Biblical language

Posted: July, 2006
Updated: 25th August, 2010


WHERE WOULD WE BE WITHOUT LANGUAGE? The ability to communicate thoughts by the use of words sings the praises of the One who designed the human brain to be capable of storing and retrieving words and imparted to us the “spirit in man” needed to enable us to process thought — to think, in other words. Animal behaviorists tell us that many animals communicate with varying sounds, but none of them is capable of anything that could be truly described as language. (We will leave it to the experts to argue over the differences between human language and animal communication.) The spoken word surely stands as one of those remarkable characteristics marking human beings as creatures made “in the image of God”.

Let's consider the gift-cum-problem of language for the purpose of enabling us to read the Word of God with greater sensitivity to the relationship between its structure and its meaning.

The miracle, and problem, of language

Misunderstanding what someone else is saying is as easy as slipping on ice. Language is fraught with ambiguity. Some years ago I was talking with a lady about her son-in-law who was having problems in his job. She then said, “He wants to get another job”. I immediately understood her to mean that he had told her that he had reached the point he had had enough and was looking around for another job — he wanted a different job. But as she kept talking, other things she said just didn't jibe with that interpretation. He clearly was not looking for a different job. Then it struck me that what she had meant by “He wants to get another job” was that, in her opinion, he needed to get out of the one he was in and find another. By this interpretation he did not want a different job — in spite of the problems he was having he was determined to stick it out. So we can have problems communicating and comprehending concepts precisely even in our own language.

If I have learned one thing about human language from over 50 years of talking, it is this: just how easy it can be to misunderstand what someone else is saying.

A similar problem over the meaning of a basic word was responsible in 2001 for the publishing of an obituary of a person still living. Western actress, Dorothy Ritter, had been admitted to the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home in her old age. One day, one of the staff popped into her room, only to discover her bed was empty. When she inquired of the other lady in the same room where she was, the lady replied, “She's gone”. Assuming this meant Dorothy had died, she organized her obituary. Only trouble was that all the lady had meant by “She's gone” was that Dorothy had been moved to another wing.

Now, if I have learned one thing about human language from seven years of studying Russian, two years each of studying French and Indonesian, a few chapters from “Teach Yourself Chinese”, and years of dabbling with Hebrew and Greek it is this: accurately translating thoughts and concepts from one language to another — and human language is all about communicating thoughts and concepts — is fraught with difficulty. It can be hard enough for native speakers of one language to master another language in their own language family. (Linguists divide languages into families based upon philological, phonetic and other factors. These families have names like Indo-European, Slavic, Semitic, Hamitic, Sino-Tibetan and so on.) Mastering a language from a different family can prove downright devilish. So for many English speakers, learning French or German can be hard enough, but Chinese… well, you may as well try to knit soot.

Because different languages structure themselves so differently, accurately translating a string of words word by word oftentimes gives little idea of the thought. Thus, translating the words “men koa yu ren” (best I can do from memory) from Mandarin into English yields the following: door mouth has man. What's wrong with those Chinese? Why can't they just say, “There's a man at the door”? If an Indonesian wants to say, “I have three daughters and two sons”, he will say, literally, “Daughters my are three, sons two” (Anak perempuan saja ada tiga, laki-laki dua). My old Indonesian textbook says about this sentence, “There is no exact equivalent in Indonesian for the English verb ‘to have…'”. What!? But you know something — Indonesian speakers seem quite capable of communicating with one another.

Different peoples simply express their ideas differently. The famous slogan of the Russian Revolution, in English, goes like this: “Workers of the world unite”. Translating from Russian word for word would read, “Proletarians out of all countries unite”. We say “of the world”, they say “out of all countries”. The same point applies to the biblical languages — Hebrew and Greek.

Differences such as these go to the heart and core of the problem of translation and force translators to constantly choose between “formal equivalence” and “functional equivalence”. To illustrate the difference, consider the biblical proverb,

The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness, But who can bear a broken spirit ? (18:14).

