Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Language of God

This notion that God speaks in human language really bothers some persons, even some Christians. It's hard for us to wrap our minds around the idea that the Old Testament is just written in regular Hebrew; it's not some kind of special holy God-language that's a new thing. It's just the language the people used. The same with the New Testament - it's hard for us to fathom that it's just 'regular' Greek. 

And here's why: we want to believe that we can know something about God. You can learn a lot about someone by the way he or she talks. We know that. And we think that if we can uncover God's language, then we're going to learn something about the essence of Him that will change the way that we love Him. 

And, I think, we really just want Him to be bigger than us. We want His language to be bigger than our language because if it is, then we'll know that He really is God. We'll know that He really is who He says He is. We won't have to worry so much about whether or not we're making God in our image if our starting point is not that He looks so much like us. 

But what if...what if He doesn't look like us so much as we look like Him? 

And what if...what if what we learn about God from His language is the deep love that He has for us, a love so deep that He's always been a God who has spoken in our language?

That is, honestly, one of the things that I love about God. I love that He has always come to us in our own language, that we don't have to learn something totally new to understand Him or to get to know Him or to communicate with Him. He's not couched in some secret set of syllables that we have to spend our lives deciphering or figuring out. 

Rather, He speaks to us in words that we already know and then - and then - He calls on our hearts to learn them in a new way. He calls on our hearts, not our tongues, to change in response to Him. He takes these words that are just words, just regular ol' words that we use, and He changes them into a holy language in our vernacular, by His heart. And then, these so-called common words become the something more that we've been looking for from the very beginning. 

In other words, He doesn't wait until we understand Him to love us. He loves us first. And by that love, we come to understand Him. 

Put another way, God comes to us on our own terms and then teaches us His. 

That's why it doesn't bother me at all to start with the Hebrew not as the language of God, but as the language of God's people. As a human tongue that takes on a holy flair. As a common language that becomes anything but when it gets into our hearts and calls us into something holy. That's the beauty of God. That's the goodness of Him. That's His grace. 

Which is why, to wrap things up relatively neatly, we have to be so careful about what we let others tell us about the 'Word' of God, what we're supposed to believe and not believe and how we can understand it and how we can't and how this word doesn't mean what we think it means but that one can't mean anything different and so on and so forth, as though this is some kind of cryptic language of a God we cannot possibly understand without translation. Because that's not our God. That's not how He's ever worked, not once. 

Our God speaks to us in our language. He always has. And that means that every one of us, every single one of us, is able to understand what He's saying. And we cannot let anyone take that away from us. 

Whether He has literal hands or not. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Original Hebrew

One of the challenges of biblical translation is that it's easy to fall into the trap of wanting to preserve the original language as much as possible (the Hebrew or the Greek). We have come to associate these words with God's words, marking them as some kind of holy language. But what we often forget is that these were not particularly holy languages. 

That is, these were not the languages of God; these were the languages of His people. 

The Old Testament is written in Hebrew not because that was the language God used to speak to His people, but because that was the language that God's people spoke. The same is true with the Greek. The New Testament is written in Greek because that was the language that God's people spoke. 

Which means that in the very same breath that we find ourselves wanting to preserve the word of God, we must also remember that His Word is our word. It's in our language. He came to speak so that we could understand Him. And that means, to some degree, that even the original text is already a translation.

Even the original text is formed in such a way that the people would understand it. Even the original text has already undergone a rigorous study so as to come up with the kind of language that made sense to the very first peoples who ever read it. 

So when the scholars are upset that a reading 'doesn't seem to be original,' we have to remind ourselves that...maybe it was. Maybe the broken word was the first word that anyone ever saw, not because God gave them a broken word but because they were already busy putting it into terms that they could understand. Maybe the Word is written that way not because that's how God speaks, but because that's how His people speak. 

If that's the case, then all this worrying that we do about 'the original language' may not be as important as we think that it is. 

