Stealing Hearts in Hebrew

A life spent reading Scripture is a path walked between the comfort of the familiar and the challenge of the unknown. The choice between reading the Bible in translation and learning biblical languages brings this balance into view all the more sharply. We know our English translations well, often unconsciously committing to heart their cadences and vocabularies. The same pages in Greek and Hebrew scripts can seem distant and difficult. Why commit to the long and difficult task of pursuing biblical Greek or Hebrew, when you can easily pick up any of the many English translations immediately available to you?

I want to encourage you to read the Bible in its original languages because of the value of this unfamiliarity. When we read the Bible in Greek or Hebrew, the text is fresh from the battlefield or the bedroom. It was with Hebrew that David sang the comforts of Psalm 23 and it was with Greek that Paul wept over Israel in Romans 9. We hear the authors in the native language of their prayers and pleas, and our familiarity is disrupted so that Scripture may once again surprise and confront us. As John Newton wrote, “The original Scriptures well deserve your pains, and will richly repay them. There is doubtless a beauty, fullness, and spirit, in the originals, which the best translations do not always express.”[1]

Consider the details of Absalom’s serpentine duplicity in 2 Samuel 15:1-6. The Hebrew Bible is rich with artistry at fine levels of detail, much of which is unconventional in English literature. These details do not contain new, previously undiscovered doctrines. However, the literary skillfulness is often indirect in English translation and so frequently missed.

In Hebrew, this passage opens on a fade scene (וַיְהִי מֵאַחֲרֵי כֵן) between the kiss from King David in 14:33 to the royal pageantry of 15:1. The contrast is disturbing, but the first irony we notice is the rebel’s own name (אַבְשָׁלוֹם – “father of peace”). Likewise, the narrator uses a particular set of verb forms that, rather than stating the facts directly, allow us to experience Absalom’s duplicity in real-time—they “zoom in” on the events as they are repeated each day: Absalom “would rise early” (וְהִשְׁכִּים) and “would stand” (וְעָמַד) by the gate waiting for anyone (כָּל-הָאִישׁ) with a case to approach. When they drew near, he “called out” (וַיִּקְרָא) like the adulteress of Proverbs 7:18 to entice them to turn aside to him in the absence of the husband-king. From there his lips would “drip honey” and his speech would be “smoother than oil” although his steps led straight to the grave (Prov. 5:3-5).

What Absalom says in vs. 2-4 is not reported speech but simply an example of his duplicitous aims. He would ask the men things like, “Where are you from?” And the men would respond, “your servant is from…” And then Absalom would cater to their interests, saying, “Look…” The word used here is not behold (הִנֵּה), which often introduces a new participant, but rather a forward-pointing device (רְאֵה) that draws special attention to what Absalom is about to say: “Look––you’re right! The king should absolutely rule in your favor. If only I were judge…” In Hebrew there is a parallel between the two participles in vs. 3-4: “one to hear” (שֹׁמֵעַ) and “judge” (שֹׁפֵט). Notice that Absalom doesn’t replace himself as the one to hear (שֹׁמֵעַ) but rather as the one who would judge (שֹׁפֵט). It is clear he is not interested in adjudicating legal disputes. Likewise, the relative pronoun who is used in v. 4 “oh that I were judge…” as an indirect command to dethrone his father David (that he, Absalom, might give these men justice). It all sounds like a complaint, but it is actually a call to join him in a coup. Absalom claims that he would support (עָלַי) every man (כָּל-אִישׁ) the king has neglected. Notice it was anyone (כָּל-הָאִישׁ) approaching the gate in v. 2, suggesting Absalom was indiscriminate, but now it is every man (כָּל-אִישׁ) in Absalom’s promise in v. 4, suggesting (amusingly) that Absalom would accomplish justice where his father had not.

Finally, we notice another irony: in his desire for the men of Israel to stretch out their hand against his father David in order to raise him up as king, Absalom stretches out his own hand and raises up the men of Israel (וְשָׁלַח אֶת-יָדוֹ וְהֶחֱזִיק לוֹ), giving them a kiss. As Robert Alter notes,[2] the two verbs are perhaps allusive: the verb used to describe how Amnon seizes Tamar (2 Sam. 13:11) is the same verb used to describe how Absalom would grab each man in order to lift him up; likewise each conversation would end with a kiss (נָשַׁק), as did Absalom’s own deceptive encounter with his father in 13:33––perhaps suggesting Absalom’s behavior at the gate with the men of Israel is a broader version of his father’s own falseness to him. In either case, the result is the same: Absalom “stole the heart of the men of Israel” (v. 6).

When reading this passage in Hebrew, what we discover is not new doctrine, but the thrill of a fresh sight of Scripture. In the biblical languages, we find a rich and surprising view of God’s word.

Travis Wright is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. This article is reproduced by permission of Tyndale House. Tyndale House is a research institute in Cambridge, UK, which specializes in the languages, history, and cultural context of the Bible. Find out more at www.tyndalehouse.com.

[1] From a letter To a Student in Divinity.

[2] Robert Alter, The David Story (2000) p.284.