The translators here have chosen to employ formal equivalence for the phrase “the spirit of a man” over functional equivalence. The trouble is, in this case we English-speakers don't know what that means; we are left guessing. In fact, its precise meaning may be unknowable to us. The Jewish Soncino commentary takes the phrase to refer to “willpower and determination”. Assuming they are correct, a functionally equivalent translation would go something like, “Determination will keep a man going in sickness”. Purists would object to this translation, because it is not “faithful” enough. Nevertheless, it comes closer to expressing the writer's concept. The simple fact is that, as Scorgie et. al. point out, “… every translation is interpretation … others would even go so far as to argue that every translation is treason, as suggested by the Italian saying traduttore traditore — ‘A translator is a traitor'” (2003, p. 321). Many evangelicals would certainly agree that modern Bible translations are traitorous!

How we say things changes over time, too. Phrases and sayings that are familiar today may be lost tomorrow. The old phrase “the last straw” may not be about to vanish from everyday speech, but this author has noted that news readers and commentators today don't use that any more. Instead, they speak of “the tipping point” to express the idea of a sudden change in direction or behavior triggered by a minor change of circumstances after a long buildup of factors.

How they said things

To illustrate what we are trying to say, consider this simple example. Readers of the Old Testament often feel out of place as a result of a widespread mode of expression in Hebrew — the interchangeable usage of pronouns and nouns. Consider Amos 4:11:

I overthrew some of you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were like a firebrand plucked from the burning; yet you have not returned to Me.

God is speaking; in one point He says “I” and then He says “God”. Modern English speakers, by convention, tend to be consistent where Hebrew speakers felt perfectly comfortable with being inconsistent and switching back and forth. It's just the way they talked, nothing more.

Biblical Greek sentence structure seems quite strange to us. Consider a simple case — a word for word translation of John 14:26: “But the Comforter, the Spirit Holy which will send the Father in the name of me, that one you will teach all things and remind you all things which told you I”. And that's easy-peasy compared with a lot of Paul's writings.

In addition, methods of expressing concepts vary from one tongue to another. For instance, Psalm 46:13 (Luther's inspiration for his hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) says,

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling.

The description rises above anything that will ever happen; one could put down such exaggeration to literary excellence. However, as Jewish commentator, A. Cohen, comments, “A Hebraic way of saying: whatever may happen” (1969, p. 144). We should not see this passage as a prophecy of mountains being uprooted and drowned.

Neither English nor Hebrew are God's native tongue. But He chose to use Hebrew as His vehicle of self-revelation. Translators of Scripture into any other language need to be sensitive to Hebraic and Hellenistic modes of expression when doing their job. And readers of Scripture need to be alert to the possibility that some passage may not be as “straightforward” as one may think.

Metaphors and idioms

Then you have, superimposed upon the varying structures and syntax of different languages the further complication of metaphors, idioms, and colloquialisms. Assuming you know the meaning of every word in another language, that does not mean you can always understand what on earth they are on about. As a simple introductory example, consider Song of Solomon 7:2:

Your navel is a rounded goblet; it lacks no blended beverage.

People of the time no doubt understood what the poetic image alluded to, but I doubt anybody today knows. Some may object that surely God would not have inspired the human authors to use language that would be incomprehensible to later readers. All one can say in response is, read the Bible and see for yourself. It sometimes contains allusions to cultural practices long since gone. In the same difficult book, Solomon says,

What would you see in the Shulamite — as it were, the dance of the two camps?

The “dance of the two camps” obviously carried meaning back then; we can only guess at its import.

A metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable, in order to suggest a resemblance, as A mighty fortress is our God ” (Macquarie Dictionary). Perhaps the commonest English metaphor is to describe someone as a “pig”. The actual meaning of metaphors is often relatively obvious to foreigners when translated into their language. “Daily bread”, metaphorical for food, would probably be intuitively understood by foreigners if translated word for word into their tongue. Some people treat the entirety of Genesis One as an extended metaphor meaning simply that “God did it”, without any reference to method.

