For about four years now, I’ve been making forays into the dense, confusing, nearly impenetrable world of the Hebrew Bible. I started out easily enough: with each English word conveniently underneath the Hebrew, I was practically led by the hand through many of the Psalms. Then I moved on to the Gospels in spare and clear modern Hebrew. Understand every word I did not; instead it activated a mental replay of the already deeply familiar Gospel stories in a curiously word-free manner. Sometimes, almost as if I was experiencing the story for the very first time.
In March I bought a Hebrew-English Old Testament and dived in, right where I happened to be in my regular Bible reading. The book of Numbers is actually pretty good material for a beginner: low vocabulary count; high number of repeated phrases. Deuteronomy wasn’t so easy, but soon I was happily back in narrative territory, where the thread of the story keeps you from feeling lost in the forest of unfamiliar words. Joshua, Judges, Ruth…
Then II Kings dumped me right into Isaiah. (Yes, the book order is that different in the Hebrew Bible). No comforting narrative thread, and large tracts of text that I don’t even understand in English, let alone a millennia-old language. Leaving this particular Hebrew exploration for another year sounded like a great idea to me.
But there was that column of English text standing patiently to one side of the page. What if I read a verse in English first, and then in Hebrew? I made my slow way through one chapter, then another. In many place, I had to go clause by clause: first English; then Hebrew. It was a chaotic and disorienting experience, like stumbling through a forest where I keep getting caught in the thick undergrowth and banging into trees right and left.
Then I reached a new chapter and read the familiar introduction: “In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up…” Line by line, those elusive Hebrew words painted a picture: the throne room, the unearthly attendants, an abject Isaiah, the coal from the altar… And then the crux of the conversation, each word distinct and as clear as crystal.
Et mi eshlach – “Whom shall I send?” U mi yelech lanu? – “And who will go for us?”
Isaiah’s reply was simple: just two words, but each came heavy with the meaning of several English words distilled into one.
“Here am I. Send me.”
I’m still reading Isaiah. Still clutching the hand of my guide, that trusty column of English text on the left side of the page. It’s still a chaotic and disorienting experience, like stumbling through a forest where I keep getting caught in the thick undergrowth and banging into trees right and left…and every once in a while, coming upon a clearing with an incredible view.