Here at St Mark’s we have two reading groups that meet online each week – one to read and translate Hebrew Bible passages and the other to read and translate Greek New Testament passages together. As often as meetings allow, I join in the Hebrew group. Over the past few years that group has been invaluable in translating books from the Hebrew Bible that have formed the basis for my own books (Prophets as Performers, Reading the Megillot).
Most times there is something new and intriguing that we notice that isn’t obvious in many standard translations of the Bible. For example, this week we were reading Numbers 9 where the Lord commands the Israelites to keep the Passover again so that they can properly remember their freedom from slavery in Egypt while camped in the desert. A test case is raised by some of the Israelites who wanted to know if they could also celebrate the Passover even though they were ritually unclean from handling a dead body. The text tells us that Moses told them to wait while he consulted the Lord. At that point in the Hebrew text there is a special mark known as a petuuah that signifies a long break in the text. In my NRSV it is the end of the paragraph, but noticing this detail suggested that there was some delay before the answer came. Perhaps Moses had to enter the Tabernacle and get himself ready to communicate with the Lord. Perhaps the Lord had to think long and hard! But when the answer came it was positive – yes! You should keep the Passover.
Another little gem from Numbers 9 is an idiomatic phrase that we usually translate with the word “twilight” – in the Hebrew it is literally “between the evenings”! There is a special time of day after the sun goes down (the first evening) and complete dark (the second evening). Actually the English translation is also twi (between) the lights! Isn’t that lovely?
At our recent Women in Ministry event, I was intrigued by a comment made by Rev Anna Boxwell. She pointed out that there are three “commissions” in Matthew 28, not just one “great commission”. The women were commissioned to tell what they had seen at the tomb, the roman soldiers were commissioned to tell lies about it, and the gathered disciples were commissioned to make other disciples of the nations. Although I don’t regularly meet with the Greek translation group, I studied Greek in the past and have a bit of knowledge of it, so I looked up those three commissions. The grammatical details are really interesting – especially for the first and last of those three commissions.
Here is a quick run down on the verbal forms: Imperatives are future commands, Aorist verbs are past tense signifying completed action, and participles are ongoing actions.
Verse 7 is the Angel speaking to the women at the tomb:
And quickly as you are going (participle) tell (imperative) the disciples that he has been raised (aorist) from the dead.
And verse 19 is Jesus himself giving a commission to the disciples:
As you are going (participle), make disciples (imperative) of all nations, baptising (participle) them… teaching (participle) to obey all that I commanded (aorist) you. And behold, I with you am (present indicative) with you all the days until the end of eternity.
Knowing a little bit more about the grammar behind the Greek gives me some new insights into these commissions. The women were the first of the disciples who had a command: tell the other disciples that he has been raised (completed action: death is over!) But they were to do it as they were going about their business. Similarly, Jesus commanded all his followers to make disciples, but they were to do it while going about their business also. You don’t need a special call to overseas mission to be evangelists! And the baptising and the teaching are ongoing actions too, not once for all.
If, like me, you are intrigued by this sort of detail behind our biblical texts, why don’t you join us and study Introduction to Biblical Languages over our summer session? It will be taught online with a weekly webinar – starting on November 13 with six weeks of Greek up until Christmas, then six weeks of Hebrew in the new year. We teach you to appreciate the way these languages work with the aid of Bible software – unlike our usual language subjects we don’t expect a lot of rote learning of vocabulary and paradigms. There is more emphasis on choices behind translation so that we can better appreciate the underlying traditions. You can enrol here in THL100 Introduction to Biblical Languages
Or contact one of us here at St Mark’s if you want to know more!
And I hope you have a delightful time ‘between the evenings’ during these long summer days!