Translating to be understood: Gleaning principles for Bible translation from Nehemiah 8

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Today we will be looking at a passage in Nehemiah 8, but before we read our passage, let me first give you the setting.

After the Israelites had been in captivity in Babylonia for many years, they were finally allowed to return to Judah. Some of the Israelites went back to Judah around 538 BC under Zerubbabel and some others returned later under Ezra and Nehemiah. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians years before, so the first step was to rebuild the walls and the temple. Nehemiah, the governor, organized the rebuilding. And Ezra, the priest, led the people in spiritual reformation.

In our passage, we read about a time when all the people gathered together, and Ezra read God’s Word to the people in a public gathering

I want to point out how this passage illustrates the need for Bible translation and also the proper response to God’s Word. We’ll see several principles at play:

Let’s look at the text more closely.

In vv. 7-8, it gives a list of names of certain Levites and says that they: “7 … helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

When Ezra read from the Law, he was reading it in its original language, Hebrew, but not all the people understood Hebrew anymore. Many of the Jews who were there on that day had grown up in Babylon, where the language was not Hebrew, but Aramaic.

In order to make sure the people could understand it, the Levites explained it to them. They may have translated it into Aramaic. Or they may have explained the meaning of the text so the people could understand the meaning.

That is the point of Bible translation. We want to make sure that all people understand what God’s Word means. In the same way that Ezra and the Levites wanted to make sure that the people not only heard God’s Word, but that they also understood it. That’s why we do Bible translation.

So how are we, the Body of Christ, doing regarding progress with Bible translation? How many languages are there in the world and which ones still need Bible translation? Let me show you three infographics from Wycliffe Global Alliance.

There are 7,378 living languages that we know of. Of these, 717 languages have full Bibles. Those languages cover 5.75 billion people.

Another 1,582 languages have only the New Testament. Those languages cover another 830 million more people.

Another 1,196 languages only have portions of the Bible. Perhaps they have one of the Gospels, or some OT stories. Those languages cover 457 million more people.

But that still leaves 3,883 languages and 220 million people. For various reasons, not all of those languages need a translation. Perhaps the languages are dying off or the people that speak that language are served just as well with a Bible in another language they speak. However, many of these languages do need translation.

It leaves 1,892 languages and 145 million people with no Scripture at all in their language.

And if you add to that the languages that have a New Testament, but no Old Testament (1,582 languages spoken by 830 million people), and the languages that do not even have a full New Testament, but just small portions of the Bible (1,196 languages spoken by 457 million people), you have a potential of 4,670 languages, spoken by 1 billion 432 million people who still need Bible translation. That’s why we need to care about Bible translation!

Just as Ezra and the Levites wanted to make sure that the people in Judah understood God’s Word, so we also should want all people in the world to understand God’s Word.

Next, notice with me how committed these people were to God’s Word.

Look at 8:1: “And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate“.

There was commitment. They were all there. And there was initiative: “And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses.” They took initiative to gather and they took initiative to ask Ezra to come read to them.

It included everyone who could understand. Look at 8:2: “both men and women and all who could understand what they heard.” So, this was not just adults. There were kids there, too. Perhaps younger children, but definitely teenagers.

There was sacrifice. They stood there, 8:3, “from early morning until midday.”

That is a long time to stand and listen, probably for six hours. It required commitment and dedication and sacrifice of time and comfort. They made it a priority to listen to God’s Word.

It says that they paid attention. In 8:3 it says: “And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law”. They gave their full attention to it, listening to make sure they could hear.

They also showed reverence for God and His Word. 8:5 says, “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.” They recognized the weight and importance of God’s Word, and out of honor for His Word, they stood.

It then says (8:6a), “And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God.” To “bless the Lord” is a Hebrew way of saying to “praise God”. Perhaps he said something similar to what David said in 1 Chronicles 29:

See how the people responded: (8:6b) “and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worship the LORD with their faces to the ground.”

They agreed with Ezra’s praise to God, which is the meaning of “Amen”. They responded by lifting up their hands, which indicates prayer to God. And they prostrated themselves, to show worship and humility. They lay down with their faces to the ground. Their hearts were in this and they responded with praise and reverence for the Lord.

Then, after they heard the reading of God’s Word, look how they responded:

First, they cried. (8:9) “And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” The passage does not tell us why they were crying. But more than likely it was similar to what the people did in the days of Josiah when they heard God’s Law that they had not heard before or, if they heard, had forgotten.

