Language is a strange thing. My nose runs and my feet smell – or does my nose smell and my feet run? Who doesn’t love a bit of wordplay? What did the ram say to his wife? I love ewe. Hebrew poetry is rife withwordplay – and poetry makes up over 30% of the Bible. But wordplay doesn’t translate easily. When we hear, ‘The hills are alive…with the sound of music’ our hearts are lifted as we think of Maria singing in the Austrian Alps. But when we read in Scripture, ‘the mountains and the hills will burst into song’, we don’t know what to think, and it bothers us. We know it must be true because it’s in the Bible, but how to understand it?
Language can be great fun, but incredibly problematic as a means of communication. It changes over time, varies from region to region (spanner/wrench, trousers/pants), and gets reshaped (or corrupted?) by each new generation. We can’t even understand English from 800 years ago, what makes us think we can understand Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic from 2-3,000 years ago? Just because it’s been translated doesn’t mean it means what we think it means!
Context is key. ‘I love you’ has a massively different meaning if I’m proposing to my girlfriend or standing in front of a congregation – or if saying it to my mother, my mates at the pub, or my hamster. And that’s just English. Greek has four different words for love; the Hebrew hesed has a range of meaning very different from English.
If all that’s not bad enough, the Bible has numerous genres (types of literature): law, history, prophecy, wisdom, gospels, letters, apocalyptic – sometimes in poetic form, sometimes narrative, sometimes hard to say. And within these are buried even more: a parable embedded in a discourse embedded in a biography (Gospels are a genre knows as ‘ancient biography’). Meaning differs with each genre.
Perhaps the ultimate challenge is Gen 1-11, a specialised ancient genre known as ‘mythic history’ (if you object to the word myth, call it ‘epic history’). Was Adam a historical individual or a representative of humanity? In this genre the best answer is both. Oh dear. Back to what we know. Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.