1. That summer I learned Biblical Hebrew with Christian women heaving themselves toward ministry one brick building at a time. We got along well, they and I and our teacher, a religious studies graduate student who spent eight hours a day transmitting the grammar and syntactical rules of ancient languages, afternoons training one student in Ethiopic, mornings with the six of us.

Biblical Hebrew conveys meaning through roots, he taught us. Each root consists of three consonants. OK. Some roots appear the same but differ in meaning or pronunciation. Oh no, we groaned. Things were getting complicated. The meanings we’d have to look up in our Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicons; the pronunciations we’d learn to recognize thanks to a vowel system long ago standardized from the Masoretic text. When will you teach us how to look things up? one of us asked. The rest of us cooed. The teacher must have said later or soon. It was a fast-moving intensive.

I’d neglected to bring my lexicon to class, it was too heavy, and to tell the truth, I had not once opened it since it arrived addressed to a former lover from whom that summer I was subletting. I had addressed it that way so as to avoid confusion, that of the mail personnel. I had not considered that it might not function like a regular English dictionary. English words you look up by first letter, but these you could find only after you’d learned to read them for roots.

2. At an unknown point in the deliberations by committee that led to the King James translation of the Bible in the early seventeenth century, someone had the brilliant idea to distinguish between English words with exact equivalents in the “Originall tongues” and those without direct corollary. This is why, even in contemporary printings, the translation is full of italics, marking words with which the translators were forced to supplement the original text in order to make their translation make sense to a humanity so fallen as to be English-speaking, an English-speaking humanity. It wasn’t that previous translators, of which there weren’t, as there are now, excessive numbers, had found a way to translate more perfectly, only that the King James translators were first to acknowledge in print the inconvenience and also their reluctance to interpolate at all at a time when translation had only recently distinguished itself legally from blasphemy and punishment for blasphemy was death.

The habit of italicizing added words came with first quarto and octavo editions, printed for small churches or private use in 1612. Robert Barker, King James’s troubled, bankrupt royal printer, used roman type for these throughout and italicized words he’d previously had in roman in the 1611 first folio editions, now called “He” and “She” Bibles, demarcating what appear to have been two first printings, Ruth 3:15 the key difference between them, where, having slept at his feet on the threshing room floor, Ruth brings Boaz a garment he’s asked for, and he empties six measures of barley into it. Then one of them goes into the city, he or she, Boaz with the barley, Ruth with the barley, or Boaz alone while Ruth takes the barley elsewhere. Another verse has Ruth showing barley to Naomi. Still, someone went into the city, and it could have been Ruth bringing Naomi the barley, or Boaz on other business.

3. If some words are closer to God, and these are those that can be translated directly, if all languages share a source their words in common evince the most minimal human intervention in, then what does it mean that Biblical Hebrew lacks a word that directly approximates is?

Italics in the King James translation seem always to emphasize states of being, as if in the speaker a transformation has occurred just prior to the act of speaking, making the speech describe a past that no longer holds true. A good example of this is Psalm 73:16—“When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me.”

4. Biblical Hebrew, our teacher said, has a tense reserved for narrative. He called it “consecutive preterite.” It marks events that transpired in the past, successively. You make it by putting the word and before a jussive. Does anyone know what a jussive is? No one said yes. A jussive is a kind of prayerful thinking. Instead of “he ran,” you’d say “may he run,” or “let him.” Oh wow, I said, has anyone heard of Christopher Smart?

After a few days, or their equivalent in weeks, I went home and tried reading. I opened my brown, leather-bound Biblia Hebraica to Genesis, in Hebrew named for its first word, a compound equivalent to multiple words in translation: In the Beginning. I liked imagining other books retitled this way: Call Me Ishmael, Earthy Anecdote, Our Age Is Retrospective, In the Ice Cream Parlor, It Is a Truth Universally Acknowledged. This was a silly exercise, but it got me looking back at books I loved or wrote or thought about. When I returned to Genesis, it was late and I had been sitting too long on my former lover’s tall stool, bent over his high drafting table. My body ached.

If you, as I on that night, didn’t yet know about consecutive preterite, you also might sit too long on a tall stool wondering how your education could have omitted the fact that in Biblical Hebrew, what God actually says is “Let there be light and let there be light.”

5. The six of us were each amazed by different kinds of things. One girl found the Aqedah so interesting it made her think all denominations’ ministers-in-training should have to learn Hebrew, too. I heartily agreed from my plastic seat. The room was either humid or freezing depending on who took charge of the air. That summer I was so stressed out I had pain in my neck, back, feet and teeth. Sometimes I brought a tennis ball to keep between my hip and the back of my seat, to try to loosen something. The Aqedah, said my classmate, was interesting because if you didn’t read Hebrew you wouldn’t see how many times the word wood was used. Abraham cuts the wood, takes the wood, lays the wood on Isaac. Isaac sees the wood and fire, but no lamb for the sacrifice. God will provide, says Abraham, laying the wood in order and Isaac on the altar on the wood. I liked that she was interested in the recurrence of a single word. Adjusting my tennis ball, which had moved, I asked, Why is wood so interesting? Because, she said gently, in my tradition, this is a story that prefigures something.

6. We were women. We often brought cookies to share, chips or candy, coconut-coated almonds sent from the South by a mom. One three-day weekend resulted in a freshly baked pie the extra day had allowed the crust of to rise or set, I’m not sure. I didn’t bake what I brought. I drove my former lover’s silver minivan to pick up visitors. The rearview mirror had fallen off shortly after I’d dropped him at the station, though he’d spent the ride trying to stick it back on. I was his subletter and he a carpenter musician divinity scholar on his way to collaborate in Sweden.

We’d met one night long before when I’d slept at his feet on the threshing room floor. I’d been advised to remove his shoes, then let him tell me what to do. Bring me your coat. He filled it with barley. Then one of us went into the city. Later, he suggested we “hang sometime” while we passed each other on Market Street. He didn’t stop walking, only slowed. He told me he’d given me barley because he’d never before seen me, a rare quality, obscurity, in such a small town. But you are my kinsman, I protested. No, he said, I know your kinsman, and if it’s still true in the morning that your kinsman will not do his part, then I will do for you the part of a kinsman. But I rose before one could know another. What would he have given had he known me?

7. The minivan was full of gear, the seats lowered to make room. I wore sunglasses I found in the car and listened to the musician whose CD was in the player. He sang in a way that annoyed, then addicted me. Aside from offering no way to see behind me, the car seemed safe. I drove it to physical therapy.

My therapist was Julia. She drove her thumbs into my fascia. Julia, I said, it still hurts. Are my ribs too splayed when I lean to the wall to stretch my calf? Is my arm in the right place when I bring the tension band across my hip? And what about this, I said, rocking my ankles over half a foam roller, am I doing it? I had questions pain wouldn’t abate. I rolled my foot on a frozen water bottle, did shoulder releases guided by free internet videos, and, in supportive shoes, I walked to class with a stack of note cards memorizing vocabulary for each day’s quiz. I learned words for father, son,  fire, mother, a word for sheep, goats, or sheep and goats, words for Solomon, Isaac, Moses. Some words I didn’t learn, like ghost. I was the best student in the class. It was genetic, I joked. No one laughed. I got perfect grades, higher, even, than A’s because of the curve and extra credit. I walked past the same besuited probable-lawyer every day walking his handsome brown dog. The dog’s coat rippled in the already swollen early morning summer sun. What will you give now that you know me?


Home page illustration by Na Kim.