Friday, February 29, 2008

Text Criticism Terms

Those of us involved in Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible like to throw around certain terms to describe the textual phenomena that we see in the Masoretic Text (MT). Early on in my grad studies, I found myself hopelessly confused about that terminology. Words like homieoteuleton, homeoarcton, dittography, haplography, parablepsis, and Vorlage were thrown around like everybody knew what they meant and had been using them in everyday speech for years. I wish I'd known where to find a list of those terms with definitions (most are in Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible - if you're in the same position I was).

Here's a quick and basic guide to those terms and their typical meaning:

Parablepsis, haplography, homeoarcton, and homieoteuleton all refer to a similar phenomenon. Words or letters get skipped. Parablepsis means the scribe's eye skipped over some text. It's usually caused by homeoarcton (skipping between words with similar looking beginnings) or homieoteuleton (skipping between words with similar endings). Haplography just refers to letters being not written.

Dittography means a word or phrase was written twice. I've done that before with writing "the" twice and and not not noticing it it in in proofreading.

Vorlage is a German term that refers to the master copy that a text was taken from. We usually use it to refer to the original language text behind a translation. We only have the translation but we try to figure out what the Hebrew text they were using looked like. This is mostly used in relation to ancient translations where we don't have a copy of their original text. For modern translations, we usually have the original that was used to make the translation.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Where is the God of Justice?

When Malachi wrote (ca. 400 BCE), the people of Judah have returned from exile in Babylon. They are living in the land. The Temple has been rebuilt, but the vision of the prophets of a restoration and renewal of creation accompanied with God-given prosperity has not happened yet.[1] This renewal was part of the prophets’ rhetoric encouraging the exiles to return to Judah. The re-established community of Jews had expected that renewal to accompany their return. Malachi is explaining why it has not happened yet. They still are not following the covenant. They don’t have faith. They aren’t trusting God.

Observing what’s going on in the world around them, the people are discouraged because it appears that the righteous are suffering and the wicked are prospering. Where is God who should be dealing with the wicked?

Mal. 2:17: You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, "How have we wearied him?" By saying, "Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them." Or by asking, "Where is the God of justice?"

The response from God is:“Trust me. I will act. Have faith. Hold firm despite what you see going on. Keep the commandments. Don’t believe the lie that there is no benefit to it. Don’t believe the lie that there is no distinction between the righteous and the wicked. Return to the covenant and I will act. Keep your end of the agreement (something that you haven’t done throughout our relationship) and I will keep my end of the agreement.”

The people are described as robbing God when they do not keep up their end of the agreement.
Of what is God robbed? (3:8) Their faith. The prophet reports the words of the people that indicate they are losing faith in God based on what they see as injustice allowed to go unpunished in the world. The renewal of creation promised by the prophets was not connected with their return from exile as originally hoped. Why keep the covenant? It is all in vain.

Mal. 3:13-15:13"Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, 'How have we spoken against you?' 14You have said, 'It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? 15And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.' "

The prophet answers by recasting the hoped-for restoration into a still-future time, contingent on their repentance and return to the covenant. If they repent, God will act and renew the creation as promised in the earlier prophets. It has not happened because their disobedience has brought them under a curse that prevents them from receiving the benefits of the covenant, similar to the blessings and curses promised by Lev. 26 and Deut. 28 as consequences for obeying or disobeying the covenant.

Mal. 3:6-12: 6"For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. 7From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, 'How shall we return?' 8Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, 'How have we robbed you?' In your tithes and contributions.[2] 9You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. 10Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. 11I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. 12Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.

References to “the day of his coming” (3:2), God’s judgment on sinners (3:5), his renewal of fallen creation (3:10-12), and the preservation of a righteous remnant (3:16-17) are indicators that the broader context of this passage refers to the eschatological “day of the LORD” spoken of by the prophets.

God will act when the day of the LORD comes and the righteous will receive their reward, and they will have the answer to their question, “Where is the God of Justice?”

Mal. 3:16-4:3: 16Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. 17"They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. 18Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. 4:1"For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

Mal. 3:1 and 4:5 are used in the NT to describe John the Baptist’s role in preparing the way for Christ. The judgment of the Lord described in 3:2-5 is often applied to Christ’s Second Coming.

New Testament preaching to the Jews indicates that Malachi’s message (in the eyes of the early church) had failed to bring about the proper repentance. Note the similarities between Mal. 3:7 and Acts 7:51-53.

Mal 3:7: From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, 'How shall we return?'

Acts 7:51-53: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it."

Malachi presents God as somewhat withdrawn from the daily affairs of humanity because of Israel’s continual disobedience to the covenant. The promises of earthly blessing and renewal are ultimately relegated to the eschatological day of the LORD, and the repentance of Israel is offered as a state of affairs which will hasten the day of the LORD’s coming and the ultimate realization of those promises.