Idioms are “forms of expression peculiar to a language, especially one having a significance other than its literal one” (Macquarie). My father-in-law tells the story of an Iranian lady who came to work in the same department at the Bank of California. One night they had a party, and one man, Jim, drank too much. The next day, he failed to show. The lady asked someone where Jim was. She was told that he was “under the weather”. Not understanding, she inquired as to the meaning. When told what it meant, she responded, “Well, I hope he is over the weather by tomorrow.” Sometimes idioms don't make logical sense, they only make sense through our familiarity with them.

This article is written in English, an Indo-European language. Genesis One was written in Hebrew, a Semitic language. That fact should be taken into account when opining on the “straightforward meaning” of the Hebrew text. A study of Job in the New King James will quickly illustrate that translating Hebrew word for word into English can produce total nonsense. What on earth did Job really mean when he said “… thou shalt dig about thee, and thou shalt take thy rest in safety” (11:18)? You know what each word means, but you have no idea of the sense. Or how about the description of the wicked in chapter 8? O.K., we may, perhaps, understand the general thought contained in the extended metaphor, “He is green before the sun, and his branch shooteth forth in his garden” (8:16). But what on earth are we to make of the very next verse, “His roots are wrapped about the heap, and seeth the place of stones”? And what are we to make of the statement that “Mine own clothes shall abhor me” (9:31)? Or how about “I have defiled my horn in the dust” (16:15)? Job's readers would have had no problems at all understanding exactly what he meant. Even the Psalms contain many instances where we know what each word means, but would be hard put to explain the meaning. Psalm 42:7 says, “Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls”. Without help from experts few of us could begin to guess what it actually means.

Even the Psalms contain many instances where we know what each word means, but would be hard put to explain the meaning.

Take the English language idiom “raining cats and dogs”. (We won't dicker over distinctions between idioms and sayings.) Imagine a Chinese game show named “Explain that Idiom”. When the presenter says, “Right, our next idiom comes from English, and it goes like this, ‘It rained cats and dogs'”. After the guffaws have died down, the discussion would prove fascinating. Chances are reasonable that nobody would guess what it actually means! They might decide it means that it rained all day and all night. Who knows? What would they think of “burning the candle at both ends”?

Bear in mind this vital truth: idioms are an integral part of every language, peppering every conversation liberally. They constitute a legitimate means of expressing ideas. Remember, language is all about expressing ideas, and any method that accomplishes that is legitimate. Had the Scriptures been written in English, then just perhaps Moses might have said, concerning Noah's flood, that it “rained cats and dogs for forty days and forty nights”. That would have thrown the cat among the pigeons. (Now there's an idiom that could probably be understood by non-English speakers if translated word for word into their tongue.)

Every language is full of its own idioms, some of them, such as “raining cats and dogs”, “splitting hairs”, “tilting at windmills”, “chalk and cheese”, or “peas in a pod” being so obviously non-literal that they would easily be pegged by foreigners as idioms. Likewise, we have no trouble recognizing obvious idioms when translated word for word from a foreign tongue, as in the following:

Woe to the women who sew magic charms on their sleeves and make veils for the heads of people of every height to hunt souls! Will you hunt the souls of My people, and keep yourselves alive? (Ez. 13:18).

The first part of the verse contains allusions to practices that are foreign to us; so we have trouble understanding what Ezekiel meant on that score. But the second sentence contains an obvious idiom — “hunting souls” — that means nothing to us. We can make guesses about what it meant, but unless we find many other examples to study in context to determine its meaning, that is all we are doing — guessing.

Now please understand this vital point: other idioms are not so obvious. If a novice to the English language heard the following discussion, he may be hard put to recognize the presence of an idiom:

Jane: “What has happened to Susan? I just don't understand her”.

Frank: “From what I have heard, she has gone over the top”.

