Language, Text, and Context
More than 6,000 languages are spoken among the world’s billions.
The complete Bible has been translated into more than 600 languages, with the New Testament or some portions translated into more than 2,500 other languages, as well. That’s a lot of languages, for sure. But at the same time, it is still less than half of the known languages of the world.
An estimated 1.5 billion people do not have the full Bible translated into their first language. While there is still much work to be done, the efforts of Bible societies have ensured that six billion people can read Scripture.
And what a blessing to be among those who do have the Bible in their own language! We often take it for granted, forgetting that not only do many not have the Bible but also that for centuries in Europe, the Bible was purposely kept away from the masses. Thanks to the printing press and the Reformation, that is no longer the case. Those of us who do indeed have the Bible continue to look at how we can, filled with the Spirit, learn to study the Word and come to know the Lord revealed in its pages.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, May 16.
The Bible was written as a witness to God’s work in history, His plan for redeeming the fallen race of humanity, and to instruct us in all ways of righteousness. The Lord chose to do this in human language, making His thoughts and ideas visible through human words.
In redeeming Israel from Egypt, God chose a specific nation to convey His message to all peoples. He allowed that nation to communicate His Word through their language, Hebrew (and a few portions in Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew).
The rise of Greek culture brought a new opportunity, allowing the New Testament to be communicated through the universal language of Greek, which was widely spoken in that part of the world at that time. (In fact, there was even a Greek translation of the Old Testament, as well.) This “universal” language enabled the apostles and early church to spread the message far and wide with new missionary zeal after the death of Christ. Later, the apostle John “bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw” (Rev. 1:2, NKJV). In this way, the Bible indicates the continuity of this inspired “witness” and “testimony” from the first writer of Scripture to the last.
Some people not only have the Bible translated into their native language but even have various versions of it in their own language. Others might have only one version, if even that. But regardless of what you have, the key point is to cherish it as the Word of God and, most important, to obey what it teaches.
In every language there are words that are so rich and deep in meaning that they are difficult to translate adequately with a single word into another language. Such words require a wide study of their usage in the Bible to understand the breadth of meaning.
The Hebrew word chesed (mercy) is one of the richest and most profound words in the Old Testament. It describes God’s love, lovingkindess, mercy, and covenant attitude toward His people. In these few passages, we have seen Him show “ ‘great mercy [chesed] to Your servant David . . . ; You have continued this great kindness [chesed] for him’ ” (1 Kings 3:6, NKJV). He “shall send forth His mercy [chesed] and His truth” (Ps. 57:3, NKJV). Concerning Israel, He will “give truth to Jacob and mercy [chesed] to Abraham” (Mic. 7:20, NKJV). Entire books have been written on the word chesed, trying to capture the depth of God’s mercy and love toward us.
The Hebrew word shalom is often translated as “peace.” But the meaning of the word is much deeper and broader than this. It can be translated as “wholeness, completeness, and well-being.” God’s blessing and graciousness keep us in a state of shalom, which is a gift from God (Num. 6:24–26). By contrast, Job’s experience of trouble produces a situation where he is “ ‘not at ease’ ” (NKJV) nor is he “ ‘quiet,’ ” for he lacks shalom. In this hectic world, it is a profound blessing to welcome the Sabbath day with the words Shabbat shalom, for our communion with God provides the ultimate peace and wholeness that our lives desire.
In Hebrew thought, there are a number of ways to express ideas that reinforce meaning and emphasize the importance of concepts. Unlike European languages, Hebrew contains no punctuation marks in the original language, so the language structure developed other ways to communicate such ideas.
One of the ways that the Hebrew writer could emphasize a certain attribute of God was by repeating it three times. As the Creation account comes to the apex of God’s creative work, the text emphasized the unique importance of created humanity. The term bara’, “to create,” always has only God as its subject. That is, it is only God that has the power to create without being dependent on preexisting matter. Here the text describes the creation of man: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27, NKJV; emphasis supplied). Notice the threefold repetition of the word “create.” Moses, thus, emphasized that human beings are created by God and that they are created in His image, as well. These truths were his emphasis.
In Isaiah’s vision and call, the seraphim repeat the words “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:3). The emphasis is on the holiness of an awesome God whose presence fills the temple. We also see this holiness through the words of Isaiah, as he stands in the presence of the Almighty: “Woe is me, for I am undone!” (Isa. 6:5, NKJV). Even a prophet like Isaiah, confronted with the holiness and character of God, cringed at his own unworthiness. Thus, even here, long before we have Paul’s exposition on human sinfulness and the need of a Savior (Romans 1–3), we can see the Bible giving expression to the fallen nature of humanity, even in a “good” person such as Isaiah.