[1] The passages that include the themes of the “day of the LORD” and/or the renewal of creation include Isaiah 2, 11, 35, 49, and 66; Ezekiel 36 and 47; and Joel 1-3.

[2] “Tithes and contributions” in this verse represents keeping the covenant even in the small details. It is very likely a direct allusion to Nehemiah 13:4-14 where Nehemiah describes an incident involving negligence in collecting tithes of grain, wine, and oil for the Temple. In context, the passage in Malachi is about obedience to the covenant and faith in God despite the worldly injustice the people complained about, not specifically about tithes and offerings. It would be possible to use tithing in a religious context today as a contemporary example of an issue requiring faith and trust in God. Rhetorically, the preacher would be importing the same symbolism as employed by the prophet to achieve the same ultimate goal – repentance leading to obedience and greater faith in God. New Testament passages on giving do not bring in the strict tithe principle from the Law. Rather, the requirements for giving are simply that the believers give cheerfully and generously by their own free will (see 1 Cor. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 8-9, esp. 9:5-15). Paul encourages giving by promising that God will supply physical and spiritual needs with all sufficiency for those who give generously.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Meaning of Heb Uncertain

Have you ever read "Meaning of Heb uncertain" in your Bible's footnotes and wondered what the problem was? After all, they gave you a translation, usually in good English. The problem is that they can't burden the text with more than a minimal notation that there is a difficulty here in the original language. They don't have space to give detailed notes on how or why they translated a certain way. I think it would be great if the English translation committees had a separate volume explaining the problems and justifying their solution. Every verse doesn't require that kind of explanation but enough do to make it interesting.

What their "meaning is uncertain" note leaves out it HOW uncertain the reading is. There are different levels of difficulty -- either we know the words but the grammar/syntax doesn't follow usual patterns so we're not sure what it means OR the words themselves are virtually incomprehensible so we give it our best shot at what it might mean.

For example, Isa 42:6 says "I have given you for a covenant (to/for/of) the peoples." The problem is that we know the words but the grammar is unexpected. Literally, we have "for a covenant people." It seems ok in English, but covenant is a noun, not an adjective, so it can't be read attributively in Hebrew. Even if that were ok, the following parallel expression in the verse is "for a light (to/for) the nations" which can't be read attributively at all. Two nouns (covenant and people) are juxtaposed without any preposition, conjunction, or even a definite article helping to determine their relationship. Context suggests the relationship is "covenant to the peoples" as is usually translated. Even so, the NRSV marks this phrase with "Meaning of Heb uncertain" because it's phrased in an unexpected way. This strikes me as odd because we still have a pretty good idea of what it says. What it means to be "a covenant to the peoples" is a problem for exegesis, not translation.

The irony is that the translations do not mark all such verses. A much more obscure verse is found in Ezek 23:42a. Literally with no attempt at making sense in English -- "And sound (of) quiet tumult with/in her and to men from the abundance of mankind being brought drunk from the desert." Again, we know what words are there, but the grammar does not yield much in the way of comprehensible meaning. It's likely there was some kind of textual corruption. For "drunken ones" the Qere wants us to read "Sabeans," a tribe of desert nomads. Not much help. The kicker is that the NRSV does not mark that verse with "meaning of Heb uncertain." I would argue that the meaning here is MORE uncertain than in Isa 42:6.

So, sometimes when that footnote is used, it's still fairly clear what the text says, and sometimes when the text is hopelessly obscure, they don't even hint at it with a note. I guess the only solution is for everyone to learn to read Hebrew.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Bible Translation Philosophy

In my "Lost in Translation" post a few days ago, I promised an overview of the major differences between the most popular English translations. The differences stem from which side of the translation philosophy spectrum each version falls on.

The two sides can be described as word-for-word translation versus thought-for-thought translation. Word-for-word is also called literal and thought-for-thought is called meaning-based, idiomatic, or dynamic equivalence. The difference comes from how much the translator helps the reader understand the meaning of the text. All translations are also interpretations of the meaning of the text at some level. Access to the original languages helps one to see that there is often more than one way to read and understand a verse. Word-for-word translations help keep the reader more aware of that ambiguity in interpreting the text. Thought-for-thought translations usually pick one possible meaning (because they're trying to represent the concept, not the words). Using a meaning-based translation removes some of the ambiguity of interpretation, but also gives the impression that the text has a single clear meaning.

Word-for-word translations try to stick as closely as possible to the wording of the original. No translation is truly word-for-word because that would be unreadable in English but the New American Standard (NASB) comes as close as you can get. Literal translations try to represent the Hebrew and Greek in both wording and sentence structure whenever possible. They tend to be conservative in using readings from other ancient sources besides the traditional texts, so they will let a difficult reading stand with little help to decipher it. In other words, they don't try to interpret obscure, hard-to-figure-out passages for the reader. They just represent it in English as best they can.

