The Majesty of Multiple Meanings

October 2021

Translation is a difficult thing. Not only is the translator trying to convey the literal meaning of what is being expressed in the source language, but a good translator will also try to capture the emotion and emphasis of the original in the target language. As a result, the translation will sometimes sound rather different to the original writer, but the reader of the translation will understand what the author meant on multiple levels. What is most difficult, though, is when a word has a breadth of meaning that does not exist in the target language. Oh yes, the translator might be able to circumscribe it, but to get the full richness of what the author intended to express, the reader has to be able to dive back into the original language.

The more I study the Bible, the more I wonder how much of the deeper meanings we miss. There are so many puns, wordplays, and multiple meanings embedded in the text that I don’t envy the task of the translators; especially when they are dealing with poetry, which makes up over half of the Old Testament! The New Testament, too, has many words that can go in a multitude of directions when translated (judging by the footnotes and my own weak grasp of biblical Greek). As I am a polyglot, I have recently begun to wonder if the Divine Author, through the means of the skilled individuals He inspired, did not specifically choose words that convey a breadth of meaning he intended; a breadth of meaning that gets lost in translation and that is quarreled over by translators and commentators.

The Old Testament is full of double and triple meanings. Psalm 100:3 is a good example, “He made us and we are his” (HCSB), where the Hebrew for “we are his” is lo’ anaḥnu. The problem is that much like “right” and “rite” sound identical, the homonyms lo and lo’ (the apostrophe is important; it changes the meaning!) can mean either “his” or “not”, so the footnote proclaims, “not we ourselves”1. Yes, the translators had to figure out which meaning is primary; but what if the psalmist meant both meanings? It would have been initially chanted aloud, so you would have to pick your meaning. This is poetry after all; and the glory of poetry is the management of multi-layered meaning in order to twist thought and engage emotion.

John does a similar thing in John 1:5, when he writes, “That light shines in the darkness and yet the darkness has not overcome it” (HCSB). The word “overcome” is katalambano in the Greek, which my lexicon tells me can mean “seize, grasp, attain, make one’s own, take possession”2.. Thankfully the footnote tells us these alternate meanings, too. What if John, in this poetic description of Christ’s advent, was actually trying to pack the multiple meanings of katalambano into his description of the darkness’s violent assault against the light? It is trying to overwhelm, understand, grasp, and envelop the light, making it its own; but utterly failing to do so. What a magnificent image of violence failing against Christ’s peace-filled presence!

As I dig into the Word,  I am struck by the multiple meanings and puns embedded in it. It brings out a richness in the Bible as literature. Paul uses words and phrases that we fight over because they can mean more than one thing in English. My father contends that punning is divine humor. Most names in the Old Testament, and some in the New, are puns:  “Israel” can mean both “he who struggles with God” and “he who reigns with God”, depending on how we interpret the root sr in the center of the name; in the New Testament Saul, “the honored one”, becomes Paul, “the lowly one”; and the Savior is called Jesus, the Greek for Joshua: “Yahweh is salvation”. Double meanings abound, pushing verses in different directions. I believe that God desires us to dig into his word, plumbing its depths, seeking out the double meanings and pondering over them, so we can know Him, the unknowable better.

As a translator myself, I respect and understand the difficult decisions that must be made to render the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek in another language; but I also sometimes weep as the translators obscure the richness of the original text and hide the multifaceted glory of God through their choices. It is a catch twenty-two; but God is gracious and there are many tools, such as Logos Bible Software, that can allow even a layperson to plumb the depths of God’s word and enjoy the majesty of the multiple meanings in Scripture.

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  • 1. In addition, there is some disagreement among the extant Hebrew manuscripts as to what is the proper spelling in the original text.
  • 2. B. Siede, “Λαμβάνω,” ed. Lothar Coenen, Erich Beyreuther, and Hans Bietenhard, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), 747