Skip to content

The Reading of the Word


This week’s lesson is brought to us by Good Word from Walla Walla. To listen to the audio conversation, please visit the Good Word website.

Leading question: In an age when reading seems to be less important, can the example of long hours of reading make a difference for good in today’s world.? Nehemiah 8 is a remarkable chapter that features long hours of the public reading of Scripture. Four key issues are worth exploring here: 1) What are the gains and losses that come from the interruption of hard work for the public reading of Scripture? 2) To what extent is the public reading of Scripture in Nehemiah’s day comparable to the “oral” model for the modern Contemporary English Version, the first modern version to be heard by the ear? 3) How does one know when to weep or rejoice when seeking the Lord? 4) This event was triggered by lay people: Is that model for today?

Questions: Nehemiah 8 suggests that the returned Jews dropped all their other activities to spend several mornings in the public reading of Scripture.

* What were the real benefits of such a dramatic break in the work routine?

* Does the Sabbath represent the same kind of break from our work routine? Would it have the same kind of positive benefit.

Questions: The public reading of Scripture appears to be something unique. These questions come to mind:

*Could this form of public worship be made into a “habit”?

* In our day a recent Bible translation, the Contemporary English Version, is the first translation designed to be heard by the ear. Has the electronic explosion changed the social situation enough to make the Bible Society’s rationale obsolete? If everyone has their Bible on their cell phone, what does that mean for the “unifying” role of the reading of Scripture?

* What are the plusses and minuses of having the Bible on our phones?

Questions: In Nehemiah 8, the people wept when they heard the reading of Scripture. Nehemiah rebuked them and told them that it was time to rejoice. These questions present themselves:

* When is it appropriate for a church leader to call the people to account for their emotional reactions to the reading of Scripture?

* Is it possible to “command” our emotions to take a different course?

* If nearly a half of the psalms in our Bibles are laments/complaints, what does that suggest about modern forms of “be happy” religion? Was Nehemiah the forerunner of the prosperity Gospel and all its feel-good offspring?

Questions: In Nehemiah 8, the public reading of Scripture was instigated by lay people. There is no recorded rebuke of Ezra and Nehemiah, but these questions come to mind:

* Is there an implied rebuke of the leaders when the laity took the lead?

* Is this chapter a model for the church today when the leaders seem to have neglected their proper role?

* In Adventism, a crucial turning point for the church was the year 1888. Are there points of contact between 1888 and Nehemiah 8 represented by this EGW quote?

Peter exhorts his brethren to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” [2 Pet. 3:18]. Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end. But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God’s word and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative and seek to avoid discussion.

The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God's people should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition and worship they know not what. (Testimonies 5:706-707 [1889]; also in GW 297-98 and CWE 38-39])

Questions: Nehemiah 8:8 is generally seen by biblical scholars as a clear example of the development of the “targum,” an Aramaic paraphrase of the Hebrew Scriptures. The people could no longer understand Hebrew, since it was no longer the spoken language of the returned exiles. In Jesus’ day the everyday language was “Aramaic,” not Hebrew. A few phrases of Aramaic are included as transliterations of the original Hebrew. When Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter for example, his words were transliterated (as well as translated): “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’” (Mark 10:41, NRSV). Interestingly enough, when Luke tells the same story, he drops the transliteration of the Aramaic and only gives us the translation: “But he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’” (Luke 8:41, NRSV). All that gives rise to these questions:

* Could the difference between Luke and Mark help resolve the differences between those who want only the KJV and those who want a modern translation?

* Does the turn to Aramaic in Nehemiah 8:8, link up with the two versions of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 10, Luke 8) in such a way as to justify both the use of the “formal equivalent” translations (KJV and its many offspring: (e.g., RV, RSV, NRSV, AV, NASB, NKJV, ESV), those that seek to stay as close to the language of the author’s day, and the “dynamic equivalent” translations, those that seek to adapt to the language of the receptor readers (e.g. NIV, CEV, Message, NLT)?

Alden Thompson includes in his original piece on Good Word, a sequence of three articles on Bible translations, originally published in the NPUC Gleaner which you can read here. Nehemiah 8:8 raises the kinds of questions that this cluster seeks to address.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.