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“White for Harvest” (John 4:35) - Mondays with Mounce

After speaking to the woman from Samaria, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white (λευκαί) for harvest” (ESV).

I received an email the other day that said, “It's usually translated as though the fields are white, which is nonsensical anyway (ripe grain is never white). What is white?”

It is actually a much more complicated question than you might suspect, but let me say up front that someone who doesn’t really know Greek should never say that an established translation by a group of scholars is “nonsensical.” His lack of understanding was betrayed by asking why “fields” is accusative and “white” is nominative as if they didn’t go together. “Fields” is accusative since it is the direct object of θεάσασθε, and λευκαί is nominative since it is in the predicate of εἰσιν. So much for that. And while I am not a farmer, I am told that some crops indicate it is time for harvest by a brighter color on top of the grain.

The awkward use of “white” should tell us something else is going on. In the Middle East, crops tend to take six months to grow, but you can say “four” months if you are counting the time after the planting and before the harvest. Some people have used the agrarian calendar to date the time of Jesus’ saying, but most likely he is simply quoting a well-known aphorism whose true meaning is spiritual.

Jesus has already told the woman that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:24). With the coming of the townspeople in response to the woman’s testimony, Jesus uses the aphorism to simply make the point that there is no waiting for the spiritual harvest.

Why “white?” Perhaps the crop in that area gets lighter at harvest, but probably he is referring to the lighter-colored garments the people were wearing. I doubt their clothes were pure white, but they could have been much lighter than the surrounding countryside.

But there is another interesting point. The NRSV translates λευκαί as “ripe.” The CSB writes, “Open your eyes and look at the fields, because they are ready for harvest” and includes a footnote on “ready,” “Lit white” (see also the NIV and NLT). You don’t have to read many of my blogs without seeing how much I dislike this statement. If λευκαί “literally” means “white,” then why not translate it as “white.” By using “ripe,” they lose the impact of Jesus’ statement and perhaps miss its truer, spiritual meaning. The fact of the matter is that λευκός never means “ripe” (see Morris’ commentary and BDAG).

Let’s translate what the text says as long as its meaning is clear, and let’s not lose the visual impact of the original setting.

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