Reason #264

Reason 264 to learn Hebrew, Greek and other ancient languages as part of our efforts to study the Bible: learning the language helps us to understand the culture. I am extremely glad that I have learned Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. I’m also glad that I’ve had the opportunity to formally study Ugaritic, Akkadian, Middle Egyptian and various NWS (NorthWest Semitic) dialects. But, much like Duane, I don’t think that the primary benefit is simply to be able to compare cognate words.

In addressing why a “serious student” of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament might want to learn some of the other languages I listed above, Duane writes:

Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the reason for knowing those other ancient languages is not primarily etymology or other narrow linguistic concerns. It is to understand as much as we can about the cultural context in which Biblical players worked, wrote and read…The first thing required of the serious Biblical studies student is knowledge of the literature, both the literature of the Bible itself but also of that mass of literature in many ancient languages but predominately in Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician (plus Moabite and Ammonite), Egyptian, Classical Greek and Hittite that make up the literary and cultural context of Biblical literature.

I don’t expect pastors to learn Akkadian, Ugaritic, Egyptian, or Hittite. I don’t think it is asking too much, however, that pastors (including youth pastors, or even interested lay people) have a solid knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, and preferably Aramaic. Learning these languages allows the reader not only to read the texts without an intermediary (i.e., a translation–after all, traduttore, traditore) but also to better understand the culture and background of the texts. In other words, learning the language that a text was originally written in also opens wide vistas for the reader to understand the background and culture of that text.

Culture and language are inseparably linked, as this Wall Street Journal article hints. There is an irony in their use of an image of the tower of Babel in this article, especially for our purposes. Regardless of one’s theology, we must acknowledge that the Hebrew Bible is a product of time and space and that, by it’s very nature as a document written in a particular language, it represents a particular culture. That culture, and all it entails, is much better understood when you know the language.


So, Marko thinks we need some painful disruption in youth ministry. As it happens, I agree. The problem is that I don’t particularly like pain. Nevertheless, I thought I’d take a whack at offering some suggestions based on the questions Mark asks. Although it’s probably the height of hubris for me to enter this discussion, someone can always feel free to smack me back down to earth. To that end, here are three broad areas I think need to change and–if they did change–would cause massive disruption to the status quo in youth ministry.

1. Youth Pastors, learn Hebrew and Greek
I realize I am an oddball. I’m a youth minister who has an MA in Biblical Languages. That’s weird. I get that. But, because I know Hebrew and Greek, I know the Bible far better than most of my peers. I know the cultures of the Bible and the ancient near east far better. I’m able to answer questions about the Bible with more acumen. Right now, a standard undergrad youth ministry program requires a bunch of classes in youth ministry (these are important), a few classes in psychology and/or counseling (also important), your core gen ed classes (still important!), and perhaps a couple Bible survey courses. Learning how to do ministry is important, but learning Hebrew and Greek is far more important. In fact, learning any dead language is a huge help in teaching yourself to think critically. If youth ministry programs started requiring Hebrew and Greek, or if churches started expecting their youth pastors to know Hebrew and Greek, I think we’d see a huge disruption in the way things are. The other advantage to this is that, when one has learned Hebrew and Greek it is fairly natural to have a more theologically and philosophically nuanced approach to youth ministry. Very naturally youth ministry ends up being about more than games or some vague idea of influence and becomes a theologically grounded enterprise that is of vital important. Oh yeah, and you actually know what our holy book says, as opposed to having some vague idea of the chronology of what happens without ever having truly studied it.

2. Less accommodation, more Jesus
This could take many forms. Sometimes we accommodate the least common denominator in terms of maturity in our ministries. We play games and spend 90% of our time on recreation because we are convinced that it’s a sin to bore a kid. But in so doing we really don’t offer students anything different from what they could get anywhere else. Accommodation also takes place in our own lives. It becomes very easy to try to live the American dream. We want raises. We want a nicer house. We get involved in the Church’s version of the rat race in which many of our parishners are involved. In so doing we somehow lose the way of life that Jesus has called us to, a way of life that puts others before ourselves. This happens in the lives of youth workers first, and when that happens then it obviously happens in the youth ministry where we’re involved. We need to learn to accommodate our culture less (and here I don’t mean getting rid of secular music, not watching TV, or whatever, I mean learning to set aside the trappings of our culture such as the need to succeed, consumerism, nationalism, placing the US flag higher than the Christian flag–metaphorically, I could care less about literal flags), and instead allow the Holy Spirit to transform us and those in our churches, not only in our youth ministries, into members of the Kingdom of God. Of course, this will make many people nervous and could be a painful process.

