Letters which look like chicken scratches, flash cards, memorization, relating new words to odd memory aids; such is the life of beginning Hebrew students. It’s hard to describe what learning Hebrew is like. There’s a lot of necessary repetition. I’d compare it to brushing your teeth. As a seminary student you need to do it, but it’s more of a necessary obligation than an exercise you look forward to.
On this particular day, the class was, well, normal. I believe we were discussing nouns in construct or something. Dr. Hearson was doing his best to help us learn the principle of the day. Each student was taking one of the exercises and explaining it. A Bible verse was being used to show each grammatical idea.
We went around the room struggling with the verse in Hebrew and translating it into English. It was a beautiful fall day and the scene out the window was distracting. The oak trees sprinkled on Midwestern’s campus shimmered with golden leaves. Focusing was difficult.
Each person in a secret way dreaded when his turn came. Mine was close. I was looking ahead to figure my verse out, kind of half paying attention to what the current student was saying about Ezra 9:11.
He struggled with translating; speaking each word out loud as he came to it. “Which,” that was an easy word. “By” or “in”, that word could mean either depending upon the context. “Hand”, that word is in the text, but the student said, “I couldn’t find it in my English Bible.”
“Well”, said our professor, “that word means by the agency of God, so the translators didn’t actually translate the word as “hand.” “Oh,” said the student as he went on to the next word.
Wait a minute. They didn’t translate this word? “Professor,” I asked, “couldn’t there be some importance or literary significance in the reader knowing that the word “hand” was used?”
“I would think so,” he said.
“Why didn’t they translate it?”
I couldn’t focus the rest of class. Holy Moses! Here I’ve read the English Bible all these years and never knew that Ezra had used the word ‘hand’ in this verse. I felt cheated. Shouldn’t I be allowed to know this! How did the translator determine that I didn’t need to know that fact? Who was this guy anyway? Shouldn’t it be up to me, the reader, to determine that ‘agency’ was meant by this metaphor? Shouldn’t I have been given the chance to figure out how ‘hand’ was used instead of someone spoon feeding me the meaning?
And that wasn’t all. Later in the verse the prophet used the words “mouth to mouth” and the translator wrote it “end to end”. That sounds a lot different to me. What was that? An ancient form of CPR. A mouth is a mouth and an end is an end. Can the two be interchanged? How is a mouth an end? How is an end a mouth? Amazing Amos! All these years and I never would have known.
It would be like an English speaker translating that a person had a “green thumb” as “she was a good gardener”. The meaning is the same, but the metaphor is buried.
OK. Translation is a tricky thing. I’ll admit that. Choices have to be made. Which word is the best fit? What word order best conveys the authors intent? I understand some of the challenge.
But, there it was – hand – plain as the moon. This wasn’t a choice. The meaning was being taken out of my hands and supplied by the translator.
How many other places was this done? How many other hands, feet, ears, houses, horses, or trees had been translated as something different.
And not one English translation mentioned this fact about the hand. Not one?! Now wait a minute. These translations have been done over the course of 500 years. You mean not one translator thought it was important for me to know about this hand. What about these translations that claimed to be new and improved; why hadn’t they given me ‘hand’? I want the hand. Don’t hide it. Let me, the reader, figure it out.
I felt like an archeologist must feel after uncovering some hidden treasure that had been buried: a fragment that had been lost for centuries; a hidden hand that had been lurking under the cloak of another language.
So what, who cares? Does it really matter? Is the meaning the same even though the word ‘hand’ was implied but not provided? Probably so, it means the same thing.
That day a spark was placed in me to know this language. The language God had used to write the Old Testament. I wanted to understand what these ancient writers thought, how they lived, what motivated them. I developed a new appreciation for learning Hebrew. Our modern translations are good and we get the meaning from them. But maybe by knowing the original language, I’d have a little richer understanding of the author’s message.