Ancient Answers

The Mystical Power of Prepositions

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I was about to start writing a commentary on today’s verse, Psalm 139:9-10, when I looked at my weekly email from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that had arrived yesterday but which I hadn’t read yet. You can read it on his website. It is a very eloquent and profoundly theological statement, and in it he quotes this section of Psalm 139. Let me quote a large segment of what he wrote:

We tend to forget how profound the concept of a synagogue was. Professor M. Stern has written that “in establishing the synagogue, Judaism created one of the greatest revolutions in the history of religion and society, for the synagogue was an entirely new environment for divine service, of a type unknown anywhere before.” It became, according to Salo Baron, the institution through which the exilic community “completely shifted the emphasis from the place of worship, the Sanctuary, to the gathering of worshippers, the congregation, assembled at any time and any place in God’s wide world.” The synagogue became Jerusalem in exile, the home of the Jewish heart. It is the ultimate expression of monotheism – that wherever we gather to turn our hearts towards heaven, there the Divine Presence can be found, for God is everywhere.

The very idea that one can build a home for God seems absurd. It was all too easy to understand the concept of sacred space in a polytheistic worldview. The gods were half-human. They had places where they could be encountered. Monotheism tore this idea up at its roots, nowhere more eloquently than in Psalm 139:

Where can I go from Your Spirit?

Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, You are there;

If I make my bed in the depths, You are there.

Hence the question asked by Israel’s wisest King, Solomon: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You. How much less this temple I have built!” (I Kings 8:27).

The same question is posed in the name of God by one of Israel’s greatest prophets, Isaiah:

Heaven is My throne,

and the earth is My footstool.

Where is the house you will build for Me?

Where will My resting place be? (Isaiah 66:1)

The very concept of making a home in finite space for an infinite presence seems a contradiction in terms. The answer, still astonishing in its profundity, is contained at the beginning of this week’s parsha: “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them [betokham]” (Exodus 25:8). The Jewish mystics pointed out the linguistic strangeness of this sentence. It should have said, “I will dwell in it,” not “I will dwell in them.” The answer is that the Divine Presence lives not in a building but in its builders; not in a physical place but in the human heart. The Sanctuary was not a place in which the objective existence of God was somehow more concentrated than elsewhere. Rather, it was a place whose holiness had the effect of opening hearts to the One worshipped there. God exists everywhere, but not everywhere do we feel the presence of God in the same way. The essence of “the holy” is that it is a place where we set aside all human devices and desires and enter a domain wholly set aside for God.

Every time I read something by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks I find something that enlarges my understanding of God’s profound ways. This week’s post is one of the best. What he wrote here is very much to the point of what I wanted to say today about the verse from Psalm 139 and that psalm as a whole. But what really caught my attention is the rabbi’s quote of Exodus 25:8. Rabbi Sacks is one of the most respected exponents of the Hebrew language of the Bible. In quoting Exodus 25:8, he prefers the interpretation offered by the Jewish mystics rather than the conventional interpretation and translation that is almost universal.

Look at any translation of the Bible and you’ll find the Exodus verse translated something like this: “Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” Or, “that I may dwell in their midst.” I’m certainly no Hebrew scholar and I would never argue with a master of the Hebrew language such as Rabbi Sacks, but clearly there is a choice in how to translate the preposition בְּ in the word betokham on which Rabbi Sacks bases his comment. Indeed, the preposition can be interpreted as meaning “in, at, among, upon, in the midst…” So the reader of the Hebrew text has to make the choice between God ordering a sanctuary so he could dwell among his people, or in his people – or the more unusual choice the Rabbi includes, “in it.” Wow, that’s an amazing range of choices, all coming from how one interprets the preposition and deciding whether it’s pointing to “them” or “it”. The choice made by all transactions, “among them” sounds like the logical choice. But Rabbi Sacks and the mystics prefer “in them” as the meaning. I like his discussion, and I like his and the mystics’ choice, “in them.”

The ancient Greek translation of the scriptures, what we call the Septuagint, offers this rendering: καὶ ποιήσεις μοι ἁγίασμα, καὶ ὀφθήσομαι ἐν ὑμῖν. The choice in the Greek version is the same. The preposition ἐν can mean “in, among, in the midst of” – the same range of choices as the corresponding Hebrew preposition! The only difference is that the Hebrew says “in [or among] them” while the Greek says “in [or among] you” and “you” is in the plural, ὑμῖν. But it gets even more interesting when we move beyond the Hebrew scriptures.

As a reader of the Greek New Testament I am drawn to Luke 17:21, which reads in the original language: ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ἐντὸς ὑμῶν ἐστιν. What is interesting is that most modern English translations render this as, “for the kingdom of God is among you” or, “in your midst.” But older translations, including the King James version, translate “for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Why such a decision in the modern translations? Are modern translations allergic to any kind of spiritual or mystical sense? Does everything have to be external for the modern mind? The fact of the matter is that the preposition ἐντὸς is far more specific than ἐν – it means “inside, within”, not “among”! If you look at the biggest and most reputable dictionary of ancient Greek, the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon, you find only one meaning: “inside, within” and the opposite is listed as ἐκτός, meaning “outside”. And yet, when you look at lexicons of New Testament Greek, the meaning of “among” crops up. Why? The only other place in the New Testament where this preposition occurs is in Matthew 23:26 – “First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” Note the Greek text: καθάρισον πρῶτον τὸ ἐντὸς τοῦ ποτηρίου, ἵνα γένηται καὶ τὸ ἐκτὸς αὐτοῦ καθαρόν. Note the contrast between τὸ ἐντὸς, the inside, and τὸ ἐκτὸς, the outside.

So I ask myself again. Why these maneuvers with language? The Hebrew text of Exodus 25:8 does seem to imply the usual translation, “among them” or “in the midst of them,” though Rabbi Sacks and Jewish mystics make a strong support for “in them.” The Greek text of Exodus 25:8 is more open to the other translation – at least linguistically. But the Greek text of Luke 17:21 is definitely something else. The preposition ἐντὸς has only one meaning in classical Greek. Why should it take a new meaning in the New Testament – and in that one instance of Luke 17:21, when in the only other occurrence in the New Testament, Matthew 23:26, it clearly means “inside, within”? What gives translators of the Bible the freedom to come up with a new definition? Especially when the new definition changes the meaning of a Bible verse completely?

As I said, this was meant to be a reflection on the verse of the day, Psalm 139:9-10, when I was sidetracked by the Rabbi’s article. But the issues he raises are very much pertinent to anything I would say about Psalm 139. The question in Psalm 139 that prompts the answer in the highlighted verse is: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” The answer, of course, is nowhere. God is everywhere and he knows us inside out: O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar…. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…. Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

There is power in prepositions – even mystical power – and prepositions can make all the difference in how we read a biblical text. Careless reading and translation of biblical texts should not be accepted, especially when they’re also wedded to a particular world view. The Bible touches both the inside and the outside of our existence. Let’s not limit the Bible’s reach. Psalm 139 tells us that God knows us inside and out and everywhere. The word of scripture is like a double-edged sword, “piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). So yes, God commanded the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus, not because he needs a place to stay, but as a visible reminder that God lives in his people; and the kingdom of God is in us, inside us!

3 thoughts on “The Mystical Power of Prepositions

  1. Pingback: Mystic Art – Flowering Poverello

  2. One mustn’t forget that animal sacrifice at the Temple Mount preceeded synagogue services – which are intended to substitute for the prescribed sacrifice of lambs and heifers.

    • Yes, of course. Rabbi Sacks has written extensively on the evolution of biblical worship, and even in the post I quoted he has a historical background before the section I quoted. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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