Thought for the week: Bill McMellon is in an awful place
Recently in Meeting for Worship I found myself thinking about how much I looked forward to sitting in the same room as the people whose faces I could see on the screen before me. Then some words came to mind: ‘The Lord is in this place. How dreadful is this place.’ I spoke them and appealed to those who knew their Bible better than me to find their source.
Someone found the words as the title of a short piece of music from Fairport Convention. I knew the piece. It was inspired by an earlier recording made in 1927 by the bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. His was called ‘Dark was the night, cold the ground’, a title that comes from an eighteenth-century hymn set at Gethsemane.
But soon someone found the text in Genesis 28.
My biblical knowledge is limited. I do not doubt that the Bible is an important book, including much of great beauty and value. But it seems to me that its meaning is often clouded by controversies, translations and other things. As another bluesman, the Reverend Gary Davis, might have put it: I ain’t no Bible scholar, and I ain’t no Bible scholar’s son. But I’ll do a little Bible studyin’, till the real thing comes along…
The words as given are from the King James’ version of the Bible. Jacob had his dream about the ladder and then, in verses 16 and 17, he ‘awaked out of his sleep and he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not… How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”.’
In more modern versions we find variations of: ‘How awe-inspiring this place is’. And in The Oxford Bible Commentary from 2007 the word ‘awe’ is also used.
According to the Collins English Dictionary, there is an archaic meaning for the word ‘dreadful’, which is ‘inspiring awe’. So this difference is not a matter of translation as I had thought. It is about the changing nature of the English language.
As Quakers we believe that there is that of God within everyone – without (as far as I can see) necessarily being in agreement about what this word God (or, as it is here, ‘the Lord’) might mean. We can also wonder about which of the words – ‘awe’ or ‘dreadful’ – is to be preferred.
It is common ground, though, that he was in a place. And here we are.
If ever words spoke to my condition, as we struggle through coronavirus and all that it brings with it, then these words speak to mine.
‘The Lord is in this place. How dreadful is this place.’
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