When I was seven years old and in elementary school we started learning French and I was completely in heaven. The things that I loved then and that I have always loved when learning a new language were learning the conjugations and vocabulary. Everything sorting itself out like a jigsaw puzzle which I also love. French lessons just flowed for me – I had a feeling of this is right and this is not right. So, I studied French for ten years, all the way through finishing high school. I did Latin for ten years at school too. I could only do two languages at a time but somehow at some point when I was in high school I also got to do some German and some classical Greek and a bit of Italian. Whenever anyone offered me a chance to learn another language I was always, “Yes, I will do it.’
After majoring in Russian studies in University I spent time working in France and became fluent once again. Then when I was close to forty I picked up a bible for the first time in ages and the first thing I think is, ”HMMM, I wonder what it says in the original?” That is what came to me. So, a few years go by and I eventually end up in seminary when I was forty-five. I was going to do two years of a master’s degree, I didn’t even really know what a master’s degree was, but it seemed like a good idea. I would get to learn Greek and Hebrew and sort out a bit of theology and then I thought I would go back to work.
As it happened I spent ten years in seminary and grad school. I was completely hooked. In seminary, I did Greek. They would cram the whole of your first year of language into six weeks. So, you were completely immersed in it. I did biblical Greek. It was great, it was a blast. I hadn’t studied a language for over twenty years and I was completely overjoyed with it. But I will say that learning Greek didn’t make a large difference in the way I saw the New Testament.
Then came the second summer and Hebrew studies. The first day of Hebrew we came to class having learned the alphabet. That was a pre-requirement. The teacher flashes up on the board a photo copy of the Hebrew bible and had us read it. And we read it and he had us sound out the part of the story of the binding of Isaac. We sounded it out, “Take your son. Your only son. The one you love. Isaac.” It took us about ten minutes to sound this out and by the end of it I was crying. I mean, you can read that and people do all the time and you just gloss over it. But when you read it that slow – I saw the enormity of it and that God said it in four different ways so that there could be no doubt in Abraham’s mind who God was talking about. That was day one. By day two the entire seminary knew that Liz Gilson was studying Hebrew. I was just so excited that I was sharing with everyone I met. Because I was completely, completely in love with it and every single day in class the teacher would have us translate something or show us something or talk about a particular word that had been mistranslated over the centuries and it just blew me out of the water. From that time to this I have never seen the Old Testament the same way.
So, here is a copy of a page of my Hebrew bible. It is Psalm 121 and it happens – I have just been reading it again this week – there is one word that appears six times in that psalm. But only in the Hebrew. In English, it doesn’t. The word in Hebrew is “shamar” it means to protect, to care for, to guard, to keep in safety. I had always been told that the reason the Old Testament was so boring was because those old Hebrews just didn’t have a large vocabulary. What I discovered was that Hebrew is an incredibly rich language and that the Old Testament is full of plays on words and fun things with language and the juxtaposition of chapters and verses and passages and even books is completely intentional. I had never seen it before. And to this day, if they want someone to read at church, I always say, “Please let me read the Old Testament.” Because I can hear and be reminded what is happening in the Hebrew.