They realized that they had disobeyed. Paul was right when he said in Romans 3:20 (ESV), “through the law comes knowledge of sin.”

Ezra read to them these laws and commandments, and chances are, they had not been obedient to them. Perhaps they hadn’t heard these commands before. Or even if they had, they had not been obeying them.

The Law of Moses was clear that God would punish the Israelites who did not obey his laws. That’s why they had been in captivity in Babylon in the first place! God had punished them for not obeying his Law. So now the people were crying. They were sorry and probably afraid.

This is the type of response we want from God’s Word. We want people to be “cut to the heart”, as Peter’s listeners were on the day of Pentecost when they heard him preach. But their response here was not completely appropriate yet. We know that because Nehemiah and Ezra had to correct them. They said, “Do not morn or weep”.

Then they said, 10 “’Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’” They had responded to the Word, not in a bad way, but in an incomplete way. They had mourned for their sins, which is good, but is not the place to stop.

“The better we understand the word of God the more comfort we shall find in it; for the darkness of trouble arises from the darkness of ignorance and mistake. When the words were first declared to them they wept; but, when they understood them, they rejoiced, finding at length precious promises made to those who repented and reformed and that therefore there was hope in Israel.”

Matthew Henry

Earlier, in Ezra chapters 8 and 9, Ezra had called a fast and the people did need to mourn and weep and repent. But now it was time to rejoice. As Gordon Davies said, “He began by proclaiming a fast and doing penance (Ezra 8:21; 9:3–5). He ends by urging rest and celebration.”

Why? There are two reasons, I think. First, the day on which they were meeting was a holiday (“this day is holy to the Lord”, 8:9). It was the festival of trumpets, and God had commanded that that festival was to be a time of rejoicing.

Second, though they had sinned, there was grace available. In 8:12, it says, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” The term translated “strength” here means “protection”. The word used there is not the normal one for “strength” or “being strong”. It was a word used to describe a place of refuge, a safe place, or a place of protection.

The idea seems to be that the Lord’s joy in his people is their stronghold. God was for them. He was joyful over them. He delighted in them and he would protect them. Like he said in Zephaniah 3:14-15, 17-18:

He had made provision for them and would be the one who would protect them from judgment through that provision.

Now, they had the complete picture. Now they understood. There is a time to weep for sin. But we shouldn’t stop there. We should rejoice in God who is the one who saves us.

“Holy mourning makes way for holy mirth; those that sow in tears shall reap in joy; those that tremble at the convictions of the word may triumph in the consolations of it.”

Matthew Henry

Notice that it says, “because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” That is the goal of Bible translation: that people will understand God’s Word.

And our prayer as that when they are exposed to God’s Word, people will respond as these Israelites did in Ezra’s day. They will take initiative to hear God’s Word. They will give praise to God for who he is and what he has done. They will respond in worship and reverence to God’s Word. They will make the sacrifice of time to listen, and will give their full attention and make every effort to understand. And they will understand God’s Word and then respond appropriately, whether that be repenting for their sin or rejoicing in God’s salvation.

Now, I have been emphasizing the importance of translating the Bible and making it clear so that people can understand it. Let me give you some examples of some of the things we do in Bible translating to help people understand better.

Let’s look at several specific issues in translating this passage in Nehemiah 8.

In v. 1, in Hebrew it says, literally, that they gathered “as one man”. If we translate this literally, it would be very unclear.

Surely this is a metaphor. It suggests completeness and unity of purpose, completeness in the sense that everyone was there. And unity of purpose in the sense that they all came for the purpose of listening. One Serbian translation says “in unity”. NLT has “with a united purpose”. The idea is that they all gathered for a common purpose, or “with one accord” (ICC).

In v. 1, to translate the word as “scribe” is misleading. It makes us think of someone who takes notes and writes things down. Though a scribe was literate and could do that, that was not the main point.

REB is correct here. It means “expert in the law of Moses”. It is also captured well by the UBS Handbook, as “a specialist who knew the Law of Moses well”. When we translated the Gospel of Luke, we translated “scribe” as “teacher of the law of Moses”. That is a clearer translation. The point was not that Ezra could write, or that he had the job of a dictation secretary, but that he was an expert in the study and interpretation of the Law of Moses.

In v. 1 where it says to bring the “book”, the word there for book actually means “writing”. To say “book” would not really be an accurate translation, since a book for us means something that is printed and bound, like what was earlier called a codex. But books in that format were not developed until hundreds of years later. Rather this was a scroll.

