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. 

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