Jerusalem Center for Bible Translators headquarters

Biblical Semantics at JCBT

We all know that the Bible is an ancient Book, that, at times, can be difficult to understand. Some passages may seem relatively easy, others are almost impossible to comprehend without some help. Sometimes it is like a person standing outside who tries to look into the window of a house. If there is no light on in the room, it is very difficult to see anything at all. You have to stand as closely as possible to the window, use both hands to shield yourself from the glare, and only then you can catch a little glimpse of what is happening inside.

This is what we are trying to do at JCBT: help Bible translation specialists to get as close to the Biblical text as possible, by giving them the tools and the resources to find out what the text really says, what it meant for the ancient Israelites, and what it means for us today.

One of the reasons why we often find it hard to make sense of the Bible is because we are westerners. Our culture and worldview are very different from the one of the ancient Israelites. And even if we can understand the Biblical words, it is still very possible to miss the message behind it.

Take Genesis 38 for instance, which is the story of Judah and Tamar. How is it possible for Judah to say, at the end of the chapter, that Tamar is more righteous than he? It takes a deep understanding of the Biblical culture to appreciate this. According to the Israelite laws Judah owed Tamar a child. And when Judah was unwilling to give her her due, she decided to take it with the help of a ruse.

In the Biblical Semantics class that I have the privilege to teach we try to catch a glimpse of the world behind the text. What can we do to get a better understanding of how the ancient Israelites used to think? How did they look at their world? There is a lot we can discover by a careful reading of the text, guided by a cutting-edge linguistic model that can facilitate this.

Before we can do this, we have to lay aside some of our preconceived notions. As western evangelical Christians we tend to look at the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament and many centuries of Christian tradition. There is nothing wrong with that perspective, but we need to realize that the ancient Israelites did not know all these things. When Abraham left Ur, he only had a handful of promises from God. He knew that, sometime in the future, his descendants were going to be a blessing, but he had no way of knowing all the things we know now. Many of these things were revealed in the course of history, one step at a time. For us to understand the Old Testament better we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the ancient Israelites, by temporarily “forgetting” some of the things that we have learned in more recent times.

We need to realize that the ancient Israelites had an honor-shame culture and, as a result, looked at reality in a different way than most western evangelicals. Our culture is individualistic, and strongly dominated by an innocent-guilt outlook at life. We have strong notions of right vs. wrong, truth vs. falsehood, etc. These notions were not entirely absent in the days of the Old testament, but the ancient Israelites were much more concerned about whether their actions would cause shame to the family and the community, which is a theme that westerners often care a lot less about. We see this beautifully expressed in Ps 25:1-3

To thee, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in thee I trust,
let me not be put to shame;
let not my enemies exult over me.
Yea, let none that wait for thee be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

We also do intensive word studies, during which we discuss terms such as lovingkindness (chèsèd), holiness, sin, guilt, reconciliation, etc. We also take time to study a number of important cultural issues relating to marriage, bride price, levirate, etc. In this, we are greatly helped by the diversity of cultures represented by our students. In actual fact, many of them have a better understanding of Israelite culture than many westerners, because their culture is quite similar to that of the Ancient Near-East even if they often do not realize that.

Another important topic is Cognitive Linguistics. This is a relatively new approach to linguistics that helps us get a better understanding of how language works. Language is more than a collection of sounds, syllables, words, and sentences. It is primarily a means of communication that has its origin in the human mind. Even though we are used to saying that words have meanings, cognitive linguistics teaches us that meaning comes first and that meaning has structure. And once we are beginning to discover the structure of meaning in a language, we can also get a better understanding of obscure words in difficult passages, of which there are so many in the text of the Old Testament.

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