He could puzzle over that for days before he finally tweaked that “going over the top” must be an English idiom, and he would have to ask a native what it meant or he might never know. Ditto if Frank had replied, “She has lost her marbles”. Now consider:

Then Nebuchadnezzar was full of fury, and the expression on his face changed toward Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. He spoke and commanded that they heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated (Dan. 3:19).

“Seven times more” doesn't immediately strike us as puzzling. Perhaps it means just what it says — either they burned the fires seven times longer than normal, or actually had some system for multiplying the temperature sevenfold and a thermometer to measure it. However, a little reflection probably would lead us to conclude that neither of those options is likely, and that we have here an idiom that simply means they piled on the wood. Similarly, what are we to make of Daniel 1:20?

And in all matters of wisdom and understanding about which the king examined them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers who were in all his realm.

Are we to take “ten times better” in a wooden sense? If so, exactly how was this extra cleverness measured? Did they all sit an exam in which Daniel and his friends got a 100% score while all the others only managed 10%? Such an idea hardly seems likely. It seems almost obvious that the phrase was an idiom expressing the simple concept that Daniel far exceeded all others in wisdom. Remember, what counts is the idea being expressed, not the words used to express the idea.

Did they all sit an exam in which Daniel and his friends got a 100% score while all the others only managed 10%?

The point is that unless we sail close to the wind in reading texts written in other languages, we can all too easily miss the boat (sorry, sorry, sorry). Even linguists can fail to recognize an idiom when it isn't so obvious.

Further, students of language recognize another mighty truism — language changes over time. How many Bible believers, apart from Baptists (no criticism intended), continue to read the King James version? It's often just too hard to follow, even though it was produced only 400 years ago. (For an entertaining example of how language changes, see “Lexiconjugally Speaking”.)

Words change meaning. Whereas readers during King James's time spoke of a “revolting heart” in Jeremiah 5:23, modern translations render it “rebellious heart”; “revolting” means something quite different for us. Quoting from an eighteenth century writer describing how carcasses of animals which died in the Flood ended up being covered with muck, Nelson writes that huge oceanic whirlpools “finally precipitated them downwards on their mineral beds and plunged them promiscuously within it”. Mineral beds? Promiscuously? Idioms come and go, too. How many idioms have been used for the basic concept of the necessity of deciding upon some course of action when there does not seem to be one obvious best course: in the final analysis, when it's all boiled right down, the bottom line is, when all is said and done, and (and it's driving me crazy as I hear it ten times every day), at the end of the day? Quite possibly in a hundred years time nobody will understand what raining cats and dogs is all about. My daughter-in-law had never heard it until I used it recently.

Hebrew changed over time, too. (God did not supernaturally protect Hebrew from changing.) Quite possibly idioms used in Moses' time would not have been understood hundreds of years later. Hence, for example, the intent of Genesis One just might not be nearly as “straightforward” as young-earth evangelists insist. For anybody who is not thoroughly familiar with the feel of Hebrew and who does not know for absolute certainty what may or may not have been idiomatic to say that they can be absolutely confident that the Hebrew sentence, translating word for word, “And [an] evening was and [a] morning was a second day” actually means a 24-hour day is dancing with danger. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. Not even Hebrew scholars can be absolutely certain that this sentence contains no idioms long since lost to us. We don't have enough Hebrew texts from the time of Moses to enable anybody to pontificate with utter authority. For this reason, you have to take with a large grain of salt young-earth writings that claim “even Hebrew scholars won't read millions of years into Genesis One”.

Click here for a discussion of one of the most debated topics of biblical language — the days of Genesis One

Yes, God inspired the words of the Bible. The thoughts they express are pure and perfect. But seeking the meaning requires a sensitivity to the changing use of words, metaphors and idioms. The thoughts of Scripture are of divine origin, the language of human origin. (The power of speech, of course, is of divine origin.)

