Explaining Greek and Hebrew to a Congregation
In my last post, I wrote about my pastor's recent exposition of 1 Samuel 23, a chapter which repeats the word "hand" no less than nine times. I pointed out four distinct uses of "hand" in that passage, and showed how various translations chose to render each of those senses. Translations on the "formal equivalence" end of the spectrum tended to render the various hand expressions literally, but the resulting English was sometimes awkward and unnatural. More "dynamically equivalent" renderings resulted in smoother English, but tended to obscure the repetition of the word "hand." My point was that in the context of teaching, the more "literal" translations can be useful for bringing out literary aspects of the original text without requiring the pastor to give the impression that he is having to "correct" a more dynamic translation.
In the comments on that post, Peter raised a number of important issues, which I'll interact with here:
On your more general point, it makes some sense, but I think this depends to a great extent on the kind of preaching and the audience or congregation. I know some preachers use their sermons as excuses to show off their great learning about minor points in the original languages. And some congregations prefer to have their ears tickled with such things (2 Timothy 4:3) than to be challenged on great matters like love, justice and eternal salvation.
Peter is absolutely correct that some preachers and teachers delve into the Greek and Hebrew merely to demonstrate their erudition. It's been said that the amount of Greek or Hebrew a preacher uses in a sermon is inversely proportional to the amount he actually knows; and I've found that generally to be true. The danger of saying, "this is what the Greek or Hebrew says" to a congregation is that it can give them the impression that their English translations are somehow inadequate and that they are in need of experts who can tell them what the Bible "really says." That is why I argued that a more "literal" translation can be useful for bringing out literary devices in the original text.
Now it may be that your pastor had some important point of application to make in teaching that the Hebrew word in question is used nine times in this passage of scripture. But, given the diversity of senses in which the word is used, I can't think what it could have been. It is very rare, I would think, that a significant point for application of scripture to a general congregation can be found in its form only without reference to its meaning, as seems to be true with this minor point.
Now, this is an interesting question. Do the diversity of senses in which the word "hand" is used in this chapter make its frequent repetition exegetically insignificant? In some cases, it might. If a word has a broad semantic range, its frequent use in a passage may not indicate an intentional use of repetition so much as the circumstantial overlap of its various uses.
On the other hand, meaningful wordplay often consists in juxtaposing the differing senses of the same or similar words. In the case of 1 Samuel 23, the various "hand" references effectively connect several individual episodes into a cohesive narrative. David saves the town of Keilah from the Philistines because God promises to deliver them into his hand. But when Saul discovers that David has occupied Keilah, he concludes that God has given David into his hand. When David hears of Saul's coming, he asks God whether the citizens of Keilah will surrender him into Saul's hand. To avoid being betrayed by the very people he had saved, David flees and is doggedly pursued by Saul, yet the LORD does not give him into Saul's hand. In the midst of all this, Saul's son Jonathan finds David and "strengthens his hand in God," assuring him that Saul's "hand" will never succeed in capturing David. Even the statement that Abiathar the priest came to David with an ephod "in his hand" indicates that the LORD has abandoned Saul and is providentially protecting David. All these hand references tie the narrative together, and point to the guiding hand of God in all of David's narrow escapes. This was, of course, used by my pastor to make several important points of application.
Like Peter, I'm wary of pastors who focus on minor aspects of the Greek or Hebrew text to make points of dubious value. I found my pastor's sermon to be an excellent example of unpacking a literary device the right way—namely, in a way that brought out the central theme of the narrative. Better still, he never once informed us that yad is the Hebrew word for hand or told us how many distinct uses are listed in HALOT. He simply identified the literary pattern and unpacked it using an English translation which made the pattern transparent to the congregation.