The Language of God
October 15th, 1967 @ 8:15 AM
THE LANGUAGE OF GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
10-15-67 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Language of God; the language in which God has spoken to us in this Holy Word, The Language of God.
In the second chapter of the Book of Daniel, in the fourth verse it says: “Then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriac” [Daniel 2:4]. And that Syriac is immediately and emphatically noticeable. “Then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriac.” All through the years I have said that there were two languages in which the Bible is written. The New Testament, I have said, is written in Greek and the Old Testament in Hebrew.
And practically everyone who studies the Bible will say just that. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew. The New Testament is written in Greek. That is not true. The New Testament is written in Greek; that is true. All of it is written in Greek. But the Old Testament is written in two languages. It is written mostly in Hebrew, but there are sections of the Old Testament that are written in Aramaic. There are four sections in the Old Testament that are written in Aramaic—where we find Aramaic.
The first is in a verse in Genesis 31:47: “And Laban called it Jegarsahadutha,” that is Aramaic, and “Jacob called it Galeed,” that is Hebrew. And the words in Aramaic and in Hebrew mean the same, “a heap of witness.” And if you remember the context, it was that pile of stones that in the forty-ninth verse they called mizpah, “watchtower,” “The Lord watch between me and thee” [Genesis 31:49]. That is the first instance of the use of Aramaic.
In Jeremiah 10:11, there is a unique phenomenon in the Holy Scriptures; all of Jeremiah is written in Hebrew, but this one verse is written in Aramaic, nor is there any Hebrew original; it was written apparently in Aramaic from the beginning. It is seemingly a word, a sentence, a verse that Jeremiah wrote in Aramaic for his people who are in exile and who are conquered by the Chaldeans, for his people to say when their neighbors invited them to worship their heathen gods. That is the second place in the Bible, in the Hebrew Bible where you find Aramaic [Jeremiah 10:11].
The third section of the Bible that is Aramaic is very large: it comprises one third, at least one third, of the Book of Ezra. Ezra 4, beginning at verse 6, beginning at verse 8, through Ezra 6, verse 18. All of that section is in Aramaic—Ezra 4:8 through Ezra 6:18 is in Aramaic. Then there is another section in Ezra in Aramaic. In the seventh chapter of Ezra from verse 12 through verse 26 is in Aramaic; one third of Ezra is in Aramaic [Ezra 4:8-6:18, 7:12-26]. When we turn to the Book of Daniel, more than one half—a little more than one half—of Daniel is in Aramaic. Daniel 2, verse 4 through Daniel 7, verse 28 to the end of chapter 7, all of that section, a little more than half of Daniel, is in Aramaic [Daniel 2:4-7:28].
Ezra grew up in Babylon. He was in exile. He grew up in the Babylonian captivity, doubtless was born in Babylon. Daniel was taken there in the Babylonian exile when he was a young man [Daniel 1:1, 3-6], consequently the language, the Aramaean language, was second nature to both of them, and both of them drop into its use upon the slightest suggestion: Ezra, when he begins to quote those Aramaic documents in the archives of the Persian kings; and Daniel, when he quotes these frightened Chaldeans.
So there is a language that God speaks in the Bible that is Greek, the New Testament; that is Hebrew, practically all of the Old Testament; but there are large passages in the Old Testament that are Aramaic.
Well, I would like to know, what is Aramaic? And how does it differ from Hebrew? And why is it that part of God’s Bible is written in that language? And why is it that little more than half of Daniel is written in Aramaic? What is Aramaic, and where did it come from?
All right, let us begin with the Aramaean people. In the tenth chapter of Genesis, verse , there are the sons of Shem who are named [Genesis 10:22]. Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth [Genesis 10:1]. Now one of the sons of Shem is called Aram, Aram [Genesis 10:22-23], and his descendants were called Aramaeans, Aramaics, Aramaeans. And the descendants of Aram were the most widely dispersed of all the Semitic people.
When you take the word Shem and make an adjective out of it; they leave out the “h” and make it “Semitic.” When you hear the expression anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish, Semitic, Hebrew is a Semitic language; the Jews are a Semitic people. They are descended from Shem. Now Aram was a son of Shem [Genesis 10:22-23]. And the descendants of Aram were the most widespread, the most multiplied and dispersed of all of the Semitic people. Now the Greeks called the Aramaeans, the descendants of Aram, Syrians.
When the Greeks met these Aramaeans they were subjects of the Assyrian Empire. And the Greeks shortened the name from “Assyrians” to “Syrians.” Consequently, in the Bible, wherever you have the word “Aramaean,” it is translated “Syrian.” My only objection to that is that you have the persuasion that the Aramaeans were just the modern Syrians that are over there in Syria today. That is partly true. The people come from the ancient Syrians, Aramaeans. But it is also not true, for the Aramaeans were far more widespread than the idea of Syria will give to you today. Now those Aramaeans, the Semitic people who descended from Shem and Aram, scattered throughout the great Fertile Crescent, from the mountains of Media, all through the Mesopotamia Valley, all through Phoenicia and Syria, all through Palestine and down to the Nile River. They were a greatly dispersed people.
