How to Read the Bible: Slowly, and Sport with the Words

(Photo: Justin Skinner/Dreamstime)
In her engrossing new book, classicist Sarah Ruden puts the Hebrew and Greek texts under the microscope. Enjoy the fireworks.

We would value the written word more if we didn’t have so much of it. Street signs, product labels, instruction manuals, tax forms, blog posts, e-mails, text messages . . . What would Gutenberg say? “That’s not what I had in mind”? The pace at which we produce and consume writing is out of control. A speed-reading tactic that we adopt often without realizing it is to refrain from mentally vocalizing the words as we push our eyes to devour chunks of text as big as possible. We read like a cobra.

That’s why we find the Bible so hard. It’s too big to swallow whole and too dense to digest without chewing it over ever so slowly. In the typical English translation, it’s about three quarters of a million words distributed across 66 books — or 72 or 73, depending on whether, and on how, you count the Apocrypha. Granted, that daunting word length shrinks for the Bible in its original languages, classical Hebrew and Koine Greek, but we avoid them for a reason. They’re tough going, in no small part precisely because they’re so compressed — a single word can pack a lot of detail, whose proper expression in English might require a fairly long phrase. Read the Bible long enough in any translation and the inkling that something is happening here and you don’t know what it is will begin to nag at you. We see through a glass, darkly.

To catch a glimpse of Holy Writ in higher resolution, we consult commentaries that brief us on relevant vocabulary and grammar in the ancient tongues. “These languages were not like modern globalized ones, serving mainly to convey information in explicit and interchangeable forms,” Sarah Ruden explains in The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible, her gorgeous and engrossing demonstration of how to read Scripture: lento. “Instead, the original Bible was, like all of ancient rhetoric and poetry, primarily a set of live performances, and what they meant was tightly bound up in the way they meant it.” Words on papyrus were “performance notes in a stubbornly oral culture.”

Sense was bound to sound. Ancient readers typically read aloud, or at least sotto voce. For a Christian monk in the Middle Ages, to meditate on sacra scriptura was first of all to pronounce the words. He caressed them with his mouth, ruminating on them, absorbing their nutrients. The Hebrew word for this practice is hagah (rhymes with “aha”). It’s awfully sensual. But the modern reader finds it inefficient: Cut to the chase, show me the bottom line. The Bible poses a double obstacle to his impatience. It will yield its mystery to the degree that he davens to its music and forgets the clock. Even then, however, he will be engaging only with a cover version, the translation, unless he figures out how to download the studio recording by the original artists.

Ruden notes that the vocabulary of the Biblical languages is lean, certainly compared with English, which enables us to pick our words so as to communicate specific shades or aspects of a general concept. Hebrew and Greek tend in the opposite direction: The range of meaning that a single noun or verb covers can be vast, like a congressional district in a mountain state. Often a word has an “obvious meaning on the surface, and some other, altogether different meaning that nevertheless resonates in the context; often something plodding and prosaic that’s inextricable from the metaphysics.” The Greek word pneuma, for example: It means both “wind” and “spirit” and is used in both senses in John 3:8. “If people didn’t sport with the words in their imaginations to the full extent those words invited them to, they were getting only half or a quarter of the show,” as Ruden puts it.

Her tone is relaxed and colloquial. “Don’t close this book and turn on a PBS documentary about ferrets,” she pleads near the outset of a discussion headed straight into the weeds of Hebrew grammar. “What I’m about to tell you is way more interesting.” She puts Bible verses under the microscope and draws the reader’s attention to intricacies that are probably new to him. A classicist and translator of Homer, Aristophanes, and Virgil, she wrote a book about Saint Paul in relation to Greek and Roman literature and has recently added Hebrew to her list of languages. “I’m a Quaker, which means I’m admonished to speak my own mind plainly,” and plainly she confesses that she’s new to Biblical scholarship, in which she has “no formal qualifications whatsoever. . . . I can only read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek and give my impressions.”

For a Christian monk in the Middle Ages, to meditate on sacra scriptura was first of all to pronounce the words. He caressed them with his mouth, ruminating on them, absorbing their nutrients.

She wrote this little volume because “most people don’t have the time” to pore over “textbooks, grammars, and dictionaries and start puzzling out the text for themselves.” The substance of the book is scholarly, but it’s not a treatise. In form and even style, it’s a literary essay. It has a structure — three parts, seven chapters each — that imposes some order, or rather the appearance of order, for the sake of decorum, which is fine. Mercifully, Ruden does not strain to push some grand theory. She lays out several themes, illustrates them, and integrates them well enough. She takes care not to neglect her reader’s left brain, but neither does she succumb to the temptation to force every observation and insight into a scheme.

Speaking of temptation: In a pithy aside, Ruden clarifies a key word whose meaning shouldn’t be so misunderstood but that most pastors seem to fumble, perhaps because by training they’re loath to dwell on the grim and the gruesome: “Torture” is what the Greek word that gets translated as “temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer would “more or less” imply for its contemporary audience. Accounts of Christian martyrdom in our own day evoke admiration and then dread: Would I be so brave? Or would I apostatize under threat of crucifixion or decapitation? The worry was at least as pressing for the first generation of Christians. Jesus gave his followers permission — he commanded them, really — to beg off such a test of their mettle (“Lead us not into temptation”). It was a great leniency.

Ruden leans toward literal translations but thinks twice and then a third time. “When I catch my husband feeding prime rib to the dog, and he (the husband) exclaims, ‘I’m busted!’ neither of us (but I don’t know about the dog) pictures that he has mechanically malfunctioned or physically fallen to pieces.” So she wonders about the Hebrew word usually translated as “holy” or “sanctified.” It also means “visibly set apart” — could she justify translating it as that? Or would it be absurd? Not necessarily, she concludes: “In the ancient Near East (and southeastern Europe, too), there probably wasn’t as firm a division between the concrete and the abstract, the real and the symbolic, as with us. . . . Holy things, like sacrifices and sanctuaries, literally were set apart.”

The book’s title, “The Face of Water,” refers to what the ruach (the spirit, wind, breath, take your pick) of God moves over in Genesis 1:2, “but it doesn’t just ‘move’ over the water,” Ruden explains. “It hovers or broods or cherishes, like a bird over its eggs or hatchlings,” or like a sensitive reader relishing and taking her time with the book she loves.

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