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Scripture Engagement: The Parable of the Three Billy Goats Gruff March 2, 2023

Posted by Pete B in Scripture Engagement.

You may be familiar with the much translated and frequently retold story of “De tre Bukkene Bruse, som skulde gaa til Sæters og gjøre seg fede” (which according to the British Library roughly translates as “The three Billy-Goats Gruff who were going to mountain pastures to fatten themselves up”), but you might not have thought about it’s relevance to the work of Bible Translation and Scripture Engagement.

Most people I know have never read the tale in the original Norwegian, and, as it’s quite a short story are more familiar with picture book versions that are read to or by small children who rarely research it’s history. Wikipedia summarises the set up for the story as follows:

The story introduces three Billy goats (male goats), sometimes identified as a youngster, father and grandfather, but more often described as brothers. In the story, there is almost no grass left for them to eat near where they live, so they must cross a river to get to “sæter” (a meadow) or hillside on the other side of a stream to eat and fatten themselves up. They must first cross a wooden bridge, under which lives a fearsome and hideous troll, who is so territorial that he eats anyone who tries to cross the bridge.


You may know the rest and if not you can read an early translation on the Internet Archive from “A selection from the Norse tales for the use of children” by Sir George Webbe Dasent, (1817-1896)

text and illustration from 19th century version of the Three Billy Goats Gruff

So what – you have possibly been wondering for a while – does this have to do with Bible translation and Scripture Engagement?

A few thoughts:

Well constructed bridges are useful. But a nicer bridge won’t be used unless there is motivation to cross it is greater than the reasons not to.

The story features three goats, one goal, a bridge, and an obstacle (in this case a troll). The bridge is a good metaphor for translation whether it is of a folk story or a religious text, and perhaps of a desire to move from one metaphorical place to another. The goats might take an interest in the bridge and cross it just because it’s there, but presented with the challenge of being eaten by a troll, many goats would think again.

The goats are driven to action by a dissatisfaction with their side of the river and a view of greener grass on the other side. What they really want is a GPS (Goat Pasture Search) that can avoid Trolls.

In the same way people might read or listen to the Bible simply because it is there, or because they perceive some benefit of doing so, but if there is an obstacle then they are likely to need a little more motivation. The book Translating the Bible Into Action uses a metaphor of bridges and barriers as to how and why people use the Bible. EMDC.Guide uses the metaphor of a journey leading people through detailed discussion of Eight Conditions necessary for Scripture Engagement (developed more deeply in a 160 hour introductory university course I took twelve years ago and in the MA I studied later).

I’ve recently adapted these Eight Conditions into my background graphic for Zoom calls about Scripture Engagement but am also learning not to use Zoom’s fun new avatar feature with people who don’t know me yet.

Understanding the potential challenges of Scripture Engagement is useful but also a more than a little daunting. Translation teams need to be sure for themselves that the rewards on the other side are worth it. Likewise ordinary readers or hearers of scripture need to know that engaging with the Bible is worth the effort.

The story of the three Billy Goats doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail about the design of the bridge, or about grass on the other side (but it is a very short story). On the subject of motivation I wrote four posts exploring reasons people might read or listen to the Bible, and promised some more.


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