True thought-for-thought translations try to represent the meaning of the verse in common everyday English. They're not as concerned with the exact wording or sentence structure of the original language text. They might change the word order of a sentence or make other changes to the wording and grammar to make the meaning more explicit. A paraphrase is an extreme example of this kind of translation. It typically represents what one person understands the text to mean and puts it in simple contemporary wording.

Most translations fall somewhere in the middle and mix elements from the two approaches.

Mixed approach translations are moderately idiomatic, with some constructions which are not totally everyday English, typically Hebrew or Greek phrasing put in English.

The following list explains the translation approaches for the most popular versions.

NASB – New American Standard Bible (1967, 1995). The most literal translation available, it very closely follows the sentence patterns of the original language, sometimes at the expense of readability but the updated version of 1995 greatly improved the English style.

ESV – English Standard Version (2001, 2007). This is an essentially literal translation that excels in providing a very readable, easy to follow text. It is my personal favorite and recommended version. For a fuller explanation of why, click here.

KJV – King James Version (1611-1769). The standard English Bible for over 300 years until the modern English versions began to appear in the 20th century. Noted for its literary elegance, but many consider it difficult to read due to our unfamiliarity with seventeenth-century English grammar and vocabulary. The New King James Version (NKJV) came out in 1982 and tried to preserve the literary elegance of the KJV in more modern English.

NRSV – New Revised Standard Version (1990). A mostly literal translation that is considered to be the approved version of bible scholars due to its willingness to incorporate new findings such as alternative readings from manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

NIV – New International Version (1978). Their approach attempted to blend the goal of accuracy for a literal translation with the concerns for understanding of a meaning-based translation. It is one of the most popular English versions, but some critics claim it waters down theology too much. The most recent version, the TNIV (Today’s New Internation Version – 2005), was widely criticized for their decision to translate in gender-neutral terms (also a feature of the NCV).

NLT – New Living Translation (1996, 2004). A meaning-based translation created for the purpose of making The Living Bible (a paraphrase of the ASV) more accurate while retaining its highly readable character. It is a fairly accurate translation since it sticks closer to a more literal reading in many places. A new edition came out in 2004. I recommend it for those who want a moderately idiomatic version. It is definitely superior to the NIV in my opinion.

CEV – Contemporary English Version (1995). The goal of this translation was to put the Bible into everyday spoken English. It was originally intended for children, so the three men involved immersed themselves in children’s TV programs and popular magazines to get a feel for the everyday language. It is an okay version for reading, but the meaning of many passages comes off differently than in more literal versions because the translators have decided that the readers would have a hard time understanding certain concepts. It is very close to being a paraphrase. The original target audience was kids at a 4th grade reading level. They gave test copies to parents who thought it was so readable that they wanted it for themselves, so they repackaged it as a Bible for adults, too. Same translation, new packaging. (What does that say about the reading -level of the average church-going adult?)

NCV New Century Version (1987). This version also aims to put the Bible in contemporary language, but they’ve also given it contemporary packaging. For example, the NCV is the version found in the Biblezines like “Becoming,” a cross between the Bible and a women’s magazine targeted to twenty and thirtysomething women. There’s also one called “Revolve” targeted at teen girls. The "Biblezine" is a good way to make everyone buy a new bible every year too. Good marketing plan.

TM – The Message (1993-2002). The most popular paraphrase. The Old Testament was finally finished in 2002. I guess it's okay if you like paraphrases.

Anyone interested in doing serious bible study should choose an essentially literal translation like the ESV, NASB, or KJV. If your interest is primarily devotional reading, a more idiomatic version like the NLT would be a good choice.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


It is perhaps a now little known fact that a dictionary will both tell you what a word means and tell you how to pronounce it. Using a dictionary to check words that you don't really know will prevent you from looking foolish. For example, the foolish misuse of a word is called a malapropism. Note the pronunciation from the dictionary [mal-uh-prop-iz-uhm].

This afternoon I was privileged to hear a student presentation on Christianity in Africa that was rather overloaded with malapropisms. Most were of the humorous mispronunciation type. It began innocently enough with the use of "animalistic" where "animistic" was more appropriate. Understandable that a word you don't know gets recast in your mind into a more familiar term. But then they started to come in fast succession. "Anglican"
[ang-gli-kuhn] was pronounced "Angel-i-can." Later we would hear the derivatives "Angel-i-cal-ism" and "Angel-i-cal-ization." This was followed shortly by "Episcopal" [i-pis-kuh-puhl] as "Epi-scAH-pickle." Then there was "macro-kisms" (probably for "macrocosms"). The sacrament of holy communion, Eucharist [yoo-kuh-rist], became "Ew-curious." "Theologians" [thee-uh-loh-juhns] were "thee-uh-lah-jins." (God-lozenges anyone?) My personal favorite was not a malapropism per se, just a humorous use of an adjective where an adverb was more appropriate -- Desmond Tutu was a "huge influential man." The best (i.e., most embarrassing part) was that at the end of the seminar hour when the professor was thanking the presenters, this person was naive enough to boast of being a "good communicator." No matter that her presentation was often uncited verbatim recitations of passages from the assigned reading. I, for one, was bored out of my mind. The only redeeming value of her presentation was the high quantity of humorous malapropisms to catalog.

