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.

8 thoughts on “Explaining Greek and Hebrew to a Congregation

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    unpacking a literary device – nice phrase; structure frames usage and determines meaning – ignoring structure can preserve the status quo but it may not help point in the direction a person needs to hear about – nice work on the hand!

  2. Brian F. says:

    I personally have preference for pastors bringing out the literary aspects of the biblical text as I think it provides the chance to see what the text is really doing/saying – it is a shame that so many pastors choose to or unknowingly gloss over such rich aspects of the biblical texts, especially in the Hebrew Bible. I think it would have been fine if your pastor noted the repetition of the word hand as a literary feature of Hebrew narrative to help shed light on what is happening in the text and what is being communicated.

    Your Pastor’s highlighting the use of the phrase “hand” in the text is interesting and I wonder if “hand” is a theme in the OT – the reason I ask is because in the Exodus narraitve one sees “hand” referred to quite often as in “hand of the Lord” over “hand of Pharoah” in regards to the Israeli slaves. Studying the text in class once we asked “whose hand is it?”

    As to expounding on the Hebrew or Greek, I know there are two sides as you noted – one is it is the height of arrogance to display one’s knowledge of the bilbical languages to the congregation and on the other in some cases it can help the audience understand the richness of biblical words and their meaning and out it affects the meaning of the text. I read a quote once supposedly attributed to a professor at DTS “Greek should be like underwear, it should provide the sturctual support for your sermon but nobody should know you are wearing it.” I guess I am still working out my thinking on the issue.

    I think a lot of it has to do with both the personality of the pastor and the congregation as to if the pastor chooses to or chooses not to mention Greek or Hebrew.

  3. Mike says:

    I appreciate your words regarding repetition and structure. My experience is that when Bible Studies go through a book, they take a sentence at a time and discuss how it could apply to them instead of following the flow of the author’s argument.

    Such direction by the pastor is more helpful to the congregation in terms of showing them what to look for in the text before moving to application.

  4. Peter Kirk says:

    Thank you, David. Perhaps I was a bit harsh on your pastor before. I agree that there can be cases where the repetition of a word or phrase has genuine literary significance and it can be helpful to a congregation to point this out – and this repetition can be lost in a less than literal translation. I remain highly sceptical that this it true in a case like this, of a word like yad which is used over 1600 times in the Old Testament in such a wide range of senses. But then your pastor has studied this passage in far more detail than I have.

    I would expect a good translation to attempt some kind of concordance in translation of significant keywords in a passage. But this is not always possible, and accurate translation of individual occurrences must take priority. And I don’t think this principle can be extended to words like yad which are repeated so often and in so many senses that making their translation concordant would spoil the overall effect of the translation for very dubious gain.

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    David, I like the way you are wrestling with the issue of whether or not to point out literary features of the biblical text. Our S.S. teacher has done this, as well. He is mature enough that he doesn’t major on what isn’t very significant. I think that’s what behind Peter’s concern, which is important, also.

  6. David Lang says:

    Agreed, Peter. I’m not for a minute suggesting that more concordant translations are generally preferable to more dynamic ones, or that I personally prefer a more concordant translation of this particular passage. I’m certainly not suggesting that yad should be translated as “hand” in every case. I’m simply pointing out that more concordant translations do have their uses.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    Having just experimented with concordance, I can say that it is very challenging to be concordant, but I think it is worthwhile owning one to the concordant versions, like Rotherham, for reference.

    I was able to maintain concordance in some cases and had to totally abandon it in other contexts.

  8. solarblogger says:

    I like the idea of using more literal versions for the sake of demonstrating literary aspects of the text. When I took Greek, I found that many—not all, but more than was recognized—of the arguments we got into could be as easily carried on using the English.

    I’m also leery about the idea that for a word with a wide range of senses, these all become completely independent, with nobody ever considering the literal image behind them. From talking to friends, I have found that we vary a lot in how much we do this even with English. Parallels can get out of hand (haha), but I would hate to be cut off from the possibility of finding parallels in the first place.

    I ran into the “hand” argument in Robert Alter’s introduction to his Genesis translation. I found him persuasive.

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