Hebrew Words – Theological Insight

Joel B. Green

Many of us, and most people in our churches, encounter the Bible only in English translation. I remember well when working on the Common English Bible the many questions I received, like this one: “But why do you need to translate the Bible – what are you translating the Bible from?” That Israel’s Scriptures were written in Hebrew (and some Aramaic) and the NT in Greek is easily forgotten by those reared on the NRSV, the NIV, or the CEB. Matthew Richard Schlimm’s new book, 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know (Abingdon, 2018), is a welcome remedy for this shortcoming. As the book cover observes, “English isn’t God’s first language.”

Those who suffer from foreign language phobia will appreciate this book’s conversational, user-friendly tone. Newcomers to the Hebrew language will learn its sounds with support from words from the Star Wars movies, and for further help with pronunciation they can turn to Schlimm’s website.

Those who’ve already done some work with the Hebrew language will appreciate the clever and perceptive ways Schlimm maps the intersection of philology and theology. They’ll also gain new insight into what’s going on with contemporary English translations of the OT.

Schlimm discusses a wide array of Hebrew terms, most of interesting and significant theological weight for readers of the OT. Each chapter tackles a different concern. Chapter one notes how difficult it is to represent in translation the way Hebrew words look and sound. Consider as an example the way the term for “cry” mirrors that of “righteousness” – tseaqah / tsedaqah – in Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard: God expected righteousness but instead heard a cry. The Hebrew text uses words that are visually and audibly similar to underscore that nothing God wants of his people happens (Isa 5:7), but this is impossible to represent well in English.

Chapter two discusses the loss of meaning in the move from Hebrew to English. “Adam” is a transliteration of the Hebrew adam, for example, so the English maintains the sound of the Hebrew original; lost, though, is the fact the Hebrew term signifies humanity. Similarly, the Hebrew term shabbat comes into English as Sabbath, with no hint that the Hebrew verbal root means “to stop”: “To observe the Sabbath, then, is to stop. It’s to stop one’s work. It’s to rest, even sleep” (19).

Chapter three takes up the problem of Hebrew words that have no straightforward English equivalent – like words signifying “to create,” with the Hebrew term bara suggesting the remarkable nature of what is created, used exclusively for God’s, not human, agency; or the English term soul, which to English speakers often refers to a personal entity other than the body, the part that survives death, even though the Hebrew term it typically translates, nephesh, signifies not a part of the human being but “what makes us alive, what constitutes our very selves, what makes us who we are” (29).

Chapters four through nine continue down this path, treating a range of translation challenges that contribute to our interpretive anemia: the presence of multiple meanings, the difficulty of visualizing the abstract, the use of outdated terms that fail to communicate, the use of terms that connote different associations in Hebrew than in English, and the problem of communicating such cultural values as “peace” or “holiness.”

From start to finish, Schlimm offers a veritable feast of theological reflection and exegetical insight. His readers are bound to have frequent Aha! moments. Some may find themselves looking for more instruction in Hebrew, while others will experience newfound appreciation for scholars, like Schlimm, who both understood the original languages of Israel’s Scriptures and can communicate their deeper understanding in a book like this one.

This is the sort of book that ought to find itself into the collections of pastors and seminarians – on or near the desk, within easy reach. I’ve already found opportunity to recommend it for an adult education class, too.

Posted Oct 10, 2018

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