Over the decades of my carbon-based existence, I’ve tinkered with (or even intensely studied) numerous languages, everything from Middle Kingdom Egyptian Hieroglyphics to Swedish. I once started Chinese, but the teacher, in an attempt (I think) to weed out the wimps, weeded out this wimp when early on he said that a single word in Chinese can have four different meanings depending upon the tone. For a guy who still struggles with the “lay-lie” distinction, I wasn’t ready for that.
Amid my decades of language dalliances, one thing has astonished me:, and that is how one tongue can be converted into another. Language A, with its own sounds, alphabet, letters, grammar, syntax, history, and culture can often be snugly translated into Language B, with radically different sounds, alphabet, letters, grammar, syntax, history, and culture. And though some things are inevitably lost or scrambled along the way, that this transition can convey—across so many linguistic divides (sound, history, syntax, script, etc.)—meanings, emotions, even nuances intact is, I find, astonishing.
My point? Even if you can’t read a word of biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, a good translation of the Bible in your native tongue will give you all you need to know, and then some.
Here’s one example of how, though some things are lost in translation, the basic idea is still conveyed across two very different tongues, biblical Hebrew and modern English. The Lord had said to Adam that he could eat of every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, warning that if you eat from it, “you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17).
Now, biblical Hebrew is bereft of adverbs. It employs them, but not plentifully. And Genesis 2:17 doesn’t have an equivalent word for “certainly.” Instead it uses two consecutive forms of the verb “to die.” The first is an infinitive absolute, which means “to die,” or “dying.” The second, an imperfect, is rendered in English “you will die.” In a crassly literal translation, it would read “to die [or dying] you will die.” But that’s an idiomatic expression to convey the idea of intensity or certainty, which is why “you will certainly die” works well.
However, in Genesis 3:3, when Eve, in response to the serpent’s query, repeats the Lord’s warning, she does so without the original intensity. Instead of both forms of the verb, she used the imperfect only, translated (correctly) as “you will die.” The adverb “certainly” is not there in the translation.
In contrast, when the serpent negated the Lord’s command, he used both the infinitive absolute and the imperfect; hence, “you will not certainly die.” His negation of God’s warning was just as intense as that warning.
Consciously or unconsciously, Eve had watered down the word of God. And might we, consciously or unconsciously, do the same? That is water down divine admonitions or prohibitions? I’m not even talking about the plucking out your eyes, or chopping off your hand commands (though maybe I should). I’m thinking of things such as, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world” (Rom. 12:2), or “never tire of doing good” (2 Thess. 3:13) Or, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting anything in return” (Luke 6:35). What about “do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6); or “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5); or “do not forget to show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:2)? Then there’s, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” (Rom. 12:20). I’m not saying that we don’t believe these things, only that we can be luke-warmish about them. Maybe I’m just projecting myself on others. Maybe not.
Of course, this watering down of the divine can cut the other way, too. Maybe the reason many Seventh-day Adventists struggle with the assurance of salvation is because they’ve watered down the promise, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). After all, it can’t be that easy, can it?
Even when we read the Bible in our native tongue, another translation (of sorts) occurs: the author’s original intent (whatever it was) is translated into that which we, with all our own inherited, cultivated, and acquired baggage, interpret it as saying. That is, we always filter it, as we do everything else we encounter in the world.
The only answer? We need to come, in humility and in surrender, to the Word of God—in whatever language that Word happens to be.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.