is a reason. If you work hard and your fields are unproductive, or your children fail to get good marks, or termites eat your house, or someone suddenly dies young, every sensible person would conclude you have been cursed by a witch, and possibly a secret adversary close to you has paid them to do it.
So isn’t that what Paul meant when he wrote in Romans chapter 9 about his own people that he felt as if he should be cursed? (ἀνάθεμα) Was it his own failure to win the Jews over to Christ that indicated that someone had cursed him?
For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race (NIV)
For their sake I could wish that I myself were under God’s curse and separated from Christ. (GNT)Romans 9:3 (NIV, GNT)
This idea is so far from Western thinking that I’m yet to find any commentator who considers it a possible interpretation or even a misunderstanding, even the Africa Bible Commentary. And yet as I looked at the Gbari translation of Romans 9 and asked some questions to tease out the implications of being cursed, it seems to me that a witch’s curse is such a familiar part of the struggles of life that we can assume our understanding of the world is the same as Paul’s.
David Kasali in the ABC points out (p 1365) that Moses’ desire to bear the punishment and disgrace in place of his people is the background of and pattern for Paul’s startling wish. Of course it’s just an expression of emotion and loyalty on Paul’s part. He knows that given Jesus bearing God’s curse didn’t bring all his people back to him, he can’t really do anything. But he wishes he could.
So what we need to take away from this is Paul’s passion for his people even though he is the missionary to the Gentiles. Why does Paul care so much? That’s what we need to understand, if we are to take Romans 9-11 seriously.
And so if the talk of curse (ἀνάθεμα) ends up distracting us with concepts of witchcraft and secret enemies plotting our downfall (or frustration), then maybe some other way needs to be found to express this clearly, and any preachers or disciplers need to anticipate this distracting misunderstanding which may seem so obvious to readers in Africa they don’t think of mentioning it.
I don’t think I’ve got clear answers on the best way to handle this yet, but perhaps there are some more questions to ask. Of course, just as it’s not as easy as you might think to convince people Moses didn’t see the entire countryside on fire, it may similarly not be so easy to convince Nigerian readers that the ‘plain meaning’ of someone cursing Paul isn’t what this means here too.