I don’t know about you, but I find that summer vacations sometimes drag a little. Back in May, I returned from Cambridge, MA to the village in which I grew up, Lindfield, which lies deep in the countryside to the south of London, UK. If you’ve ever wanted to visit Hobbiton, come to Lindfield. Our chief attractions include a pond, a violin shop, and a Medieval bakery. We won the best-kept village competition in our area so frequently that we were told to withdraw to give others a chance. I love Lindfield – I really do – but after a week I was a bit bored. After a month, I desperately needed to do something. Help finally came, two weeks ago, in the form of a Biblical Hebrew course at University College, London.
As it turns out, Biblical Hebrew is really hard. By the end of day one, I had just about got my head round the alphabet and Masoretic pointing (the series of dots and lines used to indicate vowels). The following morning, I remembered a third of it at best. On day three, we began to look at verbs. When I turned to the back of my textbook, there were eleven pages of verb tables in tiny font (I now know one). For practice translations, the textbook used real Old Testament passages, but removed all the verses it didn’t think we could handle, which was often quite a few. When we did ‘The Flood, Part One’, for instance, it jumped straight from Genesis 6:17 to 7:17. I still failed to translate either verse correctly.
The more I understood, however, the more I appreciated the nuances of the language. Biblical Hebrew has a beautiful logicality about it. Once you know the root (three key consonants) of a verb, you can see how other words are formed from it, and then recognize faint echoes all over the place. When (eventually) I could actually read the selected verses of the Flood story, for instance, I started to notice parallels between the descriptions of creatures in Genesis 1 and Genesis 8. Hebrew tends to use far fewer words than English, which allows for wonderful brevity. In Genesis 29:20, when the author says that although Jacob had to work for seven years to be able to marry Rachel, the phrase “though it only seemed like a few days because of his love for her” takes merely six words in the Hebrew.
What struck me most over the two weeks, however, was the scale of the cultural and linguistic debt which English has to the Old Testament. The best illustration I came across was the work of a remarkable Nineteenth-Century man named Isaac Salkinson. Born to a Jewish family in Lithuania, Salkinson became a scholar of Hebrew and ended up in London, where he converted to Christianity. Fifteen years later, he went as a missionary to Vienna, with the aim of translating the New Testament into Hebrew. At the same time, however, he translated two Shakespeare plays into Hebrew – Othello and Romeo and Juliet – having already translated Paradise Lost. Salkinson’s translations are extraordinarily elegant and loyal to the original texts, but they also use Old Testament phrases as translations where possible. When you put Salkinson’s translations and Shakespeare’s text side-by-side, it becomes apparent just how many words, phrases and concepts in Shakespeare’s English have roots in the Hebrew Bible.
So, on the one hand, I’d thoroughly recommend learning Biblical Hebrew (or New Testament Greek) if you get the chance. Even a little study would show you plenty about the nuances, connections and pure beauty of God’s Word. But on the other, I was reminded over the last couple of weeks just how much better I could – perhaps ought – to know the Bible in my own tongue. Sometimes, I read a Christian author or talk to an older person at church and get the sense that they don’t just know lots about the Bible, or even lots of Bible verses (both great things), but are so steeped in it they seem to think and reason and pray through it, in its rhythms and on its terms. There are some pages of Augustine or John Bunyan – two personal favorites – where if you tried to footnote every allusion to a Bible verse, you’d end up with a whole second page. And there are some older folk at church here in Lindfield whose wisdom constantly echoes with all they’ve read and learnt from the Bible over many years, whatever it is that we happen to be discussing. Maybe you know someone similar.
So, even though I’m still pretty terrible at Biblical Hebrew, studying it for two weeks – appreciating the beauty of a few lines in Genesis, or seeing just how many English idioms are owed to it – gave me more of a taste for that kind of Bible knowledge, and more of a grasp of just how much I lack it. And meanwhile, I’m back in Hobbiton with a lot of homework.
Dan Sutton is an upcoming DPhil candidate in Classics at Oxford University.