Die Sprachen sind die Scheide darinnen
das Messer des Geistes steckt.
(The languages are the sheath containing
the sword of the Spirit)
Since my retirement on January 1, 2002 I have had the privilege seldom accorded to an active pastor: I’ve been able to worship from the pew, being an active participant but not a leader.
I could listen to others preach and in general have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the preaching. The sermons I heard were scriptural, following the pericopes, and they made God’s Word relevant for me.
However, there have also been sources of irritation and frustration when I heard a pastor expound with great conviction a fact that simply is not there in the text—not in the original language!
Two examples may suffice.
1. On the day of the Transfiguration of our Lord (Feb. 10) the text was Matthew 17:1-9. The pastor in his sermon referred back to the preceding chapter, the story of Peter’s Confession. In a rather dramatic way he retold how Jesus had asked the disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And after listing their answers, he continued: “And then he pointed straight at Peter and said: But who do you say that I am?”But is that what the text says? Even in NRSV v. 15 reads: “He said to them” (not to Peter, even though he was the one that became the spokesman for the others.)
It’s even clearer when you look at the Greek text. “Who do you say…” reads in Greek: ύμείς δε`… The “you” is plural, not singular (σύ).
Of course, it’s easy to make this mistake in English, where “you” can be either plural or singular. In most other modern languages there is a difference. The same verse in my German Bible has “Ihr” (not “Du”), in my French Bible “vous” (not “tu”) and in my Spanish Bible “vosotros.” But one doesn’t have to look at all these modern translations to get the right meaning. The Greek text would be sufficient.
2.The other sermon I heard while on vacation in Florida. This was in a church of the LCMS. The text was John 4, the story of the woman at the well. Again, it was a good sermon, the pastor took great pains to paint the background of this woman who had had 5 men, and the one she was living with was not her husband. He pictured here as the town prostitute. And then he continued: “When she finally went back to town she told the men of the town about Jesus. Of course she talked to the men, because she had probably been intimate with most of them…”
Again, this was saying something that simply is not in the text. Even NRSV translates (correctly!): “she said to the people…”, for the word is άνθρωποι, not άνδρες.
There are some things you just don’t get by reading a translation, no matter how good or accurate. I would like to give an example from the Old Testament. This is from my private reading, not from listening to a sermon. I try to read a chapter in Hebrew and a chapter in Greek every day and in my reading of the Old Testament I am currently in Deutero-Isaiah.
A few days ago I read that beautiful passage in Is. 60: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…”
Who is addressed here? It’s hard to tell in English, but it is quite clear in Hebrew. For the imperative “arise” is not masculine, but feminine. It is not םוק but ימוק and not רוא but ירוא.
Who is the lady that is being addressed here? In the preceding verses we read: “He will come to Zion as Redeemer…”
In 40:9 Zion is called the תרשבמ, the (lady-)herald of good tidings, and so is Jerusalem. Both Zion and Jerusalem are feminine. So one could legitimately translate Is. 60:1 this way:
“Arise, Lady Zion, shine, Lady Jerusalem…”
It does give new insight into this text, does it not?
It always fills me with great sadness when I see how few pastors are using their Hebrew Bible or their Greek New Testament. I attend a weekly pericope study group. Out of the 10 or 11 pastors that are regulars, I am the only one that brings his Hebrew Bible or Greek NT. The others seem to appreciate it, but somehow cannot bring themselves to find the time to keep up what they once learned in Seminary.
I have also taught both Greek and Hebrew in a number of seminaries (including LSTC and Mt. Airy), but always found that for most students this course did not have a high priority. Yet I can testify that using the original languages over the years has helped me more in preparing sermons than dozens of commentaries. Nothing wrong with using commentaries. But to really know “what is written there” one must look at the original.
Perhaps these ruminations will encourage at least some readers to blow the dust off their Greek and Hebrew Bibles and to rediscover the wonderful languages in which God’s Word was delivered to us.