Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

09 August 2010


I really like that there are untranslatable words in scripture. For one thing, they make you slow down and speculate and consider—which is, in fact, one of several ways scholars propose we understand the biblical word selah, an untranslatable word used 71 times in 39 of the Psalms, many of which begin with reference to the musical nature of the psalm, and 3 times in the song that concludes the short book of Habakkuk. (That Habakkuk’s final prayer was meant to be sung is clear from a concluding reference to the director of music and intended instrumentation.) The term may have some musical meaning—like “pause here” or “descendo” or “insert bridge”—that has since been lost. Or it may mean always, which is how it was translated in certain key ancient translations. Its meaning may also draw upon its apparent etymology in the Hebrew word for hang.

All these possibilities come together, it seems to me, in the way I—and, I’m guessing, many modern readers—hear the word as they read through one of those unsung songs of scripture. Selah sounds like exhaled breath, a musical suspension meaning “Hang onto that thought.” Selah seems like the most wise and natural commentary one could make on the nature of the things of this world. It reads like a sigh.

That’s, in any case, how the word seems to operate in reggae songs and in the nostalgically apocalyptic songs of Leonard Cohen I’ve been listening to of late—that is, as sighs or groans in response to a world beyond understanding.

Scriptural sighing also calls to mind, for me, Paul’s intriguing depiction of the Holy Spirit translating the groans of all creation “through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26) as well as Jesus’ frequent exhalations—in his interactions with those around him and in breathing his last upon the cross. In a favorite passage of mine, Jesus sighs in prayer:
Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of
Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a
man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand
on him.

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his
fingers into the man's ears. Then he spit and touched the man's tongue. He
looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, "Ephphatha!" (which means
"Be opened!"). At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and
he began to speak plainly. (Mark 7:31-35)
Ephphatha. Try to say that word aloud, and you will hear that deep sigh that housed it—a different sound from selah but somehow the same. Selah. Ephphatha.

And that’s the biggest reason why I like untranslatable scriptural words so much. They mimic the wordless, word-hostile nature of our deepest prayers. Groans, as Paul says, “as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22). I remember those exhalations as simultaneously buoyant and unbearable, a joyous agony, an explosion of wordlessness. I felt opened.

04 August 2010


Abraham’s spiritual journey was not the steady climb from unbelief to ardent and abiding faith and holiness that I expected to enjoy when I first became a Christian. Not the ever growing devotion to God that seemed likely to make me into one of the “godly” men and women of the congregation—ancient and tireless workers and greeters and “prayer warriors”—that the pastors of churches I attended in those days were always pointing out to the rest of us sinners. Rather, for Abraham, as for me, the journey Godward comprised a series of miniscule ascents in his direction interrupted by deep descents and long flat periods of not paying attention and getting lost, the whole forming a course as jagged as an electrocardiogram.

Abraham’s moments of faith are provisional at best—and far less compelling, story-wise, than his frequent excursions into faithlessness. When God initially tells him to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household and go to Canaan, Abram responds with the partial obedience that characterizes his whole story. He leaves, but he takes his people and father and his father’s household with him. They head for Canaan, but settle in Haran before they get there. When Abram’s father dies, Abram does finally go where God directs him, but he leaves soon after—for Egypt, for the Negev, or for wherever it is wily Lot decides not to go when the land can no longer support them both. Abraham seems, in fact, to allow anyone but God to direct his wanderings.

Abraham meets God’s other promise, that his descendents will outnumber the stars in the sky, with similarly qualified trust. Despite his wife Sarah’s barrenness and advancing age, he fleetingly believes the promise that she will yet bear children. Or, in any case, that’s what the text says, and God believes he believes it. But no sooner do we read those words on the page than we find Abraham attempting to choreograph the miracle by his own methods. He apparently doesn’t trust God to keep him alive long enough to father the promised children and instead tells lies that the beautiful Sarah is his sister and pimps her to the lusty Egyptians—a trick he later repeats to protect himself from the people of the Negev—to keep potential suitors from murdering him to get her. He also goes along with Sarah’s attempt to preempt God’s plan by having him sleep with her servant, Hagar. And, as if these indications of faithlessness are not enough, when the Lord’s angel announces that the promised child will arrive within a year, he snickers to himself—surely the most compelling gesture of unbelief imaginable, one for which Sarah is sternly reprimanded.

God himself, despite having acknowledged Abram’s faith early on, appears to doubt it later in Abraham’s life. After the visions and the smoking firepot with which God makes Abram “know for certain” (15:13) that what he says is true, after the name change to Abraham (“Father of Many”), after the household circumcision instituted as the covenantal affirmation of Abraham’s faith, after the miracle of Isaac’s birth, after all these signs that should have fortified and confirmed the faith that God has already acknowledged, God “tests” Abraham—that’s the word used in the text—by demanding in burnt sacrifice the very child he has said will engender the countless descendents he has promised. Then he waits to see what Abraham will do. And it is here, in an intricate story embedded in the intricate story of Abraham’s faithlessness, in a sentence or two liable to slip right past the inattentive reader, that we can glimpse what God must have seen in that moment early on when he commended Abram’s faith and accepted it in exchange for the righteousness we humans seem incapable of putting into practice.

Abraham tells his servants, at the end of what must have been the terrifying journey to sacrifice his son, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you” (22:5). Skeptical reader that I am, I understood Abraham’s promise to return, at first, to be mere subterfuge designed to prevent the servants from knowing what he was up to and perhaps interfering with his plan. What else could he say? “Stay here with the donkey while I go over there and sacrifice my son”? Abraham knew, I reasoned, that he would be returning alone, but he would surely not want to reveal his horrific plan to anyone else, not even to servants. So he lied. And after all, it’s not as if we haven’t already witnessed him lying.

Similarly, when Isaac, who is made to carry the wood for his own sacrifice and is probably a bit suspicious about the whole undertaking, asks, “Father. . . The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (22:7), Abraham replies with what seems like another white lie: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (22:8). I can imagine Abraham’s rationalization: Well, God did provide me with my little lamb of a son, Isaac . . . And, anyway, I can’t imagine what else he could have told Isaac, under the circumstances.

It’s instructive to consider the whole undertaking from God’s perspective, though. To look down from above on that miserable journey to a mountain in the region of Moriah that God said he would tell Abraham about: the funeral march there, sighting the spot in the distance, the horrifying ascent. Indeed, we can’t forget the other Father, watching, waiting, as Abraham struggled to believe and not to despair. “Against all hope,” Paul writes of our faith-father, “Abraham in hope believed” (Romans 4:18). Against all hope, he hoped himself forward. Step by step. Moment by moment. And God looked down on that hopeful, hopeless march from above, and he hoped, too, as any parent would, and forgot all of his child’s previous failures—the lack of trust, the misplaced fidelities, the weird attempts to take control. Listening and hoping from above, God heard only Abraham’s promises—that he and Isaac would both return to the waiting servants, that God himself would provide the sacrificial lamb—and he recognized them not as lies or even as the wistful hopes they probably were but as pure, solid faith. Faith as great as anyone could ever muster. As great as that of John the Baptist, who, while in prison and soon to be beheaded, sent to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Here is Jesus’ response to John’s question, to his endgame travesty of faith: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).

In other words, as tiny and imperfect as our faith might be, as weak our hope, God leans in and listens—not for our failure, not for yet more proof of our faithlessness, but for the realization of his own hope for us—that is, for the faith he himself provides, just as he provides everything else we need to be happy and healthy and safe. And when he finds it, he credits it to us as all the righteousness we are capable of accomplishing.