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Name of God in Sotho

Currently writing to you from the beautiful rural-areas of Mpumalanga, The Land where the Sun Rises). Fittingly then, we will in this here post be discussing some of the names of The Almighty in other languages. And no, it`s not in Tsonga, Zulu or Xhosa this time, but rather in beautiful language of Sotho, the little-big country in the northern part of South-Africa. The remarkable thing is that, only a couple of hours ago I met a lady at the top of a very special place called Gods Window (or Meli ea Melimo, in Sesotho). At this serene place, we started talking and before we both knew it, about God and how to say God in Sotho. Before I reveal this name further, I must add a special photo from this panoramic view. They say you can see all the way to Maputo and the even the Ocean from this viewpoint. Which is a long ways away. Just google it, it's far.

When we first arrived at the spot is was overcast and fog. I then prayed, rather quickly, and asked if there was anything to see here or that He wanted me to see. And indeed there was. After talking to the sweet lady about Xhosa and how to thank the Almighty in a special way I did not know, Enkosi Makhulu (which can mean thank you old one). Then the fog (somehow ;-) started dispersing and the scenic revelation took place. I was stunned, left speechless, though managed to ask some french travellers to take my picture while I had my unforced peaceful grind already on for the camera. Anyways - if I created a place like this I would be particularly proud to have made such a spectacular place, well, just so outstandingly spectacular. As we drove down the Drakensbergs I continued thinking on the conversation with the woman and how free it was in its form. This way of speaking across languages and understanding one another, though words are limited - is what I gather a way of communicating only believers can have because well, you are know by God, therefore you know one another. No secrets or lies.

We mentioned God by the Sotho name more than once, and then just before I had to go she said, dont forget me. I said I was going to pray for her and hers and she would be in my heart.

Because you know, name of The Almighty God in southern Sotho is not spelled or uttered even the same way as in ancient Xhosa. In revealing this word or name, the first missionaries decided to use the aged old name of Modimo (Moholimo or Molimo).

A certain Èugene Casalis (1812-91), one of the first missionaries that lived amongst the Sotho, wrote after his time in Basutoland (Casalis, 1861):

“Every being, to whom the natives render adoration, is called Molimo, the signification of which shows that it is by no means of heathen origin. It is evidently composed of the prefix mo, which belongs to almost all those words representing intelligent beings, and of the root holimo — above, in the sky. Moholimo, or the abbreviation Molimo, therefore, signifies, He who is in the sky. There is an obvious contradiction between the language and the received ideas; in spite of a universal perversion, which probably dates many centuries back, truth has reserved itself a witness in the vocabulary of these people. The missionaries have not hesitated to adopt this venerable word, which seemed, as it were, only to await their arrival to reascend to its source, leaving in their nothingness the false deities that had hitherto been the objects of worship.”

The word or name Modimo was therefore seemingly well-known to the Basotho, however this word does not describe or convey to them the western conception of one divine Being governing and maintaining the whole universe. Off course, it has a different meaning for them. But you know, Casalis goes so far as to say that the notion of a Creator-God has been but completely lost and perhaps never present, and his inquires to the Basotho gave answers that the idea never had occurred them, that heaven and earth are the works of one invisible supreme being. Casalis had a conversation with a chief Moshweshwe, shortly after his arrival in Lesotho. Now, when examining the sayings and answers of Moshweshwe, it becomes clearer that this is in fact not the case. Although the Batho and others of ancient Israel seem to be sleeping and may have been for years, the concept of The Almighty is ALWAYS interesting to discuss. His will among other topics that just can't be answered. Just rarely not from a western theological standpoint. They've already got it all figured out it seems, when really they seem to be the shallowest. I mean, just watch and listen what happens when flair and colour meets the dull and grey.

This can be read all about in Robert C. Germonds translation of Casalis The Batutos (1861:238) that became, Chronicles of Basutoland (Germond, 1967):

“Do you really believe’, he (Moshweshwe) asked me one night, as he indicated the stars, ‘ that in the midst of all that and above it there exists an all-powerful Master who has created everything and who is our father? ’ — ‘ And you, do you not believe it? ’ — ‘ Indeed our ancestors spoke of a Lord of the heavens, and we still call those great luminous patches (the milky way), which you see up there, the path of the gods; but it seemed to us that the world had always existed, excepting, however, man and the animals who according to us had a beginning, the animals coming first and man next; but we did not know who had given them their being. We worshipped the spirits of our ancestors and begged of them rain, abundant harvests, health, and a good reception in their midst after death.”

