Month 8:9, Week 2:1 (Rishon/Pesach), Year 5935:209 AM|
Gregorian Calendar: Friday 4 November 2011
Camels, Ropes and Needles
Elements of the Hebrew Language
Hebrew is not an easy language to understand. Unless the text is specially pointed for you (using the Tiberian method - the Babylonian and Palestinian methods fell out of favour), it's just a string of consonants - you have to put in the missing vowels yourself from your knowledge of the language. Moreover, the pointing added by later generations isn't always 100% correct. Some of the gutteral consonants are hard to pronounce by English-speakers like myself. The syntax is nothing like English - pronouns can replace verbs, and verbs in the present tense can be nouns as well. You can even conjugate nouns! Emphatic consonants and the laryngal 'ayin just don't exist in Indo-European languages like English so it's hard to pronounce too.
So when I did my first Classical Hebrew course at Oxford University, which was free thanks to the generosity of a professor and Anglican priest who wanted to help Bible enthusiasts like myself out, I had a lot of trouble keeping up with the others who were undergraduates training for the ministry and so definitely more linguistically inclined than I, as a scientist, was.
I hate to admit it but I didn't finish the course because I was so embarassed by all my hesitations and mispronunciations when it was my turn to read the biblical text under study. Between slogging through Weingreen's A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew and the huge workload I had as a reader in Biochemistry, I ignominiously pulled out. But it was a good start and I picked up Hebrew piecemeal years later, more especially when I turned Messianic in 1999.
One important thing you have to understand about Hebrew and Aramaic, if you are to make sense of some of what in the West we might consider 'wilder' claims, is that it is embued with the Hebrew tendency to exaggerate things (hyperbole) whilst at the same time creating humour while making a particular issue clearer and unforgettable. Take this example:
Most of you are doubtless more familiar with the common mistranslation in which Yah'shua (Jesus) supposedly says a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle, which has come about because the original Aramaic, gamla (almg), can either mean a 'large rope' or a 'camel'. The original Greek translator picked the wrong alternative (since obviously a rope is here being compared with a much thinner thread) and so 'camel' has passed from Greek to Latin to English. The important thing here to note is that Yah'shua (Jesus) uses a funny allegory that is easy to remember and the message then becomes crystal clear: rich people will have serious difficulty entering the Kingdom because of the potential corrupting influence of power that comes with wealth.
"Then Yah'shua (Jesus) said to His talmidim (disciples), 'Truly I tell you, that the rich will with difficulty enter into the Kingdom of Heaven'. And again I tell you; It is easier to pass a large rope through the eye of a needle, than to bring the rich into the Kingdom of Heaven" (Mt.19:23-24, HRV).
Another example of Hebraic hyperbole may be found at the end of the Gospel of John:
Three years of continuous recorded ministry would certainly have occupied a lot of scrolls had everything been written down but not so much that the planet would lack the space to store them all. Whoever wrote the appendix to John's Gospel was simply saying that Yah'shua (Jesus) did so many fantastic things and taught so much that the mind boggled - it was just overwhelming for His regular listeners.
"Now there was much else that Yah'shua (Jesus) did. If every one of them were written down, I think that the world itself would not contain the written books" (Jn.21:25, ISRV).
It is not an easy thing getting into the mind and heart of an ancient people but it is important that we try if we are to understand the fineries of Yahweh's revelation to mankind. I am not saying that what they were was necessarily the 'end of the line' as far as spiritual refinement, perception and perfection were concerned, for clearly they were not, given their propensity for idolatry and apostacy, but clearly they had some sensibilities and perceptions that we lack, and vice versa.
But for all its complexities, Hebrew is very much a 'natural man's' language, drawing as it does from the things and activities of everyday life. This gives it a universal quality and lends itself to translation without much difficulty. It makes use of all the common figures of speech, parables, similes, and metaphors that we too use - 'star' or 'lion' for a hero, 'rock' for refuge, 'light' for life and divine revelation, 'darkness' for sorrow and ignorance. It is also very anthropomorphic, adpating of transferring terms for parts of the human (or animal) body for human activities and even the inanimate world. This is true of all Semitic languages like Akkadian, for instance, where the keep of a ship is referred to as its 'backbone' to which the 'ribs' are attached. Hebrew speaks about the 'head' of a mountain, the 'face' of the earth, and the 'lip' (shore) of the sea, the 'mouth' of a cave, the 'going' or 'walking' of water, and so on. When such expressions are applied to the activities or attributes of Elohim (God) we must be careful not to interpret these things in a literal sense, or to base theories of beliefs on them. Thus when in Scripture Yahweh is described as having "feathers" (Ps.91:4) this is obviously figurative of protection, and yet I know of one Penetcostal 'prophet' - the late Percy Collette - who claimed to have visited heaven for many days and insisted that God literally had feathers. Whatever he saw, it was not Yahweh.
Before trying to interpret Scripture, make sure (1) it is the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirir) interpreting for you and (2) get a basic knowledge of the receptor tongues, and especially Hebrew. It will save you from taking a myriad of false theological turns and possibly landing into spiritual trouble.