Tag Archives: Hebrew

The shema, the mezuzah, and Mitch.

We wandered through the Summerland farmer’s market. There was a booth there of photographs, many of which were of scenes in Jerusalem. One of them stood out to me. It was a portion of a stone wall with the shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”) written on it in Hebrew.

The artist and proprietor of the booth, a large, friendly guy with a decidedly artsy look about him, saw me looking at the photographs and said, “This guy looks like a graphic artist. Are you a graphic artist?”

“No, I’m not. But thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment.”

I walked by to talk to Dixie, but I was intrigued by his photography, so I returned to his booth. I was carrying my CBC-Radio Canada bag. He asked me if I worked for CBC. I can’t remember exactly what he said–something about a “fuckin'” something. Funny how that word still stands out to me when uttered casually by strangers.

I said that, no, I don’t work for the CBC. I told him the bag was obtained at a gift shop. “In fact, I think my wife bought it at an airport.”

All the people at the farmer’s market are, of course, trying to sell something, and rightly so. Yet I can be a cynic at the best of times, and I’m immediately suspicious of sales people. This guy seemed a little too friendly. Probably working me.

“So what do you do then?”

“I’m a student.”

“What kind of student?”

“I’m in seminary.”

“Seminary! Ah, so that’s why you’re interested in all these Jerusalem scenes!”

“Yes, I just noticed the shema in this picture. Is it incomplete?”

“No, it’s there: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eluheynu, Adonai echad. You know the shema?”

“Sort of–not really well. Is that modern Hebrew? I would expect there to be a he here.”

We talked about this for a few seconds. Then he said, “Let’s say the shema together.”

“I don’t know it that well.”

“I’ll say it and you’re with me so it’s together.”

He put his hand on my shoulder, closed his eyes, and rattled off the shema from memory like he prays it every day. And not just the part about loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength, but all the way through the part about wearing it on your head and putting it on your door posts.

I was a bit awkward through this whole exchange. I’ve never known how to deal with such outgoing, energetic and uninhibited people. I also didn’t know exactly what was going on with him saying the shema. It all happened so fast. One minute he’s cussing, the next he’s saying the shema in Hebrew. Was he praying? The way he put his hand on my shoulder and closed his eyes, speaking Hebrew in the middle of the Summerland farmer’s market crowd, he certainly seemed sincere.

And suddenly I was ashamed of my prejudice. I was angry that immediately I viewed this guy as no more than a huckster, a scheister. I was frustrated with my inherent discomfort with strangers, my unwillingness to be open with them, to show a manner of hospitality for those few moments.

I really liked the photograph. The first portion of the shema written on stone at the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem with a mezuzah–a box containing a parchment with the shema in it–cemented into the stone below it. Unfortunately, his full-sized photographs were priced at more than one hundred dollars. This one was one of the least expensive, but still–a hundred dollars.

“Here,” he said, fumbling through his collection. “Here’s one all rolled up and ready to go. It’s the one hundred dollar size, but because it’s a bit beat up and you’re a student, it’s yours for twenty bucks.”

“What’s it like inside?” I asked. It was taped shut. “Oh, it’s taped. You don’t have to open it.”

“No, I can open it. But if you and I trust in the same Guy…” he continued, pointing upwards. He said something about trusting that the picture was in good shape. He wandered off to find a knife. He came back and unrolled the photograph. It was bit creased and damaged around the edges, but good enough.

“Do you take cash?” I asked.

“I take cash, but I won’t return it!” he replied, laughing.

I bought the picture. We carried on for a while. He told me he had studied Torah in Jerusalem for five years. I was wearing a Michigan State t-shirt–blue with a big yellow “M” on it.

“You know what the ‘M’ stands for, don’t you?” he said. “Moses.”

I thanked him, nearly walked away from his hand, outstretched to shake mine. As I walked away, my mild xenophobia and judgmentalism continued to bother me. I overheard him talking to someone else about his rabbi. This guy–Mitch is his name–seemed like the real deal.