Guess the meaning

For all these reasons, even scholars sometimes dally with guesswork when it comes to figuring out what the original writer meant ! To illustrate, take Leviticus 11:20:

All winged insects that go upon all fours are an abomination to you.

Now if young-earth creationists apply exactly the same interpretive methodology to this verse as they do to Genesis One they will find themselves confronted with a very serious problem. Are they going to assert that, “The Bible says plainly that insects literally have four legs, and therefore that is what we are going to believe no matter what entomologists tell us”? I mean, that's the “straightforward” translation. A study of the 13 other places where “all fours” are found provides no help whatever in solving the problem. The term “going on all fours” cannot be found anywhere else outside two verses in Leviticus. One must guess that “going on all fours” was an idiomatic expression denoting bilaterally symmetrical animals with a small number of legs whose axis of orientation is parallel to the ground — or something like that. What counts in understanding what other people say is not the exact words they use but what those words mean in a specific form or context. To use this verse from Leviticus to suggest that the ancient Israelites had no idea how many legs insects had would be utterly foolish.

What counts in understanding what other people say is not the exact words they use but what those words mean in a specific form or context.

The same principle applies to talk of “the moon that smites by night” (Ps. 121:6). To suggest this verse proves that the Israelites believed in the power of the moon to drive people crazy would be utterly foolish. Yet even students of ancient Hebrew don't know (at least as far as I aware) exactly what it does mean; they can only make educated guesses.

The wonder of words

Those who study foreign languages at some stage or other tweak to a truism of semantics; even the most fundamental building blocks of human speech — individual words — can sometimes prove very difficult to properly translate in order to give the real meaning, the idea that the speaker is trying to express. Virtually every word in every language has connotations unique to that language. (How else could preachers spend so much time on word studies?) Saying it differently, the range of meaning of a word in one language rarely precisely matches the range of meaning of the nearest equivalent in another language. Precise equivalents are the exception rather than the rule. Anybody familiar with New Testament Greek will be aware of the famous “love” case. How many sermons have been given (often quite misleading — See Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, chapter one) that make a big thing of the three Greek words, philia, eros, and agape, that can all be translated into “love” in English? English is just as rich as New Testament Greek when it comes to this concept: affection, passion, lust, fondness, ardor, amour, desire, adoration, devotion, attachment, tenderness, charity, romance, pity, concern, infatuation, admiration, to list some. The Greek word “philia” that is so often preached about would better be translated friendship, mateship, or something like that.

A conscientious Inuit translating from English into the Inuit language the statement “We played in the snow” would feel quite frustrated. After all (as we all know), Inuit has over a million words for “snow” (slight exaggeration), each one having a unique range of meaning. Even more frustrated would be the soul trying to translate the same sentence into some Polynesian language which doesn't have a single word for it!

The point is that few words, including even concrete nouns, but particularly abstract nouns and, to a lesser degree, verbs, have a precise equivalent in other languages. (Russian language has two verbs for “come” depending on whether one is coming on foot or in some vehicle. Yet, strange to us, it doesn't distinguish verbally between “coming” and “going”! But Russians fully understand the concept of coming towards or going away from.) English is often dubbed a “rich” language, containing numerous synonyms, each with its own connotation — shy, coy, bashful, retiring, for example. Scorgie et. al. make the following amazing observation:

Eugene Nida has alerted us to the three basic principles of semantic correspondence that must underlie all adequate semantic analysis: First, no word (or semantic unit) ever has exactly the same meaning in two different utterances; second, there are no complete synonyms within a language; and third, there are no exact correspondences between related words in different languages. In other words, perfect communication is impossible, and all communication is one of degree (p. 321).

