Learning to Read*

photo by Katherine Brown: BHS open to Genesis 22

The book arrives two days after I order it online. The UPS man drops it off, bangs twice on the door and is already halfway back down the walk when I retrieve the package. I open the box. The book slides out into my hand. It is a small, heavy volume with a red-brown cover: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. I riffle through pages that still cling to each other. The print is small and squared with tiny flourishes and dots. It looks random, not like letters. It takes faith to believe that these shapes can be read.

The first morning of class, we chant the alphabet through: “alef, bet, gimmel, dalet.” We are all seminarians. We are also social workers, teachers, headhunters, lawyers, associate pastors. We are Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed Church of America and United Church of Christ. We are single, married, divorced and widowed. Megan is pregnant; Ann’s husband is in Iraq. We are 11 women and three men gathered for six summer weeks at Wesley Theological Seminary to learn Biblical Hebrew.

I spend the first night murmuring the letters, copying them until my arm aches. The next day we meet the vowels, the tiny dots and dashes generally placed under the letters. We sound out words. We dive into translating texts. I struggle with the shapes and sounds washing over me, unable to imagine them ever resolving into meaning. “Trust me,” the professor insists briskly, “You’ll get it. In two weeks you’ll be reading this page.” I am overwhelmed, as in a wave, swirled head over heels until I’m not sure which way is up, dumped sandy and spitting, eyes streaming, on the shore. And then the next wave is along. No sure footing, no knowing how to swim under and through in this wide sea.

“Why are you studying Hebrew?” my husband asks. Even in this first week I can tell him.  Already we have glimpsed the wonderful and terrifying breadth of the language. The noun that means “words” also means “events” or “actions” — speaking twined with doing. The verb that means “to be” also means “to become” or “to happen.”

We learn to parse verbs. Hebrew verbs carry their own subject an object in the affixes and suffixes attached to the three-letter root.  We learn to peel away the extra letters, to add back the missing, to consider again the whole.

I learn to read with my tongue, as well as my eyes. Sometimes this doing — reading aloud, involving my body as well as my mind — leads me to understand what I think I do not know.

I start to recognize some of the words. The four-letter word that English Bibles translate as “the LORD” is one of the easiest to see. Faced with a new passage I look first for this word; this leaves that many fewer words to translate. Scholars suggest that this Tetragrammaton is derived from the verb root “to be, to become, to happen.” The very name of God, then, encompasses not just static perfection complete and achieved but the causing yet to be, creation yet becoming.

Week after week we take quizzes. Each time my initial response is a flight of panic — the wave curving over me again — how can I tell the meaning of so many Hebrew letters? (No longer do I doubt that they hold meaning, only my own ability to access it.) I limit my focus.  Attentive discipline and wild flights of try-this, and word by slow, abiding word the text emerges from the murk.  I catch echoes of the English I know, but the familiar stories are given new and true force in their unfamiliar guise.

We learn grammatical rule after rule, each of which seems compounded with as many exceptions. (In intermediate Hebrew, we joke, the professor will reveal that there really are no rules.) The patterning is apparent but elusive, as much art as science. Slowly we start to build a sense of what is present and must be peeled away; what is missing and must be added. We are not memorizing the language but we are beginning to internalize it. Not yet swimming, but entered into the rocking water.

The class picks up speed. We are getting through entire chapters — although still, the occasional selection of wrong verb root results in a Mad Libs-type translation. We are giddy, enthusiastic, frustrated, amazed. One by one we dream Hebrew: dancing letters, difficult passages. We design a T-shirt with the legend in Hebrew.

The final exam is three hours of translating a passage we’ve not seen before. When we finish we gather on the hill for a picnic — a half-planned potluck with boiled eggs and falafel, pita and hummus, just-picked tomatoes. We stand in a circle, holding hands, hearing the blessing in Hebrew. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe.

I didn’t learn to read Hebrew in six weeks. I learned that I shall be reading this sea for the rest of my life, even knowing I will never understand it all.

*Another throw-back post, in honor of the semester starting next week. This is a slightly revised version of the essay run in The Washington Post as ‘Taking the Plunge into Biblical Hebrew,’ Aug. 30, 2004. Then I was the student. Come next week, I am again the instructor, for the first time online.

Hineini!

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 

Genesis 22:1-2; from Genesis 22:1-14, lectionary text for Sunday June 28, 2020

photo by Katherine Brown

I am circling this text.  Going round and round it, searching for a way in.  I’ve been circling this text for days.  That ache along the back my neck must come from keeping my head continually craned and taut in its direction, fixing my gaze on the it.  Did I think it might stretch out and leap upon me if I relaxed my vigilance?  Or did I circle and watch in hopes of seeing the story crack open of itself, reveal to me its meaning. It’s a hard text to hold as a center.

Genesis 22, the ‘Akedah’ or ‘binding’ of Isaac.  This was the first biblical text I encountered in Hebrew, it being the first full story presented in the textbook used.  We had barely made the acquaintance of the Hebrew alphabet when we were pitchforked into this harrowing tale.  The necessary slowness of our translating increased the tension of the story’s unfolding.  If verse 1 had the charm of first encounter with vocabulary and grammar, verse 2 immediately raised the stakes.  God’s words to Abraham increase in specificity — ‘Take your son, your only, the one whom you love, Isaac’ — son Laughter named at the end of the series of phrases as if the crown of all that had come before — ‘and go to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a whole offering.’  

Offer up your son as offering.   

