We spend a good bit of time debating hermeneutics, debating interpretation.
We point to our Scriptures and say, The Bible says ...
Herein is tricky business.
What does, in fact, the Bible say?
While some translations into English have worked tirelessly to render the poetics and the integrity of the Scripture, like the King James Version, other translations have valued basic, simple language so as to make the Text easily accessible.
In principle, I like the idea.
But I've been thinking. Pondering.
If our goal is to make the Scripture accessible to the point that we use common vernacular, are we risking, perhaps, certain meaning in the process?
When we translate with an eye to our comfort, do our Bible's become too small?
Half of the book of Exodus is filled with instructions given by God for how the tabernacle is supposed to be fashioned. Crucially, this is not a task He assigns to Moses, but to a man called Bezalel, whose name means in the shadow of God, identified along with his apprentices comprised of men and women to posses what in the Hebrew is transliterated as chákham-lëv.
Crucially, only those men and women called to construct the tabernacle are ascribed this characteristic. In rough English, the word is simply translated wisehearted. chákham for wisdom, lëv for heart.
In the spiritual reading, it is not difficult for us to see that the characteristic of having wiseheartedness is a characteristic that naturally follows God's care in deciding the places He dwells. Not just anyone can make Him a tabernacle just as not just anyone could lead His people out of Egypt. There is something to this special quality of chákham-lëv that we should pay attention to, for it speaks to something beyond artistic skill. It is about holiness, calling, vocation, lifelong devotion to the quality of God's creation.
Accordingly, the King James renders the passage in Exodus 31:6 concerning those called to construct the tabernacle, described as possessing chákham-lëv, all that are wise hearted.
However, other translators have seen fit to suggest a different meaning of the term altogether.
skill to all the craftsmen (NIV)
special skill to all the gifted craftsmen (NLT)
given to all able men ability (ESV)
in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill (NASB)
all who have an aptitude for crafts (The Message)
We can see potential problems theologically and spiritually and devotionally if we render chákham-lëv to be simply skill. Worse, if we render it an aptitude for crafts.
The translation leads us to conclude that God's artists were simply really good at what they were doing. Clever. Resourceful. While they may have been all of those things, what is imperative in the translation of chákham-lëv is that the quality of their craft was rooted in a condition of wisdom that came from the heart, which is a uniquely Jewish understanding of wisdom as well as an imperatively devotional claim.
It seems that God does not desire artistic excellence, but that artistic excellence is born out of this quality of heart in which wisdom is rooted in the very core of the artisan.
Moreover, in the grand sweep of theology, the only other instances of wiseheartedness in the Scripture occur in two important places. The first, in a passing reference in Proverbs. The second, when referring to the wisdom of Solomon.
When Solomon asks God for wisdom, he does not ask for chákham-lëv but merely chákham, wisdom. It is God's delight in Solomon's request that causes Him to respond by saying that while what Solomon asked of Him was good, He would grant to him something better: chákham-lëv.
It is worth mentioning that it was King Solomon, the son of King David who was told by God that he would not build God's temple, that later is responsible for constructing the temple of Jerusalem.
Once again, chákham-lëv is directly connected to the building of the space in which God chooses to dwell.
But if we translate it as skill, we miss the beauty of the narrative, not only in its immediate context but in what Scripture is unfolding through its whole.
And this is only one example, relating to one verse. There are so many others.
Give us today the food we need (NLT)
The food we need misses the point, entirely, of give us this day our daily bread.
Bread that is connected with the body of Christ. Bread that is made known to us in Communion. Bread that never means simply food, but the very essence of what keeps our souls and bodies satisfied in the abundance of God.
The bread of Life.
Is it not for that we are to pray?
In the narrative of the temptation in Eden, the words of Satan to Eve concerning the tree: Did God really say ... ?
Thousands and thousands of years later, following His baptism, the Gospel according to St. Luke lists the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam. Fascinatingly, he situates this information right before Jesus enters the wilderness to be tempted.
As if anticipating or complimenting St. Paul's words that Jesus is the Second Adam, Luke focuses on the genealogical connection of Adam and Jesus right as He enters the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.
Here, the Second Adam faces the old trickster, who in his temptations quotes the Scriptures to Jesus, as if to say, again, Did God really say ... ?
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person's share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
Jesus, in the Revelation to St. John.
If we read Revelation in its apocalyptic genre, it speaks not simply to future events but as a way of reading the spiritual reality of the history we navigate throughout all times and places.
Could it be, then, that poor translation, perhaps, commits the very error echoed in the old temptation: Did God really say ... ?
What if poor translation is as spiritually fraught as all that?
I was saying something about tabernacles.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Perhaps this is an example that the King James Version did not do well with.
