Section IV.2 – Appearance versus Function
I assume that you are sitting right now. If I were to ask you to describe what you are sitting on, how would you describe it? For myself, I am sitting in a cushioned chair. It is brown, has a white blanket thrown over top of it, it is made out of an itchy material, and it has armrests on it. Notice how I described the chair. I talked about what it looks like. The Hebrew mindset would have told me its function. I sit in it. It helps me relax. It keeps me from being on the floor. These are the sorts of things that the Hebrew would use as descriptions. What is its purpose?
For we that are in a Western society, these are two different questions. We didn’t ask what the chair’s purpose is; we asked what it looks like. Yet, in the Hebrew mindset, to ask what the chair looks like is to ask what its purpose and function is. Think of Noah’s ark. What is the description given? Have you ever noticed how models of the ark always look like a giant box? Sometimes people might try to bring the ends together to cause for it to look more boat-like, but often even these attempts don’t truly help to get rid of the boxy-ness of the ark. The author of Genesis was not interested in telling us what the ark looked like. He was interested in telling us its function. The ark was intended to have a whole lot of animals inside of it, and so the author tells you the dimensions. The ark was to be able to continue to float through the flood, so the author tells you it was covered in pitch. The ark needed to endure severe storms for 40 days and 40 nights, so the author tells you what kind of wood it was made out of. This was a durable ship that was large enough to carry all the animals necessary, and the exact description of it is left out because the point is to explain its purpose.
Think about 1 Corinthians 13. How does Paul describe love? Does Paul give us descriptions of what it looks like, or does Paul tell us love’s purpose? If I were to change the wording slightly, we find that it doesn’t corrupt the text at all: “Love’s purpose is patience, it is kindness. Its intention is not envy, not boasting, not pride. Love’s function is not rudeness, it is not self-seeking, it is not to be easily angered, its purpose is to keep no records of wrongs. Love’s role does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Is it possible that Paul was explaining the function of love? Think of those many passages in Exodus that describe the tabernacle and all of the various things that go in them. The descriptions given are to tell us their purpose. So, if we will look at it in that manner, we might get insight into what it is that God was after. It tells us in Hebrews that these things were patterned after the heavenly reality. If we can look past the bore of reading what seem to be outdated and unnecessary passages of descriptions of items lost to history, we might actually learn something about the heavenly tabernacle unto which we are called to live and move and have our being. The purpose of describing these things is to show their intention and function. Think of Solomon’s temple. Do we read the texts about all the things that were made for it, and all of the splendor of that temple as though we’re reading an instruction manual of how to rebuild it? Or, should we be reading it to understand the purpose and function behind these things? Do you see how just changing that little bit actually opens up texts that we thought were excruciating to read and brings an aura of excitement?
In Revelation 21, we’re given the description of the City of God. The New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven. Is the description here supposed to tell us what it looks like, or is it supposed to tell us its function? It tells us the function.
A deer and an oak are two very different objects and we would never describe them similarly with our Greek form of describing. They both share the same Hebrew word: ayil. To the ancient Hebrews, the function of both of these things is identical. The oak is the strongest of trees in the forest. The deer stag is one of the strongest animals of the woods. Any hunter can tell you how strong they are. Not only are they strong in terms of muscle, but also in perseverance to survive. Because both of these are the strongest of their categories (trees and woodland creatures), the same Hebrew word is used for both.
How would we translate ayil? There are times where it is legitimately describing either a deer or an oak tree. But there are other times where it is describing neither. An ayil is a strong one, or a strong leader. In Psalm 29:9, we find ayil being translated vastly differently in various English versions of the Bible. The NASB and the KJV both translate the verse, “The voice of the Lord makes the deer to calve.” The NIV translates the verse, “The voice of the Lord twists the oaks.” The literal translation of this verse in Hebrew thought would be, “The voice of the Lord makes the strong ones turn.” In 2 24:15, the same word translated by the NASB and KJV as deer, and translated by the NIV as oaks, is translated as “ruler”. One must ask the question how one word in Hebrew can have so many different translations.
The difficulty is found in our different mindsets. The Hebrew defines and describes things according to their function, whereas the Greek sees the appearance. So, our Greek minded translators come across these Hebrew words and don’t know what to do with them. All is not lost, though. It does take effort, but we can come into better understanding even with our English texts. It takes first to acknowledge the differences between Hebrew and Greek thought, and second to pursue an understanding of the Hebrew mindset.