Dr. JOEL M. HOFFMAN — AND GOD SAID — 2010
I will not be arrogant enough to pretend I know as much biblical Hebrew as the author. That would be a lie. But I am surprised the author does not know the work of his colleague Robert Eisenman who has beyond any doubt established the Dead Sea Scrolls were contemporary of Jesus Christ, and his brother James — twice thrown over the walls of Jerusalem and the second time stoned to death on the order in both cases from the Temple itself — was the main teacher quoted in them. Eiseman also has interesting remarks about the strange shifts from the root system of Hebrew, with long families of words using the same root, like the one for evil derived from the pagan god Baal, rendered in Greek with alliterations of words that have no connections what so ever. And that’s where I would like to start.
The reference to Chomsky is nothing but a linguistic rattle here because Chomsky has never worked on Hebrew, has never worked on root languages, the vast family of Semitic languages all issued from the first migration out of Black Africa no later than 200,000 years ago, down the Nile valley essentially, along the northern African Mediterranean coast, shortly into the Levant they will leave again around 80,000 before any other Homo Sapiens from the later migrations out of Black Africa via Djibouti-Aden-Southern-Arabian-Corridor-Hormuz arrive in the Middle East around 70–60,000 BCE. The Semitic people will only come back again around 35,000 BCE. Chomsky has only worked on languages produced in the world by the third and last Migration out of Black Africa, that is to say, agglutinative languages (very little for Chomsky and not central in his work) and synthetic-analytical languages (Indo-European and Indo-Aryan languages, though mostly the former for Chomsky). Root languages are approached by Hoffman in a very superficial way to prove his point by neglecting the simple fact that a root is neither verbal nor nominal, in fact, neither spatial nor temporal, and it is the use of vowels that are going to produce entities that can be used in oral discourse to speak and communicate and the basic idea is that such connected elements can be counted in dozens for some roots, and the elements derived from such roots that are completely cut off in meaning from the dominant value of the roots are at least rare, in spite of what Hoffman may say.
His triple principle about how we can look for the meaning of a word in Biblical Hebrew is thus quite debatable. He says: “Internal word structure . . . doesn’t tell us what words mean. . . We cannot use etymology to figure out what the ancient Hebrew words meant when the Bible was written. . . The dangers of using cognate languages to figure out what a word means. So we add cognate languages to etymology and internal word structure, completing our list of three ways that words do not get their meaning.” (p. 30–36) He favors a method that was vastly developed and used by Kenneth Burke, an author he does not seem to know, or at least he does not quote. The method is to consider words always in clusters, and to bring up the clusters that are gathered in the text or by the author around one particular word he wants you to understand, and the meaning of this word and the others around it will only come from the particular meaning the cluster-and-context produces. Note this is nothing new since it is the method Freud suggested to analyze dreams.
He is right as for this choice provided he gives back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But he is wrong about the first three methods used by other linguists because he does not take Biblical Hebrew as a language that has evolved over about ten centuries or so, maybe more, a lot more if we consider the oral tradition before it was written. For him, Hebrew is reduced to words which are yet only surface products of deep roots (Chomsky might have helped him here with his concept of deep structure). But the essential mistake of his and capital element here are that a language must always be captured in its phylogeny or at least diachrony and there Chomsky is no use since Chomsky only considers the synchrony, in fact, the absolutely standard modern use of a language stated as static, not changing at all, and what’s more not able to host practices like poetry and literature that warp the standard use of any language to produce new meanings and emotions. He often repeats the Bible is poetic but he does not analyze it as poetic.
But he is wrong in this frozen vision and I will give some examples. In London, there is a certain Tower of London and at the gate, there are several Beefeaters. If we consider the superficial structure of the word “beefeater” we may think they are men who eat beef. Funny isn’t it. If we consider the history of this word (about ten centuries, like Biblical Hebrew) we can find that William the Conqueror brought it into England in 1066 in the form of “buffetier” and such “buffetiers” were the men who checked all the goods, particularly food and drinks, that entered the Tower of London. Note the word “buffet” is still used in plain English. It is obvious etymology and the internal structure of the word are very useful to understand the meaning of the word “beefeater” even if nowadays the only goods they check at the gate are tourists and hardly anything else, anyway nothing to be eaten or drunk.
He is right about etymology when we consider a word like “dog” since this word has no etymology at all neither from German (‘”Hund” à “hound”) nor from Latin (“canis” à French “chien” àEnglish “canine”). But such words are exceptions. Our “’cars” are directly derived from “carriages” that were drawn by horses and this old fact is so true that it is remembered in the power unit for automobiles: HP (“horsepower”) and 2HP originally meant or was equivalent to “drawn by two horses.” The meaning of words changes but they always keep some connection with their original meanings. The Queen’s carriage has little to do with a train-carriage, and yet the connection is quite obvious as a vehicle in which people can sit in order to be transported from one place to another.