You come across these Aramaeans, called by that in the Hebrew—you come across those Aramaeans constantly in the Bible. For example, in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis, Abraham calls his servant and says to him, “You are not to take from the daughters of Canaan a wife for my son Isaac, but I am going to send you back to the place where my people came from, and there are you to find a daughter and a wife for my son Isaac” [Genesis 24:2-4]. So the Bible says in the tenth verse, in the twenty-fourth chapter, “And the servant took camels and all those other things and the goods of his master: and he arose, and went to Mesopotamia” [Genesis 24:10]. That’s what it is in your Bible, “And he arose, and went to Mesopotamia.” What the Hebrew is, he arose and went to Aram, Aram-Naharaim, Aram-Naharaim, that is “Aram of the two rivers.” The two rivers are the Tigris and the Euphrates. He sent that servant back to the Aramaeans, to the city of Nahor, the brother of Abraham [Genesis 24:10]. So Abraham’s family was up there and counted among those Aramaeans, and in that place the wife of Isaac was chosen. Her name was Rebekah [Genesis 24:51-61]. “And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah to wife, the daughter of Bethuel,” then you have it translated, “the Syrian” [Genesis 25:20]. The Hebrew is, “the Aramaean, of Padan-aram.” That’s another name for “Aram-naharaim”—Padan-aram— he was an Aramaean of Padan-aram; [Rebekah was] “the sister to Laban the Syrian, the Aramaean” [Genesis 25:20].
And so in the story of Jacob, in the twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Genesis, Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and said, “You are not to take a wife among these Canaanites. Arise, and go to Padan-aram,” that’s that same district, Aram-Naharaim, and “Go there and find you a wife” [Genesis 28:1-2], and there, in the fifth verse, Isaac sent Jacob away: and he went to Padan-aram unto Laban, son of Bethuel [Genesis 28:5], the Syrian, the Aramaean, the brother of Rebekah, Jacob’s and Esau’s mother.
So these Aramaeans lived in that great area through the Mesopotamian valley and were closely related to the Hebrew people. Now beside that Padan-aram, up there in the north of the Mesopotamian valley, another Aramaean country that you hear much of is Aram Damascus, and another one is Aram Soba.
These Aramaic people were one of the most vigorous and unusual to be discovered in all human history. They were shepherds and traders. They had the instinct of travel and trade. They were not like—the shepherds among them were not like the Bedouin Arabs that you see today, but the Aramaeans kept their flocks for sale in the marketplaces of the great cities. There you would always find them. And these Aramaeans were the great merchants and traders, and in their hands was the business and commerce of all the ancient empires; Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, Persian. Their great center of trade in the Mesopotamian valley was Haran, one of the greatest trading centers of the ancient East.
And another other great trading center was Damascus, the only state that they ever controlled and ruled. It’s a strange thing, that great far-spread Aramaean people were never a national, political unit. The only time they ever controlled a state and a city was in Damascus. What the Phoenicians were on the sea the Aramaeans were for land traffic. They were everywhere, trading, buying, selling. They were a commercial and business people.
Now this is what happened in the language habits of that ancient western Asian world, the Near East world. Those Aramaeans were so ubiquitous, they were so everywhere that their language came to be the language of commerce and of business, and finally Aramaic came to be the language of the state, of the government.
When those Assyrian conquerors began to, in their conquests, take all of those nations there in that Fertile Crescent, one of the nations that they conquered was what we know today as Syria, as Damascus. And they took a great many thousands of those Aramaeans in Damascus and transplanted them over there in Assyria.
Now there were already many, many of those Aramaeans already in Assyria. And those conquerors added to the number of Aramaeans in Assyria. And what happened was the Aramaeans conquered the Assyrians in their language, and the Aramaic became the state language of Assyria. It displaced the language of the Assyrians themselves. And the means of communication between Nineveh and the Assyrian government and all of their provinces was Aramaic.
For example, in the eighteenth chapter of 2 Kings, verse 26, Rabshakeh for Sennacherib is beseeching Jerusalem. And the Rabshakeh of the Assyrian army talks to the people, the Jewish people, who they are beseeching on the wall, trying to get them to surrender the city. And the Rabshakeh was talking to the people on the wall of Jerusalem in the Jews’ language. And Eliakim said to the Rabshakeh, “Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the” and you have it “the Syrian language. Speak to thy servants, I pray thee, in Aramaic, in Aramaic, for we understand it. And talk not with us in the Jews’ language, in Hebrew” [2 Kings 18:26]. “We don’t want the people in Jerusalem to know what you are saying so speak to us in the language of diplomacy and of commerce. We understand it but don’t talk to us in the language of the Jews” [2 Kings 18:26]. Do you see? Aramaic was understood by all of the high officials in the civilized world, and Aramaic was the language of Assyria in all of her administrative conquests, and it could not be understood by the Jews [2 Kings 18:26].
