Saturday, January 3, 2009

Divine Anguish

When English translations all agree, is there reason to look at the Hebrew text? Genesis 3:9 reads:

And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, “Where art thou?” (KJV)
And Jehovah God called unto the man, and said unto him, “Where art thou?” (RSV)
Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” NASB)
But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” (NIV)

The story is familiar. Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the forbidden tree. Upon hearing the sound of Yahweh in the garden, they hid among the trees out of fear knowing that they had disobeyed. Yahweh called out to them asking where they were, and they responded with the excuse that they hid because they were naked.

Although a number of theological questions could be asked about this event, the present question is whether or not anything can be gained by looking at the Hebrew text which reads:

וַיִּקְרָא יְהוָה אֱלהִים אֶל־הָאָדָם וַיאמֶר לו אַיֶּכָּה׃

On an initial reading there is little to get excited about. But a closer examination of the final word opens up a profound truth. When seen this passage can never again be read unemotionally.

The original writing was without vowel points and the last word in the unpointed text of this verse contains a clear double reference. The word in the pointed text stands for the interrogative particle "where?" (אי) plus a somewhat rare form of the 2nd masculine singular pronoun "you" (כה). However, another word consists of the same consonants איכה and that word has various meanings: the interrogative adverb of manner, "in what manner?"; the interrogative adverb of place, "where?"; and the exclamation, "how!". As an exclamation איכה is the title and theme of the book of Lamentations!

Not only did God confront Adam and Eve in the garden making them face the consequences of their sin—alienation from Him. He also experienced the pain of separation. The word translated “where?” is also an exclamatory cry of anguish, “how!”, a cry reflected in the incomplete sentence of Genesis 3:22 “And now lest he sends forth his hand and takes also from the tree of life and eats and lives forever. . . .” It is as if God is unable to verbalize the judgment implied. This divine anguish continues to Calvary and only finds relief in Revelation 22 when the people of God enjoy God’s presence forever as they partake of the tree of life in the midst of the garden.

The story of original sin is as much a story of God’s pain as it is of mankind’s disobedience. Maybe when we reflect upon this aspect of Genesis 3 we will be able to appreciate the heinous nature of our own sins. And, yes, there is reason to consult the Hebrew text even when the English versions agree.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

“Spring Up, 0 Well!”

My previous post (Sermons in Sounds) emphasized the sounds of the Greek language in the New Testament that, when observed, speak volumes about the writers’ emotions, and emotions are a definite part of the interpretation of the text. In this post I focus on the sounds of the Hebrew language in the Old Testament. Given the nature of Hebrew, about which I won’t expand upon now, sound issues become much more pervasive in the Old Testament. Hopefully this post will reveal some of the fascinating aspects and interpretive benefits of hearing the Hebrew text.

Most English translations of Numbers 21:17-18 separate the final line of the poem as transcribed in the Hebrew Bible and simply make it a part of the continuing wanderings narrative. Without this last line, however, the poem is rendered nearly meaningless. With the last line the poem carries significant theological weight. Note the Hebrew text followed by the English Standard Version translation:

עֲלִי בְאֵר עֱנוּ־לָהּ׃ [Line 1]
בְּאֵר חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם בִּמְחקֵק בְּמִשְׁעֲנתָם [Line 2]
וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה׃ [Line 3]

“Spring up, O well!—Sing to it!— (Line 1 of the Hebrew text)

the well that the princes dug,
that the nobles of the people delved,
with the scepter and with their staffs.”
(Line 2 of the Hebrew text)

And from the wilderness they went on to Mattanah (Line 3 of the Hebrew text but not part of the poem in the ESV. The italics are mine and are absent in the original text.)

One key to the function of the poem is found in the sound correlation between the preceding statement of verse 16 “that I may give them water” and the name of the place Mattanah. Mattanah is a derivative of the verb meaning to give (nathan /נתן) and draws a significant sound parallel (mattanah מַתָּנָה/ettanah אֶתְּנָה).

A second key to the poem’s meaning is found in the fact that the place name Mattanah is also a noun meaning gift,no difference in spelling (מַתָּנָה), and again, a derivative of the verb meaning to give (nathan /נתן).

A final key is the fact that although Mattanah is in the desert the last line says that from the wilderness, utilizing a preposition of separation, they went to Mattanah. The continuing itinerary shows, however, that they never left the wilderness (cp. verse 23).

This poem was meant to encourage the wilderness wanderers and point them to Yahweh’s continuous provision for their need and the fulfillment of His promised gift of the promised land. Finding water while wandering in the desert was a great comfort for the thirsty Israelites. Leaving water to continue the wilderness trek could be fearful. It is significant that the very next place on the itinerary is a place that points both to the present gift of water, and to the upcoming gift of the promised land after they finish their journey. As such, the poem focuses on Yahweh’s providential care for His people both in the present as well as in the future. They can continue their journey with confidence in the present with an encouraged eye of faith for the future.

When the last line of the poem is unrecognized in the English translations, the poem perhaps becomes simply an exuberant reflection of finding water in the desert, in itself not an insignificant theme. When the last line is recognized, however, the poem is a powerful theological statement of God’s provision for His people and His faithfulness to His promises.

This post is not meant to cast fault on the English translations or translators. It is virtually impossible for any English translation to capture the nuances imbedded in the sounds of the Hebrew text. Hopefully, what it does is to emphasize the importance of being able to see and hear the Old Testament in all of its original glory and beauty! Another New Year’s goal—take a course in biblical Hebrew!