In the Greek, the word translated as dwell or lived or myriad other things is ἐσκήνωσεν.
ἐσκήνωσεν, actually, means to pitch a tent.
Yet tents in the Old Testament, when relating to the presence of God, are often not tents at all. Spiritually sensitive readers of Scripture shall see the connection to Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.
Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.
In the Hebrew, the word rendered by the translators of the King James tabernacle is transliterated ohel, the word that was used when describing the tent of God's meeting place, the tabernacle, throughout the Old Testament.
What of that Greek ἐσκήνωσεν?
It means to pitch a tent. Literally, at least. But with spiritual sensitivity to the narrative arc of the Scripture?
John 1:14 should read, And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.
He pitched His tent in our midst, the place where God's glory dwells.
When the Bible was first translated into the vernacular, there were numerous words that English did not and could not provide adequate expression for. The language of the Scripture was so markedly other that to use ordinary English seemed to reduce the essential meaning of certain words to almost nothing, to theological and spiritual mush.
Early translators chose to use their knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic to import words that better communicated the meaning of the Text.
Words like Sabbath and communion.
Words like alms, angel, anthem, arc, chalice, deacon, disciple, epistle, hymn, manna, martyr, priest, psalm, rule, temple, apostle, canticle, creed, demon, prophet.
These only in the first generation of translators.
Following, words like theology, homily, sacrament, baptism, beatitude, confession, penance, passion, pastor, crucifixion, sanctuary, miracle, Creator, saviour, Trinity, virgin, saint, faith, devotion, temptation, contricion, absolution, charity, mercy, obedience, virtue and the list goes on.
It is sobering to wonder what would have happened if the goal of the first translators was to speak plainly or to make the Bible in plain English.
It was not the fault of the Scripture but in the impoverished language, so the language was refined to accommodate the theological import of what it was tasked to bear witness to.
In our society today, when it seems Babel's tower is alive in our myriad translations, has our desire to speak plainly robbed us of a Scripture that itself does not?
Have translations obsessed with the literal stripped away the poetry?
Have translations seeking to make a theological and dogmatic claim ignored the Text when it contradicts their desires?
Could, in the vein of Did God really say ... ?, there be a spiritual battle, a cosmic battle, at stake in merely how we are translating certain words?
To be human is, yes, to be fallible. We are the creatures who know, and we know that we know. We are also the creatures who know that we don't know. When I was a child, I used to think that being grown up meant that you would know. Grown-ups had the answers. This is an illusion that a lot of people don't lose when they grow up. But our very fallibility is one of our human glories. If we are infallible we are rigid, stuck in one position, as immobile as those who could not let go to the idea that planet earth is in the centre of all things.
Maybe what we need are twenty very faithful translations, the product of prayer and study, lined up side-by-side for each verse. Twenty different languages from different eras. An unfolding testimony that what matters is not that we make the Scripture watered down to literal meaning or only poetics, but that Scripture is the disclosure of God's beauty and wonder to the world and that we, in our fallible ways, are reaching out to try and see Him well.
The issue cannot be, But, aren't people still being reached even with poor translation?
Yes. God is a God of wonder. A God of the miraculous. A God of hope.
Is it not cause for us to pause and reflect that if we know better we have the responsibility to offer people better?
In everything, excellence unto the Lord?
What would be the wisehearted thing to do?
It takes me a half hour to find my Greek textbook. I haven't opened it in over a year. I pull up John 1 on the internet, which is arguably one of the easiest and most straightforward passages in the Scripture to translate from the Greek.
In the beginning ...
My Hebrew book is on the nightstand, three months of wondering whether or not it was finally time to learn the language now brought to a clear and resounding yes.
I am not in graduate school to learn Biblical languages. I am, in that regard, only a lay, devotional reader.
But that's just it: I am a lay, devotional reader who is realising how much is at stake.
What is at stake in our Scriptures is too important to leave to poor translation, to accepted reductions of things that are so large and so beautiful our own language cannot hold them.
Is that, perhaps, part of why God chose to enter the timeline of events how He did?
Is it possible that the vocabularies were just right, just so to hold Him in a way our own words are still searching to do?
I suppose the only way of knowing, like all things of Faith, is a lifetime of devotion.
Learning to read as He first purposed it to be read.
The search, ever and always, to make our Bibles bigger, fuller, alive.
The search, ever and always, for souls of chákham-lëv.
This post is in honour of my beloved undergraduate thesis director, Dr. David Lyle Jeffrey, who has and continues to show me that our God is a God of great beauty and mystery, that to love the Scripture well is to love the language of His heart. All I know of these things, in some way, is thanks to him and to Him.