3. Less influence, more being
It started when I read Contemplative Youth Ministry (by Mark Yaconelli) and I’ve become even more convinced because of reading Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry (by Andrew Root), but I don’t think youth ministry needs to be about influencing students. We need to just toss that out of our vocabulary and our ministry methodology. Instead we should talk and plan to be with students. On the surface this might not look much different. We still go hang out, we still enjoy concerts with one another, etc. But instead of doing it to earn street cred with students, we do it because we want to be with them. Because by being with them we embody Jesus to them and, what’s more, they embody Jesus to us. This makes youth ministry messier. It means we have to be more open and vulnerable. At the same time it may mean that we have to learn how to be closed and set boundaries so that we really are in relationship with students and not merely a commodity that they consume whenever they want. Being with students is far more messy than the alternative, simply seeking to influence them to live better lives, or be more like Jesus, or whatever. But being with students is a far more Jesus-like way of doing things.

I’m very interested to see where this discussion goes on Mark’s blog and around the youth ministry blogosphere. This is a conversation that we need to have, and I think we’ve avoided having it for far too long. Moreover, this is a discussion that our churches need us to have if youth ministry really is the R&D branch of the church.

German Bible Society

The German Bible Society has created online versions of their ancient language resources. I, for one, am excited about this. These resources, although searchable, really aren’t going to be a replacement for dedicated programs like Accordance, Logos or Bibleworks. However, the fonts are very nice and display brilliantly (something that is normally lacking in complex-text language Bibles on the internet). If I just need to look something up quickly and I’m not near my own computer, I imagine this might be a helpful resource.

Some Observations Regarding Biblical Languages

It’s hard to believe but there are only a few weeks left in the semester. There is no Aramaic next Monday, and the following week will be our last meeting before the final. In Greek we have, I think, less than five chapters left. We are moving rapidly through the non-indicative moods (we’ve covered participles, subjunctives, infinitives, and on Friday we’ll cover imperatives). I’m still really enjoying Greek. Taking Intermediate Greek during the Summer I module should be a blast.

As for Aramaic, the second half of the semester has been much better than the first half. As of today we have translated every word of Biblical Aramaic. Our final class will be spent translating and discussing a Targum of Genesis and Papyri #30 from Elephantine. The targum uses supralineal pointing whereas the papyri contains only the consonantal text. It’ll be a different experience, but one that I’m looking forward to. Not having to worry about paradigms has made learning the language so much more enjoyable.

A few observations I’ve made from learning languages this semester:
1. Every time I learn a new language it seems that it becomes a little easier. I have more points of connection to hang things on. Even when the languages are very different (say Greek and Aramaic), there are still certain similarities. Taking languages that are similar heightens this effect (Aramaic and Hebrew, for instance. My hunch is this will prove true when taking Ugaritic next semester).
2. It’s surprising how easily one is able to read a language when one knows the required vocabulary. I’ve always known this, but it strikes me as incredibly important. Biblical Aramaic is an extremely small corpus, and so knowing the vocab is actually quite easy. I’m amazed at how far 400 words can get you. My goal this summer is to review my Hebrew vocabulary and ensure that I have down to 50 occurrences completely memorized. I hope to do the same for Greek.
3. Languages are actually really fun to learn. I’m still partial to Hebrew, but even Aramaic and Greek and quite interesting. As much as some people are into archeology or mythology I’m finding that I’m into languages.
4. Learning other languages well increases one’s grasp of English tremendously. I’ve known this since I took Hebrew I in undergrad, but this semester I have been reminded of it again and again. Conversely, when you know English well it becomes much easier to see what is going on in other languages–or at least to be able to explain what is going on in other languages in terms relative to English. It’s all part of a web I see developing in my mind that now includes four languages (English, Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic). Now, if only I could get to the point where I can think in something other than the first of those.

Adoni-Bezeq and the seventy thumbless kings (Judges 1.1-7)

That title could almost be a fairy tale. On a whim I decided that I hadn’t interacted with Hebrew nearly enough this semester. This should come as no surprise since I have no class that requires me to work with Hebrew this semester. I’ve been having a great time with Greek, and Aramaic has even begun to be an enjoyable experience. To be sure, I’ve translated shorter passages, and looked up a verb here or there as I’ve been preparing lessons, but I haven’t made a concerted effort to keep my Hebrew up to snuff. I’ve decided that that must change. So, in order to attempt to rectify the situation I’m going to begin translating a bit from Judges every Saturday. I’m going to take things at whatever pace I feel like. This evening I read/translated the first seven verses. All-in-all I was pleased that I didn’t make any major mistakes with parsing things. So, now for my thoughts.

