Thursday, 14 May 2009

Introduction to Biblical Language 101

As I'm currently lecturing undergraduate Biblical Hebrew, the following thought came to mind in a recent lecture: 'I am not actually teaching Biblical Language, but Ancient Language.' The fact that the bible was originally (kind of) written in this language is almost coincidental. What I mean is, the original writers of the bible generally used words, phrases, ideas and imagery that already existed, in order to speak of God, His nature, activity, thought process and identity. Against that, today we have what I would actually call Biblical Language - i.e. Language that is derived from the Bible.

Take, for example, the words we use to describe God:


I can think of very few instances where we use the word "Lord" in today's culture. Our understanding of the word is extremely limited. We would refer to the "House of Lords", or maybe our understanding of "Lord" comes from buying a 1cm2 plot of land in some estate in Scotland, to receive a certificate saying we are a Lord (or a Lady, of course). There is a parent at my wife's school who insists on using this title on any correspondence he writes. Having attained it via the above method, most people think it is slightly humorous; certainly not noble in any way.

Certainly in Christian domains, the word Lord has it's primary meaning as "God" - whereas in Hebrew (and Greek) the word meant first "master" or even "father" (figuratively). This is in a culture which understood and employed a slave/master society.a People would have seen that there was something in the role of the Lords they saw that reflected something about the identity of God. In fact, though not a perfect model, seeing God as someone with the authority to do and say what he pleases, to give whatever to whomever he pleases, is lost in our current use of the word "Lord" with regards to God. A Lord simply isn't that in today's Western Post-modern world. Yet we hang on to these words because "they're in the Bible", forgetting that they were not originally "religious" terms. They were words that helped people understand who God is, because it gave them an example. In a day where Lord is primarily "God" - what is our example? Whence do we find our analogy for the person of God? The answer is, we don't. Calling God "Lord" is as useful as calling God "Bread Guardian" - which is where we get our word Lord from!b

Okay, perhaps there is slightly more reason to call God Lord than Bread Guardian but my point is that perhaps it is time to rethink our labels for God?


This brings me to another word we use for God - King. It has been a long time since England had a King, at least not in my lifetime. In a similar vein to the previous argument, I would say that we don't know enough about kings to successfully ascribe the label to God. Our experience of kings in our culture is either of a relatively useless monarchy (who are more often than not famous for all the wrong reasons!) or a tyrant, unwilling to allow a democracy. Is this a good example of what God is like? Set this against the role of "the king" in biblical times. The king was a man (usually) respected above anyone else. He had sovereign authority and power like no-one else, and he lead his people and ensured their safety (if he was a good king!). All of these things are what we are taught about God, but they are so far removed from our experience. We are told that God is Sovereign - but we never really see sovereignty in action. We are told that, as King, God is exalted high and reigns, rules and looks after his people - but where do we see this in our lives? Anywhere?

The problem is a difficult one to solve. Labelling God "our Prime Minister" or "our President" just doesn't quite seem right either. Though we understand the role of such people better than say, a king, God's role is quite different to theirs, so they remain unhelpful! God is not elected. God is not a leader who must make laws and policies to appease his voters... There are not other "parties" who can challenge the leadership of God... it just doesn't quite work. The CEO is a slightly better role comparison, but there are so many negative connotations to CEO, that I'd rather stay with King!!! This is not an easy problem to solve.

Forward Steps?

There was recently a new translation of the Bible produced called The Voice. One of the ideas behind this new version was that it would seek to ditch "jargony" words. However, I feel they have not been anywhere near as thorough with their pruning of such words. We need to realise that words like "King", "Lord", are all "Christiany" words today. This article could continue into a book-length rant, but rest assured, I won't let it. Suffice it to say, I believe we have a problem to solve.

a It is worth noting that the "slave trade" of the A.N.E. was quite different to the more recent slave trade perpetrated by the White West.
b "Lord" comes from Olde English word hlaford which derives from an earlier word hlafweard from hlaf "bread" + weard "guardian".


Ed said...

I'm not sure we understand father and shepherd like the early believers either...

Lewis J. Boulton said...

To be fair, there are hundreds! But, yes.. it's been a while since being a shepherd was high on the careers advisor's list of "great jobs"...