Did our breaths catch in our throats as we read?  Was our protest of God’s command or Abraham’s silent compliance?  ‘And Abraham rose early in the morning,’ as dutiful in taking his son Isaac to be offering as he had been in sending his son Ishmael into the wilderness.  Abraham had been distressed on account of Ishmael.  Abraham had argued with God about Sodom, for the sake of God’s own justice.  But for this son, this only, this one whom he loves, for Isaac, Abraham does not speak.

We read on, word by painful word.  Abraham goes with a donkey and two ‘boys’ and his son.  ‘The boy I will go there,’ Abraham says and lays the wood on his son and they walk on togetherIsaac says ‘My father.’   ‘Here I am,’ Abraham answers Isaac as he had answered God, adding now, ‘my son.’   The two of them walk on together.  The camera pulls back until the moving figures are small in the landscape, ascending the hill Abraham had seen.  See the two boys and the donkey somewhere near the bottom of the screen; waiting for they know not what.

Then comes verse 9.  The camera comes in close, and the motion slows to a snail’s pace; each step discretely delineated.  Abraham builds an altar.  Abraham lays the wood in order.  Abraham binds his son Isaac.  Abraham lays his bound son on top of the altar, on top of the wood.  Abraham stretches out his hand and takes the knife to slay his son.  The sinews in his hand stand out taut; his knuckles are white.  The knife is held with definite intention.  The edge of the blade is visible, quivering poised.

The turning world stops.  A voice from heaven calls, and Abraham replies — for the third time, ’Here I am.’  And God says, ‘Now I know ….’  God has learned something God had not known.  The offering of Isaac ends in the sacrifice of the ramAbraham names the place.  

The story is ended but does not feel resolved.  I read and read, circle and study and stare, until my eyes are dry and the ache in my neck has spread down my back.

I want a tidy ending.  I want space in which to breathe, green grass to lie down in and quiet waters to drink, a respite to gather myself for the next phase of the journey.  I know more is coming.  I know it must.  We’re only in the 22nd chapter of the first book of the Bible, after all.  We’ve only just renewed our recognition that ‘All’ hasn’t included ‘Black’ since the first African slaves were brought to these shores, if not before that.  There is so much journey yet to go.

It’s not just that I’m already tired, it’s that I cannot see the way to the end.  I can’t count the steps, don’t know how to pace myself to get there.  (God sends Abraham to ‘the place I will show you’ and doesn’t tell him how far away the place will be.). It’s that the promise is old — ‘I will make of you a great nation’; ’all men are created equal’; ‘in Order to form a more perfect Union’ — but still unrealized, its shape unformed, its edges blurred.   It’s that the transforming power of that original vision — ‘in you all families of the earth shall be blessed’; to ‘establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare’ — has been continually undermined by our own failures of trust, of vision, of steadfast commitment.

I’ve spent days in this text.  Not just these most recent nor that first encounter in Hebrew but the teaching and preaching done of it since.  Maybe part of my tired is that the questions that seem to spring soonest are the ones that let us off the hook.  Which is worse:  God having asked the sacrifice or Abraham offering it up? God ‘testing’ Abraham with the ask or God needing to test at all? We are prompt to interrogate the text.  Are we ready to ask the same questions of ourselves?  Is this story of traumatic encounter about Abraham and God only or is it also about us?

After all, we still offer up our own.  Worse yet, we offer up those we do not count as ‘ours.’    We draw lines between, create categories of difference, and claim self-preservation as justification for all.  We hoard our own welfare, present and future, as if we can be sufficient to our providing, if only we are diligent enough, vigilant enough.  Abraham, at least, offers his son, his only, the one whom he loves, Isaac.  Abraham offers up the promise he has been moving towards since Genesis 12, the seed and covenant future that God has named due through Isaac.  Abraham responds to nothing less than the direct and inscrutable word of God, who speaks no promise or condition but only command. 

God calls Abraham and Abraham responds, ‘Hineini’ — ‘Here I am!’ — or in a more literal rendering, ‘Behold — me!’  And maybe in that subtle reference to vision the story cracks itself open just a little bit to my sight, revealing not an answer to a puzzle but a promise that is almost enough.  

God calls Abraham’s name, and Abraham answers, ‘See — me.’  On the third day, Abraham ‘lifts his eyes’ and ‘sees’ the place.  When Isaac asks his father about the offering, Abraham replies ‘God will see for himself the lamb’ — the idiom of provision comes from the statement of God’s vision.  After his hand is stayed, Abraham ‘lifts his eyes’ and ‘sees’ the ram.  Seeing, vision, appearing is held as well in the name Abraham gives the place:  ‘The LORD sees’ for here ‘the LORD is seen.’ 

Maybe we call this story ‘the binding’ less because that verb occurs once within it than because we feel ourselves bound.  Tangled up in the text and its traditions.  Shackled in the circumstances and structures of the past times that have led to us here in our own, that have constrained our present living and our ability to see ahead, limiting the future by our own gaze.  Yet the motif that recurs in this story is God seeing, God being seen, God seeing to what is necessary to God’s goal.  Can we rename the text and re-place ourselves in it?   Not as those waiting the edge, unaware of what transpires on the mountain, but as those for whom that encounter is central.  

God sees.  Truly this claim is insufficient to assuage my discomfort with the text or with my context.  God’s sight does not tell me where the place will be, or how long it will take to get there.  Yet it is almost enough to aim and sustain me towards the next step.  God sees.  That claim of vision tugs me — protest and all — beyond my own sight.  No longer bound by the past but moving into the future divinely envisioned and powerfully promised.  Justice.  Welfare.  Blessing.  For all.

See.  Me.