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Reading in Full Color

August 20, 2012

Why read the Bible in an original language?  It’s a worthwhile question.  Learning to read Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic, if you can’t stand not getting a few bits of Daniel and Ezra in the original) isn’t easy for an English speaker.  I can, at this point, read Hebrew relatively well by which I mean that I can often make it several sentences without looking up a word and if the vocabulary is restricted to what I know I can usually follow the grammar without issue. That took years.  With such a great up-front commitment it’s worth asking what the benefit will be.

The major reason people tend to learn an original language is for accuracy.  All translation is interpretation and there’s not really a way around that1.  Certainly there are serious debates in the church that revolve around translation.  However, for most things one might read reading in an original language won’t uncover gross inaccuracies.  In fact, if your English reading skills are decent you can generally tell where the exact meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word is critical to a passage and look just that word up.  (In fact, after the cut I’ll even tell you how.)

The major benefit of reading in an original language is not accuracy.  Yes, sometimes it’s nice to be able to say, “Well, that word in English can mean two things but the original word can only mean one of them,” but most of the time something else is going on entirely.  The major transformation is one of tone.  An acquaintance of mine compared it to watching a movie that you’d only seen in black-and-white in its original color for the first time.  I might compare it to seeing two people act out a dialogue that you’d only read on a page.  The bare facts are the same but it requires less effort to grasp what’s happening – it takes less effort to identify objects in color and it takes less effort to determine tone when you have body language and a voice.

The mechanics of this are relatively simple.  From here on out  I’ll only be talking about Hebrew because I that’s what I currently read well enough to pick up on some of this.  The first problem is that translation is not one-to-one.  Take the word מאד (probably pronounced like a cross between meh-ode and m’ode).  It’s an intensifier.  I generally remember it as “very” (e.g., “your reward shall be very great”, Genesis 15:1) but that frequently doesn’t work.  For instance, in Genesis 17:2 God tells Abraham that he will multiply him/cause him to multiply מאד.  “Multiply very”, or even “very multiply” doesn’t make sense and so English translations change this to “exceedingly” or “greatly” or something like that.  What’s been lost here is two things: a connection to the word as it is used elsewhere and the fact that it appears twice – Abraham will be multiplied מאד מאד not just מאד.  This appears again in Genesis 17:20 where Ishmael receives the same blessing.  However, elsewhere I’ve come to expect מאד to appear only once.  When I see it twice I immediately sense that this is a very, very big deal (to use my old standby translation).  However, in English that’s all lost.  Even doubling the word in English wouldn’t help, first because there’s not a consistent translation for מאד to train you to expect it only once and second because doubling an intensifier in English, while perfectly valid in spoken English, isn’t good writing.  In written English the expectation is that you’ll use two different words instead.

Actually, the tendency of English to switch up words is a bit problematic overall when it comes to translating Hebrew.  Hebrew is much more conservative with words, especially verbs, and there are often links between sentences formed because they both use the same key verb or set of verbs.  (For instance, in Jonah 1 God throws a storm onto the sea, the sailors throw cargo overboard, and then Jonah says, “Throw me overboard,” all using the same verb.)  Moreover, one often does a doing of the same sort – strikes a striking, sees a seeing, makes a making, says a saying, and so on.  That’s pretty bizarre English but it’s standard in Hebrew.  In consequence English translation often obscures this: one might strike a blow or see a vision which uses different English roots to make the Hebrew parallelism disappear.  Now, the disappearance of the parallelism is rarely all that important – strike a blow means the same thing as strike a striking except that it’s understandable to more people.  However, it does remove some of the distinctive Hebrew character of the text.

This character is manifested in a number of other ways.  For instance, as I looked about for good example texts, I ran across Joshua 7:10.  In the ESV this reads, “The LORD said to Joshua, “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face?”  This is a fine translation.  However, if we were to be very literal (to the point where it’s questionable whether we are being literal or just failing to translate) the passage says: “And he said Yahweh to Joshua, ‘To what is this you have fallen upon your face?’”  The fact that the sentence order is verb-subject-object is pretty standard for Hebrew.  The phrase “what to you?” or “to what to you?” to introduce a question that really means “what you are doing makes no sense” is also something I’ve run across before.  However, none of this makes much sense in English.

