I began this post as a reflection on translating Scripture, and it grew from there into a rambling Christmas meditation. The joys of non-linear holiday thinking.
There’s a real pleasure in the grunt work of translating Greek and Hebrew, and it’s probably related to math. This doesn’t strike most people as a source of pleasure, but it’s similar to being shut in by the weather and then finally going out for a walk. That is, it exercises certain mental muscles that aren’t always used in the more philosophical and ideas-driven work of seminary. Of course, in the actual practice of things your mind doesn’t work in such neat compartments. You’ll never write a good Dogmatics paper without practicing good analysis, for example. But the simple, logical work of translating is quite distinct from our other work, and in this it offers a unique experience.
When you translate, the passage is revealed to you detail by detail. Some details are insignificant, some are the difference between heaven and hell. So as a translator you peel back the layers of language with great care, which in turn forces a sustained reflection on the passage. If the passage is a moving one, such as Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, then it moves you by degrees, from morpheme to morpheme. The value in this is that while the profundity of Scripture can escape you in reading a familiar translation quickly, like racing along a busy motorway through the English countryside, the slow translating of an amateur is like sweating uphill through a sheep field, and scraping your knee on the stone fence at the far end.
It really is an experience. Sometimes I listen to music while I’m working, and sometimes the music articulates as only music can some aspect of the work. This morning I was getting a head start on our Hebrew translation for next semester. We began this last semester at 1 Samuel 3, worked through 1 Samuel 4:19, and next semester will continue from where we left off. I was working this morning, then, on verses 20-22, which describe the wife of Phinehas giving birth to her son, Ichabod.
I was also listening to Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, a piece of music mentioned in a book I’m reading, The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton; a piece that I listened to for the first time last night. Since my musical ear, unfortunately, has largely been trained by pop music, if “trained” is even the right word, I find I have to listen to a classical piece multiple times before it begins to work on me. Thus it provided the background for this morning’s translation work. Gorecki, a Pole, composed this symphony from three Polish folk songs, each of which are about the separation of a mother from her child. The other title for the piece is “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” which puts it plainly. It is about death and grief and the intense reaching of the soul that is brought about by great loss.
So it very much deepened what I uncovered from the Hebrew text. The wife of Phinehas learns that her husband has been killed in battle, and that her father-in-law lies dead in the house of God. The ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts has been taken. As a result she “bows down” in labour, and the convulsions “turn over and over upon her.” Giving birth is killing her, and both her body and mind understand the significance of what has come to pass. When the midwives tell her “Do not be afraid,” and announce the birth of her son, she does not listen and “her heart gives no heed.” As she passes, and her heart drowns in terrible sorrow, she gives her son the name Ichabod, “without glory.” Verse 22 gives us her final words (with my translation work):
וַתֹּ֕אמֶר גָּלָ֥ה כָב֖וֹד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּ֥י נִלְקַ֖ח אֲר֥וֹן הָאֱלֹהִֽים
“And she said (3fs.QAL.Impf.Vav-cons.’amar., to say), ‘The glory is removed (3ms.QAL.Pf.galah., to uncover, remove) from Israel because the ark of God has been taken’ (3ms.NIF.Pf.laqach., to take).”
The darkening night of grief and God’s disfavour took away her life. Gorecki’s symphony, then, eloquently captured the mood of the passage as I worked. Indeed, had Scripture ended with that passage, the deep longing for redemption that underscores the symphony would have ever remained just that. For while the last thing that the wife of Phinehas beheld was a horizon without glory, the sun of God’s favour having set, the inglorious twilight she saw was decreed to be redeemed by a more glorious dawn. The favour of Yahweh would be found many centuries later, with another woman and another birth: “And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” The nameless woman of long past was told not to fear, but her heart paid no heed. Mary was told not to fear, and her soul magnified the Lord, her spirit rejoicing in God her Savior. The birth of one son brought death for his mother; the other, life to all. At the name of Ichabod his mother bowed in pain; at the Name of Jesus every knee will bow in praise. The one son lost his glory when the ark was carried into exile; the other son became the ark, and received his glory when the clouds returned him home.
But neither was the music of haunting grief absent from Mary’s life. In fact, the first of the three movements of Gorecki’s symphony is based on a 15th century folk song that describes Mary’s lament at the cross. Scripture doesn’t tell us if or how she grieved at the crucifixion of her child. While we do know that Mary believed the promises about Jesus, it would have been no less fitting for her to weep over his suffering and death. Jesus wept at the death of his beloved friend, even though he knew that Lazarus would rise moments later. We, too, properly grieve the loss brought about by death, knowing full well that those of our beloved who have died in the Lord will rise again to new life. Music has the power to ennoble our grief, to give it form and purpose. To grieve without hope is to experience a shapeless and irredeemable madness, a meaningless flailing in the emptiness of nothing. But to reach with the refrains of this vale of tears toward God is the very reason for the hope we remember at Christmas.
Death had the last word for the wife of Phinehas, but it is death now that has been overcome by the Last Word. The seating of the Alpha and the Omega at the Father’s right hand is a declaration of glorious permanence. Never again will we say that the glory of God has departed from his people; this has been made impossible. That glory used to be a gold-covered box of wood, but on Christmas day we remember that that glory became us. In the simple act of going to the bookshelf, opening Scripture, and reading those wonderful passages from Luke, we behold everything that matters. For “the time came for her to give birth,” and into history was delivered the glory and salvation of Israel, the Light of the world, the One who redeems us for the full brilliance of God’s everlasting presence.
A very blessed Christmas to you all!