Banning the Bible in modern Hebrew

Iyov reproduces an article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz which reports that Israel’s Education Ministry has decided to ban versions of the Bible (presumably meaning only what we Christians call the Old Testament) in modern Hebrew. A government official has said:

The idea of translating the Bible into simple contemporary language is ‘scandalous’.

I’m not quite sure what the scope of the ban is to be, perhaps only on the use of these versions in state school classrooms – which needs to be put in the perspective that use of any kind of Bible in US state school classrooms is effectively banned.

Here I could get into questions of inappropriate intrusion of the state into religious matters, but then I realise that Israel is something of a special case in such matters. Instead I would like to look at the implications for translation.

John Hobbins has brought out these implications in his wonderful spoof on the article, in which he transculturares it to America. Of course this spoof doesn’t quite fit the American scene. But it does remind us of the real issue, that whereas for decades there have been good translations of the whole Bible into modern English, there are still national languages into which there is no easily understood translation, and that modern Hebrew is one of them.

Hebrew as spoken in Israel today is not the same language as the Hebrew of the Bible. There is probably at least as much difference between biblical and modern Hebrew as between the English of Shakespeare and that of today. (Iyov and John Hobbins, would you agree?) There are many obscurities in the text which even scholars don’t understand with any certainty, which means that ordinary Israelis don’t have a chance. And even when they think they understand the original text, they can completely misunderstand it if they read it as if it was in their contemporary language.

For example, a few years ago I got into discussion on an Internet forum with a scholarly modern Hebrew reader who insisted that God’s words in Exodus 3:14 mean “I will be what I will be”. And indeed that is what ‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh means in modern Hebrew, in which the verb ‘ehyeh is in the future tense. But God was not speaking modern Hebrew, he was speaking (or at least his words were recorded in) an ancient form in which this verb form is timeless and continuous, best translated “I am” on the understanding that that also means “I always have been and always will be”. The educated person I was discussing this with thought she understood the Hebrew Bible, but she didn’t.

So, despite Keith’s comment, there is no fundamental distinction between the situation in Hebrew and in English. Just as today’s English readers don’t understand the King James Version and so there is a need for the good translations which exist into modern English (I don’t want to get sidetracked here into which of them is best), in the same way modern Hebrew readers don’t understand the original Hebrew Bible and so there is a need for a good translation into modern Hebrew. I don’t know if the versions which are now being banned are in fact good translations, but I hope that they are and that the current controversy serves to increase rather than reduce their circulation.

In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a similar controversy over translation of the New Testament into modern Greek. (Sadly the only reference to this which I can find with Google is from a Jehovah’s Witnesses site.) In 1901 there was rioting in Athens about this, but by 1924 the need for a modern translation was recognised even by the religious authorities. I hope that similarly over time the people, government and religious leaders of Israel will come to recognise the need for a modern Hebrew Bible, and that as a result the word of God will be much more widely read in the land where it was written down.

10 thoughts on “Banning the Bible in modern Hebrew

  1. “which needs to be put in the perspective that use of any kind of Bible in US state school classrooms is effectively banned.”


    My sophomore year in high school we read part of the OT in my English class. I specifically remember reading the book of Ruth, and I remember learning about the 10 Commandments (this was about 10 years ago). It seems like we read parts of Exodus as well.

    In some states there are elective Bible classes that are offered.

  2. When I studied parts of the Bible in high school, our teacher specifically told us that we were studying it as literature…so we weren’t looking at it as the Word of God. If we had, then my guess is we would have run into some problems. It was interesting, b/c most of the teachers at my high school were Christians, but my teacher wasn’t. It was his idea for us to read parts of the OT, and none of the Christian English teachers had their classes read it. Our teacher even admitted that he wasn’t very familiar with the text, so if he said something that we thought was wrong, to feel free to correct him.

  3. Re the Bible in American schools… I remember one of my high school English classes – we were doing something related to poetry and our teacher asked us to read our favorite poem to the class. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the school to read from Psalms… Psalm 27, if I recall correctly.

    Unlike Rhea, I can’t say that was assigned reading, more of a personal choice – though I remember wondering if I was going to catch heat for it or not.

  4. the emphasis is definitely on the Bible as literature when it appears, Peter, but it does happen. We studied parts of the Bible in our Advanced Placement English Lit class back when I was in high school – my professor was Catholic.

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