Now, this is tricky. We can't pretend that it's not. On the one hand, we have a Word that is given in the language of humans, by necessity. It has to be given to us in a way that we can understand it. On the other hand, we know that this is the inspired Word of God, that God is the one who gave it to us in the first place. So we have this fine line to dance in terms of how we determine what is essential and what is cultural to this Word of God that we know and love. 

For example, one of the popular images in the Old Testament is the flaring of God's nostrils to indicate His anger. That's how the language is actually used. Now, does God want us to have an image of His flaring nostrils - is that what is essential about the language? Or are flaring nostrils simply the Hebrew understanding of anger, and what is most important here is what God is feeling in response to His people/His heartbreak? Some translators will try to preserve the image of the flaring nostrils because it is 'original,' but is it original because it's God's at the origin, or is it original because that's the way the Hebrews spoke? 

See? It's tricky. 

We don't want to lose any of the essence of the Word as God has given it to us, but at the same time, we cannot bind ourselves to the language of a culture we do not live in simply because we somehow think the words themselves are holy. The words themselves are a translation already. 

And so, we go back to the question we were looking at yesterday: does the 'harder' reading have to be the 'original' one? If one scrap of text says 'the Lord' but another scrap says 'the Lord your God,' is that really an indication that one text is more original than the other? Perhaps it's just a scribe who is, as all scribes have done, putting it in the language of his people and in that case, the difference is null. It doesn't matter. If we know that from its very beginning, the text was being translated into its most meaningful for the people to whom it was given, these stylistic choices of the scribes have very little bearing on the way we understand it. Or the way we should understand it. 

Yet, here we are, two thousand years later, trying to figure out which reading is the 'error.' What if neither reading is the error? Honestly. What if? What if both readings are equally valid in God's eyes because it's not His language; it's ours? And it always has been. 

One more post on this, tomorrow, and then we'll move on to something different. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

A Difficult Reading

Biblical translators love to tell you the boundaries of where you can and can't understand the Word, the leaps in understanding that you are allowed to make and those that you aren't. They tell you that it's okay to understand this passage in this way, but don't you dare think you can understand that passage in that way. That's what we've been talking about for a few days now. 

What biblical translators don't love to tell you is that they struggle with some of the words, too. In fact, there are places in the translation that I am reading this year where the translators have made clear that they don't understand this or that, that it's not a common form of something, or that it's 'hard to say' or perhaps even 'impossible to say' what a passage really means, what a Hebrew or Greek word is referring to. 

(And we know this is true, by the way, by the number of transliterations that we still use in church lingo. For example, the word 'deacon' is just the English version of a Greek word that we still haven't figured out what it means. We call it a 'deacon' because that's what the Greeks called it, but we have never put it into our language. Likewise, when the Old Testament refers to 'the Millo,' footnotes in almost every version of the Bible indicate that we have no earthly idea what this refers to.)

When I was studying Hebrew and Greek in seminary, and even to this day, one of the things that I've wrestled with is the lexicons, which is basically a fancy word for 'dictionaries.' Scholars have worked for generations to come up with listings of words that appear in the original texts of the Scriptures and to create a list of definitions for each of those words. These lexicons usually include cross-references, so that you can see quickly what other verses this particular Hebrew or Greek word appears in and how it is used there.

Now, this sounds really handy - and it is - but it can also be really confusing at times. Why? Because often (and I mean, often), you'll come across an entry for a word that has four or five related definitions, all listed out by the verses in which they appear, and then one completely different, seemingly-random, off-the-wall definition for one specific, particular verse. The definition given for this one use of the word in this one place and context is so dramatically different from its use in the other fifty-seven verses in which it appears that you can't help but stop and say...wait a second. 

And what you come to find out is that the known definition was too difficult for the scholars to reconcile, so they made a one-time-only exception to the rule and gave the word an entirely different meaning in this one context only, despite the fact that it is not attested to anywhere else in the use of the word, because it 'must' mean this in order to make any sense.

