How can the kingdom of God be described in a language that has no specific concept of God?
That's one of the challenges that the Rev. Tim Begay has had to overcome in working on a team that is translating the Bible into common-language Navajo.
The first complete New Testament in Navajo was published in 1956 by Wycliffe Bible Translators, and a complete Navajo Bible was published in 1986 by the American Bible Society. But in both cases, the English word for God was used because there is no Navajo equivalent.
In working on a common-language Navajo Bible, Begay and his team have tried to come up with Navajo concepts for ideas such as the kingdom of God.
Finally, he said, "we came up with a Navajo expression which means literally, 'there is a God that rules life,' and we've stayed with that."
What was done, Begay said, was to add the word "life" without trying to define God.
"We tried not to look at it," he said in a telephone interview from Flagstaff, Ariz., where he is a minister on the staff of the Navajo Gospel Mission.
"There was also a problem in trying to convey what was meant where the Gospels say that Jesus went to a lonely place to pray," said Fern Cole, a spokeswoman for the Navajo Lutheran Mission in Rock Point, Ariz., where lay translator Joe Wilson is based.
"In Navajo, you can't speak of a place as lonely," Cole said. "So, Wilson translated that part to read, 'Jesus went to a place in which there was no sound and no people.' "
Begay and Wilson have translated 22 books of the New Testament since their project began in 1984. They hope to complete the New Testament within a year. Thus far, only the Gospel of Mark has been printed in a common-language Navajo version by the American Bible Society for use in the hundreds of small rural churches of many denominations on the three-state Navajo reservation.
Begay, 34, brings a Navajo background and Christian theological training to the translation project. His grandfather was a medicine man, but both of his parents were Christians. He is ordained in the Churches of Christ in Christian Union, a denomination with about 11,000 members.