Biblical Language and the Preacher

I have studied in a few institutions were some (notable) NT and OT profs have claimed that you can’t understand certain biblical passages without a working knowledge of Greek or Hebrew.  Now in a sense this is true as English translations have already performed much of that work for us.  However, I never sat very easily with the sort of mechanistic approach that some of these profs seemed to work from.  I can remember one prof at a chapel expound on a ‘difficult’ text with a sort of swagger, as though he himself had cut the key that would finally unlock its meaning.

If a confessional community approaches the Bible as a text that will help witness to a living relationship with God and a subsequent manner of living then I am not too concerned that we need a high priesthood to distribute ‘technically correct’ readings.

In saying all this though I do feel it is tremendously advantageous for a preaching pastor to have a good handle on biblical languages.  Preaching on Jonah last Sunday two of my main moves depended on drawing attention to what was going on in the Hebrew text.  Jonah is a highly literary if not poetic piece.  This places greater strain on the translator but I think we need to swing back away from a sense of ‘dynamic equivalence’ which does not account for a poetic literalism.  The passage below is from the NIV.  The words in italic and bold type are the same Hebrew noun while the underlined words represent the same Hebrew verb.

ch 3 7 Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 9 Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

ch 4 1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.

Maybe its just me but it seems when the same word is being used in relation to all three subjects in such a dense passage it may be helpful to draw some attention to it.  The movement of the Nineveh away from her evil and God away from his destruction which then comes to settle in Jonah’s displeasure seems theologically significant.  Again I am not saying a careful reflective person could not gather this theological nuance from a translation but there seems to be another path that does not assume an elite distribution of exegetical truth but rather a  theological-aesthetic that seeks to unfold and celebrate the layers of the text.


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