I wandered back and forth around the farmer’s market, hoping for another opportunity to talk to him. About what, I have no idea. Maybe ask him about his Jewish faith? Maybe about his travels? His photography gear? Who knows. I would have awkwardly fumbled through something. I just wanted to talk to him again, to somehow redeem what I thought was very apparent discomfort around him. I wanted to let him know that I was interested in him, that I did seem him as a human being. I had some weird guilt to deal with. Or maybe he was just charismatic enough, just interesting enough that I felt a pull towards him.

A little later, he spotted me and walked up.

“You know what just happened? Someone said, ‘I’ll be back.’ I’ve heard lots of ‘I’ll be back’s, but this person actually came back. And look what’s in her hand–that same shema picture, the one hundred dollar one on cardboard! You know what that is? Min hashamayim! Do you know what that means, min hashamayim?”

The words sounded so familiar, but I needed a minute to collect my thoughts, shift them into Hebrew.

“It sounds familiar. I’m trying to remember.”

He was walking back to his booth, to talk to the person who had just bought the picture. I imagined that perhaps he thought I was the fraud, the scheister, because I had said I knew the shema and studied Hebrew, but could remember little if anything during our conversation.

Suddenly it came to me.

“‘From the…from the heavens’! It means ‘From the heavens!'”

But he didn’t hear me. He was too far away, and was already talking to the other customer. He called me over and introduced me to the customer. I can’t remember what he said–there was some connection between us.

I had heard this customer ask for his card, so I did the same.

“Do you have a website?”

“Two websites. Unfortunately, my parents just died and I buried them, so I have no money and the sites are down. They cost about a thousands dollars a month to run.”

He gave me his card, wrote his name and phone number on the back. He told me and the other customer about a film he had been involved with in L.A. He said he was the cinematographer. I thanked him again and headed back to mom’s place. There I went straight to the computer, thinking that perhaps his websites might still be available. They aren’t. I searched “Jaffa gate shema” on Google images but found nothing resembling his photograph (but he had said, it was taken at Jaffa gate in the 80s “if it’s still there”). On IMDb, I checked the movie he mentioned. Different cinematographer named.

Was this whole encounter a long sales pitch? Or was this guy the real deal? Or was it a bit of both? It doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s a great photograph and I will frame it and hang it up somewhere special. More importantly, this exchange made me keenly aware of my own cynicism, distrust, prejudice, and the whole load of issues I have when it comes to strangers. I can’t say for sure that this was one of those special moments–a watershed encounter–but I won’t forget it for a long time, and it will forever be associated with the photograph of the shema and the mezuzah.

Changes in education?

At his blog, Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight recently began a series of posts on a book examining changes in U.S. higher education.  One particular statistic he noted stood out to me:

First, students. Here is a set of facts: From the 1920s to the 1960s full-time college/university students spent approximately 40 hours in academic pursuits — classes and study. Today the students spend 27 hours. That means about 13 hours a week studying. Prior to the 60s it was about 25 hours.

This diminution of time has resulted in no appreciative change in grade point average or upon progress toward completion of the degree.

I should note that at least two of my professors, if not more, have told us that courses are designed around the idea that for every one hour of class time, we spend two hours studying. For one class that’s an additional 6 hours of work, for a total of 9 hours per class. With a full schedule of 5 classes, that adds up to 40 hours per week. So the expectation or standard has not changed, at least not here, but habits have.

I’ve never actually calculated time spent studying outside of class time, so it may well be that I’m meeting expectations, but I suspect not. It’s not easy to do with 3 children and a spouse who is a part-time student as well. I’m sure this wasn’t any different prior to the 60s, but still.

I sometimes wonder if I’m short-changing myself in my education if I don’t use the full 40 hours every week, even if it is to some degree out of my control. On the other hand, it occurs to me that the nature and focus of education is changing. In the face of increasing availability of resources and information, this change might be necessary.

It seems to me that in many respects education is shifting to a focus on laying the foundations and preparing students to use the resources available to them for help. This may not sound any different than the past, but I’m suggesting something slightly different than “learning to do research”. This arises out of my experience learning the Biblical languages, so perhaps my theory applies only in that context.

