The Exodus:5 Project
tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood Exodus 25:5
I have some friends on Facebook who are always posting pictures of things that don’t exist anymore except as historical artifacts and quizzes about terms that “kids these days” do not understand. When email first became popular (yeah, in my adult lifetime), it began with lists of what you wouldn’t know about if you were born after a certain year. Then there was a great sight gag in the John Travolta movie “Michael” in which a young model is stuck in a rural motel and wants to call a cab to get her out of there. The desk phone had a rotary dial, which she keeps poking trying to connect, all to no avail. Ha ha.
These days Tom Hanks sells a book he wrote entirely on a typewriter. The round receptacles in your car for your phone charger were designed to heat cigarette lighters. Vinyl records are heralded for the very imperfections that made them give way to compact discs, which are now just CDs. At some point, lights, faucets and toilets will operate everywhere with the wave of a hand, only to be replaced by the embedded chip in your body. (I already have a device on my keychain that opens anything with a personal password.)
Words that we use today have original meanings that are lost to contemporary usage. A port for a USB or HDMI cable has the same function as a port for airplanes, which borrowed “airport” from “seaport.” There is no presumed humor in comic books, which have expanded to become graphic novels, which used to be sold from behind the counter in adult book stores. And the phrase “never again,” these days preceded by the hash tag, is yet another phrase borrowed from reactions to the Holocaust that are trying to recapture their original meanings (like, for example, the word “holocaust”).
The globalization of language has created a similar dilemma. When I took French in junior high, we learned about “Le Weekend” and the outrage it provoked in the purists who demanded “le fin-de-semaine.” Early architects of modern Hebrew translated “telephone” from the original Latin and named the device “sach-rachok.” Of course, it is called “telephone” throughout Israel. And when I was asked to choose what my granddaughter would call me, I thought I would be clever and suggest “sababa,” Israeli slang for “cool,” and one syllable added to “saba,” meaning grandfather. Well, that was one syllable too many for a little girl and now I am “Baba,” making me a father in Persia, a grandmother in Poland and pureed eggplant in Whole Foods. (BTW – I wouldn’t change it for the world.)
When people read the Bible in English, as most Americans do, they are at the mercy of translators. The Church of England scholars who provided King James with his authorized translation chose the word “horns” instead of “rays” for the description of Moses’ beaming face, creating a fiction about Jews that persists to this day in some parts of the world. The distinction between “you shall not murder” and "you shall not kill” is of enormous significance. And entire religious perspectives have depended on the difference between “young woman” and “virgin” in various translations. In fact, the Italians have an idiom, “tradutorre, traditore,” hard to capture in English but meaning “translator is traitor.”
Therefore, reading the Bible is sometimes very difficult for people not familiar with the ancient Hebrew in which so much of it is written. That observation can lead to a certain patronizing smugness, I know, but it does come in handy when people who read and interpret English very closely try to tell me what they understand from a twentieth-century English translation of a Greek text reporting an Aramaic speaker interpreting a Hebrew phrase.
That’s not to say that reading the Bible (and other texts) not in the original is futile, but if literalness is a fatal flaw in the original (and it is) then it is disabling in translation. And the reason that is such a serious problem is that faith must be grounded in truth or it is faith in what is simply not true.
So, when I am asked about where the fleeing slaves who left in such a hurry that their bread couldn’t rise managed to find time to collect not just tanned ram skins and loads of acacia lumber, but dolphin skins, I know that it’s a skeptic’s question about more than the presence of aquatic mammals in the wilderness. (And no, they were not snatched from the walls of water as the Israelites crossed the sea…)
There is an answer to this question (that is, the one about dolphin skins) and it is this: nobody knows what the original word means. A thousand years ago, one commentator claimed it was an animal by then extinct that had multi-color skin. Another commentator claimed it is a giraffe (also abundant in the wilderness). Many before and since have sought to explain the meaning of the Hebrew word – including a modern commentator who believes it is a beaded cloth – and all are without corroborating evidence. That may be why that first list of things kids who were born after I came of age don’t know includes dolphin skins.
On the one hand, language is enormously important. It is the primary way that information, knowledge and wisdom are conveyed not just between two contemporaries but from past generations to future ones. On the other hand, no word – not even the new ones – comes with a pure meaning. We layer our language with meaning, rearranging the new and the older and the ancient to suit our purposes. Or our porpoises. Excuse me: our dolphins.