One more example of tone issues before I make my central point: in Hebrew a verb can be conjugated to indicate the subject and so some sentences do not need a separate word to indicate the subject.  For instance, “I said,” is two words in English – “I”, the subject, and “said”, the verb.  In Hebrew one could just conjugate the verb so that it was clear that I was doing the saying and never use the word “I”.  (Now, if the subject is, say, Samuel, the best the verb can do is “he said” and so one might need to say “Samuel” to clear up who “he” is, but actually Hebrew frequently makes you figure this out from context where English would clearly restate who “he” is.)  What this means is that in some sentences the appearance of the subject stresses that subject in a way that can’t easily be replicated in English.  For instance, in the famous burning bush passage God says to Moses “the place that you are standing upon is holy ground” and not only does “standing” indicate that you [Moses] are standing but the word “you” also appears in the sentence.  It emphasizes who is doing the standing in a way that might be equivalent to underlining in English except that, much like doubling intensifiers, underlining is not good English written form in serious documents.

This all gets to the basic issue: the way Hebrew appears translated can often look like some English style that it is not.  Here’s the ESV again for that whole burning bush passage (Exodus 3:1-5):

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”  Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Let me re-render this basic story in a different form:

After Moses’ marriage Moses stayed with Jethro (the priest of Midian) and acted as Jethro’s shepherd.  During this time Moses encountered God at Horeb, the mountain commonly known as the mountain of God.  Moses had brought Jethro’s sheep to the mountain to graze and while there he noticed a bush that was burning but did not appear to be showing any sign of being consumed.  When Moses went to investigate this odd sight God called to him from the bush saying, “Moses, Moses!”  Moses said, “Here I am,” and God said, “Do not come any closer.  Take your sandals off because you are standing on holy ground.”

This reading feels more like a history textbook.  You might read this sort of writing in a book about George Washington.  I could also render the same basic story more like a modern novel.  However, that would take a lot of space.  We’d need lines about how Moses was feeling walking up the mountain (“It was a hot day.  Moses stopped to wipe the sweat off his forehead and checked to make sure none of the sheep had wandered off”), we’d need a discussion between Moses and Jethro in which we established why Moses was tending the sheep anyway, or at least a mention of said discussion (“Moses understood why Jethro was so eager to have someone younger out tending the sheep.  It was active work but the sheep were valuable to the family and shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves”), and we’d need to expand upon the dialogue between Moses and God, at least to the extent of providing some internal dialogue within Moses telling the reader how Moses was processing what was happening.

Unfortunately, the sort of modern English writing that most resembles what we get when we translate Hebrew is a children’s story: terse and very story-focused without a lot of establishing context.  (Think, for a second, about how close a children’s Bible story is to the original provided that the original isn’t some R-rated part of Judges.  Now think about how different a book about history for adults is from a history book for kids.)  Effectively, the Bible comes to us with an English style that makes it hard to take seriously as fact or as story.   Now, many of us get around that, but the beautiful thing about reading in the original language is that all that disappears.  The passage about the burning bush in Hebrew doesn’t sound like an English children’s story, it sounds like ancient Hebrew writing.  That’s all – there’s a sense in which the text can be heard on its own merits with its own tone, its own stresses, and its own word choices.

A while ago I was asked whether reading Hebrew changes the way I approach the Old Testament.  Yes, it does.  It’s not that I suddenly see great theological truths hidden in the text through incompetent or incapable translation, it’s that I feel like I am hearing ancient voices speak on their own with a new richness.  And because of this I feel like I can listen with new ears.