Well, what is the difference between Aramaic and Hebrew? It is like this. The Romance languages of French and Italian come from Latin. But a Frenchman cannot understand an Italian, and an Italian cannot understand a Frenchman, unless they learn each other’s language. Same way about the Germanic languages of English and German. An Englishman cannot understand a German, and a German cannot understand an Englishman unless they have learned each other’s language. It was that between Aramaic and Hebrew.
Doubtless, Abraham spoke Aramaic when he left Ur and went to Haran, and from Haran came down to Palestine [Genesis 11:31]. But in Palestine he began to speak Caananitic Hebrew. And the people in Palestine, the common people, could not understand Aramaic. But Aramaic was the language that the officials understood, and it became the language of diplomacy of the Assyrian Empire [2 Kings 18:26].
Now when the Assyrian Empire was followed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Aramaic continued to be the official language of the Babylonian Empire. They have dug up, for example, these cuneiform tablets, and they will be business contracts between men in Babylon, businessmen in Babylon. And on the back side of those cuneiform tablets you will find the labels in Aramaic so that the clerks could easily discover them and classify them. The language of the Babylonian Empire, that polyglot people who lived in Babylon, and those provinces they administered, that language was Aramaic.
All right, the Babylonian Empire was followed by the Persian Empire, and Aramaic became also the official language of the Persian Empire. When those administrators of the great far-flung Persian Empire that included practically all of the civilized world, when the language of the Persian Empire was used to administer all of those far-flung provinces, they used Aramaic.
So Aramaic, the speech of these Aramaean people, these traders, these commerce men, these businessmen, became the official language of the Assyrian Empire. It continued to be the official language of the Babylonian Empire, and it continued, amazement of amazement, to be the official language of the Persian Empire. Now that leads us down to the Jewish exiles.
The Jewish exiles were taken to Babylon in the Babylon captivity. And a thing happened that is one of the wonders to me of the world. The Babylonian exiles, the Jews over there in exile, in captivity in Babylon, in order to speak to their non-Jewish neighbors, learned Aramaic. So in 538, when Cyrus the Persian captured Babylon and gave the Jews the right to return home to Jerusalem [Ezra 1:1-4], when the Jew returned to Palestine, there were two things: one, when he returned to Palestine, he came back speaking two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic. Now Hebrew continued the living language of the people for awhile, because Haggai and Zechariah and Malachi spoke in Hebrew and wrote their prophecies in Hebrew, so we know that Hebrew continued for awhile, the Hebrew language, because the prophets spoke and delivered their prophecies in Hebrew.
But not only did the Jews also know another language, Aramaic, but when they returned to Palestine they found Aramaic a language spoken in their country. We don’t know when this happened, but somewhere in that post-exilic period, as Aramaic had displaced Assyrian as the language of the nation, and as Aramaic displaced Babylonian as the language of the nation, and as Aramaic displaced Persian as the language of the nation, Aramaic displaced Hebrew as the language of the Hebrew people. Now can you imagine that? To me that is one of the most unusual phenomena in all of history. Aramaic displaced Hebrew as the spoken language of the Hebrew people, and the people of Palestine forgot their Hebrew speech and everywhere spoke Aramaic.
What an astonishing thing! For example, when I turn to Nehemiah chapter 8, verse 8, when Ezra opened the Bible all the people stood up, “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people . . . and when he opened it, all the people stood up and they blessed the Lord” [Nehemiah 8:5-6]. And then he names these men, when they read the Bible they caused the people to understand it [Nehemiah 8:7]. “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly” [Nehemiah 8:8], now that doesn’t mean with the tip of the teeth and with fine enunciation, the Hebrew of that word means they read in the Law of God, and translated it and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. When they read the Hebrew Bible they translated it into Aramaic so all the people could understand it [Nehemiah 8:8]. So in the years that followed in that post-exilic period, first, the Hebrew Bible was not read by the people in Hebrew; they couldn’t understand Hebrew. So they made what the Jewish people called targums, and targums are the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Aramaic.
All right, another thing; all of the Hebrew Bibles were written in Aramaic script. There is no such thing in the world, nor has there been for thousands of years, of a Hebrew Bible written in Hebrew characters, Hebrew script. All of the Hebrew Bibles were written in Aramaic script, and you’ve been taught all your life that we got our alphabet from the Phoenicians. That is not true! Practically all of the alphabets of the civilized world have come from the alphabet of the Aramaean people.