The third criterion is even worse. “Beefeater” is nothing “without “buffetier,” “an apron” without “un napperon.” And it is the same with culture. Train run on the left in France because railways were invented by the English and English engineers helped the French build their first lines. In the same way, underground trains run on the right in England because underground trains were developed first in Paris and French engineers helped the English build the underground in London. Nothing comes from nothing, meaning everything comes from something. Cats don’t come from dogs but dogs do come from wolves and cats from wild cats.
On this point, Hoffman is right that each method taken separately and alone does not lead very far and probably nowhere if the diachrony or phylogeny of language is not taken into account. But the clustering method is essential, not as the only way, but as a good complementary method. In other words, there are four methods to be used, all of them without any exception and the truth is with the common elements where the four methods lead to, or at least two of them because one method is from my point of view suspicious by being slightly light and two is just so-so.
Thus, if we are able to correct the very narrow choice of only considering the clustering of words to define their meanings, the book is enjoyable, even important.
He rejects the “heart and soul” pair of concepts in the Bible as a false translation, no translation at all in fact. The two Hebrew words are “levav” and “nefesh” and he very swiftly identifies “levav” with the mind, both the intellect of thought, and emotions, and “nefesh” with the tangible body of a person, “flesh,” “blood,” “breath,” and I would like to add to this understanding the “bones.” He comes then to the translation “Love the Lord your God with all your mind and body…” Strangely enough the Catholic theologians in Paris working with the Catholic church on the parallel verses of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, have proved convincingly that the use of “Lord” has to be traced to a later Greek influence whereas the use of “Master,” “Teacher,” and “Rabbi” has to be traced to some original Semitic language. Jesus read and probably spoke Biblical Hebrew, but his standard everyday language was Aramaic, another modern Semitic language of Jesus’ time. This remark confirms the link between Jesus and the zealots via his own brother James since they never use the term Lord. But Lord is, of course, a translation and it would be highly profitable to analyze the original Hebrew word that is thus translated.
Hoffman is quite convincing about what the “Shepherd” is in the Old Testament, and still in Jesus” time. The Shepherd in those days was only marginally connected to the herd he looked after. The main qualities were: “supreme might, protection [for] safety, gallant heroism and the nearness of God even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.” (p. 147) But Hoffman is totally misguided when he tries hard to find an equivalent in modern English, in fact, American society, and his strange reference to king, president, mayor, CEO or whatever would destroy the power of the metaphor this “shepherd” carries. He reminds me of the colonial intellectuals who translated the Buddhist Pāli concept of “dukkha” as “suffering.” It sure speaks to westerners but it is totally wrong because dukkha is the cycle of everything that never lasts forever, is never stable enough to be considered as some kind of essence, the cycle of the ever ending short transient existence of anything natural, and anything human is natural. At times to keep some “concepts” is the best translation, with a footnote to explain it, with an apposed sentence to make explicit the meaning of the concept. “Shepherd” has to be kept and has to be explained. What’s more is the absence of the two most famous shepherds in the Old Testament in anyway justified? Cain who is rejected by God who prefers Abel, the vegetable and fruit grower, hence the farmer, over the herder, the shepherd Cain. We know what happened and probably the guilt experienced by God himself forced him to protect Cain and his descendants from the destruction he would have faced if the plain law of the Old Testament had been implemented: a hateful crime it was, killing Abel, going against God’s decision: death till how many generations? But even worse the best positive example of the Shepherd is David himself and his shepherd’s victory is not used nor simply referred to. If another translation were to be suggested it should be “The Lord is my shepherd, my master, my David.” And I do not like “Lord.”
His chapter on the Song of Songs is very interesting. He proves without any possible recourse that “my sister, my lover” is the most absurd translation you can imagine. He proves that family connections were not used only as such but also as the expression of the difference in age or the absence of such between two people. The use of “brother” and “sister” is typical of this: it simply means that the man and the woman who are thus referring to each other state that they are equal and not incestuous. Unluckily his suggested translation “my equal, my lover” is bad. He could have thought of something better like “my equal in love, my lover.”
What he says on the Ten Commandments is interesting at times but it is not that fascinating. His long discussion of the various words used for “killing” shows that only one is considered as criminal, ”ratsach,” and a person (note it is implied in most of the chapter that such a person is a man) who commits such a crime whom he calls “a ratsacher” is under the legal and justified menace of a “blood redeemer” who has the right and the duty to avenge the death of the victim with the death of the ratsacher who has to take refuge (if he can) in a city of refuge where he will be out of reach till the death of the high priest of this city, meaning that then he will have to be delivered or deliver himself to the blood redeemer, an ending which Hoffman does not seem to consider. Note Hoffman does not know his English perfectly. In the 16–17th centuries “shall” used in the commandments was NOT formal but was a very strong prediction of the future based on the existence of a law or a divine will that makes the outcome absolutely inescapable. This value of “shall” is in no way attached to the first person and it is still active today. “John will go at 12.00” is a pure announced prediction about the future. “John shall go at 12.00” implies an obligation somewhere. That is the value of the Germanic modal verb from which “shall” comes as opposed to the one from which “will” comes.
