Lost In Translation: Lech – Lecha

Lech Lecha is one of the most amazing portions in the whole Torah, and it’s definitely one of my favorites. One can speak endlessly about these chapters, in fact, I wrote an entire book on them[1], but since this year’s comments on Parashot Shavua go under the title “Lost in translation” that’s what we will do here. I want to show you how many additional details we can gather in Hebrew – even in the chapter that you’ve probably read many times.

The famous chapter 12 of the book of Genesis, where the story of Abraham begins, opens with the famous words of God to Abraham: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you.” Generations of rabbis, preachers, and regular students of Scripture have been impressed, encouraged, and inspired by these words. Do you know, however, what the literal meaning of these words is in Hebrew?

In Hebrew, God says to Abraham, “Lech Lecha”,  which is usually translated as “Get out”, but this is not the exact meaning of these words.  “Lech” means “Go” – so it would be enough to say “Lech” in order to send Abraham on his mission. Why then is God saying “Lech Lecha”? What does this “Lecha” mean? This is the question our sages ask: Why, instead of just saying, “Lech”- Go – did God have to say “Lech Lecha”?

They came up with several answers to this question, but there is a particular one that I love the most. “Lecha” means “to you”, therefore, “Lech lecha” might be read as “go to yourself”. This is what God says to every one of us through these words: Lech Lecha, go to yourself, go inside yourself! Even those who are not called to leave their home or land, God sends on this inward journey of faith: go to yourself – towards your soul’s essence, towards your ultimate purpose, to that precious inner land that you don’t know yet – but I know and I will lead you there!

The blessing and the curse

God promises Abraham that He will bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. It is a famous promise indeed – but does it say more in Hebrew than in translation?

The Hebrew word for “blessing” braha ( ברכה ) has an interesting etymology. The traditional explanation derives it from the root berech (ברך), “knee”: one has to kneel in order to receive a blessing; one needs some humility in order to be blessed. One needs to recognize and admit that he is not self-sufficient, that he needs God’s help, that he needs His blessing.

We see it many times in the Bible – this rise from humility (and sometimes even humiliation) to blessing: for example, Joseph was humiliated: first by his brothers, then by his master’s wife, he was then in prison for a long time, but after all that, God blessed him in an amazing, almost incredible way. I imagine that Joseph was on his knees more than once during these long years of humiliation. And even though we understand that it’s not the posture of the body but the attitude of the heart that counts, this connection between “kneeling” and “blessing” is extremely profound in the Hebrew word.

The strong meaning of the negative part is also lost in translation. The first word for “curse”מְקַלֶּלְךָ  (mekalelcha) means “to make light of something heavy”. The second word for “curse”אָאֹר  (aor) comes from a completely different root that means something like “to destroy”. Therefore, we could translate God’s promise in this way: “I will bless those who will humbly serve you, and I will destroy those who take you lightly”.

A geographical or spiritual journey?

The next thing that happens in Genesis 12 is Abraham going down to Egypt. What did it mean for him to go to Egypt at that time? What is the message of this name in Hebrew, and what would it mean to a Hebrew audience?

Egypt was called Musuru, Misir or Masri in several languages—and Mizraim might simply be a transliteration into Hebrew of any of these names. However, let’s try to understand how a Hebrew audience might have interpreted the name Mizraim. The word מצרים looks like a dual form of the Hebrew root מצר (metsar). What does this root mean?

The wordמצר  (metsar) means trouble: distress, pain, strait. In a dual form, it would form the word מצרים, Mizraim, and would therefore mean double distress, or double trouble. For instance, in Lamentations 1:3, the very word mizraim, מצרים occurs with the meaning of “distress[es]” and with no connection to Egypt. Therefore this is probably what the word “Mizraim” would have meant to a Hebrew audience:[2] For Israelites, to go down to Egypt would mean distress and trouble. And yet, it is to Egypt that Abram goes down in Genesis 12! Why?

Scripture doesn’t portray Abram as a flawless hero of faith, as a spiritual superman. Right after the incredible act of unreserved and complete obedience, just when he arrives in the Land, Abram goes down to Egypt to escape the famine. I am not even sure that this little trip was approved by the Lord in the first place, but the Scriptures say nothing about that. Yet while in Egypt, out of fear for his life, he does something that it is very difficult for us to justify or understand: He passes off his wife as his sister. “Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you”.[3]

What a strange story – but this is the beauty of the Bible, which never tries to embellish the people it describes. Should Abram have gone to Egypt? Was it God’s will that he went down to Egypt? Probably, God’s perfect will was to trust Him. However, this going down to Egypt and lying about his wife exposed Abram’s lack of trust, which needed to be dealt with. Maybe, he would never have reached the heights of obedience and trust in the Lord that he did, if he had not gone through this painful Egyptian experience.

And now – the “lost in translation” part. Remarkably, we find this spiritual journey reflected in the Hebrew names. Right after Abram’s Egyptian experience, we find him wandering “between Beth-El and Ai”.[4]  In English, these names mean nothing, but in Hebrew, they might be read as very profound spiritual landmarks: Abraham was between “Beth- El” – the “House of God”[5] … and “Ai” – “Heap of ruins”![6]  We don’t see this spiritual journey in the English text, but it is clearly reflected in these Hebrew names. And if we recognize these landmarks and this journey, Abraham’s faith and obedience become even more precious after this story.  Now we know, beyond any shadow of doubt that he is no superman; that he has his own weaknesses and fears; that by nature he is neither very courageous nor very brave; that sometimes he probably felt like a “Heap of Ruins”. However, he chose the “House of God”—he chose his love for God, and he chose to live by faith. And because of this faith, he became an amazing person and did incredible things for the Lord, never using his emotions or fears as an excuse.

 

 

[1]Abraham had Two Sons”

[2] See Jones’ Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names

[3] Genesis 12:13

[4] Genesis 13:3

[5] Bethel = “house of God”

[6] Ai or Hai = “heap of ruins”

 

If this article whets your appetite for the Hebrew insights into the book of Genesis, you might be interested to read my book  “Abraham had two sons”. To get this or my other books, click here. As always,  I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding  eTeacher  wonderful courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com)

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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