The moral of the story is that dictionaries will tell you how to pronounce a word, even proper names like "Anglican." If you're unsure about how to say a word, you now know where to look. Look it up before you use it, especially in a presentation. The quickest way to damage your credibility is to start mispronouncing words.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Lost in Translation: The Benefits of Reading the “Original”

Blogs and message boards are great places to find material. There’s always misinformation to correct or a question that needs answering. This one has a little bit of both. I wasn’t a member of the site, so I couldn’t respond directly. The issue has to do with the perceived benefit of reading the original Hebrew of the Bible. Basically, the writer feared he was missing something by not reading the original. The following questions are raised by the message board post:

1. Today’s English versions are missing writings and lack the wording and depth of the original.

Apart from the issue of canonicity (see #3 below), I wouldn’t say any of today’s English translations are “missing writings.” Some English versions are based on different manuscript traditions which might preserve slightly different wordings in some cases. The most important example of this is the King James version (KJV) which comes from a different manuscript tradition than virtually all of the more recent English versions.

As for the issue that the English lacks the wording and depth of the original, it is not possible for a translation to keep the wording of the original language and still be good English. However, most English versions do a decent job of accurately representing the wording and depth of the Hebrew. The problems they have dealing with this will be discussed in #2.

2. Some Hebrew words don’t have an exact match in English. Later Bible versions might alter the words to today’s wordings which might be similar but not exactly the same.

Again, this is a by-product of all translations. No language is able to fully match the range of meaning of individual words in another language. However, the range of meanings of many related words overlaps in Hebrew and English. The correct sense of a Hebrew word can be accurately expressed by different English words depending on the context. All English versions are “altering” the words to today’s wording in some way. It’s called “translation.” It’s not like the original was written in King James English and we’re updating it to current idiom. The goal of English translation is to represent as closely as possible the wording of the original source language (Hebrew) in contemporary English.

3. Some writings have been taken out because a religious leader at the time did not agree with it.

This is an interesting one. Who do you think decided in the first place what was part of the Bible and what wasn’t? The religious leaders at the time. So if a writing was taken out, was it Scripture to begin with? This questions raises the issue of canonicity. As far as the Hebrew Bible goes, the Jewish canon was pretty well set by the second century BCE. It consisted of the Law (the Pentateuch), the Prophets (Joshua through Kings and Isaiah through Malachi except Lamentations), and the Writings (everything else). The third section includes the latest books to be added to the Hebrew Bible, like Esther. The final books of the Hebrew Bible were probably added to the canon around 400 BCE. The “Old Testament” canon of the Catholic and Orthodox churches includes additional books that aren’t part of the Jewish or Protestant canons. (I use “Old Testament” because Hebrew Bible refers specifically to the Jewish/Protestant canon.) These are the Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical books. They were for the most part written during the period from 400 BCE to 100 BCE. Some were originally Hebrew or Aramaic but most were written in Greek and their inclusion in the canon came from the early Christian use of the Septuagint as their Old Testament. Most were never considered Scripture by the Jewish religious leaders. Even some early church fathers, such as Jerome, were uncomfortable with the Scriptural status of books they knew were in the Greek Bible but not in the Hebrew. After the Reformation, Protestant denominations moved to reject the Deuterocanonical books of the Catholic canon and limit their Old Testament canon to the books found in the Hebrew Bible.

The bottom line is that which books are part of “Scripture” depends on your tradition. A copy of the New American Bible (Catholic) will include books that aren’t in a New International Version (Protestant). Various Eastern Orthodox groups include even more books that are rejected by both Protestants and Catholics. This issue is not one that will be aided by an ability to read the Hebrew Bible since most of these additional writings were not written in Hebrew.

4. “Much earlier transcripts list dates of certain events.”

I have no idea what the person is asking about here. Questions based on hearsay are difficult to answer because they come from imagined or misunderstood information. It is possible that this person heard that earlier copies of the Bible give more precise dates for things. This is not true. In fact, the reverse is more likely. Copies that have precise dates are likely to be later (or at least the insertion of the date is often done later).

5. Heard from a friend who heard from a pastor who says that reading from the Hebrew is much more detailed and gives a greater understanding.

