(Reading Time: 2.5 minutes)
If you've ever read through any of the Gospels, you’ll notice how the Jewish people seem to lack the capacity for spiritual insight. They take most of Jesus’ teachings at face value and fail to grasp his spiritual meaning. It’s really quite frustrating to a modern reader. You just want to shake them sometimes, it seems so obvious. Even Jesus at one point says, “Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.”
Their collective shallowness has always baffled me to some degree, but then I read a description of the nature of the Hebrew language (from A General Introduction to the Bible):
“It is a pictorial language, speaking with vivid, bold metaphors which challenge and dramatize the story. The Hebrew language possesses a facility to present ‘pictures’ of the events narrated. ‘The Hebrew thought in pictures, and consequently his nouns are concrete and vivid.”
I began to consider how this language would shape thought. After all, thinking is formed to a large degree by the words available to think with. If this was the case for the Jewish people, then the Hebrew language was more rooted in the visible than in the invisible. Thus, Jewish people spent more time thinking about the physical than the abstract. The author continued, “Always the appeal is to the person in concrete realities of life and not to the abstract or theoretical.”
This helped me to understand a bit more why the Jewish people in Scripture seemed so dull-witted and hard-headed. It doesn’t excuse their unbelief (contrast this with the spiritual eyes of the Roman soldier), but it helps me get into their sandals and feel a bit more charitable toward them. Jesus was challenging the way they thought about the world. He still does.
In keeping with Hebrew’s emphasis on the visible, it assigns a gender to everything. Words aren’t androgynous. “Everything is alive.” As well, “There is no wealth of adjectives.” Hebrew doesn’t spend time describing things, so Jewish people have to find the right images to capture the feel they’re trying to communicate.
This doesn’t mean the seemingly dull-witted Jewish people of Jesus' day lacked imagination. On the contrary, Hebrew was an imagination-rich language because it was so visually oriented. Jewish people simply did not imagine abstract things. “The language shows ‘vast powers of association and, therefore, of imagination.’ Some of this is lost in the English translation, but even so, ‘much of the vivid, concrete, and forthright character of our English Old Testament is really a carrying over into English of something of the genius of the Hebrew tongue.’”
Pick up your Old Testament. Read the Psalms or the Prophets. “Everything is alive.” The power of the picture is undeniable. Use the images to help you remember. But don’t stop with just a picture in your mind. “Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.”