At least two of my language professors have made a point of saying that there’s no sense in going the long way around learning the Biblical languages if there are shorter, easier ways available. This might sound like the lazy approach, so hear me out.  30 years ago, my language professors would have been required to learn many individual and unusual verb forms for Greek and Hebrew, and they would have been required to memorize the meanings of many hundreds of words. When translating, they would spend much time trying to figure out what word X was and then more time leafing through a lexicon to find out how it’s used. Once they found the meaning(s), they would be expected to memorize them.

These same professors are not insisting on the same rigour in their own students. Why? Because there are many affordable resources available to make the process of translating and interpreting the text much easier–many of them available online. Their theory is that it’s better to get on with the business of reading and enjoying the text and thereby learning the languages, instead of getting bogged down in the work leading up to that.

Is this a good or bad development? I don’t know. It certainly seems to make the learning experience that much more enjoyable. And, quite frankly, it doesn’t make much sense to spend hours memorizing paradigms when the parsing of various verbs is available online at the click of a button or in books organized by chapter and verse. Granted, the hard prep-work may make for a faster progression to smooth and direct reading of biblical Hebrew and Greek, but that kind of reading will presumably come over time anyway.

Whether this applies to teaching and learning outside of the languages, I don’t know.

So a couple of weeks ago…

So a couple of weeks ago The Mountain Goats were in Winnipeg opening for another band that I don’t know that well.  I chose not to go.  My brother, a fan of both bands, was aghast.  I was too cheap to shell out the minimal charge for an opening act to a band I don’t know.

Here’s the thing: as much as I love live music, I don’t care for this kind of concert all that much: a crowd of people crammed into a bar or a small concert hall, standing, shouting, drinking, dancing like fools, blocking my view.  It’s not my scene.  I prefer the kind of concert where you sit and applaud.  It’s not because I’m so cultured.  It’s because I prefer to sit and applaud.

* * *

I’ve missed many concerts simply because I have no initiative to get out and do anything. Also, I’m cheap.

* * *

I Played Single Father for a Week (And It Wasn’t that Bad)

* * *

It seems I am at my worst between 6p.m. and approximately 8p.m.  Conveniently, this is also bed/bath time.  I am short tempered during these hours; irritation and yelling sometimes follow.  I don’t like it, but it’s the way it is.  Except for this: if I have a post-supper snooze.  I realized this tonight;  I felt myself getting edgy with the kids, who were playing by with each other (which they seem to do after supper), so I retreated to my bedroom for about 15 minutes and rested.  This made all the difference.

The after supper snooze.  Does this make me old?

* * *

So I discovered that after a month away from Hebrew, I had already forgotten a good chunk of my vocabulary. Dang.

* * *

My goal for the summer was to translate a verse a day in both Hebrew and Greek to keep up the language for the fall semester. In fact, I wanted to work ahead and translate the Biblical books of Ruth and Philippians, which is what we will be translating in the fall in intermediate Hebrew and Greek, respectively.  I had started, with the blessing of my Hebrew professor.

My Greek professor, perhaps mistaking my eagerness to learn for a desire only for good marks, tried to steer me away from working ahead. For some reason this took the wind out of my sails, as it were, and instead of forging ahead or taking his advice, I found myself attempting three different recommended tracks: translating Phillipians (for next semester), translating 1 John (as per the prof’s suggestion), and working through a graded grammar (suggested by my intro to Greek prof).

Too many choices.

Other goals for the summer: ride my bike 3 times a week. Eat less. Go to bed on time.  Read more (for fun).

Here’s what I’ve done about my goals: nothing.

Well, not nothing.  I got started on the translation, but haven’t touched it for some time.  And I’ve been reading.

* * *

Here’s what I’m most looking forward to about our trip to England in August:

Eating whatever, whereever and whenever we want.

* * *

Kurt Vonnegut is a syntactically fun author.  I haven’t read him for a couple of years.  Tonight I started reading Breakfast of Champions again, for the third or fourth time.  One of my life goals is to figure out what the big deal is about Breakfast of Champions. It’s everyone’s favourite.  I preferred Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle.

* * *

Another life goal: acquire taste for Guinness.

Life goal achieved.

* * *

Related life goal: acquire a taste for scotch.

