In the current May 2012 issue of the Adoremus Bulletin, Professor David Lyle Jeffrey offers a lengthy essay regarding the mutiplicity of Bible translations. He pays particular attention to the successes and failures in maintaining the “spiritual sense” of Scripture – especially in our more contemporary translations.
Of particular note for those of us considering the tradition of Catholic sacred architecture is the following passage, in which he identifies the loss or veiling of original meaning by the various translations with regard to the heart of Bezalel and the design and craft of the Tabernacle in the wilderness.
. . . Let me, for the sake of brevity, offer just a few contemporary examples in which distinctively sacral language in Holy Scripture is misrepresented, and then move on to some suggestions about how we might begin to think constructively about this problem… [which] is precisely the point at issue: sacral acts and terms, as given in Scripture, are often offered explicitly as a divine gift, a naming of signs and things by the Lord himself.
The Giftedness of a Wise Heart
About half of the Book of Exodus is devoted to God’s instructions to Moses concerning the erection and furnishing of a place for worship. The sanctuary, or “tent of meeting” as it is later called, will contain the Holy of Holies, the reserved inner sanctum, as we say, wherein God promises to reside—to be present—in a distinctive and mysterious way. The presence of the most holy God, clearly something invisible, was nevertheless to be signified and framed by visible signs of his holiness, visible signals of the invisible God. God tells Moses that he will need the services of an artist to render the tabernacle, in all of its furniture and adornments, suitably holy in this sense.
The association of beauty with holiness (later made explicit in 1 Chr. 16:28–9; Ps. 29:2) begins right here. Not just anybody can craft the altar, or the ark. Moses is told to call on “Bezalel, son of Uri,” who is said to be “wise-hearted” (chokma-lev: Ex. 31:6). Bezalel’s name, as so often is the case in Hebrew, foreshadows the overall spiritual significance of the passage (it means “in the shadow of God”). God goes on to tell Moses that Bezalel has been called by God, and has been filled “with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works” (3–4). Moreover, God continues, “in the hearts of all those that are wise-hearted I have put wisdom” (6). This charism of giftedness is present in Bezalel’s chosen assistants as well: “all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands” (35:25); indeed also “every wise-hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom and understanding” (36:1–2).
I have been quoting here, as my reader may have guessed, from the KJV, which has translated the unusual term chokma-lev (for which there is no precise English equivalent) in a characteristically literal way. To make the heart the seat of wisdom is, of course, very Hebraic. But to distinguish in this way chokma-lev, “wise-hearted” from chokma, “wisdom” simpliciter is, in the Hebrew, to draw attention to spiritual giftedness and vocation; those chosen to create the art of the tabernacle are deemed worthy not because they are known to be crafty, but because they have been Spirit-filled, gifted by God himself for artistic work fitted to the beauty of holiness.
Now let us consider what happens to chokma-lev in representative modern translations. The NIV, NAB and NASB render chokma-lev as “skill,” the ESV has “ability,” the New Living Translation has “expertise,” The Message has “aptitude for crafts.” In all these cases, what has been lost in translation is nothing less than the main point—the sacral, sacramental element of divine giftedness, which in this passage is presented as intrinsically necessary to a holy work and worship. In the Hebrew text, Bezalel, Aholiab, and their colleagues are chosen to build and adorn the tabernacle precisely because they have been granted the prerequisite spiritual gift. Any reduction of chokma-lev to a term of mere material affect muffles the spiritual significance of this special artistry in a particularly dismal way. If we may shift to Greek to say so, what we have left on the page of most modern translations is all techné and no logos.
Interestingly, the only other text in the Hebrew Scriptures that makes use of chokma-lev is 1 Kings 3:12, in which God honors Solomon’s wise request for the gift of wisdom (chokma) by granting him something greater, a lev chakam, a wise heart. Solomon, too, we should note, has been chosen to build a sanctuary for the Lord.
The article is available at Touchstone Magazine where it was originally published in March of this year. The version published in the Adoremus Bulletin should be available at the Adoremus website in June.