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FOUND IN TRANSLATION: Getting more out of ancient scriptures

I've studied Biblical Hebrew for five years now, and in many ways still feel like a kindergartener (even down to preferring really big print when I'm reading!).

It hasn't been intuitive or easy for me on any level, and I require constant help from dictionaries and reference books. It can be painfully slow. But despite the seemingly-insurmountable difficulty and constant frustration, I still find it thrilling to discover connections and more meaning in the scriptures. I really just can't get enough! (As you can see, I fully embrace my inner nerd here.)

The Old Testament--the beginnings, foundation, and promises of covenant Israel--is much more understandable and insightful when read in its' original language. The adage "lost in translation" is fitting here; much of the power and beauty of ancient scriptures has been diluted over the centuries. Like the game Telephone, the initial message never ends up quite the same as it started. To understand what the scriptures meant when they were first penned, it's useful to look at the original culture, language, and various ways a word could be translated or interpreted.

I am well aware that not everyone has the ability (or desire!) to do this. So I put my amateur Biblical Hebrew sleuthing skills to work as I study the scriptures, and then come here to share some of the insights that I find. It's a win-win.

Let's do a case study of one of my favorite scriptures, and maybe you'll see why I think this is all such a big deal.


Here is the standard King James Version of Psalm 34:18.

"The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit." (KJV)

That's a nice enough message, and it isn't wrong. But remember, this version was a translation of Latin (the Vulgate), which was a translation of Greek (the Septuagint), which was a translation of Hebrew (the Masoretic text). A good translator tries to be true to the meaning of the original language, but inevitably word choices and nuance will be affected by the translator's knowledge, perspective, and interpretation.

Is there something missing? Is the writer's meaning coming across clearly? Is there more we could get out of it? To find out, let's try a literal Hebrew translation of the same verse:

"The Lord is near those whose hearts are shattered, and those who are crushed of spirit, He saves [or delivers]." (literal)

Already it is more impactful. But we can take it even a step further by examining nuances of the words.

The word translated as "shattered" (shibber, shee-BEHR) has a strong connotation: it isn't referring to being cracked, splintered, or broken into several pieces. It implies being shattered into thousands or millions of pieces.

Have you ever felt your heart, life, plans, or hopes were so fractured that they could never be pieced back together?

Additionally, we have this great descriptive word, crushed. The crushed spirit (or inner person, or life-force) has been pressed or smashed so forcefully that it has metaphorically lost its previous form or shape.

Have you endured a soul-crushing experience that left your life or your former self seemingly unrecognizable?

Doesn't all of this add so much more depth than what we read in the KJV? Now it's personal. Meaningful. Relatable. It is easier to find myself in the verse and to better connect with the Lord.

At this point, I can make the scripture really mine by adding in some of the meaning we discussed above:

"The Savior is near me when my heart is shattered into a million pieces, and when my life feels crushed beyond recognition and repair, He will always come save me." (personalized)

This principle of power is true for all of us. The Atonement gave Jesus Christ the ability to perfectly empathize and to fix what is broken. You may not recognize it in the moment (I usually don't), but when you feel like you're shattered or crushed, the Savior is by your side helping and delivering you. He is picking up the pieces, holding you together, and gently repairing--or discarding and replacing--as He sees fit.


So, what'd you think?

This is one way to "liken [the scriptures] unto yourselves, that ye may have hope" (1 Nephi 19:24). It isn't the same as wresting the scriptures, which is twisting them to say or mean what I want them to. Rather, it's an unlocking of potential for deeper understanding and personal application.

Some scriptural truths were lost in translation. But as we explore deeper, looking at original meanings or alternate translations, further light is uncovered. On the journey we also discover more about God the Father, Jesus Christ, and ourselves.

Truth is found in translation.

{NOTE: You can find more scripture interpretation articles under the category, "Found in Translation."}

The original version was posted on Facebook and Instagram on December 27, 2020.


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