Life goal not yet achieved. My brother, whom I will set out on Friday to visit, has agreed to help me achieve this goal, saying, “The moment you walk in the door we will begin.”

It could be all Greek to me.

Well, today it was officially announced in class: introductory Greek will not be offered next year, as they are starting a rotation of the languages offered. Rather than teach all levels of every language every year, they will alternate intro and advanced years.  This provides some clarity in my decisions for which classes to take, but not enough to actually make the decision. This development means I take intro to Greek (which I must take for my degree) this May or in my third year.

If I take it in May, I will be able to take intermediate Greek next school year. I’d like to take the intermediate level of both Greek and Hebrew, but if I do, it looks like one of those languages will be on my own time and dime: that is, I’ll get credit for them, but they will be over and above my program requirements (I’ve been advised that auditing the languages is not a good idea).  Plus, Greek will be helpful and informative for future New Testament classes.

While I think having advanced learning in both languages would be very valuable in pastoral ministry (particularly if I will do a lot of preaching), the question is, do I want to take the time and money to do those courses now, or take them later as opportunity arrives or pursue some self-study? I’m not sure I’m disciplined enough for self-study, but then Hebrew has been one of my favourite classes and I usually look forward to translating it into English. I may develop a similar passion for Greek.

If I don’t take Greek in May, I will not take advanced Greek at all, because that would require us staying here for an additional year just so I can take two courses. As far as I can see at this stage, that option is unlikely.

However, I’ve been told that it’s quite an opportunity to be able to study under Tremper Longman III, who, as I said in a previous post, is teaching a week-long course on Proverbs in May. Then there’s the Hebrews course also offered.  And another core course.

I given most of these angles by my faculty advisor (who is also my Hebrew professor), which was helpful for clarifying the categories for decision-making, but still kind of leaves me in the same place: so many good options!

Basically, I need to decide in the next couple of weeks which language I want to take advanced courses for.  I wish it was possible to see a plan of all classes to be offered for the next couple of years so I could plot my whole course. Alas, I won’t even know what will be offered next year for another week or two.

I suppose I could just follow my program, which requires both intro I & II for both Hebrew and Greek and only one second-year language for only one of the languages. But languages are so fun and would be so useful!


AN ADDITIONAL THOUGHT: I’m sick of writing papers for this year.  I won’t have to write papers for Greek and at the end of May I’ll be done.  With the other courses I’ll be working into June.

Plus other stuff…blah blah blah…

ALSO ALSO: If I don’t take the Greek course, it will be easier for Dixie to take a course in May which she wants to take.  But also, I think my heart might be telling me to take Greek. Or maybe it’s just my mind telling me it has had enough of research papers for a couple of months.

Steam, Balls and Brass Monkeys: A Lesson in Hermeneutics

Wednesday morning in Hermeneutics class, we were discussing Biblical wisdom literature, and Proverbs in particular. Our professor, the esteemed August Konkel, was telling us that Proverbs function like riddles. He then used a cliché as an example: “He ran out of steam.”  The meaning behind this phrase is not self-evident–it requires a context outside of the text itself in order to be understood. The Korean students in the class did not know what this phrase meant, so we discussed steam power briefly in explanation.

Then Dr. Konkel said, “Here’s another good example: ‘It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.'” The Korean students didn’t understand this one either.  The North American students all started to laugh. The incongruity of the president of an evangelical seminary using such a crass phrase as an example in class was both shocking and delightful. We were all, of course, thinking of that brass monkey’s testicles.

The professor went on to explain that it is an old naval term, from back in the day when ships had cannons. “Brass monkey” was the name for a ring or triangle of brass that was used as the base to stack cannonballs in a pyramid (think of the thing you use to rack up billiards balls). Metals shrink in cold weather and brass shrinks faster than the iron in the cannonballs.  When it got really cold in the North Sea, the brass monkey would shrink and cause the pyramid of cannonballs to topple. Hence: it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

Whether this explanation for the term is true or not (it appears that it is not) is beside the point.  The Westerners understood the term to be a crass phrase referring to a particular part of a monkey’s anatomy; the Easterners in the class simply did not understand the phrase at all; people from say, somewhere in Africa, may have interpreted it in another way. But none of our interpretations reflected the meaning of the phrase.

