WORD STUDY – CREATING A PASSION בעיר
Song of Solomon 3:3, “The watchmen that go about the city found me: Saw ye him who my soul loveth?”
“Ich bin ein Berliner” John F. Kennedy, June 26. 1963. Translation, “I am a jelly filled donut.”
There is an urban legend that popped up a number of years ago that was published in such prestigious magazines as Newsweek and the New York Times, that John F. Kennedy, when he made his famous speech in Berlin he should have said “Ich bin Berliner” (I am a citizen of Berlin) but instead he said, “Ich bin ein Berliner” which could be translated as, “I am a jelly filled donut.” Ein Berliner was a popular jelly donut in Germany. Actually, he could not have really said, “Ich Bin Berliner” as that would be interpreted as “I am a Berliner” which he was not. By saying: “Ich bin ein Berliner” he was saying that he was one with Berlin. Of course, since there was a pastry called an “ein Berliner” I suppose you could interpret this as saying, “I am a jelly filled donut.” But that would be like someone from Philadelphia saying, “I am a Philadelphian” and thinking he is saying that he is made of cream cheese.
The point is that the Germans in Berlin listening to the speech did not, for a moment, think Kennedy was calling himself a jelly filled donut. They automatically knew and understood the context. Now you take that speech and play it for someone three thousand miles away with -little understanding of the nuances of the German language, they might actually believe Kennedy made a gaffe and inadvertently called himself a jelly filled donut. Or if he dressed up as a donut for a grammar school play people would put it into its proper context and understand he was calling himself a Jelly donut.
Oddly, we face the same problem when translating the Bible from an ancient dead language. Classical Hebrew is a dead language, no one has spoken the Classical Hebrew for over 2,500 years other than ceremonially. Modern Hebrew is a form of Classical Hebrew with many similarities, but also with many differences. Unless we can actually find someone who lived in the Middle East 2,500 years ago and spoke this language from birth, we can never really be sure of the correctness of English renderings that we have for many of the common words found in the Classical Hebrew. Many English renderings are still man’s best guess.
Take this word ba’ir which is rendered in most of all our English translations as in the city. We accept this rendering not only because it fits the context and has been approved by scholars but also because we have no reason to question this rendering. However we are making the assumption that the Beth in ba’ir is a preposition and is not only rooted in the word ‘avar but that it is referencing one of ‘avar rare usages. Its Semitic root has the idea of being alert and is used for an awakening, or getting excited, to arise, or watchfulness. It carries the idea of a desperate search. It is also used for blindness as one who is blind is constantly on alert and searching for hazards he cannot see. This blindness idea carried over to a noun form and was used for a cave which had the idea of darkness and a search for hazards. It is used for a city only in reference to a city at night that is under constant watch and is highly fortified where one is on constant alert for a danger. How a frantic young woman can be considered a danger is beyond me. But, who says that the root word is ‘avar in the first place? It could be ‘ir which is an expression of anger, fear, and terror. Its Semitic root comes from the idea of being hot. But then the root word could also be b’ar which means to be one who kindles a fire or one who creates a passion.
In other words we have many options and we need to really look at the context and just not the context from our Western 21st century thinking, but the context of a Semitic culture 2,500 years ago. We must also look at the emotional context which is often overlooked by translators. The rendering that we use is the one that best fits the context.
But I have to pause and wonder, why is it so important to say these watchmen are of the city? Isn’t that obvious and so what? How does telling us these watchmen are from the city add to this story and enhance our understanding of what this young woman is feeling in her search for her lover? A writer does not waste time, space or ink on frivolous words or to convey something that is obvious or that adds nothing to his story. I believe this is doubly true with the Word of God. Every word is carefully chosen. For this reason I do not believe that city is the correct rendering for ba’ir, it just does not aid us in the character development of the individual. There is an emotional context to consider here. This young woman is desperately in search of her lover and in a state of panic for she cannot locate her lover. She is wondering if he is angry with her, or has lost interest in her. He regularly came by every night and now for a number of nights he has not shown up. She is beside herself with fear and worry.
Do you ever feel this way in your search for God? Rather than saying “the watchmen of the city found me,” I would render this as “the watchmen found me in a state of panic and desperation in the search for my beloved.” Here the root word ba’ar, creating a passion would fit the emotional context. She has obviously let her imagination go wild and she is creating a passion of fear and longing. By this rendering we are not talking about a jelly donut, but we are putting this into a context that develops the character in this story and thus presents us with a picture of what it is like when we are separated from the God we love. We are ‘avar, that is, terror stricken, fearful, desperate, constantly on alert, searching and even in a state of panic at the thought of being separated from the God we love. I recently published a short book entitled For Whom My Soul Loves where I felt such an emotion when I went through a personal dark night of the soul. Had I not had that experience, I would probably go with the traditional rendering of in the city. But instead, for me, the rendering of creating a state of panic and desperation fits much better. Ok, I used my personal experience in my own translation. Just because some scholar sitting in his ivy tower who hasn’t kissed his wife in 20 years cannot relate to the idea of desperation when you feel separated from God and choses simply to render this as in the city doesn’t mean I am wrong.
Ah and now here is the revelation that comes from putting a translation into an emotional context and applying personal experience. If God loves us more than we love Him would He not feel the same way we do when we are separated from Him or more so? Would He not be ‘avar, desperately searching for us, on alert for us, trying to find us, going to His watchmen and begging them to seek us out. Perhaps, we are even the watchmen of his ‘avar (desperate search) and should be searching for his beloved that is separated from Him. Now, that is no jelly filled donut.