Review – Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek

Thorleif Boman. Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. Trans. Jules L. Moreau. New York: Norton, 1960.

Thorleif Boman’s Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek is a fascinating and even inspiring book. Lots of thoughts were running through my mind after reading it.

Boman does accept some of the “oral tradition” stuff about the Pentateuch and Isaiah (JEDP and two Isaiahs), but you almost can’t write about the Bible in Europe without mentioning such things. This is odd in a way–the analysis of real oral tradition was done thoroughly beginning in the 1930s with Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord. (See Lord’s The Singer of Tales.) It seems that no theologians know about this, so they keep passing on bad information to the next generation. Still, Boman’s analysis of the two Biblical languages is fascinating.

Basically, his book is saying that Hebrew thought is dynamic, most words are rooted in verbs, and there is always of sense of becoming and of history having scope. He shows that Hebrew thought and language is more time-oriented and active.

Greek thought, which is more typical of the West, is more static and spatial. Even the way Greeks viewed history–more analytically and less purposefully–is different. Understanding both streams of thought helps us understand both Testaments of the Bible, as well as something of our own language and cultural perspective.

In Hebrew even the verb to be, hayah, is dynamic. It has a passive voice! Do any Indo-European languages have a passive voice for to be? If I read the italics in my King James Bible correctly, when Hebrew merely means a “copula” or “equal sign,” there is no verb used. Russian does the same thing.

The significance of the verb to be is lost in Modern English, but in Old English (pre-1066) there were actually two verbs to be: bion and wesan. Bion (where we get be and been in today’s verb to be) means something more like “about to be” or “prone to be” or “becoming.” While wesan (source of am, are, was, were, and is) is more static, just the linking verb or copula. Wesan did not even have a past participle. Interestingly, too, in Old English become was more active, really be (in the old sense) plus come and is usually translated come or is coming when rendered in Modern English. One version of the Old English Lord’s prayer says, “Becume thine riche” for “Thy kingdom come.” (“Riche” is like the German Reich, meaning “kingdom”).

Hebrew descriptions are active. There are no real physical descriptions in the Old Testament (and few in the New) except for some minor details: Joseph “good looking,” Leah “weak-eyed,” David “ruddy,” Absalom’s hair’s weight, and Elisha bald. In each case those details are given only because they explain someone’s motivation: Potiphar’s wife trying to seduce Joseph, Rachel being favored over Leah, David being underestimated by his enemies because ruddy people look younger, Absalom’s hair because of the way he died, and Elisha because some juvenile delinquents were calling him “baldy.”

Description had to do with motivation and action. People today scratch their heads when they read the Song of Songs and the woman’s hair is compared to a flock of goats or her nose to a tower. Those are not physical descriptions, Boman tells us, but rather descriptions of actions and moral qualities. The hair suggests not so much physical beauty, but the actions and care given by a shepherdess. The tower suggests moral strength and purity.

The Hebrew view of history and character is personal and moral. Every God-fearing Israelite was caught up in history and saw himself or herself part of God’s directed plan.

Greek descriptions are more specific and physical, perceived with all the senses. So Athena is “gray-eyed” and the sea is “wine-dark” and Helen is “white-armed.” These physical qualities are objective and sensual.

The Greek sense of time also is secondary to the perception of space. Space is more important than time. It is the opposite from the Hebrew perspective. Time to the Greek is noted by movements. Time is linear, sometimes cyclic, but man is almost detached from it. The Greek sense sees man detached from the gods and therefore fatalistically detached from history.

Time to the Hebrew is based on rhythmic patterns, it is neither linear nor cyclic. Time is historical, and man is part of it, and God is behind it. Eternity is neither otherworldly (like the “immortals” on Olympus) nor infinite time (like John 3:16 “everlasting”), but unbounded time, le-olam. God is not only transcendent and immanent, but Boman calls Him transparent, revealing Himself through who He is by His deeds. The key deed, of course, in the Hebrew Scriptures is the Exodus.

Boman summarizes simply by saying in effect, Hebrew emphasizes psychology more, while Greek is more logical and visual.

As I was thinking about what Boman said, I am reminded that what he calls the Hebrew perspective was really the perspective of the American Puritans and many Americans (think of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches) until the early 20th century. The Puritans like John Winthrop and Pilgrims like William Bradford saw themselves as ordinary “middle class” people who were caught up in God’s plan for the nations, at least for the United Kingdom and North America. Bradford compared the Mayflower crossing to the Exodus. Winthrop said Boston would be “a city on a hill,” echoing the Beatitudes. Lincoln puzzled over God’s purposes in the American Civil War.

Perhaps we need to have a little more of that Hebrew perspective on history, that perhaps we are part of the Almighty’s plan, too. After all, our ancestors and founders were some of those Pilgrims and saints.

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