A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ryan Speck
This book is not what you expect. It is more. The impression of the title is that Schlimm, a professor of OT at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa, will trot out seventy Hebrew words and explain their significance to the reader. He does that (and insightfully), but he also demonstrates why it is necessary to know Hebrew to understand the Scriptures more deeply.
According to Saint Jerome (who translated the Bible into Latin), “translators act like invaders who went inside foreign lands, stole thoughts, and brought them back home.” Likewise, Luther maintained that “he had to choose whether to ‘demolish’ the German language or ‘depart from’ the biblical word.” In short, “translation is war. Loss and destruction inevitably occur” (p. xi).
Accordingly, “The purpose of this book is to help readers find what’s lost in Bible translation. It helps them locate nearly forgotten prisoners of war and remains of the dead. This book allows readers to rebuild the rubble left by Bible translations, or at least imagine the glory of the structure that once stood in their splendor before translations demolished what lay in their path” (p. xii). While Schlimm acknowledges that “The basic message of the Bible can be understood in any language,” yet, to understand that message more fully, you must know something of the original languages (p. xiv). Anyone ignorant of the fact that translations necessarily lose some of the original meaning should read this book. This loss of meaning demands that at least preachers should study the original languages of Scripture—although Schlimm encourages every Christian to take an interest.
Therefore, Schlimm has designed this book to be accessible to those who know nothing of Hebrew, while, at the same time, seminary students and pastors will profit from it. Additionally, Schlimm provides resources for further study on his website (www.MatthewSchlimm.com).
Truly, this book is startling and eye-opening—it was for me as a pastor with some familiarity with Hebrew—and is extremely useful for every Christian who wants to understand the OT Scripture in its original language. If you are committed to ministering the Word of God to others or being a Berean, this book will help you do so. I commend it highly, albeit with caveats included in my analysis below.
Each chapter focuses upon a sample group of particular and oft-used Biblical Hebrew words that demonstrate a specific loss in translation. Each specific loss in translation is rendered at the beginning of every chapter by a graphic representation so that readers can quickly see what is lost in each category.
In reviewing each chapter, I will use a few of Schlimm’s examples. However, these examples are but a sample of the 70 words he explains.
Chapter 1: Losing Hebrew Sound
“Every word has both sound and meaning” (p. 1). Generally, a translator may opt either to capture the sound or the meaning of the word. Usually, of course, he seeks to capture the meaning of the word in translation, losing the sound. So what? What does sound matter? Who cares how an Israelite pronounced “earth,” for example? Ask a poet or rapper whether the sound of words matters! Ask any father who likes puns, if sound is important! Dr. Seuss would not exist unless the sound of words were important! Likewise, in the Scriptures, the sounds of words bind these words together. It is not only beauty in view, but meaning too.
For example, in Amos 8:1-3, God showed Amos a fruit basket that signaled doom for Israel. A fruit basket? That doesn’t sound ominous, does it? Yet, the Hebrew words for “summer fruit” and “end” are ominously similar in sound. Thus, “God shows Amos a basket of qayits as an ominous sign of Israel’s qets.” The connection between the vision and the message is the sound of the words. If the sound is lost, so is the connection. How could anyone understand this vision, unless someone knows enough Hebrew to explain it?
Chapter 2: Losing Hebrew Meaning
“This chapter looks at cases where our English Bibles retain Hebrew sound but let go of meaning” (p. 11). That is, at times, translators will attempt to approximate the sound of a Hebrew word into English, which is known as transliteration. Accordingly, these words are often well-known to English-speakers literate in Scripture but, perhaps, the meaning of such words is no longer understood. These words include Hebrew names (such as Nathan) and religious words (such as Amen, Hallelujah, or Sabbath).
For example, when the reader understands that Adam means “humankind,” that Eve means “life,” that Eden means “delight,” that Cain means “spear,” and that Abel means “fleeting breath,” then you could literally summarize what happened in Genesis 2-4 as: “Humanity and Life initially lived in the garden of Delight. After God kicks them out, Spear kills his brother Fleeting Breath” (p. 12). Understanding the meaning of transliterated Hebrew words deepens our understanding of the message God is communicating in the Scriptures.
Chapter 3: Words We Lack in English
Are you creative? No, you are not! Nobody is! At least, not according to a specific Hebrew word that applies only to the work of God and to no other. When this Hebrew word is used, it means God alone creates. It refers to an activity God alone can do. Yet, we use the English word “create” to describe ourselves (rightly), which means that, when we translate a particular Hebrew word as “create” with reference to man, it is not the same word used for God’s work of creation. For, we lack a specific word in English that conveys the meaning of the Hebrew term. We have no word for “God-Alone-Creates.” Yet, Scripture distinguishes the creative work of God from any work of mere man.