This truism — that words have a spectrum of meaning rarely precisely matched in other languages — is easy to illustrate. For example, a study of the Hebrew word “midbar” readily shows that it has connotations ranging from any place where human beings do not live through the idea best expressed by the modern English term “wilderness” found in places like national parks, to the concept of a dry, treeless desert. English has no direct equivalent. Further, many words have a spectrum of meaning that overlaps the spectrum of meaning of other words. For example, Hebrew also uses a couple of other words — tsiyiy and arabah — for waterless deserts. To native speakers of ancient Hebrew each of these words may have carried nuances that we cannot be aware of. Translators rendered the Hebrew word “tehom” in Genesis 1:2 as “the deep”, and the context suggests waters of the primordial sea. Yet the same word is used in Deuteronomy 8:7 for springs of water “that flow out of valleys and hills”. Again, no single English word matches the Hebrew.

Exacerbating the problem of finding the right word when translating is another truism of language — many words carry a subtle or not-so-subtle emotional connotation superimposed over the substantive meaning of the word. Thus, in the famous case, one person's “freedom fighter” is another person's “terrorist”. No substantial difference in real meaning exists between these two terms. Both “freedom fighters” and “terrorists” can target civilians in their struggle; it's just that if they are on your side, then as freedom fighters such atrocities are justified, but if they are not on your side, you want the whole world to rise up in condemnation of the evils committed by such terrorists. At the more subtle level, “compelling arguments” become “propaganda” when exactly the same arguments are used by people whose cause you disagree with. A “dog of mixed breed” would be perfectly acceptable as anybody's pet, but a “mongrel” would be eschewed by all.

A “dog of mixed breed” would be perfectly acceptable as anybody's pet, but a “mongrel” would be eschewed by all.

A search on the word “knit” in the Old Testament will yield three passages where this English verb is used (Judg. 20:11, 1 Sam. 18:1, 1 Chr. 12:17). A look at the context will show that the English word “knit” perfectly fits the action that is being described in each case. Yet in each case a different Hebrew word is used. I repeat: each word in each language has its own spectrum of meaning that rarely corresponds precisely with any word in any other language.

Because words carry a spectrum of meaning they often lack precision. To illustrate, try defining the difference between soil, dirt, earth and ground. Often, two words really mean the same thing, but we use one in one context and a different word in a slightly different context. Ground and soil really are no different in meaning, but you never hear anybody talk about “hard soil”. Is Hebrew any different? Could yom (day) have a spectrum of meaning that varies considerably from English?

Some readers may be surprised to learn that students of ancient languages are often forced to guess the meaning of a word. In most cases, a consideration of the possible root of the word combined with a study of its contextual usage is sufficient to allow for reasonable confidence. However, certitude would be unwise. This author believes that the translation of " rahat” (Gen. 30:38), rendered “gutters” in the KJV and “runnels” in the RSV, is a wrong call entirely, and that if it is taken to mean something like “corral” a whole new light is cast on the fascinating story of Jacob and his multi-colored dream goats.

The problem of translating

For reasons such as these, we need to realize that the task of translating presents great difficulties. The first challenge lies in ascertaining the true sense, or meaning, of the text to be translated. Years of hearing and reading another language are required to develop this skill. Linguists speak of “getting the feel” of a language. Similar competence is required to then perform the second task of translating — rendering into the “target” language. Doing this effectively often means straying considerably from a word for word translation! However, when the original meaning may be dubious, translators opt for a word for word translation and leave it up to readers to figure out the meaning. Translators of Scripture have often opted for a word for word translation, partly because they cannot have total confidence that they really understand the sense, and partly out of respect for Scripture as the inspired Word of God. To give an example of the latter, take the following:

And the rain was on the earth forty days and forty nights (Gen. 7:12).

Translators would be perfectly free to leave out “and forty nights” when translating into English, as we simply don't talk like that. And if you define “literal translation” as that which puts the sense of the text ahead of the precise wording used in the text being translated, then the rendering, “And the rain fell for forty days” would be a "literal" translation. (Experts call the search for a translation that accurately reflects the sense of the original as distinct from its precise wording a search for "functional equivalence".) But the translators opted for a word for word rendering.

