The God Who Speaks

All of us could speak before we ever began to read or write.  That is true not only of individuals but of entire nations, which, when they have acquired or developed alphabets and scripts, have done so for a tongue that had already been spoken for a long time.  And with all due reverence in the presence of an ultimate and unfathomable mystery, it may even be said to be true of the Deity.  “In the beginning…God said, ‘Let there be light’”; “In the beginning the [spoken] Word already was.”  On this, at least, Jews and Christians are in agreement, and so are their Bibles, that there was a Word of God before there was a written Bible of any kind, that the God of the Bible is the God who speaks…Eleven times, the opening chapter of the Torah uses the verb “to say” in reference to God, in addition to the related verbs “to call” and “to bless”.  But the God who speaks does not write anything in the Torah for eighty chapters, until the giving of the tablets of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai in the second half of the Second Book.  To comprehend the written Bible, moreover, it is essential to understand that most of the words which are now written down in it had been spoken first and, therefore, they had been heard long before they could ever have been read.

Now that we have these words primarily in written form, we need to sound them out, sometimes even aloud, before we can grasp their full meaning.  An unexpected example of how a presumed oral original helps to explain the written text is the statement of John the Baptist in the Gospels:  “Do not imagine you can say, ‘We have Abraham for our father.’  I tell you that God can make children for Abraham out of these stones.”  Interpreters of this passage were often puzzled about what connection, if any, there is between “children” and “stones” until, in the process of translating (or retranslating) this saying from Greek back into Aramaic (or Hebrew), it became evident:  ben, as in the title of one of the Apocrypha, “Ben Sirach,” means “son” or “child,” with the plural banim; and eben, as in “Eben-Ezer,” means “stone,” with the plural ebanim; so what John the Baptist was saying was that God was able to make banim out of ebanim, a play on words that is lost not only in the translation from Aramaic to Greek to English, but in the transcription from oral tradition to written text.

Pelikan, Jaroslav, Whose Bible is it?, (New York:  Viking Penguin, 2005), 9-10.


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