Another translation issue is one of style. Did you notice that almost every sentence begins with “and”? That is classic Hebrew style, bBut it is very poor English style. We don’t start every sentence with “and”. Croatian and Serbia do not either.

During translation, we’ve had to ask ourselves whether the five Roma languages tend to start all sentences with “and”. We have found that they don’t always do that, but sometimes when telling stories they do use “and” much more than English does. So, when translating passages into Roma languages, we have to pay attention to what is natural in the Roma languages, and not automatically translate every Hebrew “and” with a Roma “and”.

V. 2 sys, “on the first day of the seventh month”. This does not mean July 1. Our 7th month is July, but for the Jews it was Tishri. The first day of that month was often the first day of Fall, the autumnal equinox, which is Sept. 21 (my birthday!).

Normally, when we give a date, we also give the year, but they did not do that here. From other indicators in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we know it was probably 445 BC. When translating, you can leave it like this and just say “the first day of the seventh month”. Or you can translate it into our modern calendar, like NLT, “October 8”.

That is a hard one to decide when translating. Because we don’t always know the exact equivalent in our Gregorian calendar, it is probably best to translate it literally as “the first day of the seventh month”, but to put in a footnote that it was in September or October 445 BC, so the reader has a better idea of approximately when that was.

V. 2 literally has “from man (singular) and to woman (singular) and everyone who understood to listen.” Translating this literally would not be clear to the Roma.

First of all “from man to woman”, in the context of everyone gathering together, means, “men and women”, in other words, all the men and women. The next phrase, “everyone who understood to listen” means “everyone who is able to listen and understand (i.e., understand what would be read).”

But when it says, “men and women and those who understood”, it does not mean that the men and women did not understand. In English, we need to say “men and women and others who also could understand”. This is some implied information that did not need to be specified in Hebrew but really does in English and many other modern languages, such as the Roma languages.

We have to realize that different languages have different ways of expressing things. Their grammar and syntax differ so you cannot always make a one-to-one correspondence in the words and the word order when translating.

This means that “all the men and women and others who were able to understand” which surely means children or minors. God’s Word translation has “any [children] who could understand what they heard”.

V. 3 literally has “from the light until middle of day”. Natural English would say “from dawn”. And for the “middle of day”, we would probably say “midday or “noon”.

Then it literally says “the ears of all people to/toward  the scroll the law”. This is what we call metonymy, which is when we use a part to refer to the whole. The “ears of the people” includes the whole person. Saying that their “ears” were attentive does not mean the rest of the person was inattentive. It is just a nice Hebrew idiom to put the emphasis on listening and paying attention.

But it is not an idiom we would use in English. It would be clearer to translate as NLT, “listened closely to”, CEV “listened carefully to”, or TEV “they all listened attentively”.

V. 6 says that Ezra “blessed the Lord”. What does it mean to “bless” God? To bless someone means to do something for their benefit or good, normally with spiritual overtones. So how does a finite man “bless” an infinite God? What could we do to benefit God?

The general idea is that man is declaring that God is worthy and deserves to be blessed in the sense of being thanked or praised. Translating this as “blessed the Lord”, does not communicate the point correctly, I think. It would be more easily understood to translate as NLT “praised the Lord”.

So we have to look at the context when we see the word “blessed” in Scripture. Sometimes it does mean to do someone good. But other times, it means to thank God for something.

That is the idea behind “saying the blessing” before you eat. You are not blessing the food in the sense of making the food spiritual or somehow better off. You are blessing God, in the sense of thanking him, that he provided the food. Here Ezra praises God, probably in the sense of thanking him for who he is and what he had done.

V. 6 has “the great God”. We had a challenge when translating phrases like this into Roma languages. If you say he is “the great God”, are you saying that there are smaller gods? Is he the greatest among a variety of gods? No.

Sometimes you can go ahead and translate it as “great God” if the listeners in that language will understand that it is not saying he is one of many gods, albeit the greatest. You might, however, need to translate it as “God, who is very great”, which is the idea here. The LORD, Yahweh, is God, the only God, who is very great.

Also, in v. 6, ESV has “the people answered”. We normally use “answer” when someone has been asked a question. No one was asked a question in this passage, so in English a more natural wording is “responded” or simply “said”, as in, “all the people said ‘Amen’”.