In Daniel 3, we have a repetition (with variations) of the phrase “the image which Nebuchadnezzar set up” (Dan. 3:1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 12, 14, 15, 18, NKJV). This phrase, or variations of it, is repeated 10 times in the chapter to contrast Nebuchadnezzar’s action in defiance of the image God revealed to him through Daniel (Dan. 2:31–45). The emphasis here is on humanity’s seeking to make itself into a god to be worshiped, in contrast to the only true God, the only One worthy of worship.
Words in Scripture always occur in a context. They do not stand by themselves. A word has its immediate context within a sentence, and it is this unit that needs to be understood first. Then there is the wider context of the overall unit in which the sentence occurs. This may be a section of writing, a chapter, or a series of chapters. It is essential to understand as well as possible the context of words and sentences in order not to arrive at erroneous conclusions.
We have already seen that the repetition of the term bara’ in Genesis 1:27 indicates an emphasis on the creation of man. Now we see that man is defined within the context of this verse as “male and female.” This means that the Hebrew term adam is to be understood in this passage as a reference generically to humanity.
However, in Genesis 2:7 the same term adam is used to refer to the forming of Adam out of the dust of the “ground” (in Hebrew adamah— notice the play on words). Here only the male, Adam, is referred to, for Eve is not created until later and in an entirely different manner. Thus, in each passage, even within the context of two chapters, we see a differentiation between the definition of adam as “humanity” (Gen. 1:27) and the man Adam (Gen. 2:7). That Adam is a person is later affirmed in the genealogies (Gen. 5:1–5, 1 Chron. 1:1, Luke 3:38) and in reference to Jesus, who becomes the “second Adam” (Rom. 5:12–14).
Just as the word Adam occurs in a specific text, so the context of the creation of Adam and Eve is found in the larger Creation account as seen in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. This is what is meant by a larger unit. The unit informs the interpreter of additional themes, ideas, and developments. Genesis 2:4–25 has sometimes been called the second Creation account, but in fact there is only a difference in emphasis (see next week). In both accounts, though, we are shown the definitive origins of humanity.
The largest units in Scripture are books of the Bible. Biblical books were written for different purposes and in different settings. Some served as prophetic messages; others were compilations, such as the Psalms. There are historical books, such as 1 and 2 Kings, and there are letters to various churches, such as those written by Paul and others. As we seek to understand a book’s meaning and message, it is important to begin with authorship and setting. Many books of the Bible are assigned authors. The first five books of the Old Testament are identified as having been authored by Moses (Josh. 8:31, 32; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Kings 21:8; Ezra 6:18; Neh. 13:1; Dan. 9:11–13; Mal. 4:4). This is confirmed by Jesus (Mark 12:26; John 5:46, 47; John 7:19) and the apostles (Acts 3:22, Rom. 10:5). In other cases, some biblical authors are not identified. (For example, the authors of the books Esther and Ruth as well as the authors of many of the historical books, such as Samuel and Chronicles, are not identified.)
Exodus through Deuteronomy were written by Moses after, of course, the Exodus. But because Genesis is foundational as a history of God’s acts from Creation to the patriarchal period, it is logical that this book was written before the Exodus.
“As the years rolled on, and he [Moses] wandered with his flocks in solitary places, pondering upon the oppressed condition of his people, he recounted the dealings of God with his fathers and the promises that were the heritage of the chosen nation, and his prayers for Israel ascended by day and by night. Heavenly angels shed their light around him. Here, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he wrote the book of Genesis.”—Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 251.
With the book of Genesis, we are told not only about our origins but about the plan of salvation, or the means by which God will redeem fallen humanity. This plan becomes even more apparent with the covenant that God makes with Abraham, which involves His promise to establish through him a great nation to be made up of “ ‘descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore’ ” (Gen. 22:17, NKJV).
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “John Wycliffe,” pp. 79–96; “Luther Before the Diet,” pp. 145–170, in The Great Controversy; also read section 4.a.–j. from the document “Methods of Bible Study,” which can be found at the following link: www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/bible-interpretation-hermeneutics/methods-bible-study.
“In His word, God has committed to men the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are to be accepted as an authoritative, infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the revealer of doctrines, and the test of experience. . . . Yet the fact that God has revealed His will to men through His word, has not rendered needless the continued presence and guiding of the Holy Spirit. On the contrary, the Spirit was promised by our Saviour, to open the word to His servants, to illuminate and apply its teachings. And since it was the Spirit of God that inspired the Bible, it is impossible that the teaching of the Spirit should ever be contrary to that of the word.”—Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 9.