Lost in Translation
Joshua J. Van Ee
When many people think about reasons for learning Hebrew and Greek, often the first (and maybe only) reason is to better understand those weighty doctrinal passages. How can you understand John 1:1 without a firm grasp of Colwell's canon? How can you study the meaning of the verb tsdq without understanding the declarative/delocutive use of the piel and hiphil? And I do not want to disparage such reasoning. Doctrinal clarity and the ability to defend it are aspects of my WSC education that I highly cherish and seek to impart through my teaching. But as I reflect on teaching old, dead languages, I would submit that one of the reasons for learning Hebrew and Greek is to help cultivate a lifelong fascination with and love for God's Word.
Now I do not want to imply that translations are inadequate to cultivate such a fascination and love. God's Word can be rightly and effectively translated into all those vulgar tongues we use every day. But something is always lost in translation. And often it is those lost things which can cause us such wonder and delight: the subtle allusion, the wording of a phrase, the shift in syntax. They may not change the doctrine taught by the passage, the main point of the text (though they can), but they often add emphasis, flair, and a level of beauty or artistry. I was struck by this fact while I was reading exegetical papers on the account of Ehud in Judges 3.
It is not too hard to see the law and the gospel in the story of Ehud. Israel sins so God punishes them through Eglon. Israel cries out, and God in his grace provides a deliverer to free them from oppression and provide rest. But the deliverer does not (cannot) deliver Israel from their ultimate problem, their sinful hearts. They need that coming king, Jesus Christ. And yet as we look at the details of how this account is told, we are drawn in so that we see these truths in technicolor (though we may debate on the interpretation of some of these details). Israel's enemies (God's enemies) are ridiculed and shown as powerless against God's deliverer. Eglon is a fattened calf ready for slaughter with bumbling incompetents for servants and an army as stout as him. Ehud on the other hand is a trained warrior, bringing a special tribute/present for Eglon by his hand, a sword with two mouths (like its owner), that certainly has something to say to Eglon. And after Ehud delivers his secret word/thing from God into Eglon's belly, this great king who had control over Israel for 18 years cannot even control his own bodily functions as he is reduced to a pile of fat and feces. Meanwhile Ehud deftly escapes (out the loo?) to lead a unified Israel in Yahweh's name to a crushing victory. How can we not raise a cheer for Yahweh and the savior he raised up? Yet we still have a few issues with Ehud, most prominently his lack of action against those idols he keeps passing. And these lacks help to point us forward to a greater Savior.
The details of this account highlight, boldface, and italicize what we really knew already, that Israel's real problem was always her sin. Eglon was but a means for God's punishment who is shown to be nothing when God listens to the cry of his people. And yet this account drives this point home in a most memorable way, through its humor and wit. We are again amazed at God's wisdom in giving us a book that not only contains doctrinal truths and propositional statements, but historical accounts, songs, wisdom sayings, and more. And as we pay attention to the details, we grow in our fascination and love for his revelation.
This attention is especially needed for those of you who seek to serve faithfully, week by week, in the ministry of Word and sacrament. As you diligently work through the Hebrew and Greek, I pray that your time of preparation turns into a journey of discovery, that your fascination grows as you weekly delve into the details of God's multifaceted revelation. And may your congregations be fed as you proclaim not your latest thoughts and ideas, but the depths of the Scriptures.