What about “Amen”? This is a churchy or spiritual word. Many Roma for whom we are translating will not understand this word. In fact, it is not even a translation.“ Amen” comes directly from Hebrew untranslated.

But it means “It is true”, “It is so” or “May it be so!” So we might want to translate as, “and all the people agreed” or “all the people said, ‘That is true!’”

Next it says, “lifting up their hands”. In that culture, this was an appropriate response to God in prayer. It might have another meaning in another culture into which you are translating the Bible. That doesn’t mean you should change the translation; we need to be historically accurate to this account. But it might mean that in translation you need to add an explanation of why that was done, e.g., “lifting up their hands in prayer” or “in reverence”. We call these symbolic actions.

For example, it goes on to say, “they bowed their heads”. To bow your head, in that culture, and in most cultures, expresses humility. If that has a different connotation in a different culture, we might add “in humility” or “to show humility”, i.e., “they bowed their heads in humility”.

V. 7 says, “helped the people to understand”. Literally in Hebrew, this is “caused the people to understand”. “Cause to understand” is an awkward way to say it in English. In Croatian and in Roma languages, it sounds very odd to use a causative like that. The natural way in English to express “causing someone to understand” is simply “teaching someone” or explaining to someone”. NLT has “instructed the people in the Law”, and TEV has “explained the Law to them”.

V. 8 has a word this is quite difficult to understand, and therefore hard to know how to translate:

We’ve been reading in the ESV which has:

ESV “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly.”

But there are other options:

KJV: “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly.”

NIV: “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear.”

CSB: “They read out of the book of the law of God, translating” (also NASB).

NET: “They read from the book of God’s law, explaining it”.

The Hebrew is difficult to follow here, but there are basically four options of what it could mean:

  1. The word can mean “distinctly”, or “to declare distinctly”.

 There was a large crowd of people and it might have been hard to hear properly.  So they had “repeaters”, in other words, those closer by who could repeat it clearly and distinctly and make sure everyone heard it properly.

2. The word can mean “to break something down”.

It could be that they went paragraph by paragraph explaining it. Perhaps they made sure to pronounce everything correctly and made sure that the people understood the sounds and accents, and that they understood the syntax, i.e., how the words held together. Perhaps there was a pause between each paragraph so the Levites could explain it to the people.

3. The word could mean “translate”, and as I mentioned earlier.

Perhaps they told the people a translation in Aramaic, the common language many had learned in Babylon, to make sure that those who didn’t understand Hebrew could understand everything. At the very least, they may have translated older Hebrew words which had changed in meaning over the 1,000 years since Moses wrote it.

4. Or it could mean to “explain”.

Perhaps they took the time to explain what it meant and even how things were supposed to be applied. Remember, many of these Jews had grown up in Babylon, in Exile, where there was no temple so they couldn’t keep the sacrifices or some of the feasts, where some of the Jewish laws had not been kept and some of the festivals had not been observed for a long time. These things needed to be explained so the people would know how to obey what was being read.

So they did not simply stand there for six hours listening to people reading without comment. They had breaks in the reading where things were repeated and explained and translated when needed, and there may have been mini-sermons or expositions to exhort them to obey and show them how.

So it is difficult to know exactly what they did, but the general sense is very clear. They didn’t just read the old Hebrew. They made sure that the people clearly heard it and that they understood it.

 That is very clear from the second half of v. 8. ESV has, “and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading”. Or perhaps it is better in the CSB, “and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read.”

This, my brothers and sisters, in my opinion, is the goal of Bible translation: the goal of Bible translation is to give the meaning so that people can understood what they read or hear.

NLT puts it all together and I think it captures the sense well. The whole verse reads, “They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage.”

“The Bible is not a ‘magic book’ that changes people or circumstances because somebody reads it or recites it. God’s Word must be understood before it can enter the heart and release its life-changing power. Note that six times in this chapter you can find ‘understanding’ mentioned (vv. 2–3, 7–8, 12–13).”

Warren Wiersbe

Let’s close with four points of application. Let’s do what Ezra and the Levites did. Let’s respond the way the Israelites did on that day.

Specifically, let’s:

  1. Come to God’s Word in humility and adoration because God is worthy of our worship and his Word is worthy to be listened to.
  2. Make every effort to understand what God’s Word means.
  3. Seek how you can help other people understand its meaning.
  4. Seek God’s face for how you can help in Bible translation around the world, to get God’s Word to those who still need it.