Words do matter: what we say and how we say it, especially if it’s God who says it in the Bible.
In fact, in the original Hebrew Bible (and all the multitude of translations take their cue from that one Hebrew text), the word “word” (davar) and the word “speak” (daber) are spelled the same way, except for a dot in the middle of the second letter. So, when God speaks, he actually creates a “thing” or “word”, davar, the same meaning for both.
Equally, in the New Testament in Luke 1:38, Mary said to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be done to me according to your word”. Of course, it’s God’s word: the angel is merely transmitting it.
And in John 1:1, we are told that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, while in verse 14 we are told that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. So Jesus is the Word of God: Logos in Greek and Davar in Hebrew.
Another important word in English is “love”: we have many uses for it. On the other hand, in Hebrew, there is greater differentiation. The ordinary word for “love” is ahavat: the love between people and for things.
The other word, hesed, is much more specific, but we in English do not have a single, all-encompassing word for it: the nearest we get to it is “loving-kindness”. In the Bible it is almost invariably attributed to God, since it stands for the kind of love which we humans are not normally able to show: namely, whether we are good, bad, or indifferent, God still loves us.
In the Authorised Version of the Bible of 1611, the Anglican divines unfortunately made some grave errors: one of them is quite laughable to the Hebrew speaker.
In Mark 5:41, the Anglican translators gave the Hebrew Aramaic as “Talitha cum” (“Little girl, I say to you arise”), instead of cumi. Now any Hebrew/Aramaic speaker will tell you that cum [“get up” or “arise”] is used when addressing a male, while cumi is used when addressing a female.
Since we know that Jesus was speaking to a girl, no-one could possibly claim that he did not know basic Hebrew/Aramaic grammar!
I have noticed that lately, all Protestant translations, derived from the original Authorised Version have now been corrected. Deo gratias!
This leads me to far darker side of translations from the 16th century and thereafter.
For example, in the 17th century Authorised Version of the Bible, the then translators invariably and most unhappily speak of “the fear of God”. I believe that this is a most unfortunate translation of the Hebrew word “norah” (“awful”, in the sense of “full of awe”), or yirah (“awe”), both of them coming from the same basic root, but neither of them meaning “fear” in the sense of “cringing”.
I believe that this mistranslation had a devastating psychological effect on the English-speaking world for over 400 years, and still continues to do so, since God was portrayed and perceived as a stern father figure, who is always ready to zap you, should you “get out of line”!
So then the God of the Old Testament was in essence regarded as a different kind of God than in the New Testament: as if God could change. He is in fact the same yesterday, today, and forever!
On the other hand, in the Hebrew Bible the Jew looks on God with “awe” (yirah), and is “full of awe” (norah) for the Almighty. who has nothing but mercy, forgiveness, and above all, “hesed” which is loving kindness, for the humble repentant man or woman, whether he or she is good, bad or indifferent.
As a consequence of the above, modern translations of the Bible from the original Hebrew should reflect the true meaning of the original language, so as to avoid untold psychological problems for normal, but especially psychologically vulnerable people who take the words of Scripture literally.
(Andrew Sholl is co-founder of the Association of Hebrew Catholics which aims to end the alienation of Catholics of Jewish origin and background from their historical heritage. It conducts regular monthly meetings in cities where its members make this possible.)