When we gaze at the world, light must pass through the lens of the eye before the brain can process it. A good lens will bring light into sharp focus; a bad one will distort or obscure what is being viewed.
In the same way, language stands between us and text. If we hold an incomplete or distorted understanding of language, chances are we will subscribe to faulty interpretations. This is especially true when reading the translation of a document when we aren’t familiar with the original vernacular. A greater difference between languages increases the possibility of misunderstanding. Greek, Latin, English, and other European tongues are all fairly similar to one another; therefore relying on translations between these languages poses relatively few problems. As a Semitic language, Hebrew is very different from Western languages. Thus, the jump from the Greek of the New Testament (NT) to modern English is small compared to that from the Hebrew of the Old Testament (OT).
In part 1 of this series, I pointed out that most believers throughout church history–including theologians–have relied primarily on translations for their understanding of the OT. Here we will consider two specific ways in which ancient Hebrew is different from English (but also Greek and Latin) and discuss the implications they hold for our interpretations.
English boasts one of the richest vocabularies in the world. It gives those who speak and write the language an ability to make very fine distinctions. The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines approximately 160,000 English words. Ancient Hebrew, by contrast, has a very small vocabulary. In fact, the entire OT was written using only 8,674 Hebrew (and Aramaic) words, and these words are formed from only 2,552 unique root words. Due to the disparity, Hebrew terms are typically far broader and less specific than their English counterparts. Each Hebrew word can, on average, be translated into several possible English words depending on context.1
Translating involves more than simply looking up words in a dictionary and substituting their English equivalents. Two consequences should be considered. First, translators must carefully consider a term’s context to determine the correct meaning. In most cases a match can be unambiguously determined, but sometimes the choice is unclear. In such situations, interpretation may depend on how that particular translator understands the passage, thus introducing assumptions into the text. Second, based on the English translation, readers may assume the text is narrower and more specific than is actually true in the original Hebrew.
A classic example of this disparity involves genealogical terms, such as “son” (ben), “father” (ab), and “begat” (yalad). These words are central to our understanding of the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 (and also carry implications for the age-of-the-earth issue). While English contains a plethora of different genealogical terms, Hebrew has very few. For example, the latter doesn’t have separate words for “son,” “grandson,” “great-grandson,” and “descendent.” All of these English terms are covered by the Hebrew word ben. Similarly, ab means “father,” but also “grandfather” and even “ancestor.” God refers to Abraham as Jacob’s “father” (ab) in Genesis 28:13, when of course, he is Jacob’s grandfather. In English, this would be considered an error, but it is perfectly accurate and literal in Hebrew grammar. Hebrew genealogical terms are well suited for communicating ancestry, but, unlike English, remain ambiguous about the number of generations spanned. Consequently, Hebrew genealogies are typically telescoped (shortened by leaving out less important individuals). This is very different from English family trees, which generally provide exact genealogical relationships. English readers of Genesis 5 and 11 can easily assume they are complete (no generations skipped).2
No verb tenses
In English, verb tenses serve to communicate the “when” of the action, including information about sequence or duration. English speakers can choose from a wide range of verb tenses to describe an action. For example, “walk” in the past tense is “walked,” the past perfect is “had walked,” and so forth.
In contrast, verbs in ancient Hebrew don’t have tense. Its verb forms primarily report the state of the action as being perfect (finished) or imperfect (unfinished).3 Because of this, a Hebrew word may correspond to multiple English verb tenses. For example, when in the first person singular and completed form, the Hebrew verb with the root meaning “to learn” or “to study” has 10 different possible translations: I learned, I have learned, I had learned, I had been learning, I did learn, plus a parallel set based on “study.” From this, we see that the location in time of the action of learning/studying is left unspecified.
The events of the fourth creation day (Genesis 1:14-19) provide one of the most striking illustrations of the effect of verb tense. Verse 16 declares that the Sun, Moon, and stars were “made” (Hebrew asa) by God. This leads many interpreters to believe these bodies came into existence for the first time on that creation day. If that were true, then how could the first three creation “days” be simple solar days if the Sun was not yet present?
This apparent conflict has provoked attacks on the Bible’s validity by pagan critics in ancient times, as well as by skeptics in our own day. For the early church (90-476 AD), this question generated more commentary than any other passage in Genesis 1-3.4 The controversy was unnecessary. Asa, as used in verse 16, is in the perfect form, indicating a completed action though it does not specify precisely when the action happened.5 In other words, the act of making the heavenly bodies could have occurred at any time up to the fourth “day.” Genesis 1:16 does not require the Sun, Moon, and stars to be formed on the fourth day; they could, in fact, have been created as far back as “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1).
The Hebrew of verse 16 simply teaches by whom the heavenly bodies were made rather than when they were made (as implied by the English).6
As these examples illustrate, the “lens” of language affects Bible interpretation. Part 3 will continue our exploration of translations by looking at how our cultural perspective also affects how we read the text.
|Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5|
Rodney Whitefield, Reading Genesis One, (San Jose, CA: R. Whitefield Publisher, 2003), 2-15.
John Millam, “The Genesis Genealogies,” Reasons To Believe, https://www.reasons.org/resources/non-staff-papers/the-genesis-genealogies?main (accessed May 18, 2009).
Rodney Whitefield, Reading Genesis One, 2-15. In certain cases, word order is used to help communicate time ordering of events. Modern Hebrew differs from ancient Hebrew in that it does use verb tense and so behaves similar to other modern languages.
The early church fathers (since they didn’t know Hebrew) associated the creation of the Sun, Moon, and stars with the fourth day but were sharply divided over how it affected the debate over the age of the Earth. Some (e.g., Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine) saw this as clear evidence against a calendar-day interpretation (since there can’t be a “day” without the Sun). Others (e.g., Theophilus of Antioch and Basil) defended a calendar-day view and gave various explanations to reconcile it with the events of the fourth day.
Rodney Whitefield, Reading Genesis One, 102-9.
Typically, interpreters focus on “made” in verse 16 but this overlooks the preceding two verses, which are the ones that primarily describe God’s work on that day. Verse 14 reads “let there be” (haya) and can be understood simply as “appear.” Looking at the full context, we find that the fourth creation day concentrates on the heavenly bodies being clearly visible on Earth and on God assigning them their roles as markers of time. Thus, verse 16 only serves to remind the readers that God is the one who made them (hence, creation is not a god to be worshiped) and is not a statement about when God made them.
Robert I. Bradshaw, “Creationism and the Early Church,” Creationism and the Early Church, updated January 25, 1999. https://www.robibradshaw.com/contents.htm, (accessed May 18, 2009 ).
Rodney Whitefield, Reading Genesis One, (San Jose, CA: R. Whitefield Publisher, 2003).
Rodney Whitefield, “The Fourth Creative ‘Day’ of Genesis,” https://www.creationingenesis.com/TheFourthCreativeDay.pdf, (accessed May 18, 2009).