Looking up a word is really insanely easy.  There are a lot of sites and a lot of software that will do this.  I tend to use because I already know my way around it (I do not endorse anything else on their site because I only use this feature).  Punch in a verse or keyword (if you use a keyword you’ll need to select a verse after this) and find the option for the original language displayed in small letters near the top of the verse.  This will bring up an original language text and an English text.  More likely it will actually give you English and some garbage because the site has (quite strangely) used its own Hebrew and Greek fonts instead of using the ones most modern browsers already have.  You can download the fonts if you want but you can also click on any underlined English word to access a full page on it.  (At one point the full page only appeared if you opened the link in a new tab.)  The best part about this is that you can look at the actual uses of a word.  If your worry is accuracy do this.  The lexical entry (the dictionary-like definition) is normally only so-so.  Actually seeing the word used sometimes clarifies things immensely.  (There are some really good lexicons available, the free ones on the internet just tend not to be.  A good lexicon will note all the different uses of the word along with context – does this meaning appear only in a certain verb form or idiom?  It will also provide similar words in related languages and point you to instances of each type of usage.  For Hebrew I’ve found Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexiconto be good.  I have not looked at any of the top-of-the-line Greek lexicons.)

[1] Short of declaring that a particular translation is also divinely-inspired as some KJV-only folks do.  This strikes me as more like Joseph Smith than it does like orthodox Christianity.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. susan permalink
    August 20, 2012 11:21 am

    I was thinking about this very subject last night. In English, the verb may be the same word as the noun as well; bat with a bat, etc. Perhaps this is because language began with using a word to identify a process or a functional system. God separated the heavens from the earth and called it good (functionally sustainable system). Actually, in the beginning, He created many self-sustaining systems and they were all functional (tov).

  2. Eric permalink
    August 20, 2012 1:28 pm

    I believe that most languages still show a close relationship between the noun and associated verb. It is my understanding that one of the primary reasons that English doesn’t (as frequently) is because it mixes Germanic roots (from the Angles and Saxons) with French roots (from the Normans) and so one may easily have a verb from a different root as the noun. (e.g., one can view a vision or see a sight, two pairs I’d expect to come from the same roots, but one can just as easily mix and match and see a vision.)

    Within Hebrew almost all words start from three-consonant roots that are then modified to make verbs, nouns, and adjectives. I have no idea whether the roots themselves started as nouns or verbs, though.

  3. August 20, 2012 1:50 pm

    This ties somewhat to what we were discussing a few days ago: the fact that helpful details in English aren’t always included/conveyed. I’ve often thought that modern editors of English fiction must agonize over the lack of biblical facial expressions, feelings, motives, eye movements, and body language. There’s no “flesh” on the characters, as they (editors) might say. The bible often comes off as “just the facts, ma’am” in both the OT and NT, but it’s much richer than that.

    I find it invaluable to look up Greek or Hebrew words and phrases, since I’ve never studied either one. I don’t always take Preacher X or Pastor Y’s word for it that something means what they say it means; I prefer to find out for myself. The site you recommended sounds really interesting and I can’t wait to explore it. Thanks.

    • Eric permalink
      August 20, 2012 2:35 pm

      I’m glad that looks helpful. I think I put most of my caveats in the paragraph about doing word searches but it is helpful to remember that Greek and Hebrew words can sometimes have more than one completely separate either/or sort of meaning. (Much like the English word “cool” which can either mean “not warm” or “exciting/popular” but doesn’t mean both at once except by accident and doesn’t imply that English-speakers believe that cold things are inherently better than warm things [both mistakes I’ve seen preachers make for Greek and Hebrew words].) In Hebrew this can be especially true of verbs because the verb system allows verbs to be conjugated under several different systems and verbs can mean different things in each system. The Strong’s number searches Studylight and other tools I’ve found use do not differentiate between these verbal systems. So, for instance, the word “saphar” means “to count” in one form and “to tell a story” in another (and the root is used for the nouns “number” and “scroll/book” because of this). In this case the lexical entry does note that. If you look at the definition given you’ll see that it is divided into “Qal”, “Niphal”,”Piel”, and “Pual” which are four of the verbs forms and that it does note that, for instance, the qal and pi’el forms are reasonably different. (You’ll also see that the word is listed as “caphar” despite the fact that the first character is clearly samekh which makes an “s” sound.)

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