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.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Selah is such a pretty word. One of my friends just named her new baby Selah.