ENGAGING THE DIVINE: Meanings of words from Greek and Hebrew sometimes lost in translation

The Rev. James J. Popham
The Rev. James J. Popham

Many of us anticipate arriving at heaven’s gate with an iPad loaded with questions for God. So often we have confronted situations in life that have made us wonder what God was really like. Most religious traditions admit that what we claim to know about God is provisional. We all sense that there is more to know, and we would like to know it.

And most religious traditions look to a body of writing compiled over the centuries for guidance. For followers of Christ, it’s what we call “the Bible” consisting of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, which we share with our Jewish sisters and brothers, and the New Testament. And in our particular Episcopalian tradition, we understand that the Bible may not tell us everything about God, but it tells us enough. So understanding what the Bible says about God is extremely important. And sometimes that takes some looking just a little deeper than the English translation we are familiar with.

Now if you ever studied law in Louisiana, you know that the Civil Code of Louisiana is based on the Napoleonic Code promulgated in France in 1804. Needless to say, it was written in French. And sometimes the translation into English in the Louisiana civil code was imperfect. There was no English word that conveyed the full or true meaning of the French word. In fact, a few cases have been decided in Louisiana only by resorting to the original French.

We confront the same issue in interpreting the Bible. Sometimes our New Testament translations into English fail to convey fully the meaning of the original Greek. We confront the same issue in interpreting the Old Testament, which was was written in Hebrew. The word “mercy” provides an excellent example.

We typically think of mercy in relation to justice and punishment or consequence. We show mercy when we acquit or forego punishing a miscreant or insulate them from the consequences of their misdeeds, even though they deserved it. We all pray that God is merciful in that respect.

But having a merciful God means so much more when we look at the words used for mercy in the Greek of the New Testament or Hebrew of the Old Testament. Mercy in Greek was eleos, which is derived from the word for olive oil. Olive oil was used to treat wounds. It was soothing, comforting, and healing. It speaks then to a merciful God who is all those things. In Hebrew the word for mercy is hesed, which means steadfast love. A merciful God, therefore, is a God of steadfast love. Steadfast suggests unwavering.

So imagine praying “Lord have mercy” not just when we have incurred guilt, but at any time, treating it as a prayer that asks God to soothe and comfort us, relieve our pain, and show us steadfast love. And at the same time appreciating God not just a judge, but as a kind compassionate God that offers balm for our sufferings and afflictions.

The Rev. James J. Popham is rector at St. Andrews By-the-Sea in Destin.