words over time

Sometimes five or six threads come together in life and it all makes sense when you put the unrelated pieces together with one another. (And I’ll link all my blog posts that I’m referring to here.)

Because I can’t stand Christmas music in early November, I’m listening to “The Book of Genesis,” a Teaching Company lecture by Gary Rendsburg. I’m Dr. Rendsburg’s biggest fan (outside his family and friends, of course) and I loved the two classes I took with him in college. My big regret in life is that I didn’t enroll in his Biblical Hebrew class.

The lectures are awesome, and the further we get into them, the more I remember why I loved his classes.

First thread. Dr. Rendsburg brings up a point I’d forgotten: that in Judaism, God is “a God of History.” In religions contemporary to ancient Israelite religion, gods were all gods related to things like rain, the sea, the moon, and so on. And you can see the contrast in how ancient Israelite religion denoted the sacred: in every other religion, it’s understood that what you set aside to the deity is a sacred space. But as we see by the setting aside of the seventh day in the creation story, God sets aside for Himself a sacred time.

And that’s the precursor to the holy festivals that later grow up in the Jewish calendar. One might also argue that this detachment from space and into time gives Judaism the staying power to last three thousand years. No one worships Ba’al any longer.

Second thread: Dr. Rendsburg says that God’s creation in the second creation story is all by doing: He forms the earth, plants the vegetation, builds the man and woman. Those are all things humans do, albeit on a greater scale. But in the first creation story, creation is all done by “fiat.” By words. God says, “let there be light,” and light appears in response. All creation in Genesis 1 is done this way: by words.

Third thread: The Gospel of John refers to the second person of the Trinity as The Word. And that all things were created through the Word.

Fourth thread: Humans differentiate from animals inasmuch as we have fluid language. Birds can’t modify their calls and still be understood by other birds. Animals can’t talk about concepts that aren’t immediately present. They can say “Danger!” but not “Last week, there was danger.” Conceptual language is what sets us apart from animals, and that’s what leads to linguistic changes.

All these bits swirled together into my cuisinart brain and came up with a strange construction. Because a word, after it’s said, is gone. It’s fixed in time. Kind of like history: something happens, and it’s done. But a word written down is a word perpetuating through time. It keeps existing after it’s been said.

And then we have Jesus as the Word Made Flesh, and it’s kind of like a word written down. A word changed for the benefit of the recipient of that word, but still the same word, the same meaning. Just represented in print rather than in sound, and eternal rather than transient.

So maybe God did change by becoming human. But still the same. Just a different way of being understood, a different mode of delivery.


  1. Ivy

    There is much to be said of the oral tradition. Talmud, for many centuries, wasn’t written down. It was memorized and passed down that way. The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, all of them survived for centuries as spoken words.

    On the other hand, much of the Beowulf legend is lost to us, even though all of it was once written down. We’ve only been able to find fragments. Books can be burned, and in the pre-Gutenberg days that actually hindered their chances of surviving.

    Words change, meanings change, even though the writing persists. We get the famous story of Queen Anne telling Christopher Wren that his word was “artificial, awful, and amusing”. Mr. Wren was well pleased with such high praise. Artificial – showing artistic skill. Awful – awe inspiring. Amusing – inspired by the Muses. We see the word “wherefore” trapped in Juliette’s speech, and people think she’s asking where Romeo is. “Wherefore” actually means “why”; it pairs with “therefore”.

    Of the Grimm’s fairy tales, “The Brothers, the Donkey, and the Stick” is barely remembered (and started its life written down), while just about everyone knows the story of “Hansel and Grethel”, which was originally an oral tale.

    Words are more likely to live or die based on their merit than on their method of transmission.

  2. Cricket

    I agree with sacred time lasting longer than sacred places or things.
    It’s easier to fall out of the habit of observing the sacred time, but it’s also easier to keep it up when you’re uprooted.

    IIRC, the Torah also includes instructions on how to make temples and religious items. Even if you lose yours, you can build another.

    Another reason Judaism lived so long is following it is more pervasive. Many tiny acts built into the day, rather than one big weekly service. (Some Christian faiths have similar rituals, but they’re often discounted as “meaningless” and left out.)

    I don’t remember the term, but some Jewish households build a small alter near the front door, and say a prayer to it whenever they pass. (Was small part in an novel, so forgive me if I described it badly.) That’s four times a day I’m reminded to be thankful for my home.

    That interpretation of Word Made Flesh is cool. Much as I love designing checklists on the computer, they don’t save time. I fix typos and fine tune them each month. I have backups of backups of each version. When I scribble one out on paper, I use it as it is, and just scribble down the changes to make for next month. (Usually the order or how finely to divide a task. I hear it’s typical of ADHD that they need to keep changing the system so they don’t get bored with it.) When the month is over I’m not quite ready to toss it, but I know I’ll be ready in a year. So I find paper to be more flexible than the computer, even though it’s harder to change.

    But Word Made Flesh is even more complex. He has a brain, so he will learn new skills, gain experience, and change his opinions. His muscles will grow stronger, but also have scars. Lots of legs to the analogy. (Pardon the pun.)

    Ivy, you’re so right — A language changes so much over time that to understand it you do need to translate. I need to go over my guild notes.

  3. Cricket

    Trust my memory to fill in after I hit Post. Most oral stories are shaped so they are easy to remember and tell. Stories written for reading are often hard to tell.

  4. Ivy

    Cricket, I think the term you’re looking for is Mezzuzah. It’s a tiny case posted to all door frames except the bathroom. It holds a phrase from Torah and it’s about 5 or 6 inches long.

  5. Ivy

    Oh, I just got that Rensberg class. I want to start listening to it, but the one on Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind is addicting.

  6. Cricket

    Sounds right. Was a Mary Russell book (by Laurie R. King). When Mary returns to her childhood home, she felt she should do something at the doorway, and couldn’t quite remember what. Holmes, of course, figured it out.

  7. philangelus

    Ivy, take note of how much he simply LOVES the Biblical text.

    The first lecture he sounds so stilted, but it’s much better by lecture three, when he’s comfortable with the mike.

  8. Ivy

    Bob Brier was great with the microphone straight out of the gate when he did his rather exhaustive study of Ancient Egypt. So was the teacher who did the course on sentences, though the content left much to be desired. The teacher I’m listening to now, speaking about fantasy literature, has that friendly voice that makes it seems he’s speaking specifically to each listener, not addressing a crowd. I like that. My only issue with this course is that he makes all the books he talks about sound too tempting.

  9. Amy

    This insight on the Word is so profound. I believe John used this *Word* because it reached out to Greeks as well as Jews — they had an understanding of *The Word* that it was mysterious and approached God, and John wanted to tie it together for them. Or something. It’s boggling to think God is so concerned about us that He will (as in your entry) perpetuate Himself in a form that we can understand.