Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Capturing Earthiness

Hebrew is, of course, a very ancient language. Before it was revived in modern-day Israel, it had a relatively limited vocabulary from a time when things were a lot more down to earth. When we read the Hebrew Bible we don't really catch that sense of the language. We "sanctify" it to make it more acceptable to our modern ears. Fortunately we do have more words that we can use.

Last Sunday I was sitting listening to the Hebrew Bible text being read. I don't usually read along; I like the sense of listening to the word. Suddenly a word went skimming by. Did I hear that, as thought? Did it really say what I think I heard? I pulled out the bulletin and double checked it. Yep. That's what I heard.

Here's the passage from the Common English Bible which we use:

Isaiah 64: 5b-6-- But you were angry when we sinned;
you hid yourself when we did wrong.
We have all become like the unclean;
all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. [Emphasis added.]
What an excellent example of the earthiness (and not mincing words) that one can find in the Bible!

Other translations use "filthy" or "greasy" to describe the rag in question- our deeds. Fitting and descriptive, but not with the overwhelming power of this translation. In fact, knowing the importance of "clean" vs. "unclean" in the ancient Hebrew lifestyle, the use of the word "menstrual" adds an extreme of "uncleanness" that filthy and greasy don't.

I later dug into a concordance and found that the Hebrew word is only used once in the Bible- right there in Isaiah 64. To get its translation. scholars had to look at other similar words and other ancient languages. The root and words really do have to do with the menstrual cycle- a time of uncleanness for a woman. The phrase "menstrual rag" really is a descriptive, powerful, down-to-earth, and appropriate translation.

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