The point of the lesson was what a proverb is, but the unintentional lesson was one about how the inevitability of our cultural and experiential biases influence our interpretation of a text.  “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” made perfect sense to me, so I assumed to know what was meant by the phrase when in fact, my interpretation of that phrase was not even close to its actual meaning.

We do this with all sorts of “texts”: books, advertising, films, and even (perhaps especially) the Bible.

Which, incidentally, is why not even the most ‘literal, word-for-word’ English translation of the Old Testament will retain the phrase “hot of nose” in reference to God’s anger, because that phrase simply does not translate into English (just as “He ran out of steam” did not translate into Korean).

Home Stretch

I can’t believe that the semester and the school year is over in about a month.  It feels like the semester only just began.  There’s lots of work to do yet before the end of the semester.

I haven’t been diligent with my Hebrew vocabulary, a shortcoming which shows up when we’re asked to translate.  Would you like me parse all the verbs in this sentence?  Sure thing.  Would you like me to translate it? Not just now.

Our Hebrew professor said something interesting last week: she pegged our class as “high achieving”. She didn’t mean this as a compliment so much as simply a fact about our work habits. High achieving, or perhaps over-achieving, means we are perfectionists in our work, perhaps putting more time into it than is necessary (or even healthy).

I would never have considered myself a high achiever, but I think she’s right. I agonize over papers because I want them to be just so. I sometimes spend much more time on my Hebrew translation than I can afford, simply because I want to get it just right.

Part of the motivating factor is that I do not want my assignments to simply be a product I turn out. Production is what I did for the most part in university, I think. I have much more purpose in seminary and I want to learn while doing assignments, rather than just creating a product which meets the professor’s specifications. This is a good thing, but it’s not always achievable (or, again, healthy).

I have a good number of papers to complete by the end of the semester.  Seven, by my count, after I hand one in tomorrow, though 3 of them are short and/or not difficult. What I need to learn is to find the balance between high achieving and simply creating a product. I need to find the median place where I can say “OK, that’s enough” while I’m researching and “that’ll do” as I’m writing.  The goal is not mediocrity, but being realistic with the time available for various assignments, rest, family, etc.

The problem with me is this: I’m a high achiever who lacks discipline. Which means I am an inefficient high achiever. This is doubly problematic.

Throw into this mix three papers for a professor who assigns open-ended papers with no fixed deadlines (other than the end of the semester), and if I’m not careful I face the prospect of having to write three fairly major papers in a space of two weeks or less.

Then it’ll be over for a bit, before I launch into what some might call “suicide Greek”, which is a two-semester course crammed into the month of May. But at least it’ll be the only class I have, so I’ll be able to focus my efforts.

Lord, have mercy.


I’m in second semester Hebrew and we are already translating some narrative text.  This is quite mind-boggling.  Only 4 months ago I wouldn’t have known a lick of Hebrew, other than YHWH and “shalom”.  Now I’m creating a wooden, rudimentary but readable translation!  I’m no translator, mind you, and I’ve been told that Hebrew poetry is something else altogether (i.e. I’m not ready to try and translate the Psalms), but still…

We are working through Exodus 32 at the moment–the Golden Calf sequence. For each class we have to translate approximately 3 verses and we spend part of the class going through our translations, discussing reasons for translating a certain way, making corrections, etc.

Here is my translation of verses 15-17, which we will correct in class tomorrow:

15 And Moses turned and descended from the mountain with two of the tablets of the reminders (urgings?) in his hand, tablets which were covered with writing on both sides, and on either side they were written.

16 And the tablets were the work of God and the writing [was] the writing of God, he who engraved upon the tablets.

17 And Joshua heard the sound of the wickedness of the people and he said to Moses, “(I hear/there is?) the sound of war in the camp.”

Here is the NASB translation (probably the most wooden/literal English translation):

15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets which were written on both sides; they were written on one side and the other.

16 The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing engraved on the tablets.

17 Now when Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a sound of war in the camp.” (NASB)

Not bad, eh?  Mind you, I do rely quite heavily on the lexicon and these three verses were relatively easy (I’ve botched portions of other verses), but still…

Translation is turning into one of my favourite seminary pastimes.  I look forward to doing it.  Sometimes when I’m working on a paper or reading a dense book, I’ll think to myself, “I’d rather be translating.”