Interestingly, some linguists believe that the phrase “forty days and forty nights” is simply Hebrew idiom meaning “a very long time”. If they could prove that to be true, then translating the verse “And the rain fell for a very long time” would again be a “literal translation”. However, proving what is and what is not an idiom, and what the idiom actually means, can be very difficult. Which is one of the reasons why Bible translators often opted for a word for word translation.

Interestingly, some linguists believe that the phrase “forty days and forty nights” is simply Hebrew idiom meaning “a very long time”.

Let's give another illustration. This time, we'll show that the early translators translated a given idiomatic phrase word for word, while later translators opted for rendering the sense. Compare the King James translation of 1 Samuel 25:22 with the New King James version:

So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall (KJV).

May God do so, and more also, to the enemies of David, if I leave one male of all who belong to him by morning light (NKJV).

“Him that pisseth against the wall” was a Hebrew idiom that we don't intuitively understand in English. But the latter translation is still a perfectly legitimate “literal” translation because it [presumably] accurately renders the sense or meaning of the Hebrew idiom. Remember, what counts is the sense, not the precise words. So translators are often at sixes and sevens as to how to render a given phrase. (Translate that sentence into another language word for word and watch the puzzled looks.)

Translators are influenced by numerous factors in the decisions they make. A study of the Hebrew word “'aphar” in its numerous contexts shows that it has a range of meanings, including “dust”, “dirt” and “soil”. Translators of the King James version translated it consistently as “dust”; the New King James translators twice rendered it by “soil” (Job 14:19, Ez. 26:12). But they didn't dare translate it “soil” in Genesis 2:7; I mean, imagine the outcry if they dared say that, “… the Lord God formed man of the soil/dirt of the ground”, even though that is the obvious sense. To do so would rob it of its poesy. (Of course, the very phrase “soil of the ground” is itself either a Hebrew idiom or a poetic way of saying “dirt”.)

Translating metaphors presents its own special challenge; in fact, it can be a risky business. For instance, if you were translating the English sentence, “He is a pig” into Russian, you would not want to use the normal Russian word for “pig” (svinya), as that would come across very differently to a Russian speaker, conveying the sense of “dirty rotten swine” rather than the sense of someone who eats too much.

The Bible uses lots of metaphors; translators realized that the best way of dealing with them is to translate them literally rather than trying to explain the sense. Thus we read, “He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth shall be your shield and buckler” (Ps. 91:4) rather than “He shall watch over you carefully, and you can find psychological comfort by trusting in Him; His faithfulness shall protect you and sustain you”, or something like that. Sometimes we have difficulty grasping the full intent of metaphors commonly used in biblical Hebrew, such as “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over” (Ps. 23:5). We may be extremely familiar with the words, but we miss so much of the real meaning. Who wants oil poured on his head? Sometimes we need the help of experts to fathom the meaning.

Those who sincerely seek to understand the Word of God need to be sensitive to the vagaries, vicissitudes, and imprecision of all human languages, including even the biblical ones.

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References and notes

Cohen, A. 1969, The Psalms, The Soncino Press, London

Scorgie, Strauss, & Voth 2003, The Challenge of Bile Translation, Zondervan, Grand Rapids

Further reading

Dawn to Dusk publications

Other printed material

On the Web

"The bodily resurrection: does Jesus have a body now?" contains an example of the pitfalls associated with overly narrow definitions of words.

The difference a word makes

Glen Scorgie, Mark Strauss, Steven Voth, "The Challenge of Bible Translation", is a must for anyone interested in this topic

Janet Soskice: Metaphor and Religious Language

"Exegetical Fallacies" by Don Carson is a must for those who want an easy-to-read yet thoroughly scholarly introduction to the fascinating topic of rightly interpreting words used in the Bible.

"The Hermeneutical Spiral" by Grant Osborne gives a good general understanding of the principles involved in making sense of language.

For those who love to get into the nitty-gritty of Hebrew and Greek words, the online forums "Biblical Greek" and "Biblical Hebrew" contain numerous postings on all sorts of linguistic topics.

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