Remember - these are the same scholars that keep trying to tell you that you can't just make sense of the Scriptures, that they have to be taken in their own context and adhered to strictly. And here they are, confessing that they don't know, either, and then trying to tell you that what they came up with is best anyway. 

I ran into this in the book of Malachi during my exegetical work (translation from the original text). Most English translations say that the priests 'despised' the altar of the Lord, but that's not what the Hebrew word means everywhere else. Everywhere else, it means that someone 'took something too lightly.' In other words, didn't give it the respect it deserved. It's one of those cases where only in this verse, the word is supposed to mean 'despised,' but why does it have to? I find no trouble with the reading of the word in its known meaning - the priests took the altar of the Lord too lightly. Not seriously enough. They didn't give it the respect it deserves. There's no need to say, or even to imply, that they hated it. That's something totally different. 

This is why (one reason, anyway) we have to be so careful with the authority that we're willing to give to our translators. Because there are places that they know, and they must confess, and we must hold them to confession, that they don't know, either. That it's tough to figure out what the Word is and what it means. 

There's a good reason for that, by the way. And we'll look at that tomorrow. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

A Double Standard in Biblical Translation

If you read all of the footnotes in a Bible like the one that I am reading this year, you'll start to notice something about all of this translation work that is going on: the very same people who tell you that you can't understand the most basic English words correctly, requiring them to substitute them with other words you're less likely to take wrong, will also tell you that when they come up against discrepancies in the Hebrew or Greek text, they understand that the 'more difficult' reading is probably the correct one. 

In other words, the harder it is to understand the Bible, the more likely it is that you're reading the right one. 

Think about that for a minute. The very same persons who want to tell you that the Bible is too hard for you to read also spend their time making sure that you understand that the Bible is supposed to be too hard to read. And then, in the same breath they tell you that you can't make it too simple or you'll get the wrong idea (believing, for example, that God might actually have literal hands), they also tell you how important it is for them to make the Bible simpler for you. 

Not only that, but they'll add that if you come across a phrase in the Hebrew or the Greek that seems to be too common a phrase, that is the way that a series of words 'often appears,' then it is likely that it is not the original text, but that some scribe somewhere has changed it to match the things that you expect to see in a place like that. For example, if a passage says 'the Lord your God,' it may be that it actually only said 'the Lord' but someone once upon a history took it upon himself to add 'your God' because the whole phrase - 'the Lord your God' - was what you would customarily expect to see in a place like that, so he was just making it easier for you and smoothing out the reading. 

These translators, who call themselves scholars, will then add back in what they think must have been the original words, tell you that they're doing so, imply that it's important that you understand that some ridiculous scribe somewhere thought it was necessary to smooth out the reading for you instead of giving you the actual text...and then three verses later, these translators will confess to doing the very same thing - we smoothed out the reading for you so that it would make more sense. 

For another example of this, they'll tell you, perhaps, that they've changed the word 'book' to 'scroll' because they don't want you to think of an object of pages bound together with a spine, since such a thing would not have existed in ancient Hebrew. 

But, of course, it's disastrous if you think for a second that the Old Testament really said 'the Lord your God' when the original word written was only 'the Lord.'

Are you starting to see the problem? This is exactly the sort of thing that I was talking about yesterday. We get all of these scholars that want you to believe that the Bible is too difficult for you to understand. They come in as aids, claiming that they are going to help you, but they also condemn the very practices they preach - if they aren't the ones who have done it. 

You cannot interpret the Bible for yourself; you're likely to get it wrong. Rather, you must depend upon them to tell you how to interpret the Bible. And at every turn, they're making a show of it. This is very difficult, which means it must be accurate. I will dumb it down for you. But you cannot dumb it down for yourself, lest you go astray. 

It's modern-day Pharisaism. That's what it is. It's gnosticism - the Scriptures are some divine secret that you cannot understand without proper interpretation. It's meant not to put the Bible into your hands, like it claims that it is, but to flaunt the educated nature of the translators themselves. You can tell because they tell you what's hard, and then they tell you why it's too hard for you, and then they rattle on about all the things that they believe. And then, at the very moment you start to understand, they tell you why you're wrong, and you have to start all over again. 