* * *

Learning an original language, I’m beginning to see some of the nuance that is lost in translation.  Take, for instance, the way the Israelites refer to the golden calf.  Depending on your translation, v. 1 will have them ask Aaron to make them “a god” or “gods”, and v. 4 will have them say, “This is your god” or “these are your gods”.  Some of those translations will then mark the alternate singular or plural rendering of “god” in the footnote.  The problem is that the Hebrew term translated god/gods is plural, but the calf is a single thing, so there is some question about the correct translation of the term for “god”.

But what is even more interesting is the fact that the term for “god/gods” is Elohim, which is also the term used for God (that is, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).  Elohim can be translated “god”, “gods” or “God” (for God it’s kind of like the royal “we”).  Most of the class noticed this issue and our professor noted that there is some question among Hebrew scholars about whether the Israelites were turning to other gods, which is how we normally take the golden calf story, or if the golden calf was meant to be a representation for Yahweh, the God of Israel.  In both cases, the Israelites have broken a commandment–either worshiping other gods or making an idol–so it doesn’t change anything, but it’s still an interesting nuance missed in the English translations.

* * *

The president of the college and seminary sight-reads both Hebrew and Greek, translating on the spot when he lectures and preaches.  It’s quite impressive. Check out his CV in the link above–he translated Job for the New Living Translation and lists translating Akkadian and Ugaritic (other ancient near eastern languages) texts as one of his hobbies.  Awesome! (He also lists reading P.G. Wodehouse–huzzah!).

I asked him about becoming so familiar with the languages.  He told me that when he became a pastor, which was when he was in seminary, he made it standard practice to translate every passage of scripture he preached on.  He suggested translating just a little bit every day as a good practice.

I’m excited about the possibilities.  We received free copies of the Hebrew Bible from the Canadian Bible Society, but sometimes it is difficult to read.  So I’ve order the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, the critical edition of the Hebrew text,with the intention of disciplining myself to translate just a little bit every day.

On “Jehovah”…

Interesting Hebrew class today.  So far we’ve gone through the alphabet (which is just consonants), the vowels and syllabification and today she explained why the word translated “Jehovah” in the King James Version and as exists in numerous Christian hymns is not actually a Hebrew word and is not, technically, found in the Hebrew Bible.  I had heard this before, but I never knew why such a mix up ever occurred.

Originally written Hebrew did not have vowels.  It was just a series of consonants and the vowels would be filled in naturally by hearers, much like you cld rd th rst f ths sntnc wtht th vwls (“could read the rest of this sentence without the vowels”).  Around 700 A.D. the Masoretes, in an effort to preserve the Hebrew language both written and spoken, invented an elaborate system of indicating the vowels sounds in the Hebrew language.  This system consists of combinations of dots and dashes usually below, but sometimes above and inside the consonants.  Because the text was (and is) considered holy, they did this without changing the text as written originally (hence the dots and dashes around the text).

God’s name in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) is YHWH.  The name of God is very holy, so out of respect for God’s name, the Israelites instead said (and still say) “Adonai”–which means “Lord”–when they came across the word YHWH in the written text.  In fact, modern English translations continue to show this sort of respect for The Name: it is translated THE LORD, in all caps, in English texts.

By way of reminder to say “Adonia” instead of “YHWH”, the Masoretes added around “YHWH” the vowel dashes and dots that belong to the Hebrew for “Adonai”.  Early translators were not aware of this, so they read YHWH by taking into account the vowels that did not, in fact, belong with The Name.  When reading YHWH with those vowel indicators, you get “Yehovah” (I guess the “J” sound for the “Y” comes from the German reading), which is incorrect, a word which does not exist in Hebrew.

So, wherever modern English translations say “THE LORD”, the King James Version (or Authorized Version) will read “Jehovah”.  And since the KJV was a text extremely influential to modern English, we have many hymns which refer to “Jehovah”, rather than THE LORD or Adonai or some such variation.

Now you know.  Fascinating stuff, eh?