Yes, you’re all missing something if you don’t spend years studying Hebrew so that you can get that greater understanding. I’m impressed that there’s a pastor out there somewhere reading from the Hebrew Bible. Most seminaries don’t require learning Hebrew beyond the basic ability to read the simplest texts and use the dictionary to do word studies. This pastor may have been exaggerating his access to the original text. It requires years of study to develop a sense of the Hebrew language enough to pick up on the nuances of the language that get lost in translation. While the benefits are great for those of us who have put in that time, the great majority of people who can only read in translation are not missing out on a lot of details. The translations are mostly done by people with years of experience who are skilled at accurately representing the details and helping readers get the right understanding from the text. The greater understanding we might get from the text comes as a result of our work of interpretation. Knowledge of the language is a tool to aid that interpretation. Anyone can work toward a greater understanding of the text by using tools to aid interpretation. If you lack access to the original language, find a commentary that will explain the additional nuances of interpretation for you. Not being able to read Hebrew does not prevent you from seeking a greater understanding of the text.

Not all translations give you the same access to the text. In the future, I’ll comment on the major differences between translations and which ones are best to get you closer to the “original.”

Friday, February 8, 2008

N.T. Wright on Heaven

There's a rather interesting interview with N.T. Wright in Time concerning his views on what the New Testament really says about heaven and the afterlife.

It's an issue that I haven't thought about too much before, but what he says seems to fit with what I think Paul is describing in 1 Cor. 15:12-58 and 1 Thess. 4:13-18. According to Wright, the hope Christians have in resurrection and rising into heaven is directed not at the time immediately after death but at the Second Coming of Christ. But I'm not sure how it fits with Paul's discussion of the earthly tent vs the heavenly dwelling in 2 Cor. 5:1-10. I'm still mulling over the issue. One can always count on N.T. Wright to be thought provoking. I welcome any enlightenment anyone can offer on the subject.

The Etymology of God and Allah

Here's another example of how the internet can foster the spread of misinformation. I happened upon a blog post that re-posted in full someone else's rant about why Christians should not use the word "Allah" as a name for God. To stop the spread of misinformation, I won't link to it. I fully agree with them that the current associations of the name as the proper name of the god of Islam make it unacceptable as a generic name for God. But why would English-speaking Christians need to use an Arabic word for God anyway? In today's world, it would simply cause confusion -- making it seem like the two biggest world religions really worship the same god (they don't).

However while the main point of the rant was correct, the post itself included a very glaring error of Hebrew etymology intended to discredit the word as a deity's name. They said that the Arabic word "Allah" was the same as (i.e., cognate to) the word for "oak trees" in the Hebrew Bible. This is completely incorrect. The terms are not related. The Arabic word is cognate to 'Eloah, a rare Hebrew synonym for El or Elohim, both used as generic words for "god." The same is true in English -- we can use "god" generally like "the Greek gods" or specifically as "God" to refer the Judeo-Christian God. One of the Hebrew words for "oak tree" is 'elah which looks similar to the Aramaic cognate of 'Eloah which is 'Elah. The spelling looks the same in my English transliteration, but there are differences in the original script. I suppose that similarity is possibly the source of the mix-up. (Side note on historical grammar: In Arabic and Aramaic, the last vowel in 'allah or 'elah is a historically long /a/. That's how we know for certain that 'elah "oak" in Hebrew is not related because historically long /a/ shifted to /o/ in the Canaanite dialects. This resulted in the /o/ vowel we have in 'eloah and 'elohim in Hebrew.)

At any rate whatever the origin of the word "Allah," it no longer carries a neutral connotation as a general word "god." As such, it would be inappropriate to use it for any deity except the god of the Quran. In the same way, it would be inappropriate to refer to any deity as YHWH except for the God of the Bible. One can read a good theological discussion of the differences between YHWH and Allah here. (that is, it's more articulate than the rant that I'm not linking to.)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Open Mouth, Insert Book (On Josh. 1:8)

The Bible often uses creative expressions that make us stop and think about what the text is really saying. These are my thoughts on Joshua 1:8. What does it mean that "this book of the Law should not depart from your mouth?"

Joshua 1:8 – My Literal Amplified Translation:

(1) This book of the law will not depart [be removed, be taken away] from your mouth,

(2) but you will meditate [muse, ponder, utter, recite] on it day and night,

(3) in order that you may take care [keep, guard, observe, retain] to do all that is written in it.

(4) For then, you will cause your way to thrive [advance, prosper, succeed]

(5) and then you will have success [prosper, act prudently].

Notes on Translation of the First Clause:

In English, we have a number of different ways of phrasing commands.

1. The Warning / Request – “Don’t do this thing!”

2. The Emphatic Command – “You WILL NOT do this thing!”

3. Event-oriented Command – “This thing will not happen!”

The Hebrew command in this verse is the third kind – “This book will not depart…” But it might be more easily understood rephrased as the second type. “You will not forget this book of the law.” The figurative phrase “Depart from your mouth” means no longer recited, no longer remembered, no longer taught, i.e. forgotten.

