As I near the end of my seminary studies, I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to go as far as I could at Asbury in all three of the original Biblical languages. It’s taken a lot of time and eaten up a lot of credit hours, but…What’s that? You say you thought there were only two Biblical languages? You thought the Bible was only written in Hebrew and Greek? Well, I’m not surprised, since most people are unaware that a third language even exists. At least you didn’t think it was written entirely in King James English. (You didn’t, did you…?) Almost ten entire chapters of our Bible (and a couple random NT phrases) are written in a third language which has largely been forgotten. Today I’ll do my part to change that.
Today is now Aramaic Awareness Day! (I would call it National Aramaic Awareness Day, but I don’t have that kind of power.)
I’ve always heard of the proverbial “redheaded stepchild,” but I don’t think I’ve ever met one. Not one that was redheaded anyways. The redheaded stepchild is that unfortunate little kid who lives with a stepfather or stepmother who doesn’t want them. Think Cinderella, but for some reason she is a ginger.
The redheaded stepchild is pushed back into the shadows, never given the nice toys that the blood children receive, never allowed the same opportunities to flourish or experience the world. The redheaded stepchild is forgotten, which is sad since they have just as much worth as the favored children. (Of course they do; gingers are awesome!)
Aramaic is a redheaded stepchild. Most people don’t even know it exists. And big stepbrother Hebrew likes to push it down in the dirt and give it swirlies. I remember the day I found out there was a third Biblical language. I was amazed that I didn’t already know that fact, but how could I know? Aramaic is hidden in the shadows, out of view for most of us in the western church.
In reality, Aramaic plays a much bigger role in our history than these ten chapters of the Bible account for. Aramaic is a sort of cousin language of Hebrew, originally spoken by the Arameans to the north. It looks like Hebrew, it sounds like Hebrew, but it’s definitely not Hebrew. The two languages have their own set of rules with some shared vocabulary and some vocabulary all their own.
Aramaic wasn’t all that important until it became the lingua franca of the entire Middle East under the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires. These empires used the language in all official business and spread it wherever they extended the outer boundaries of their land. It didn’t take long until that included Israel. By the time the exile was over, the Jews had been immersed in a culture that used Aramaic on the international level, and it eventually stuck.
As a result, we have some Aramaic showing up in some of our latest OT writings. In Ezra we find an exchange of several letters between the people in Jerusalem and the Persian kings. As you would now expect, these are written in Aramaic, the official language of the empire.
But it is in Daniel where Aramaic really takes off. Six entire chapters of Daniel (2-7) are written in Aramaic. This block of scripture contains some of the most well-known stories in the OT: Daniel and the lion’s den, the fiery furnace, the writing on the wall, Nebuchadnezzar’s two dreams, and Daniel’s prophecy of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. None of these stories are written in Hebrew. We can thank Aramaic for some of the more frightening Bible stories of our childhood.
In the centuries between the testaments, Aramaic virtually replaced Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jewish people. Even after Alexander came through and Greek became the lingua franca of the Mediterranean, Aramaic persisted, so that Jesus taught with Aramaic as his first language. The Gospels are written in Greek, of course, but every once in a while some Aramaic will slip through.
MENE MENE TEKEL UPARSIN (the writing in the wall) is Aramaic. Hosanna and Abba are Aramaic words as well. Even Jesus’ cry from the cross, Eli, eli, lema sabachthani, is Aramaic.
Aramaic spans from the latter days of the Old Testament into the time of Christ, bridging that Intertestamental period for us. It gets us from Hebrew to Greek, and while it leaves little trace in our Bible, it is a witness to some of the most turbulent times and events that lead us right up to the foot of the cross. It brings us through a nationwide identity crisis that many Christians are ignorant of today, but which is crucial for us to understand if we want to understand the world of Jesus.
When the Jews came back from the exile speaking Aramaic, they were faced with some tough questions: Were they still a unique people, set apart by God to spread his kingdom throughout the world? Could they still be considered God’s kingdom now that they had Persian (or Greek, or Roman) overlords? Did Yahweh still reign over all the earth in spite of all that had happened? Had they bought into a lie?
The stories of Daniel point to the answers of these questions. As I have translated the Aramaic, I have found that almost every passage ends with the assertion that, no matter how things look from down here, God is still in control. The kings of Babylon and Persia seem secure in their power, but behind the scenes, Yahweh is still the Lord of History. He knows what is going on; he is alert, he is determined, and he is working to save people, his people and everyone else.
And so we find these words coming out of Nebuchadnezzar’s mouth after he sees three men come out of a furnace, “I bless the Most High God…whose reign is an eternal reign, and whose kingdom is from generation to generation.” (Daniel 4:31)
Darius makes a similar proclamation after he sees Daniel come out of the lion’s den without a scratch, “Daniel’s God is the Living God, who stands forever; his kingdom will never be destroyed, and his reign is unto the end.” (Daniel 6:27)
Even Daniel, after his vision of the Son of Man, writes, “His kingdom is an eternal kingdom, and every dominion will serve and worship him.” (Daniel 7:27)
Eternal kingdom? Eternal reign? All people will serve and worship him? It sure didn’t look like it at the time. But looks can be deceiving. These were statements of faith written at a time when, from human perspective, it didn’t seem like Yahweh even was on the throne, let alone ruling over a kingdom that would ever end. Aramaic preserves not just these words but also this attitude for us today.
Sometimes I need to catch this attitude when I become frustrated by what I hear in the news on a daily basis. Sometimes I need to be reminded that God is still and always will be on the throne. Sometimes even translating the redheaded stepchild of Biblical languages can be devotional.