Collector of Sotho legends and traditions David-Frédéric Ellenberger (1835-1920) does show the opposite of Casalis notions, that the Sotho did believe that there indeed was a Supreme Being. To them the word Modimo implies just that ; The Great Lord, The One in the Sky or Creator of the Different Nations (very specific yes). Now, here is where it gets messy for theologians. Between Him (The Almighty) and man the badimo (ancestral spirits) seem to be the connecting media.

Hermann Dieterlen (1850-1933) thought, and rightly so, that there used to be people of Sotho who had a more complete idea of God than the contemporary perception of the remarks of pagan Sotho of his time. Remarking the Sotho consciousness, he said they seemed to be the (Deiterlen, 1912:132-137):

“...vestigal and shapeless debris of a religion which has known better days.”

Better days indeed. Now these three gentlemen are considered pioneer missionaries in Lesotho and their works are wide spread. If you ask the Sotho, about the meaning and connotation of the name Modimo, you are bound to get many different answers. And rightly so. However Scripture tells us a great deal about the One True God. We will have a `final word` look at this in the summary.

Before that though, lets reminisce on Xhosa conception of Thixo (God), and the case where Jacobus Christiaan Oosthuysen interviewed a whopping 18 people about their understanding of this title or impersonal name, such as God, Lord or King. Unbelievers associated Thixo with power or the concept of power, when uttered perhaps? The words original meaning was, just as Modimo, no longer ascertainable. The Sotho, before they came into contact with western `modern` Christianity, had a word for God which was utilise by the first missionaries - Modimo.

The Sotho description of The Almighty could be summed up in three points, according to these missionaries; unreal, inactive and impersonal. Well, I would argue against all three points. He is very real, very active and deeply personal. But hey just take Johan S. Malan and his descriptions of the traditional idea of God amongst the Xhosa, Malan again quotes Bruwer, who wrote that the Xhosa think of the Supreme Being (Qamata) as abstract, far away from man, somewhere in the sky. And that doesn't sound like a good description of The Almighty? It`s one of the best I ever heard. You have to take more things than western theology into consideration before you start giving definitions of a Being written about in a very old and retranslated book (The Bible).

Further more, they, tribes like the Sotho and Xhosa, do not try to localise God, but rather on the contrary as it is His remoteness that seems to be accentuated. Therefore the overall lost connection to Him in these last days. Thank all hope and goodness for his Son and the sacrifice, hence the praise, made by the Son of God, for each and every one of us. This is why the Gospel is so important, especially for the ancient Hebrews to understand. To remember their long lost and ancient roots. The Sotho says He is not interested in the petty affairs of man, and this is where the starch contrast is and a bit of a schism seems to have occurred. Modimo and the badimo (deceased ancestors) seem too real for some of the Sotho, and to them both active and very personal. All the things in which the Almighty is said not to be. And indeed He is not, unless you accept His son. The you will be far away from Him. And your sins will be ever present. If you accept the Son however - its another life and reality altogether, just like we agreed upon in the above. He gets closer, very personal and more than often; real (John 3;16).

The Roman Catholic Casalis, did write more on the original of the name and word, who thought that Modimo (singular for God), and medimo (plural gods) and the bedimo (deceased ancestors) all was derived from the same root, which is dimo meaning above. Badimo means thusly, they that are above (in the sky). Casalis, who actually was Moshoeshoe`s personal advisor, meant that the usual translation of ancestral spirits (badimo), was not satisfactory. The prefix ba- does not denote spirits but living persons, therefore the word is better understood when left in the English form, deceased forefathers (or ancestors). Remember, Modimo and badimo do not belong in the same class of noun, and have little in common except demo, which is sky. Modimo belongs to the so-called second class of nouns, that denotes living but impersonal things (trees, spirits, rivers). Badimo belongs to the first class, denoting persons.

But I mean there are etymological denotations in every single translation of the different names and titles of The Almighty, just have a look at Theos, Lord or even Amen (a post coming in the not so distant future. If you take a closer look at the Greeks concept of Theo, it implied a whole pantheon of gods and still does, yet this remained the name (title) for The Almighty in one of the most trusted translations of ancient times, the Septuagint (LXX). When examining the description of the missionaries of God and the Saviour, it does parallel very easily with the Sotho believe in the badimo. How then did Modimo survive and take up the name of God and meaning in the Sesotho Bible? I believe Casalis and Moshoeshoe was behind much of this process and made sure the name Modimo ended up in their beloved Sesotho Bible.

But - No matter the translation of the Bible, albeit Greek, isiXhosa, Sesotho, Tsonga, Swedish, English or Creole for that matter, the different names used for God surely has many different origins and therefore many different meanings to allot of people. But God can have only one true name, right?

So NiNi Bless you and keep you

Uxolo lube nani


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