The last chapter on the word “virgin” is interesting because the word used both in Isaiah (7:14) and in Matthew (1:23) seen as the prediction of the virginity of Mary, Jesus’ mother, is totally false. The phrase “ha-alma hara” can only mean “the woman pregnant.” “alma” cannot be translated as “virgin” in any way and the fact that she is pregnant is a plain statement of her delivering a child in the near future. Note the age of marriage and first pregnancy is between 11 and 13 for women. Mary was 13 when she married Joseph and she delivered a child because she was pregnant. The prediction then is that a prophet who will be the Messiah was going to come as the child of a pregnant woman. We are far from the standard version. But we are also in a vision that is entirely male-dominated as for the Messiah (the anointed) but pragmatically female-dominated in the delivery of this Messiah. All that is perfectly human, and it is in perfect agreement with what Paul Radin says about the existence of a minority of visionary people in any primitive society, and I will say in any human society, who assume a position of dominance in their society, the shamans of shamanism if we follow David Lewis-Williams. So I go slightly further than Hoffman who reduces the prediction to: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. A pregnant woman will give birth to a son, and call him Immanuel.” Immanuel means “God is with us.” And due to this name the prediction is that this son will be one of the visionary elite of society. And he will be the Shepherd. I think at this moment Hoffman does not really try to implement his own method since we are in the New Testament and beyond Judaism. If thus he were to bring together what he said about the Shepherd and what he says about Immanuel, then the proper identity of this newborn would be … the choice is yours and open from Buddha to Trump, and add a few women in the choice to be up-to-date. The miracle is that every day such an Immanuel Shepherd is born from a pregnant woman and brought up to realize his vision, positive, negative or whatever.
I will conclude with a simple remark on the poetry of the Old Testament. Hoffman makes several remarks on chiasmuses in the Bible. He finds it difficult at times to translate and keep the poetry. His first example is Genesis 9:6: “Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” He accepts the chiasmus as being carried by the order of words: “shed… blood… man / man… blood… shed.” But he does not see that the stressing patterns do not support this order. If chiasmus there should be it should go along with the inversion of rhythmic patterns. The first foot is imperfect but the first half of the verse is trochaic and it should turn iambic in the second half, that is to say after the comma before “by man” unluckily before this comma it is not clearly trochaic and after it is not clearly iambic. That makes this verse imperfect poetry, and that’s a bad translation. He gives another example that has exactly the same defect: “He will speak to them in anger and in ire chastise them.” That is the constant shortcoming of this discussion on the translation of the Bible. The Bible is in verse, either prosaic verses or poetic verses. Both styles correspond to two different ways of chanting the text: prosody and psalmody. Both were written down in the Old Testament and they have been restored and even recordedf in the 1950s (check the Cité de la Musique’s Library in Paris: they have the documents). It had also been kept in the Catholic church up to recently. Some attempts at reviving the prosody side of this chanting in Catholic churches is not entirely successful, not accepted by the congregation. But a translation that does not provide that kind of poetry is deficient, and that’s a deficiency Hoffman does not entirely recognize.
We could and probably should say a lot more, but the ambition or project of the author to translate the Bible in a language that would speak entirely in immediate understanding and modern meaning for the uneducated audience or congregation of our modern world is in many ways a vanity that would destroy the religion itself. The old forms of religion were based on a transcending authority of God represented on earth by the transcending authority of the priests, shamans, or any other religious elite. This implies a certain language that has to carry this distance. If that language is gotten rid of, the distance will be gotten rid of and the religious meaning will be gotten rid of. What will be left: a mentally meaningful language speaking to the intellect and it will have to be simple enough to speak to the intellect of the least educated people in our society. In other words, it will have to open the door to any populist discourse and populist manipulation. I am afraid Hoffman does not see that. Compare the length of the sentences and the lexical surface of Obama’s and Trump’s speeches and you will see what populism is in language: short sentences, repetitive phrases and very limited vocabulary with a few catchphrases and catchwords that bring up automatic and indiscriminate approval and clapping. Judaism and Christianity are anything but that, just as much as Buddhism and Islam are also avoiding in their standard discourse such populist appeal. But of course, any ideology can be pulled and pushed into such a drift that is the very negation of the original meaning of the ideology. The bloody revolutionary terror had little to do with the idealism of the initial French revolutionaries.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU