Greek, Hebrew and the Middle-Aged Man
What on earth was I thinking of? To paraphrase the comedian Steve Martin, the problem with foreign languages is that they have a different word for everything. But I wanted to understand the Bible better, so knowing that Greek and Hebrew have a different word for everything, this middle-aged man embarked on a mission to learn the biblical languages.
Learning new languages at my age can be a daunting task, so I began with an introductory class in Biblical Hebrew at a local seminary to be sure this was a path I really wanted to pursue. I discovered that I had a smidgen of aptitude for language, and I ended up with three years of Hebrew training. Then I did the same thing with Biblical Greek. I have been asked, “was it worth it?” My answer is “absolutely yes.”
As we were assigned to translate multiple biblical passages from Hebrew and/or Greek into English, I learned three important lessons: 1) Slow down; 2) There may be more than one right answer; 3) Let the passage drive your understanding. Let me show you what I mean.
In a microwave world, where the ability to multi-task is a prized skill, speed is king. Of course, accuracy is expected also, but the overall goal is to get more done in less time.
Translating turns this on its head. It forces you to slow down and to consider the meaning of each word or phrase, how it relates to the words around it, and how it may have been used in other places within the same document. Consistent with recent studies showing that cursive writing improves comprehension, I found it helpful to write out the translation by hand. Maybe that is why newly crowned kings in ancient Israel were to write a copy with their own hand of what we call the book of Deuteronomy. This would force them to slow down and to consider each word (see Deuteronomy 17:18-19).
Writing out a passage in longhand is a good Bible study tool. You might have read a passage many times over the years, but the act of writing it down might allow you to see things you have never noticed before.
More than one correct answer
In the discipline of mathematics, we are trained to find the one correct answer to a problem. Mathematics can be attractive to people who don’t like ambiguity. But language often presents us with more than one answer, any of which may be correct. For example, most students of the Scriptures know the 23rd Psalm, perhaps even by memory. But have we missed something in the English translations?
Here is a verse from the familiar King James Version:
Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
That sounds right, doesn’t it? But how about this, from the New English Translation:
Psalm 23:6: “Surely your goodness and faithfulness will pursue me all my days, and I will live in the Lord’s house for the rest of my life.
Notice in the King James version, “ … goodness and mercy shall follow me … ”, compared to the NET version, “ … goodness and faithfulness will pursue me … ” Is one more right than the other? The word “follow” gives a more passive tone, while “pursue” is more active. The Hebrew word conveys this more active sense of pursuit with intent and purpose. So although “follow” is not wrong, understanding the original word gave me a deeper understanding.
Stopping with just the first right answer can lead to incomplete understanding. Exploring the full range of a semantic meaning may reveal more fully what the text telling us.
Let the passage drive our understanding
Each of us brings our own life experience to any text that we read. A word or a phrase might spark a memory of an experience which can then shade our understanding of what the text says. What about facing storms in life? Let’s look at an example in Mark 4:35-41.
This is the story of Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee and encountering a storm. Often sermons based on this passage take it simply as an encouraging message that Jesus is with us in the midst of the storms of life and that he will calm the winds and the seas. Well, that’s true, of course, but it isn’t exactly the primary point of this particular passage. This passage is about the identity of Jesus.
We see that as a human he became tired and went to sleep. Upon being wakened, without any appeal to the Father, he commanded the wind and the seas to be calm, and they obeyed him. Then comes the disciples’ question, “Who is this?” This passage is about the person Jesus, fully man and fully God, displaying the two natures in one person.
While we certainly take hope in the fact that he can calm the winds and the seas, we also know that he doesn’t always calm them in every situation in our lives. Sometimes we have to ride out the storm.
While it is true that foreign languages, especially biblical ones, have a different word for everything, by slowing down and letting the text speak, we can come closer to understanding the text as originally intended. While learning Greek and Hebrew was not easy, it has helped me to be a more skillful and clearer teacher. I have no regrets, except perhaps that I wish I had started a bit earlier in life.
Mark Tracy Porter, 2011