Yesterday, I finished my last Hebrew assignment, an exegesis of Genesis 12:1-3. Nothing on this journey has been as difficult as the three courses of Hebrew that were required by the Christian Reformed Church. At times I felt overwhelmed. I put in hours upon hours trying to get the words and the grammar to stick in my head. The credits that I got for these courses took far more energy than any of the other credits. The question has to be asked: Was it worth the effort?
The question is particularly relevant because I have not yet found a Christian Reformed minister who actually uses his or her Hebrew training. All of them passed the courses or else they would not be ordained, but it seems that it was little more than something that needed to be done rather than a skill that is valuable to their work in ministry or, if it was once seen as valuable, the skills have been allowed to fall by the wayside in the busyness of the work of the church. Some will argue that the computer tools available, make use of the actual language unnecessary, all that is needed is an understanding of it.
I am glad that I was forced to put in the effort. I’m glad that my prof did not just do enough to get me through, but, challenged me to think in new ways. For me, the time spent has been worthwhile. I can find meaning in the Hebrew words, grammar and syntax. With so many good translations used today you might wonder what the point of actually reading the text yourself would be. Nine months ago I would have said the same thing, but how do you know which is right when they differ.
Here is an example: Genesis 12:1 is part of the text of the exegesis paper. It is the record of the call of Abraham. The New International Version, which is found in most CRC’s, says:
The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
The NRSV, says:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
They look pretty much the same, don’t they? They are, except for the word “had”, which doesn’t seem like that big a deal.. “Had” also shows up in the King James version and changes the tone of the call from something that has just happened to something that has happened a while ago, maybe even a long time ago. Abraham’s response in verse four is:
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him Genesis 12:4a NIV
“Had” changes the tone of Abraham’s response in verse four from an immediate leaving to, perhaps, a longer, drawn out response. It changes the message of the verse.
“Had” is not part of the Hebrew text. Without the last nine months of work, I would have a hard time knowing which of these translations was right. Now I know.
So, why is it there? The best argument I can find, is to make the text match with Stephen’s sermon in Acts seven. There, Stephen says that God’s call came to Abraham when he was living in Ur of the Chaldeans. The last part of Genesis 11 has Abraham living in Haran not Ur. “Had” is added to put the call further in the past, in Ur.
The the translators, who wrote the KJV, apparently attempted to match the words of the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament. The NIV, in some cases, has followed the example set out by the KJV whether or not it was correct.
There are, of course, many other cool reasons to work with the original language. This example for me is one of the more troubling ones. Unfortunately, it’s not the only example.
Of course, my stated determination to keep, and grow, this language skill may be nothing but hot air. If I don’t find ways to work at it, I, like so many others who took the courses, will return to Hebrew illiteracy.