‘Do not Allow what is Good and True to be Spoken of ill’ – St Paul – Romans
Loss or rejection of such a faculty for appreciation of figurative imagery, or of the potential to grow such a faculty, is (to use an anatomical similitude) like allowing one’s leg to be cut off. A person is considerably less equipped to face life without it. The idiom goes: ‘It is a closed book’.
(To play devil’s advocate a little, these present days see university faculties and chairs and readers and fellows carrying out more and more of often such sorry tasks in non-subjects and non-disciplines, so as to make Newton’s study of the occult appear to be an innocuous occupation. A guy got air time on the TV today for showing his studies of how penguins walk and why. Considerable equipment and resources had been invested in this study. The best we got from the radio on his results was that penguins ‘waddle’)
But our agendas today are not Newton’s; nor are they those of the Ancient Hebrews – But why not? And is it worth asking this question let alone trying to answer it? Yes, emphatically yes. It is very worthwhile and is much, much more relevant than minute analysis of penguin gait.
I hope the case for figurative language has been put and has swayed you at least enough to consider my argument to be worth continuing with? Because if we are able to concede to ourselves that our predilections and preferences, as our being caught up in the cloud server of post–modern civilisation, steer us not only towards embracing technical advancements and new ideas, but also away from other advancements and sound ideas as well and at the same time. These which we shun get extracted unnoticed and by neglect out of the vital cultural mix.
The commonplace radical misunderstanding of Hebrew and other ancient peoples, the assumptions we commonly make that they were unenlightened and at a disadvantage and that they were just not as bright as we are today; are all themselves unenlightened disadvantaged and not as bright misprisions on our own parts. The gulf between us and them is wide and deep, and we are not to able to attempt to bridge it without learning as much as we are able to about them and about how they saw things and why they saw things that way.
And most importantly, we should need to begin to respect them and to take them seriously and so throw off our assumption of our superiority complex because it is based on prejudice and ignorance. Let us sit at their feet and learn what we can from them.
Like Newton they are not easy to understand because they are foreign to our ways of being and of doing nowadays. To use an idiom: the world was in a different place at their time. But nonetheless they dwelt in places having boundaries and creases which interleave with our times; and which are able to serve to enlighten and make more clear these days of ours. As Tolkien has his Gandalf say: ‘Things have been forgotten that should not have been forgotten.’
Understand that what I am suggesting here is that there are new languages about being available for us to learn, so that we are freed up to find that ours, the way we live now, by far is by no mean the only way to live. There are valuable ways to be visited and to be won from the past, and which are able to be improve and enrich life for us today by them being resuscitated in, and resuscitating, you, and me. This is possible by means of an earnest search for truth in the dust and decay of the mounds and middens of the Deserts of the Arabah , or in the ciphers and projections in dry and dusty books where are concoctions of runes and alembics .
The outlooks, the ways of approaching and seeing life and life events are the items which hold a liberating power over minds like ours, which too often are corralled and sectioned in and by the relatively homogenous and tunnel vision world views which commercial and technical interests lay upon us.
The Hebrews (I admit here I am not capable of reading their language) – so it seems to me, and to many others better than me, who are scholars of no mean order – were a people who created a language which did, and does, a whole lot with very little.
The size of the vocabulary in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament (The Jewish Bible) is tiny compared to our English language. The way in which pictorial images and other figures and idioms of speech in the Hebrew language are handled by this limited vocabulary is without parallel when set against other languages which I have a smattering of.
The guys who translated the King James Authorised Version of the Old Testament into English did their very best to keep to a literal translation of the Hebrew books they were working from. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, they wanted to bring over in their translation a true spirit of the language of the Hebrew by carrying over its marvellously imaginative use of words. Secondly because parts of the Old Testament were so fiercely idiomatic, that for these early translators their precise meaning was not well fathomable. So that they could be as faithful as they were able to be they chose to write merely what the literal meaning of the Hebrew in equivalent English seemed to them to be .
And so even a poor language student like I am myself is able to grasp something of the tenor and glory of the Ancient Hebrew language by resorting to the King James English Bible Old Testament – in this the old scholars were fiercely faithful to the past.
And this King James Version, as faithfully translated, has been of value to later scholars, as being a reliable guide to the Hebrew vocabulary and expression, in the light of discoveries about Hebrew language and the Hebrews since the King James Version rendered the Scriptures into English.
Added to this there is the commonplace that Jewish persons looking at a story in their Bible took little interest in whether the verisimilitude of the story stuck to a naturalistic norm; they were not bothered by speaking serpents and asses and didn’t baulk at ‘chariots of fire’ and at ‘dry bones’ taking on flesh again. Their first and overriding concern was to ask: What is the story saying to me – what is it trying to convey; why is it written thus?
Just as we read Harry Potter or watch X-Men and we are not thrown or fazed by the strangeness of their worlds; we accept them as the norm for that novel or movie; and we are taken up by our interest in the plot and characters of the story – we weep when sad and relish the chases nonetheless – and we relate still in human terms and human terms only, emotionally and in our expectations for behaviour, without a blink of an eye – in spite of all the otherwise absurd aspects of those worlds.
Jewish students of the Bible read likewise in the same spirit; but with an eye to their faith and traditions so as to know more about their God and the type of God he shows himself to be in these stories. For me to illustrate this kind of reading here is an anecdote from a famous Bible scholar: He was asked whether he believed a serpent spoke in the Garden of Eden, He replied ‘it is not important whether a serpent spoke in the Garden; it is crucial however to know what the serpent said.’ If you are able to grasp the great importance (and the great humour) of his reply you are on your way to a Biblical understanding.
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