This is not to say that we don't need Bible translators. Of course, we do. Not all of us are able to read and understand the original Hebrew and Greek texts, nor do we have such access to them. We do need our translators. But we have to hold them accountable for the work that they are doing and for the double standards they want to try to establish in gatekeeping their own work. 

We'll keep talking about this tomorrow. That's enough for today. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

God's Hands

In the grand scheme of things, does it matter if God has hands? Does it matter if He used a literal finger to write the Ten Commandments onto tablets? Does it matter if He simply dictated them and Moses actually did the writing?

Probably not. To be honest with you, I can't really think of a significant theological difference that such a thing makes. 

What I'm concerned about is the bigger problem here. Namely, what I'm talking about is a group of 'educated' theologians who take it upon themselves to step in at the very second that someone, a lay person, might think they are finally starting to grasp this whole "God-thing" and tell them no, they are wrong. 

What you think about God is wrong. What you think you're finally understanding about God is wrong. Not only is it wrong, it's heretical. It's sinful. It's so wrong and backwards that what you think you're understanding about God and is drawing you near to Him is actually pushing you away and you're so naive and uneducated and foolish that you don't even see it yet. 

We have persons around us who love to do this sort of thing in all walks of life. They just sit there, ready to pounce the very moment you think you're finally breaking a chain free. At the very second you start to understand something, when it starts to finally make sense to you enough that you can wrap something around it, they step in to tell you not only why you're wrong, but why you're further away than you think. 

We simply can't tolerate this when it comes to God, particularly when it comes to things that do not make a theological difference at all. So what if you're sitting in your house and it makes sense to you that God would write something with a hand? That's how we write, isn't it? When we call into question whether or not God had actual, physical hands, we call into question what it means to 'write.' And when we call that into question, we call into question what it means to 'speak' because we know that God spoke the words to Moses that He wrote on the tablets. And on and on and on it goes. And now, what are we supposed to think about anything at all, if we should not be allowed to think, even for a second, that God had hands? 

So then, to say that these things don't make a theological difference is really only a half-truth. When we call them into question, they make a big theological difference. If you take away a man's most basic understanding of something, you make him question his understanding of everything. If you cannot know what it means to say that 'God wrote,' when writing is such a common human experience, then how can you ever possibly understand anything about 'God' at all? If you got the most basic thing wrong, what else are you getting wrong? 

That's why we can't do this. That's why we can't allow this. We cannot let 'experts' tell us how wrong we're getting it on the little things that don't matter. We can't let them step in at the moment that we start to understand and tell us we're mistaken. Just let us understand 'God wrote,' knowing that none of us knows what the actual form of this God is but that to have a conception, a mental conception, of His presence is far better than to not have one. 

Because our God, this God we love? He has promised that He is knowable. He has promised that He is present and near us and that we can recognize and understand Him. He has gone out of His way throughout His entire story to reveal Himself. And if a little word like 'hand' or 'finger' makes this God more knowable to someone, makes this God nearer to someone, gives someone what they need to let their hearts wrap around this God, then let it be. If it's not accurate or not historically accurate or not specifically revealed or known, who cares? If it draws someone into the knowable-ness of God and encourages them to encounter more of Him, lets them make sense of more of Him, then on something so theologically null as this, let it be. 

(Especially, we must add, because you don't know, either. You don't know that God doesn't have hands like a human has hands. You're just afraid that someone might form an image of Him in their heads and let their worship go astray. But what if...what if they form an image of Him in their hearts and draw into Him? Just let it be.)

That's why it matters, I guess. At least, to me. Because I don't ever want to discourage someone from thinking that God is knowable. For He is. He's told us He is, and He's shown us He is. If He has a hand or doesn't have a hand or has a hand with seventeen fingers on it, I don't care. If thinking of God's hand helps you to believe that you can understand and know this God, then hold onto that. It's fine. No matter what anyone says.