The Holy Tongue
Canon Michael Lewis
Ed. This article appeared in The Hebrew Catholic #78, pg. 23. All rights reserved. Canon.Michael Lewis is pastor of St. Michael’s, Brecon, United Kingdom.
Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. (’Catechism of the Catholic Church: 81)
When we look at the sacred text of Scripture, we are indeed looking at the very words of God. When we read or listen to those words, God speaks to us in human words. Behind each word lies the God who loved us before ever we were made. Eternity is present in these holy words, infinity in these letters, and beyond the letters, we enter into the silence of God Himself, for Scripture itself is but a translation, albeit God’s own, of that silence into speech.
The words of Sacred Scripture are the words of God. They are words within the Word who took our human nature to Himself from the womb of Miriam. The same Spirit who overshadowed Miriam overshadowed these words of men, and turned them into His words.
Just as the Word took our humanity from the Virgin’s womb, so God takes our words in all their fragility and weakness to Himself, and makes them His own. That same Spirit who hovered over the face of the primeval deep hovered over the sea of human words, over the chaos of letters, and through the free collaboration of the human writers, transmuted them into the very speech of God. This is the divine alchemy by which base metal is transmuted into gold.
The creation of the universe is mirrored in the creation of Sacred Scripture. Just as God separated the light from the darkness on the first day, so He drove away all darkness of error from Sacred Scripture. All was done by the divine speech.
The Jewish sages call the words in Genesis by which the world was made ‘the ten words of creation.’ Rightly then was the first of the ‘words’ of creation, the triumphant word ‘Let there be light’, for God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. With Him is the fountain of life and in His light, we see light.
Those words of God are put down in human speech in the Hebrew language, the holy tongue, a language which in itself has so much to tell us about our faith. All words are contained in the one Word that the Father has spoken from all eternity. It was therefore most fitting that the first language into which that speech should be set down in writing was Hebrew for the outstanding feature of Hebrew is its shining quality of light and its radical directness.
In its fundamental structure, the holy tongue points to the Trinity whose signature is on all that is made. Most Hebrew words derive from a root form that consists of three consonants and thus Hebrew itself is a reminder of God who is Three in one.
Hebrew has an alphabet of twenty-two letters that originally denoted only consonants, although w, y and h are used to represent vowels in certain positions. The lack of true vowels raises questions as to how the text is to be vocalised for, although a system developed of representing vowels by adding points to the consonants, the points themselves are not part of the inspired text of Scripture.
Imagine an English sentence without vowels (mgn n nglsh sntnc wtht vwls) or a linguistic world where potentially ‘bg’ could be read as ‘bag,’ ‘beg,’ ‘big,’ ‘bog’ or ‘bug.’ This absence of true vowels is a reminder to us of a profound truth: we can only read God’s word as set down in writing in the Hebrew Scriptures because of tradition. It is tradition that teaches us how to read the text, how to mark the vowels and so to vocalise the written word. As the Psalmist wrote: ‘God has spoken once: twice I have heard him.’ (Ps. 62: 12) There is but one Word but we hear that Word in Scripture and in Tradition. The Protestant doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’ is profoundly unscriptural.
The Hebrew Scriptures were originally written in the form of continuous strings of letters, with no breaks between the words. The great achievement of the Masoretes (fifth to tenth century) was to set down the oral tradition on how the Bible was to be read. The Bible is always a book that has to be interpreted though tradition for without tradition, that which has been handed down, we would be unable even to read the Old Testament.
One of the main characteristics of Hebrew is that it is language of the concrete and of the physical. As a language, it reaches out to touch and to celebrate the world that God has made. Hebrew eschews the abstract and the intangible but delights in what can be seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelled. It is not the language of philosophers but of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: it was supremely fitting that Hebrew and its sister language, Aramaic, should have been the languages of the Incarnate Word, the Word made flesh when He dwelt among us.
As we know, some time in the second or third centuries after the birth of Our Lord, Hebrew ceased to be a vernacular language, a victim of the grim aftermath of the failure of the Second Jewish Revolt. Like Latin in the Dark Ages, it remained as a language of faith, scholarship, literature and learned discourse. In a miraculous way starting at the close of the nineteenth century, Hebrew has been revived as the language of ordinary people and is truly reborn as a vernacular language. How wondrous is the fact that once again Hebrew is spoken as a living tongue, vibrant and renewed, in the land of Yeshua and Miriam, the land of the Promise made to Abraham so long ago.