Chapter 4: Missing Multiple Meanings
Often, words have multiple meanings. Yet, frequently, no such manifold word exists in the translation language. Therefore, translators must pick one meaning, one word. At times, this works well, since the context demands a particular meaning. At other times, however, this truncates the meaning the Lord conveys in the original language.
For example, would you say that evil and disaster are the same thing? Your children hope not! If your child accidentally dropped a glass, shattering it and cutting himself, you might say, “What a disaster!” Yet, you would not say, “How evil!” Otherwise, your child might anticipate discipline as salt upon his cut.
Yet, the Hebrew word conveys both meanings, and, sometimes, is used ambiguously on purpose. For, “Raah leads to raah” (p. 43). That is, evil leads to disaster. They are connected morally and verbally in Hebrew. “[B]iblical writers didn’t just think that evil acts led to disastrous consequences. Their very language pointed in this direction” (p. 44).
Likewise, today, many people speak of “hope” as a whimsical fancy, disconnected from any foundation or reason. Yet, the Hebrew word for “hope” is tied to the Hebrew word for “cord.” Thus, your “hope” is only as good as what your “cord” is tied to. Hope disconnected from anything certain is no hope at all.
Chapter 5: Visualizing the Abstract
“Biblical Hebrew is a language close to the body. It’s tactile. More often than not, its words can be seen, touched, felt, tasted, smelled, and experienced” (p. 59). Thus, even abstract words often have a concrete meaning that is lost in translation.
For example, the Hebrew word so often translated “vanity” concretely means “a puff of air” or “a breath.” How many breaths of air have you taken since reading this review? How many vanities? “Our insights are hevel, a puff of air. . . . Our lives are hevel, a puff of air. . . . Our accomplishments are hevel, a puff of air” (p. 60). Vanity is like the bubbles children blow, burst and vanished in a second. Vanity in English may seem abstract, but it has a tactile basis in Hebrew.
Chapter 6: Blinded by the Past
“Earlier translations [of the Bible] can influence translators today to use words that were popular in earlier times but have fallen into disuse today” (p. 75). By that disuse, their meaning has also been forgotten.
For example, what is a “host”? Someone who has guests over, right? Who, then, is the LORD of hosts? Is God to be considered an entertainer? Rather, the word host refers to an army in this case.
Likewise, what do the old English words “woe” and “alas” mean exactly? They are used to translate significant words from the Hebrew. According to Schlimmer, “In the Bible, these words are screams of fright. They are used when people stare death in the face. . . . they were as vivid as spilled blood for the Bible’s original audience. They captured attention and focused it on disturbing events” (pp. 80-81). Do “woe” and “alas” convey such meaning to a contemporary audience?
Chapter 7: Practices and Objects
Some English words perfectly convey the object in view. However, they utterly fail to capture the impact. As Schlimm explains, “Generally, I think of locusts as a type of bug I don’t personally need to worry about. For biblical writers, however, locusts meant destruction. Locusts meant starvation. Locusts meant death” (p. 95). Likewise, Hebrew has many such words—in which the object is easily transferred into English, but not the overtone.
For example, when we think of horses, likely, we think of entertainment. However, as used in the Bible, a horse is equivalent to a tank (p. 110).
Chapter 8: Cultural Values
This chapter continues to demonstrate how an English word may identify the object, but not the impact. In this case, Schlimm handles the cultural value of specific words.
Schlimm loves spaghetti, cassette tapes, the movie A Serious Man, his job, his wife, and his son (p. 122). However, of course, while the word “love” may be used appropriately in each case, that love is very different for the various objects in view. It’s almost as if “love” is “just a hollow shell of a word that can be filled with nearly any positive meaning” (p. 123).
However, Hebrew has a word, often translated “love,” that describes a specific type of love only. That word is khesed. “It’s not primarily romantic, sexual, or about gushy feelings. In fact, it’s never found in the Song of Songs, the Bible’s most romantic book. Khesed has to do less with infatuation and more with faithfulness. It’s about loving someone, come what may. It’s about commitment. It’s about tenacity and stick-to-it-ness” (p. 123). In fact, “there aren’t many cases in which the Bible talks of human khesed for God. The Bible knows all too well just how fickle and sinful we can be” (p. 125).
