Book Review: God, Language and Scripture

Moisés Silva’s book, God, Language and Scripture: Reading the Bible in Light of General Linguistics was an interesting read. Rarely was there any part that the writer of this review found boring. What was expected to be a book on Hebrew and Greek ended up being a book on how to understand the writers of Scripture better. That is not to say there wasn’t any Hebrew or Greek (or Aramaic) within the pages; there certainly were. However, most of these were illustrations from Silva that proved his points, the main one being that the translator or interpreter of Scripture must keep linguistics in mind. “Every facet of interpretation must be kept in proper perspective, and the more we know about the nature of language, the more likely we are to ‘handle correctly the word of God’ (2 Tim. 2:15).” (P. 15)

In order to bring about this objective, Silva wrote seven chapters, consisting of 145 pages. The first was simply an introduction, helping the reader get acquainted with what was to come. In his second chapter, one will read the author’s perspective on language from the way the Bible presents it. From the very beginning of the Bible there is language. God speaks the world into existence and so communicated with Adam and Eve. He created them in his own image thus making them people of communication. By the third chapter, the one is reading about the scientific study of language. This chapter involves the evolution of language as well as the various humanity, natural and social science studies.

Once one gets to the fourth chapter, he reads of the history of the biblical languages in more depth. Silva describes how Hebrew and Aramaic are similar—linguistic cousins and why those who read Hebrew do not need vowels. Greek also had its history and much of that history impacted the New Testament writers. The fifth and sixth chapters delve into describing the biblical languages. One aspect that was interesting in this chapter was that of languages’ etymology. This has been discussed somewhat in previous sections, but a greater impact can be read in chapter 5. Silva gives an example that the word gossip comes from the same root as godparent. It was the talk that happened during christenings. Yet, no one brings this up except as a piece of trivia.

[T]here are occasions (as in some poetic passages of the Old Testament) when we come across rare words whose meaning is unclear and for which etymological analysis can provide some help. Most words, however, are widely attested and their meaning can be clearly established from the numerous contexts in which they appear. (P. 88)

Another striking point was that rarely do biblical authors seek to be ambiguous, but at times there seems to be some intentionality in doing just that. Silva explained that if the writer was clearer, it would lead the readers down the wrong path, or as found especially in poetry “the purpose was not to confuse but to impress on our hearts the force of the divine message.” (P. 97). Most ambiguity arises from a distance in time and culture, not in the text itself.

What most grammars do not do, that the author sought to make amends for, is show how words work within sentences and paragraphs. That was the focus of chapter six. In this chapter, Silva gave a handy guide to diagraming clauses (not sentences!) so that the reader could make sense of what was being written. This is helpful with many of Paul’s sentences that seem to be endless clauses rolled into one run-on sentence.

The final chapter was an epilogue. The focus was on continuing to pass the Bible on through textual transmission, translation, and teaching. Surprisingly to this writer, Silva believes that linguistically speaking, dynamic translations are the way to go when it comes to understanding the text better. Literal translations are too rigid and often miss the point of what the biblical writer was saying.

Overall, this book deserves to be read by young and old pastors alike, if for no other reason than the fact that there is an overuse of etymology that is pervasive within churches. To use etymology makes the preacher look smart, but it rarely helps the congregation understand the Word better. That being said, the member who has a proclivity for original languages could benefit from this book as well. The lay-member would benefit from reading the epilogue as they may feel shamed by “more studious” members for having a dynamic translation rather than a more literal one. Having read the book, it helps one to understand the overall use of language within Scripture. However, it does very little with helping one understand vocabulary.

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