My Interpretive Translation:

“You will not forget this book of the Law; Rather, you will recite it continually so that you will retain it and do it. And in this, you will clear your path for success and you will prosper.”


This verse is structured as a command, a legal requirement much like the 10 commandments. It requires regular study of God’s word. In this regard, it has similarities with the frequent commands in Deuteronomy and elsewhere, challenging the people of Israel to remember the events of the Exodus and keep the laws that were given. Their possession of the land is contingent on their obedience.

Some Old Testament passages requiring obedience to the law can be applied to the Church in light of James 2:14-26 (i.e. v. 18, “But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” ESV). The Israelites’ obedience to the law was the evidence of their faith.

The word “mouth” is used metaphorically to represent speaking or reciting the law. This understanding is strengthened by the following sentence where the verb usually translated as “meditate” literally means “mutter.” Picture someone reading aloud to themselves in a barely audible mumble. “Mouth” is used regularly along with “lips” and “heart” to reflect the act of recounting or remembering or teaching God’s word, i.e., internalizing it. See other examples in Psalm 71:15, Psalm 89:1, Psalm 119:43, and Prov 4:5. See also Deut. 6:3-7 and 30:8-20 (esp. v. 14).

Traditional Jewish methods of teaching the law still revolve around oral recitation and regular oral reading of large parts of scripture. Josh 1:8 is promoting obedience by requiring constant oral repetition which would make it nearly impossible to forget the law. This passage and others that are similar to it have a threefold approach to following the law.

1. Remember It (Hear it. Internalize it. Heart)

2. Speak It. (Confess it. Mouth, Lips)

3. Do It. (Act on it.)

This brings to mind a number of verses from the New Testament.

James 1:22 says “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (ESV) Matthew 12:34b “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (ESV)

Also see Romans 10:8-10 where v. 8 quotes Deut. 30:14.


This verse is urging regular study and oral reading (not eating) of the Bible to promote active obedience of Scripture.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Holiness in the Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible, the root *qds “to be holy” refers exclusively to the state of being set apart because of associations with the sacred (i.e., connected to deity). There are also implications for maintaining that sacred status by keeping free from sin. God’s holiness requires him to dissociate from sin.

The concept of holiness in relation to God has two levels. One is the inviolable sacredness of God himself. This is the ultimate association with God as infinitely set apart and unique, worthy of worship and status as God. This is seen in the divine name common in Isaiah “The Holy One of Israel.” The second is the earthly acknowledgement of God’s worth and uniqueness and status as God. A few examples may help make this more clear. Many passages talk about having a proper respect and fear of God.

Leviticus 10:3 Then Moses said to Aaron, "It is what the LORD spoke, saying, 'By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored.'" So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.

Ezekiel 36:23 "I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD," declares the Lord GOD, "when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight.

Leviticus 22:32 "You shall not profane My holy name, but I will be sanctified among the sons of Israel; I am the LORD who sanctifies you,

Some of the examples bring in the idea of “profaneness” or “uncleanness.” It is sometimes helpful (linguistically) to attempt to define a term according to its opposite. In Ezek. 36:23 and Lev. 22:32, “profane” means treat as common or not acknowledge the sacredness or violate the sacredness by not respecting and honoring it. The concept of holiness is often contrasted with the state of being “common” as in not-sacred or “unclean” as in not fit for sacred uses.

Another aspect of holiness is seen in God’s desire to have a specific place for his presence that is considered sacred.

Exodus 25:8 "Let them construct a sanctuary [miqdash] for Me, that I may dwell among them.

Deuteronomy 26:15 'Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground which You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers.'

2 Chronicles 29:5 Then he said to them, "Listen to me, O Levites. Consecrate yourselves now, and consecrate the house of the LORD, the God of your fathers, and carry the uncleanness out from the holy place. [i.e. the Temple]

The Hebrew Bible turns to focus on human holiness in Leviticus 17-26. This section of the book is called “The Holiness Code” because it uses the word *qds so much. Leviticus 19 is an important section. It starts out with:

Leviticus 19:2 "Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, 'You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

The chapter goes on to outline specific commandments of God that are placed in the context of what it means to fulfill this command to be holy because God is holy. In effect, it’s saying here’s what one should do to be holy – obey God in these things.

The sense in which people are commanded to pursue holiness is in setting themselves apart from sin. The Bible also points out how God has set apart a chosen people to be holy.

Leviticus 11:44-45 44 'For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. 45 'For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.'"

Joshua 24:19 19 Then Joshua said to the people, "You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins.

Leviticus 20:26 'Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.

Exodus 19:6 and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel."