The Story:
This is a great little introduction to the book of Judges. It manages to set the stage perfectly for what follows after. The entirety of chapter one is an account of how the Israelites defeated the Canaanites, or failed to defeat them, as the case may be. In these seven verses the tribe of Judah gets picked to go do some fighting. The oblige, after talking Simeon into helping them, and off they go to Bezeq, where they kill 10,000 men!

Of course, they also catch up with Adoni-Bezeq (er, “My Lord of Bezeq”?). They cut off his thumbs and big toes, and fitting punishment considering that he had done the same to seventy(!) kings. He gives a fitting final speech, before being drug off to Jerusalem and summarily executed.

My thoughts on the Hebrew text:
Verse 1 – This verse was, I thought, pretty straight forward. I didn’t have an problems with any parsing or vocab, aside from needing to look up תחלה.
Verse 2 – Again, nothing overly interesting. I almost misparsed יעלה because it had a patah under the yod. My first thought was Hifil yiqtol 3ms of עלה. However, after looking at it for a moment I remember that gutturals like patahs, and so it is a straightforward Qal, yiqtol 3ms of עלה. Other than that, my favorite verb–נתן–shows up in this verse, which deserves a mention.
Verse 3 – Judah cuts a deal with Simeon. An imperative, and a niphal show up. The object is set before the subject in the final clause contra the normal V-S-O order, but nothing exceptional.
Verse 4 – I had a little trouble finding the root of ויכום, but I eventually nailed it as Hifil wayyiqtol 3mp of נכה with 3mp suffix, “and they struck them.”
Verse 5 – I’m embarrassed to admit that I tried to make Adoni-Bezeq into some kind of phrase before realizing it was a proper name.
Verse 6 – I had to look up אחז as well as בהן. I don’t think I’ve forgotten those words, I never knew them. Otherwise verse six is just a fun bit of recompense.
Verse 7 – Leaving aside the sudden appearance of Jerusalem as a city of importance, a pual and piel participle show up here, so they were fun. I’m still not completely satisfied with my rendering of them though. I also almost misparsed the Hifil in this verse. I always forget that Hifil’s can take a shewa under the prefix pronoun when we start attaching suffixes.

My translation:
A bit rough.

1. It happened after the death of Joshua that the sons of Israel asked of Adonai saying, “Who will go up for us to the Canaanites first, to fight against them.”

2. And Adonai said, “Judah will go up. See! I have given the land into his hand.”

3. And Judah said to Simeon his brother, “Go up with me against my lot and let us fight against the Canaanites and I will go, even I, with you against your lot.” So Simeon went with him.

4. And Judah went up and Adonai gave the Canaanites and the Perizites into their hand and they struck them at Bezeq, ten thousand men.

5. They found Adoni-Bezeq at Bezeq and they fought against him and they struck the Canaanites and the Perizites.

6. Adoni-Bezeq fled and they followed after him and they took hold of him and they cut off his thumbs and his big toes.

7. Adoni-Bezeq said, “Seventy kings, who had their thumbs and their big toes cut off, they were gleaning under my table. As I did, thus God has repaid me.” They brought him to Jerusalem and they killed him there.

I think I need to spend some time reviewing vocab. Looking over my weak verb paradigms wouldn’t hurt either.

A student’s thoughts on learning Hebrew

There has been an bit of a discussion going on in the bibioblogosphere recently. Perhaps it might be better labeled a resurgence of a long-standing discussion, but that detail is somewhat superfluous. You can read the relevant posts by John Hobbins (and everywhere else on his blog), Mark Hoffman, David Ker (also here), and my own previous comments. As I’ve been turning all the arguments over in my head over the past couple days, I’ve come to a few conclusions. Hopefully this will help to continue the conversation.

I think part of this discussion is based on a difference of goals. John Hobbins and David Ker have both mentioned this briefly. Most of my classmates in seminary (specifically at Gordon-Conwell), want to learn the languages as a tool. At first glance, that might not seem like a bad idea, but in reality I think it carries with it many problems. For instance, at Gordon-Conwell Greek and Hebrew are seen as tools not only for ministry/scholarship after graduation, but for use in one’s required exegesis courses (for those not in the know, GCTS exegesis courses consist of translating about 10 chapters from the Hebrew or Greek, about one a week, some exams on relevant material covered in class lectures, and a paper where one is asked to interact with the Greek or Hebrew text and answer issues of grammar, syntax, etc, after having translated the pericope from the original). I took an exegesis class in the Samuel corpus, and learned quite a bit. However, I already had two full years of Hebrew under my belt, and I was taking Intermediate Hebrew Grammar at GCTS concurrently. Most of the students only had a year of Hebrew. What does all of this have to do with learning Hebrew? Only this:

Hebrew is seen, by seminary students, as a tool for passing an exegesis course. As a result, they are required to learn the grammar, syntax, etc, in order to be able to play commentator in an exegesis paper. Obviously the grammar of a language is important. However, in seminaries it is normally taught first, and actually knowing the language is left somewhat to one’s own devices. Reading and pronouncing the language is given a priority somewhere near the bottom of the list–if at all. What this means is that trying to teach a language inductively is often not an option, because of other class requirements.

