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.


Zedekiah’s Escape and Bible Translation

John Hobbins, of Ancient Hebrew Poetry fame, has continued the discussion of English Bible Translations in the Biblioblogosphere. He has produced what may be the best paragraph I have read on Bible translation in recent memory:

…put any translation into my hands, and I will show you within a brief span of time why in this place and that place it messes up, and sometimes badly, within the parameters of the translation’s self-confessed translation technique no less.

Indeed, John is correct–they all fall short in one way or another. As the old adage goes, “traduttore, traditore!” Not that this adage needs any further illustration, but my wife is sitting behind me translating large swaths of Jeremiah, and this gives me a strange, overwhelming desire to talk about Hebrew as well.

So, with this in mind, what does Zedekiah’s escape from Jerusalem (I care not about his subsequent capture, at present) have to do with English Bible Translation? To be honest, quite a bit, as anyone who has ever read 2 Kings 25.4 in the MT can surely attest. This verse has actually become quite interesting to me of late, and I hope to create a more substantive discussion of it (either on my blog, or via a paper) at some point in the future. Today, however, I will be brief. BHS’ rendering of 2 Kings 25.4 and my own rough translation follow (BHS, sans vowels since I’m having trouble getting the vowels to display properly):

ותבקע העיר וכל־אנשי המלחמה הלילה דרך שער בין החמתים אשר על־גן המלך וכשדים על־העיר סביב וילך דרך הערבה׃

“And the city was breached, and all the men of battle, the night, the way of the gate, between the walls that by the garden of the king and the Chaldeans upon the city all around, and he went by the Arabah road (way of the steppe?).”

Now setting aside, for the moment, my deliberately rough translation, read the MT and it becomes quickly obvious that the Hebrew is not much easier to understand. Compare this to any modern translation and you will quickly see John Hobbins’ oft stated point about silent emendation. Most emend the text based on the parallel in Jeremiah and the same passage in LXX. The ESV adds “fled” after “men of war,” following that with various prepositions to make the verse into something understandable. The NASB95 likewise adds “fled” and prepositions, but at least has the good sense to put “fled” in italics. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether the MT appears as such for stylistic reasons or because of a textual corruption, these are the kinds of things that translators have to deal with. They need to make these kinds of decisions, which the ignorant masses then take as gospel. Not a job I want, thanks.

To be fair, the text is difficult even in the MT, but you can get the gist of what is going on if you know Hebrew and you don’t even need to have BHS’ critical apparatus at which to look. So, should one even bother translating the Bible? I’d much rather people simply learned Hebrew and Greek. However, since that isn’t going to happen tomorrow I might as well acknowledge that we’ll need to make use of imperfect translations for some time yet.

In the end though, I am forced to wonder why some English translation couldn’t leave this particular passage as we find it in the Hebrew. Targum Jonathan managed to leave it more or less intact. Of course, I suppose that tips my hand–I’m not convinced, at present, that this is an issue of a corruption in the text.

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.

English Translation of Isaiah 2.1-5

As I mentioned here, I decided to translate the Hebrew Bible lectionary readings this year. We’ll be using these translations each week as part of our Sunday Bible study. Specifically we’ll be using them for our time of group Lectio. Below is Isaiah 2.1-5, which we used today. There are a few things I might change now, in hindsight, but I’ve left them here for posterity.

Isaiah 2.1-5

1 – The vision that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem

2 – So it will be in the last days: The mountain of the house of Adonai will be established as the chief mountain. It will be lifted up from the hills and all the nations will flow to it.

3 – Many peoples will come and will say “Come! Let us go up to the mountain of Adonai, to the house of Jacob’s God. He will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths because instruction goes out from Zion and Adonai’s word goes out from Jerusalem.”

4 – He will judge between the nations! He will decide for many peoples! They will beat their swords to shovels and their spears to pruning knives. Nation will not lift up a sword against another nation, and they will not learn war any longer.

5 – O house of Jacob, come! Let us walk in the light of Adonai.

On Youth Pastors and Hebrew

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. This semester has been crazy, but things are beginning to slow down. Next week is my last week of classes. I’ve finished the first draft of both my big papers, and so I finally find myself with some time to do other things. I have something exciting to talk about, but it will have to wait for a couple days. To those of you who have somehow endured with me over the last couple months – thanks!

As anyone who has been reading my blog for any length of time knows, I think that too few youth pastors really have the tools to undertake intense study of the Bible. One of those tools is knowing the languages (Hebrew and Greek, and I guess Aramaic if we want to get 100% coverage). One important reason to know the languages is that most, if not all, of the best commentaries deal with the languages. But, tonight I have another reason I’d like to share. You might call it a more personal reason.

First, some background: as we all know Advent is upon us. This will be the first year that I’ve focused on Advent during a Bible study with students. I’m very excited about the opportunity to celebrate the start of the Church Year with the students in my youth ministry. We’ll be talking about Advent, and using the traditional categories of Christ’s advent in the past, present and future. As part of the format of our Bible study we’ll begin each week with a time of Lectio Divina, with the scripture being taken from the Revised Common Lectionary’s Hebrew Bible reading for that week. There are many good Bible translations out there, but I wanted to give my students something special. Because I know Hebrew, I am translating the relevant passages for our Lectio. I don’t think that makes me better, or somehow means our ministry is closer to God. But think for just a moment about how special that really is. As a youth pastor I have the incredible opportunity to translate God’s word for my students. I’m doubly excited for Sunday because I have a gift of sorts to give my students.

This is just one of the myriad of ways that knowing Hebrew can have practical implications for ministry. Knowing Hebrew and Greek is so important. I know some youth pastors, and even pastors, have taken courses in Hebrew and Greek and found them to be useless. But I refuse to accept that diagnosis. If you keep up on your languages, they can be an incredible boon to ministry, to spirituality, and to study. So, consider this just another of my calls for youth pastors to learn the biblical languages, keep up with the languages, and use them in youth ministry.