An important theme in the book of Ezekiel focuses on how Israel sinned and failed to keep themselves set apart from the sins they were warned about in Leviticus. So it would seem that the primary emphasis of holiness in the Hebrew Bible is on the earthly aspect of human acknowledgement or awareness of God as holy coupled with proper behavior that should derive from that awareness of God’s holiness. Perhaps this understanding of holiness can bring us a little closer to understanding the refrain repeated again and again in the book of Ezekiel – “and they shall know that I am the LORD.” It is as if God were saying, “I’ll make them see. Surely after this, they will acknowledge my holiness.”

Ezekiel 5:13 "Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself. And they shall know that I am the Lord—that I have spoken in my jealousy— when I spend my fury upon them.

Big Words, Simple Meanings

Here's another good word to add to the everyday vocabulary. Indefatigable. It's a big word with a relatively simple meaning -- "untiring" or "not able to be tired out." It's especially appropriate to use in reference to God in Isaiah 40:28.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (ESV)

Use the word at parties, impress your friends, look smarter. You know, the everyday benefits of a graduate education.

Good Text Criticism Word

The M-W Word of the Day for today has a familiar ring for text critics. The word is "haplology" \hap-LAH-luh-jee\ , the "contraction of a word by omission of one or more similar sounds or syllables." Haplology is more commonly used to refer to spoken language. We're more familiar with the term as it relates to written language, "haplography" -- the accidental omission of a letter or group of letters that should be repeated. When we come across problems of haplography in the Hebrew Bible, we usually assume a scribal error. I wonder if some of the instances of haplography visible in the text could be instances of haplology, that is, based on a different pronunciation, not a writing mistake. I don't know if this is the case. I'm not sure how one would detect the difference, but I'll keep thinking about it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Some words are destined for mispronunciation. For a foreign language learner, that's an expected part of the learning process. But why do native speakers of English have such a problem with this word -- "Christendom"? Admittedly, it's not one we use everyday. In fact it's somewhat archaic to refer to the worldwide Christian church with this term (except for academics). But there is one season of the year when this word enters the common speech -- Christmas. It's not uncommon to hear "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the background during this season. The song contains the phrase "the belfries of all Christendom." But no one knows how to say it anymore. At least two recent Christian recordings of this song have pronounced the word as "Christian-dom." I've heard enough people mispronouncing it this way that it's become a pet peeve. Everyone, repeat after me -- kris-uhn-duhm. The first part of the word is "christen," not "Christian." Got it? Good.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Hebrew Bible or Old Testament? What's the big deal anyway?

