The curriculum work continues. We are now entering Part 2, which is the background for shifting to a more biblical point of view.
1. Old Testament Hebrew Language
One of the languages Abraham spoke was Aramaic. It was the language of commerce, record keeping and diplomacy where he lived, both in Ur and Harran. When he entered the Land of Canaan, it was not so terribly different from their common Canaanite language. Over the next three generations, their Aramaic drifted toward that Canaanite language. Once Israel moved to Egypt, their language stayed pretty stable. Upon the Exodus and Conquest, it once more drifted closer to the Canaanite language. This was the classical ancient Hebrew. During the Exile, they drifted back to Aramaic. The Book of Nehemiah mentions how the classical Hebrew language was no longer easy for them to understand. By the time of Christ, it remained Aramaic.
The one thing that never changed in all this drifting back and forth was the Ancient Near Eastern orientation. The language grew out of a particular outlook, a set of assumptions about reality. This set of assumptions was radically different from ours today. Whole libraries exist to explain the differences, and it can take quite some time to absorb the finer points. But without that study, translating the Old Testament is impossible. It’s not enough to know the words; Strong’s Concordance won’t get you very far. Interlinear translations offer only limited assistance. The problem is not just the language itself, but the very fundamental difference between our Western languages and what Hebrew language was meant to accomplish.
Ancient Hebrew language, like other Ancient Near Eastern tongues, did not work like a train of cars carrying meaning the way it is with English. Hebrew language was suggestive. We say that English is descriptive; the words provide abstract ideas pointing to concrete reality. Current usage typically aims to draw boundaries, to include correct ideas and exclude incorrect ones. Hebrew language was indicative or even suggestive, pointing out directions for you to explore. Hebrew statements often implied far more than the words themselves might seem to indicate. You were expected to make those connections yourself. Thus, a written record of an ancient Hebrew conversation bore a great many connotations that we easily miss in our English translations.
Thus, the task of translation is much the same as the language itself. It’s more art than science. In many cases, so much is lost in translation that it’s very easy to miss the whole point of what was written there. The Hebrew language typically presents symbolic or what we call “parabolic” language — the language of parables. The symbols were well established, yet remained flexible, rather a living thing that changed how it acted. The same words in a different context meant something entirely different. But it wasn’t wholly subjective; there was a well established pattern of use that Jesus drew on when He extracted phrases and symbols from the Old Testament prophets. His listeners should have easily understood the references.
But under the influence of Hellenism some three centuries before Jesus, a great many rabbis had developed the mental habits that were more Western. It’s not that Hebrew intellectual tradition never had a place for precision and literal discourse, but that was of lesser importance. To the rabbis who embraced the Hellenistic logic, it became the whole game. They turned the dramatic and suggestive language of the Covenant into a nit-picking legalistic document. It became their excuse to virtually enslave their fellow Israelis. They set out complex petty rules for the peasants, but kept their secret loopholes for themselves.
By the time Jesus confronted them, they were set in stone on these silly rules, with more coming every day. The Pharisees and scribes convinced themselves that they had God over a barrel, that He was subject to their reason and logic. They worshiped their Talmudic traditions instead of Jehovah. They jealously guarded their privileges. One of the things you see them doing time and time again in debates with Jesus is being obtuse and literal, when He was clearly being symbolic and speaking in parables.
The entire Covenant of Moses presumes a Hebrew mind like that, one that is comfortable with symbols and parables. So much so that we sometimes struggle to translate, for example, the rather precise instructions on how to construct the Tabernacle. To this day a lot of technical details are in dispute. We can understand the symbolism rather easily, but no one is quite sure what it was supposed to actually look like. That’s because God had revealed Himself as One who emphasized the moral truth behind the requirements, and left it for His people to figure out a lot of details on their own. Our culture is obsessed with those details, but anyone who understands Hebrew language knows God was not too concerned about them.
What all of those details were supposed to do was call to mind certain fundamental truths about our situation in this fallen world. Paul instructed us to rightly divide the Old Testament (2 Timothy 2:15), since they didn’t have any other Scripture at that time. Our mission is to bring this ancient understanding into our context. Not just a translation, but to breathe fresh life into the soul of understanding so that we can follow the Messiah.