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29th May, 2006

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Making sense of the Bible

The Bible sure can be difficult to read. Don't you sometimes wonder what's wrong with you? After all, God inspired its every word for our benefit, yet you sometimes don't have a clue what a passage means. And then you have those folks who only make matters worse by proclaiming that understanding comes from “spiritual discernment”. So if you are really converted, you should understand what the Psalmist meant when he said,

If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? (11:3)

Which foundations? Surely the righteous will never be left high and dry. Is this a pessimistic statement, telling us that God sometimes allows the righteous to fall into a hopeless situation from which they have no escape or are we meant to provide our own answer — trust in God? How about Psalm 43:3?

Oh, send out Your light and Your truth! Let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your tabernacle.

Well, maybe I don't feel all at sea with this verse, but how is one really to understand the idea of being led by “light and truth” to the tabernacle? What should you feel or what thoughts should you think when you're being led by “light and truth”?

Psalms can be hard enough. As for the book of Proverbs — well. If you want an illustration of what I mean, next time you are involved in a Scripture discussion group, ask everybody what they think this proverb means:

Before destruction the heart of a man is haughty, and before honor is humility (Prov. 18:2).

You probably think you know just what it means; but get a discussion going and you will find that others have a different understanding that sounds just as plausible. But they can't all be right.

Whether we like it or not, we have to face a simple fact when we read Scripture: much of it goes over our head. Why? Leaving aside the truth that “full understanding” can only come with the help of the Holy Spirit, the real answer may seem almost mundane — we are unfamiliar with Hebraic idioms, metaphors and modes of expression. Scripture was not written in English but in Hebrew and Greek. People from different cultures who speak different languages express themselves differently from the way we do. It's just that simple. When Genesis speaks of rain falling for “forty days and forty nights” (Gen. 7:12) it sounds strange to us because we simply don't talk like that. To translate it merely as “forty days”, omitting the “forty nights” would be a perfectly faithful translation.

Frustrating it may be — but that's life — each language has its own idioms and metaphors which native speakers understand perfectly well. We are so familiar with English idioms such as “rocking the boat, under the weather, tongue in cheek” that we are unaware of the

difficulty they present foreign students of English who are plowing through an English text with a dictionary in hand. I mean, a foreigner would never figure out that “under the weather” means what it means by simply translating the words. In the Zulu language, instead of saying that someone is “under the weather” they say he is “chasing goats”. During the Cultural Revolution in China anybody who told jokes (which was banned) was “speaking weird words”. Experts may prefer to call such expressions "euphemisms", but we don't want to get too technical here.

Believe it or not, in biblical Hebrew six-legged insects were described as “creeping on all fours” (Lev. 11:20). Some people miss the point entirely and argue that the ancients were ignorant of basic scientific facts. No, it's obviously an idiom.

Furthermore, few words in any one language have an exact equivalent in another language. Translators often know the core meaning of a word, but have no idea of its alternative meanings. Thus you get strange passages such as Job 11:18:

And you would be secure, because there is hope; yes, you would dig around you, and take your rest in safety.

Does the Hebrew word translated “dig” have another meaning that translators don't yet understand? Perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree (another great English idiom) in looking for a different meaning for “dig”. Perhaps here we actually have a Hebrew idiom — maybe “digging about oneself” was idiomatic for protecting oneself, with the original concept being that of digging a moat.

The way to help solve the problem is not to pray for more discernment but to get help from experts in the language. (Once you understand what the passage actually means, then you can pray for discernment for help in understanding how to apply it.) Unfortunately, I am not aware of any books that explain all the Hebrew metaphors and idioms. But marginal notes in many study Bibles and, of course, good commentaries, can provide substantial help. I have often noticed the use of “horn” as a metaphor in Scripture, such as in Psalm 92:10: which reads,

But my horn You have exalted like a wild ox; I have been anointed with fresh oil.

I had a rough idea of its import, but then I chanced upon a very helpful comment in the New Bible Commentary Revised: “This consciousness of being a partaker with God is often expressed by the psalmist in the metaphors of an upraised horn belonging to a source of great power and of an inverted horn out of which flowed the anointing oil, symbol of identification and incorporation.” When you find a helpful comment like that, it's worth writing it in the margin of your Bible. Gradually, Scripture will become less and less daunting as you become more and more familiar with its language.

For an article which goes into the same topic in more detail, see Biblical language


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