It seems appropriate for my first substantive entry to deal at the same time with general issues of blogging about religion and specific issues of terminology in the study of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. The ease with which one can create a blog is at the same time really cool and really scary. It's cool because ideas worth sharing can be immediately published for all to see. It's scary because misinformation can be shared just as easily. The subject of religion, particularly dealing with the Bible, is especially prone to receive comment from all kinds of people who know little or nothing about their subject matter. I don't understand why. I would not choose to post my thoughts on subjects that I was unfamiliar with. No posts will be found here on mechanical engineering, computer science, quantum physics, or the like. Yet, many people continue to emphatically state their opinions and interpretations on biblical questions with apparently little or no regard for factual accuracy.
The inspiration for the present commentary came from a blog entry that I stumbled across dealing with the use of the term "Hebrew Bible" to designate what is called the "Old Testament" (OT) by Christians and the "Tanakh" by Jews. The writer there was commenting on a recent news article that advocated the use of the terms "Hebrew Bible" for the OT and "Christian Bible" for the New Testament (NT). The objection was that "Hebrew Bible" implied the Bible was only for the Hebrews (i.e. Jews) and that "Christian Bible" implied the Bible was only for Christians and that Christianity was a separate religion. This obscured the universal message of the Christian Gospel found in the NT. My initial impulse was to offer a corrective comment on the person's blog. I saw that many comments had been left on the blog, so I hoped that perhaps someone had already politely offered correction. The problem, unfortunately, extended much further than just the initial reaction to the possible implications of terminology. The writer went on to offer an account of Jewish history from the biblical period onward that would be almost completely unrecognizable to anyone who has taken a Bible survey class or an introduction to Judaism. Now I don't expect 100% accuracy from non-professionals commenting on the Bible, but it would be nice to detect their awareness of their own limitations. Nothing of the sort occurred. Imaginative history was recounted as fact. The comments, rather than offering serious correction, perpetuated the uninformed nature of the discussion. (Alarming since there were many comments..."the blind leading the blind" came to mind.) It quickly became clear that a corrective comment would be impossible due to the enormity of the factual inaccuracy. There is also the fact that innocent attempts at constructive criticism on blogs or message boards are often misconstrued as "flaming."
I cannot comment on the factual problems in their historical account without quoting or linking to the entry (something I am not inclined to do because of the likelihood that my comments will be misconstrued). I also do not wish to be directly critical of the few people involved in the post there. I am not against interested lay people sharing their opinions. My goal is teaching interested lay people. A well-informed opinion is much more compelling and persuasive than an ignorant rant. Therefore, I will limit myself to a discussion of the terminology that sparked their discussion in the first place. This serves the dual purpose of giving me a chance right off the bat to explain some of the terms that I will use in these posts.
First, to my knowledge, alternative terms for the NT such as Christian Bible, Christian Testament, Second Testament, etc. have not really become mainstream in academic work on the NT. This is likely because most NT scholars are either Christian or come from a Christian background. The term "Hebrew Bible," however, for the OT has become mainstream in academic circles to refer to the canon of Scripture common to Judaism and Protestant Christianity. This terminology is necessary in the field because both Jewish and Christian scholars work on this body of text. The terminology is a convention adopted to allow for common dialogue about the text. Contrary to the mistaken assumption of the blog mentioned above, the term "Hebrew" in Hebrew Bible refers not to a people but to a language. Everyone should be able to agree that we are working on a canon of Scripture written in the Hebrew language (except for a few chapters in Aramaic). For this reason, I have no difficulty using the term Hebrew Bible when I am in an academic setting and the term Old Testament when I am in a confessionally Christian setting. Each term is appropriate in its setting. "Hebrew Bible" does not imply the Bible is only for the Jews. The Jews call their Bible the Tanakh (an acronym for "the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings" in Hebrew). In Christian theology, the Old & New Testaments represent the progressive unfolding of divine revelation first to Israel, then through Israel to the world. "To the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:16). To be fair, I will admit that this was in fact the main point of the blog I found commenting on terminology, but it was inappropriate to attack the term "Hebrew Bible" as obscuring that theological point. "Hebrew Bible" was coined to provide common ground for Jews and Christians to talk about the OT/Tanakh without getting hung up on theological points.
In the Hebrew Bible, the people of Israel are rarely called "Hebrews." There are about 32 instances, most of them occur in Genesis, Exodus, and 1 Samuel. It is noteworthy that the use of the term almost always reflects the perspective of foreign peoples. We have an Egyptian's reference to Joseph in Gen. 39:14 and 41:12. We have Jonah introducing himself in Jon. 1:9. We have the Philistines' perspective in 1 Sam. 29:3. The most common internal designation for the people (that is, the name they use for themselves in the Bible) is either "children of Israel," or "Israel," or "Ephraim," or "Judah." "Children of Israel" (lit. "sons of Israel") alone occurs around 500 times (e.g., Exod. 1:7, 11:10, etc.). The earliest extra-biblical reference to the Israelites comes from an Egyptian stele dating to around 1200 BCE which mentions "Israel" in a list of peoples or cities defeated in Canaan by Pharaoh Merneptah.
The term "Judahite" is used for people from Judah in the biblical books that reflect the period starting around 700 BCE or so. This is the designation that led to the modern name "Jew." For the record, the term "Judah" or "Yehud" or "Judea" was the name of a tribe of Israel and later a province of Persia, Greece, and Rome. The name "Jew" is not a racial slur (contrary to one of the emphatic comments on the aforementioned blog entry). It is the name they use for themselves in much of the post-exilic biblical literature, especially the book of Esther.
The bottom line is that the word "Hebrew" in present-day usage typically refers to the Hebrew language, not the Jewish people. At best, it could be taken as an archaic synonym for "Jew." The biblical usage of the term is rare when compared to the use of "children of Israel" (30 vs. 500). Even there, the context almost always reflects the perspective of foreigners, probably a regional designation kind of like referring to oneself as an "American" rather than as an "Iowan" when overseas. Therefore, the use of the term "Hebrew Bible" should not be taken to imply a Bible that is exclusively for the "Hebrews."
Agree? Disagree? Think I'm making too big a deal of this? I welcome all comments - and I'm open to correction - so let me know what you think.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Beginning

I am starting this blog to share my thoughts and opinions related to the study of the Hebrew Bible and related disciplines. Time will tell how much I am able to contribute as I am in the middle of a demanding doctoral program in Hebrew and Semitic studies. I am also an active member of a local Christian church, so one of my primary goals is to explore ways to make my academic study of the Bible relevant for the Christian church.
My interests range much further than just the study of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Most of my research interests would fall under the category of Biblical Interpretation. The Hebrew Bible provides the foundation for serious study of Judaism and Christianity. It is pretty hard to jump into reading rabbinic literature or the New Testament or the early church fathers without having some knowledge of what is said in the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament and the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrashim are constantly quoting Scripture from the Hebrew Bible. An understanding of the world of Ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism is essential to interpretation. Even the Quran, the sacred text of Islam, connects to the Hebrew Bible, tracing the origin of Islam to Abraham and claiming numerous biblical prophets in its heritage.
So the bottom the Hebrew Bible...without it, we wouldn't understand the heritage of three of the most prominent religions of the world. In the meantime, I'll add my two-cents worth about here from time to time.