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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Eisegeting Hebrew metaphors and idioms

I love metaphors and idioms. Syntax is the skeleton of a language. The lexicon adds flesh to the skeleton. But metaphors and idioms are those unique features of a language's skin that cause us to say, "That's beautiful!"

Tim Challies, who always has something important to say, has just posted on Words, Phrases and Metaphors. Tim likes the fact that the ESV matches up Hebrew words with English words when translating Hebrew metaphors and idioms. Tim knows the Bible well. He is a member of those English speakers who are biblically literate. So he understands and enjoys the literary beauty of biblical figurative language. I do too!

But Tim finds meanings in the Hebrew idioms which I suggest were not there for the Hebrew speakers. He does so sincerely, assuming that the meanings of English words of "literal" translations of Hebrew idioms accurately tell us the meanings of those Hebrew idioms. Tim unintentionally is practicing eisegesis, importing outside meanings to the biblical text, meanings which are likely not there in the original.

Each thing that Tim states about the Hebrew figurative language makes sense. And it is quite possible that much of what Tim says had some basis in Hebrew etymology of the idioms used. But metaphors and idioms which people use at any point in time cannot simply be understood etymologically. James Barr made this clear as he critiqued the "etymological fallacy" in his seminal book, The Semantics of Biblical Language.

Read Tim's post, well-written as all his posts are, then read my comments on his post. Then ask yourself how legitimate it is to assume that we know the meanings of biblical idioms based on English translations of that language which match the biblical words with English words, but do not translate the overall meaning of the idiom itself. Idioms, by definition, have a meaning which is different from the sum of the meaning of their parts. Better Bibles which ensure that everyone intended to use them will be able to get the meaning, accurately and clearly, of biblical idioms. For audiences which are not so biblically literate as Tim Challies, myself, and many (most?) who visit this blog, it may be necessary to translate the meaning of the idiom itself and put it in the text itself. Then we can footnote to tell what the meanings of the parts of the biblical idiom were, as the NET Bible does so well.

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At Tue Nov 15, 10:41:00 AM, Blogger Gary Freedman said...

I have a "bible-inspired" blog. The text of "Significant Moments" can be accessed from my blog.


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