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An Early Example of Translation

by Evangeline

Did you know that the Bible contains many early examples of different things ranging from scientific processes to machines and engineering feats? For example, after discovering the process of fermentation, the earliest known vessels used to store and preserve wine were wineskins, mentioned in Matthew 9:17. Then, there was also mention of machines – ‘In Jerusalem, [King Uzziah] made machines designed by skilful men…to shoot arrows and hurl large stones’ (2 Chronicles 26:15) – and amazing engineering feats like Noah’s ark and, of course, the attempt to defy God through the construction of the Tower of Babel.

These are some things mentioned in the Bible that we might never have realised existed even back then, and there are certainly more examples of others. One of these is the concept of translation. Following the events of the Tower of Babel, we know that God caused the people to begin speaking different languages. But how did they come to deal with communication between people of different tongues in the following ages?

Even though God was behind the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel, He did too create the human brain in such a marvellous way that enables us to acquire more than one language, even at different stages of life. So, somewhere along the way, the scattered people from the Tower of Babel and their descendants must have picked up another language on top of their mother tongue in order to trade or travel between areas. Or a few of them did, at least.

Torah© HOWI, Wikimedia Commons

Ezra reading the Book of the Law

Hence, while the early Jews spoke Hebrew, by the time we get to the book of Nehemiah, after the Babylonian exile, the Jews of that era would have spoken Aramaic, making it their ‘heart language’ rather than Hebrew. How then, would they be able to read and live according to what was recorded in the Book of the Law, which was in Hebrew? The answer: translation. We know this because of Nehemiah 8:7-8:

‘The Levites…instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear [or, translating it] and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.’ (NIVUK)

Here’s what’s so amazing and important about this: if we read Nehemiah 8 (and the whole book) in its entirety, it is revealed that, at this point, the Jews have recently returned from exile in Babylon. When they first hear Ezra the scribe read from the Book of the Law, followed by the translation, they begin to weep (v9) in sorrow for not having lived according to God’s demands. However, Nehemiah then tells them that having been convicted of their sin, they can rejoice ‘because they now understood the words that had been made known to them’ (v12). Then, as today, understanding God’s word brings both sorrow and, thereafter, joy.

Feast of tabernacles (booths)©Zachi Evenor, Wikimedia Commons

Later, in verse 17, we also learn that for the first time in many years, the Jews finally came to celebrate and understand the Feast of the Tabernacles as it was intended – to commemorate God’s grace (Leviticus 23:43) – ‘and their joy was very great’. This early example of translation reveals the timeless importance and joy of Bible translation. When people hear God’s Word in their heart language, their lives are changed in ways unimaginable. Sorrow is turned into joy, mourning into dancing, darkness into light….

This is why Wycliffe, in communion with God and within the community of His Church, seeks to contribute to the holistic transformation of language communities worldwide – not just through written Bible translation, but through a whole variety of other means.

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