Chapter 9: Conclusion
“Like a steady, unnoticed heartbeat, language performs vital functions in our lives. With our language, we process our experiences, we understand our identity, and we make sense of our world. By learning a new language—or even parts of it—new worlds open up to us. . . . Learning a language is like learning a worldview. Those who learn biblical Hebrew can better understand not only what biblical authors wrote but also how they thought” (p. 143).
Thus, Schlimm encourages all Christians—not merely specialists—to learn Biblical Hebrew, at least some of it. To help, Schlimm includes an appendix that teaches the consonants and vowels of Hebrew, using Star Wars to do so.
He concludes: “Both in terms of how we see the world and how we study the Bible, Hebrew is invaluable. It might be three thousand years old, but its words have remarkable freshness, deep meaning, and evocative power” (p. 144).
While this book is profoundly profitable and insightful in many ways, I begin my analysis with two caveats. First, the format of the book is lamentable. It is confusing and disruptive, for example, when boxes with miscellaneous, technical information appear randomly in the body of each chapter, interrupting the flow of that chapter. Perhaps, in fact, these boxes were not placed where the author intended, given his expectation that one such box would appear below a paragraph when it actually appeared above that paragraph (p. xiii).
Second (and more concerning) is the orthodoxy of the writer. While his knowledge of Hebrew and ability to express himself is above reproach, his conclusions and working presuppositions are, at several points, troubling. For example, upon explaining the significance of the names in Genesis 2-4, he concludes that the narrative is “symbolic,” as opposed to “historical.” Yet, the Hebrew itself reads as a chronological narrative (cf. Did God Create in 6 Days?, esp. Dr. Shaw’s chapter).
Likewise, Schlimm notes that “people today think of Satan as the head of all demons, the center of all evil, the supernatural being opposed to all that God is” (p. 20), but he concludes, “aside from possibly Zechariah 3, the heavenly creature isn’t opposed to God’s will. In Job and Zechariah, the satan only does what God permits” (p. 21). Yet, in the book of Job, Satan implies God is a liar and desires to harm God’s servant (Job 1:11).
Further, Schlimm acknowledges, “For some people, a ‘soul’ is the eternal part of human beings. It differs from our bodies, which rot away. They would say that after we die, our souls go to heaven or hell” (p. 29). However, he applauds those who have moved away from translating this term as “soul” (p. 29). For, “The word suggests that one component of ourselves is soulful or spiritual, while the rest is physical and fleshly. The Old Testament doesn’t make this sort of distinction” (p. 129). Yet, from the very beginning, God created man’s body and then breathed life into Adam, distinguishing the physical body from the living soul (Genesis 2:7).
In addition, Schlimm wrote that “the Bible’s concept of sheol has no connection with a place of fire or the devil” (33), and “It’s an anachronism to say the Old Testament articulates a doctrine of the Trinity” (p. 49). Yet, Jesus understood the OT to speak of hell (compare Isaiah 66:24 with Mark 9:43-44), and the Trinity is revealed at least partially even in the opening verses of the OT (e.g., Genesis 1:2, 26-27).
The most serious heterodoxy comes when Schlimm states, “There have been different thoughts on how exactly Jesus’ death sets things right between God and humanity” (p. 84). According to him, “reconciliation often occurs . . . after positive inward qualities like love come to light (as in Proverbs)” (p. 85). Likewise, he speaks of atonement by “gift-offering” that pacifies (akin to Jacob’s gifts to Esau in Genesis 32): “Whatever happened previously, gifts say, ‘From this point on, we are no longer at odds’” (p. 84). Thus, Schlimm appears to undermine the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the Cross (e.g., Leviticus 16:21-22; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24). Yet, orthodoxy declares emphatically that the gift of God was the sin-bearing sacrifice, Jesus Christ, Who died suffering the divine wrath of God due our sins. That was how the gift of Christ pacified the wrath of God, nothing less!
Nonetheless, what Schlimm presents is generally reliable, truly eye-opening, and certainly worthwhile. Anyone who imagines that translations are just as good as the original must certainly read this corrective work. Anyone who thinks ministers should not be compelled to learn the Bible’s original language will reconsider upon reading this book. Every Christian, in fact, will take a much greater interest in the original languages of God’s Word, after reading this fine volume. And, every reader will certainly have more insight into God’s Word than most, upon completing this read. Therefore, I heartily commend this work as beneficial, despite my caveats.
Buy the books
70 HEBREW WORDS EVERY CHRISTIAN SHOULD KNOW, by Matthew Richard Schlimm