I’m not saying this means it is a hopeless situation. Quite the opposite, I think that any layperson is quite capable of learning Hebrew and Greek (they are not that difficult), and reading the text in its original language. Certainly there will be difficulties at first, but as one becomes more familiar with the text, as one reads it in the original more and more often, it will become that much more natural.

Ultimately, I think we need to expect both more and less from students in language courses. I think the expectation needs to be on reading the text, not translating the text. The focus needs to be on grasping what the text is saying, not giving a technical explanation of the grammar. Students should learn the grammar and syntax of the language, but it should come later. Let them learn to be comfortable with the language first. I think, if we adopted a process like this there would be far more students who enjoyed the Biblical languages (and other dead languages!), and when they did learn the grammar, they would know it much better.

The problem with language classes as I have been exposed to them here at GCTS, and as David Ker has been exposed to them, is that they don’t actually help one to enjoy the language. They suck the joy out of it. I’m lucky enough to have had an incredible Hebrew prof in undergrad, Dr. George Snyder, who made learning the Hebrew fun. If not for him, I’m sure I would hate Hebrew, and never want to go any further with it than what my exegesis classes require. Perhaps ultimately what we need are good language teachers. Ones who realize that instilling a love of the language should come before explaining the finer points of grammar, syntax, morphology, et al.

Posts worth reading, Vol 1

Over the past week or so I’ve read a number of excellent posts on other blogs that I’ve wanted to comment about. However, some of them I don’t really have enough to say to warrant an entire post. Most of them I simply don’t have the time to give a full post to. So, I’m going to lump them all into a single post, with links, a few observations from yours truly, and an overall encouragement that you read them.

The Thoughts of a Medialist – Kevin Wilson has a good read with a nice little anecdote about his own time at Johns Hopkins. What is perhaps most interesting in this entire debate is that almost everyone wants to say they are in the middle. William Dever does not consider himself a maximalist. Of course, Kevin doesn’t consider himself one either–though perhaps he considers Dever one, I don’t know. He also has some good thoughts on what amounts to demonizing people in order to “win” the debate. Which reminds me of a recent post by Art.

demonizing: the leading tactic in christian debate – Art is absolutely right. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve seen this all too often. Even recently, I’ve seen this take place. Honest questions are easily dismissed when the questioner can be made out to be something less than a person, or at least the type of person that one normally associates with.

Pensive Thoughts on Faith and Calling – Earl has some open and honest thoughts about calling. He and I have had many a discussion over coffee on this very topic. It’s always fascinating to watch as a person’s thinking on a topic develops, and Earl’s has developed greatly. As my comment on his blog indicates, I think the two of us are in a very similar boat. Regardless of all that, it’s a post worth reading and you should really check it out. It brings up some excellent topics, not least of which is the separation between the laity and academia in Christendom.

Not really a radical… – On a somewhat related topic, Wezlo waxes eloquent about how he’s not really a radical. I say he just needs to keep telling himself that. But in all seriousness, Wezlo brings up some good topics. The idea of seeing the way forward through the past isn’t new, but it’s always good to think about. Furthermore, Wezlo tries to differentiate between an activist and an idealist, a discussion that is worth having.

Sadistic Approaches to Teaching Biblical Languages – This is simply a brilliant post by John Hobbins. You should read it, twice. I have a few professors here at GCTS I’d like to force to read it. I’ve long been of the opinion that languages are best learned inductively. Memorizing endless paradigms, although helpful at points, is an extremely boring way to learn a language. The textbook I used for Hebrew I and II introduced each lesson with a sentence from the Hebrew Bible. Each time we learned something, we were learning it in context. It was a great way to learn. I’m taking Aramaic this semester, and although the language isn’t that different from Hebrew, the professor I have is much different from my Hebrew prof in undergrad. I was never made to learn paradigms, beyond the basic ones, in my undergrad Hebrew courses. Regardless of how one might feel on the necessity of learning paradigms, I managed an A+ in Intermediate Hebrew Grammar last semester. That means I did better than most of the people who had memorized all the paradigms. Yet, in our first Aramaic session of the semester, the class was assured that if one did not memorize a plethora of paradigms, one would not be able to achieve above a C in Hebrew, and likewise in Aramaic. All of this to simply say that there is no excuse for making a language boring and cold to your students.

At this point I’ll stop. Some great posts there, and I recommend you take a few moments to check them out.