The Jewish poet, Hayim Naliman Bialik, once said that to study the Holy Scriptures in any language other than the original Hebrew is like kissing a beautiful woman with a veil between your face and hers.
We have often heard that we tend to “lose something” in translation. Years ago Nikia Khrushchev, the premiere of the Soviet Union, was introduced to a rather attractive female dignitary. He said, what was the equivalent in Russian, “VaVaVoom!!!” His translator, the unsung hero in the diplomatic corp translated: “The Premier finds that you are looking quite well today”
We pretty much have similar issues in the translation of the Bible and unless we can see these issues in the original language, we tend to miss its importance.
The following are things which we would not see but for knowledge of Hebrew:
1. Play on Words
Many times words which sound alike are used next to each other to emphasize a certain point. For instance, the first play on words in the Bible is the creation of a woman. When Adam saw Eve for the first time, he called her an Ish (man) but realizing there was a difference he added the “ah” at the end: “Ishah”. The origin of the “ah” is not clear. Perhaps as Adam came out of that deep sleep God put him in to remove his rib and he saw Eve for the first time and figures it was just another “ish” but when she came into focus he declared: “Ahhhhh!” (Don’t repeat that).
2. Word Origins
Tracing the origin of a word can open up new meanings. For instance, the Hebrew word for worship is “shachah” can be traced back to a Ugaritic word describing a sexual relationship between a goddess and a human man. Thus, this word carries more than just mere reverence; it speaks of entering into an intimacy with God.
3. Word Relationships
Sometimes you will find embodied in a word another word. This is similar to a play on words, for instance, Adam means created from the dust of the ground. Embodied in that word is “dam” meaning “blood”. Blood is the life of man.
4. Use of Hebrew letters
Letters in Hebrew represent numbers, sometimes a picture. Sometimes its order in the Alphabet is significant. For instance, the word Adam, as shown above, “dam” means blood. Aleph is symbolic of God not only because it is the first letter in the Alphabet but the construction of the Aleph spells the name of God. Thus God and blood give life to man.
5. Hebrew Poetry
If you look at Psalm 119 in the Hebrew you will see what you cannot see in the English. The acrostic style of Hebrew poetry. This is where the first verse starts with the first letter of the alphabet, the second verse with the second letter of the alphabet and so on. Psalm 119 offers a variation of the acrostic by using groups of eight verses for each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
If you tell an Englishman, “Let's bury the hatchet”, he will probably respond: “I say, old boy, why do you want to place a perfectly good tool underground”. It works the other way. Back in the early sixties, there was a hit song that came over from Australia called “Waltzing Matilda”. Ask most Americans they will tell you it is a song about a man wanting to dance with a woman named Matilda. However, few knew that a Matilda was a backpack and as you walked it bounced up and down on your back and thus became known as a “Waltzing Matilda”.
In Hebrew, there are many idioms, which are pointed out in your Hebrew Lexicon, by Davidson. One example is “baruch ha-ba” means: “blessed is he that comes”. It is just an idiomatic expression for “welcome”.
Every language reflects the culture of the people who speak that language. For instance, the French and Italians are very artistic and romantic people. Their language reflects beauty and love. Even the sound of their language is beautiful. The Germans are an industrious, scientific people. Their language shows precision and exactness. It even has a harsh sound. Hebrew is a language of relationships. Thus we need to interpret with the thought of relationships. For instance, “worship of God”. If you think like a Frenchman or an Italian, you will be saying loving, tender words to God. If you think like a German you will be bowing to your knees before God. If you think like a Hebrew, you embrace God as a child embraces a parent, or a lover embraces his beloved. “Cast your bread upon the water”. Do you think, “I will give God ten dollars and in return, he will give me one hundred or do you think, “When I give, I will build a relationship so that when I am in need that result of that relationship will return (Hebrew mindset thinking).
Our goal in the study of the Holy Scriptures is to become intimate with the Father. If we take the time to study the Hebrew language, we can lift a veil to see the true beauty of the Word and as such see God in a much deeper light.
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