I have noticed that often times students who begin learning one of the biblical languages think that at the end of a few years of studying vocabulary, grammar, and syntax that they will then know how to read and translate the Bible. However, learning vocabulary, grammar, and syntax is not enough if one wants to truly understand a language–one has to also be a student of the cultures, both general and local, in which these languages were used.
I remember asking the late Michael P. O’Connor what aspect of biblical Hebrew pedagogy he thought was most in need of improvement. Without hesitation he said that the biggest weakness that he saw in the students entering a PhD program (and he was referring to students that already had at least 2 years of biblical Hebrew upon their application to the program) is that they had virtually no understanding of ancient culture–they had merely studied language, biblical content, and theology and because of this really didn’t know the language at all (and I would add that if you don’t know the language you really don’t know biblical content or theology on a deep level, but I digress).
But how could this be? Why would O’Connor make such statements? For instance, aren’t the meanings of words readily accessible in the myriad of lexicons on the shelves of any good library? Yes and no. Take Lipinski’s discussion regarding the meaning of the words we commonly translate as “slave” and “slave-girl”:
The West Semitic noun ‘abd-, e.g., can designate a slave, a servant, a king’s minister, a god’s worshipper, because its conceptual content is not a social rank, but a relation created by a dependent activity. As a result, when one is translating the Bible, e.g., into some European language, the problems of equivalence can be acute. It is easier to translate the noun in question by ‘servant’ and to have recourse to the polysemy of the English word, but ‘abd- really does not mean ‘servant’ and the corresponding polysemy does not exist in Semitic. Neither ‘dependent’ would fit the case because ‘abd- is etymologically related to the verb ‘bd which suggests some form of performed activity. Besides, diachronic aspects should not be forgotten. E.g. if the Hebrew word shipha is often translated by ‘slave-girl’,–probably under influence of Arabic sifah, ‘concubinage by capture’, ‘cohabitation by force’,–one cannot forget that mishpaha was a clan or a larger family in biblical times, and that shph means ‘posterity’ in Ugaritic and ‘family’ in Punic. One can assume therefore that shipha was originally a house-born girl who was not a legal daughter of the paterfamilias, probably because she was born from a kind of sifah. Now, these social implications are missing in a translation like ‘slave-girl’. These examples show that languages are basically a part of culture, and that words cannot be understood correctly apart from the local cultural phenomena for which they are symbols.1
All this to say, I’m looking forward to teaching a course on ancient Near Eastern culture in the Fall.
- Edward Lipinski, Semitic Languages Outline of a Comparative Grammar (OLA 80; Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 557. [back]