Cantata BWV 89Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?

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Translation

German TextEnglish Text
German TextEnglish Text

Analysis

A note on translation, Movement 4. The German is “Wenn ich zu ihm, als des Gesetzes Ende”, which literally means “When I to him [turn], as the law’s end”. This sense of Jesus being the ‘end of law’ is to be found in Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” In more modern translations of the Bible, this verse is variously rendered as “For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes” (New English Translation) or “But Christ makes the Law no longer necessary for those who become acceptable to God by faith” (Contemporary English Version). It is a nice theological point, however, since the verse has also been rendered as ‘Christ is the culmination of the law’ or ‘Christ gives full meaning to the law’. Bear in mind, too, Matthew 5, v. 17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”.

The trouble is, of course, that all this subtlety is difficult to convey with the one English word “end”! Accordingly, I have replaced the strictly-correct ‘end of law’ in Bach’s text with ‘who has fulfilled the law’ and hope this gets us a better sense of what Bach’s librettist (and Lutheran theology!) would want to say about Jesus in the context of the Law of Moses!

Movement 1 probably also needs some explanation! It mentions Ephraim, Admah and Zeboim. Ephraim is a reference to the Tribe of Ephraim, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. When the Northern Israel was conquered by Assyria in 723 BC, the people were deported from Israel and were ‘lost’. Admah was one of the Cities of the Plain, as was Zeboim. You may well never have heard of them, but I am willing to bet large sums that you’ve heard of their sister cities, Sodom and Gomorrah… and there are no prizes for knowing what happened to them! In short, the whole of Movement 1 lists multiple examples of what happens when you turn away from God: it’s sticky ends all round, basically! Except, of course, that this is meant as an example of what God would do, and is entitled to do, but won’t actually do… because his mercy is too great. The King James Version rendition of the final line as “my repentings are kindled together” perhaps does not make this entirely clear: it’s trying to say “my mercies combine [to be very great]”. Hence what happened to these various cities and tribes will not now happen to the listener, for God’s mercies are very great.

 

 


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