Monday, April 29, 2019

Hebrew Poetry

On our pilgrimage to Israel last month, I asked our tour guide every question I could think of. As we discussed human language, he described Hebrew as a "poetic" language. This was a new concept for me. English, he said, has such a large number of words (according to there are about 228,000) and Hebrew has much fewer (Google estimates 45,000).

With such a vast vocabulary, English speakers and writers can express ideas with a great deal of precision. We can differentiate between a chuckle and a chortle, or a wrist and a hand. With such a high level of precision, English often leaves little to imagination or interpretation. We often know exactly what a writer means, and the meaning is very narrow.

With fewer words in Hebrew, speakers of that language make statements that are often left to interpretation. When you look up Hebrew words in a lexicon, you find wide ranges of meaning. For example one Hebrew word (nephesh) can mean soul, person,or life. Similarly the word for "spirit" can also mean breath or wind.

The Hebrew language leans heavily on context. Who is speaking? What are the circumstances? What might the speaker mean? What is the speaker talking about? Who is he talking to?

Unfortunately we read the Old Testament like English literature. We expect precision. Translators often give a precise meaning, when the author may have intended multiple meanings. This robs the reader of the opportunity to think or puzzle.

So now I know that Hebrew is a poetic language, and I'll try to keep that in mind. The meaning might not be as simple as I assume.

I can be sure that there's more than meets the eye.

A sign along the Israel/Lebanon border, written in 
Hebrew, English, and Arabic