All right, another thing; and the Talmud is written in Aramaic, not in Hebrew. The Babylonian Talmud is written in Babylonian Aramaic and the Palestinian Talmud is written in Palestinian Aramaic; and finally, Jesus spoke in Aramaic.
In the New Testament, in Mark 5:41, “And Jesus took the damsel, the daughter of Jairus, by the hand, and said unto her Talitha cumi ; which is Aramaic for Maiden, arise” [Mark 5:41]. Then I turn the page, and He is healing a blind man here in the seventh chapter of the Book of Mark, and He looks up to heaven, and He says to the blind man, “Ephphatha, Ephphatha,” which is Aramaic for “Be opened” [Mark 7:34]. And in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Mark “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying “Eli, Eli,” or as Mark has it, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” [Mark 15:34]—Aramaic, Jesus spoke Aramaic.
And in the first Corinthian letter, chapter 16, verse 22, the apostle Paul writes, “Maranatha, Maranatha” that is Aramaic for “He is coming” [1 Corinthians 16:22]. And in the Book of Acts, Paul stands on the steps of the tower of Antonio and speaks unto the people, and you have it in your King James Version, “in the Hebrew tongue” [Acts 22:1-2]. He spoke to the people in Aramaic. And when he talks about his conversion, Paul says that when he saw the Lord on the road to Damascus that the Lord spoke to him in, and the King James version says, “in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” [Acts 26:14] Jesus spoke to Saul in the Aramaic language.
That’s why I’ve entitled this sermon The Language of God. When the Lord spoke to Paul, He spoke to him in Aramaic. And when the Lord lived in the days of His flesh, He spoke and preached in Aramaic. Now don’t look at me as though you knew every syllable of this, every syllable of this. You just knew all of that from the beginning. I never have been more surprised in my life than I have been in studying the languages of the Book of Daniel.
Now we must hastily close for our time is gone. Can you believe I have been preaching to you for about forty minutes? It seems to me it goes just like that. Just about the time you get started good.
All right; what does this mean for Daniel? As I started to begin with, as I said, the Book of Daniel, little more than half of it is in that Aramaic language [Daniel 2:4-7:28]. Now what does that mean? Well, it could mean three things. And it certainly means one of them.
First: it could mean that there are two authors, that Daniel is not “by Daniel,” as some of these critics say; but is written by two different authors, at least, and maybe others, but written by two. But why cannot that suggestion be accepted? Simply because where it quits off in Hebrew and begins in Aramaic, you are right in the middle of a story, of a narrative that continues on unbroken. And it would be impossible to think that one author wrote this far in Hebrew and then the other one wrote in Aramaic.
Then another thing, the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel is in Aramaic. The eighth chapter is in Hebrew. But those two chapters go together, and the style and syntax and nomenclature and expression and idiom and content, all of it is the same whether it is written in Hebrew or whether it is written in Aramaic. Nor can you say that there are two authors in this book because the Book of Daniel is divided right in half, the first six chapters are historical and the last six chapters are prophetic. And you can’t divide it there either because chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel is paralleling chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel. There is one author to this book, for sure and for certain. And whether he writes in Aramaic or whether he writes in Hebrew he is the same writer, he is the same man. So there are not two authors.
All right, the second thing that it might be; there could have been a lacuna, a gap, a hiatus in the manuscript. And if it was originally written in the Hebrew then they filled in that lacuna, that gap, with Aramaic. Or if it was originally written in Aramaic then they filled it in with Hebrew. Now that could be true, of course. But apparently, from the beginning, the Book of Daniel was written part in Hebrew and part in Aramaic. For example, when they discovered in those Dead Sea Scrolls the Book of Isaiah, and fragments of the Book of Daniel in those Dead Sea Scrolls—that take the manuscripts back to the second century BC—where it is Hebrew in our modern Bible, it is Hebrew in that fragment. And where it is Aramaic in our Bible, it is Aramaic in that fragment. So it seems that from the beginning it was written, as it is here, part in Hebrew and part in Aramaic.
Well then, what is the third suggestion? If it was not two authors and if it was not a gap in the manuscript that was filled in by an Aramaic translation, then what is it? All right, this is what I think, and men who love God’s Book, what we think happened: Daniel was bilingual. His Hebrew was beautiful, like the Hebrew of his fellow exile Ezekiel. And his Aramaic is the Aramaic of the court; sometimes it is referred to as official Aramaic; sometimes as literary Aramaic; sometimes as imperial Aramaic. And Daniel was bilingual. He was a Hebrew and that was his mother tongue, but as a diplomat and as minister in the government, as I told you very carefully, the language of the state and of the administration was Aramaic. So what Daniel did was this: the parts of the Book of Daniel that have to do especially with the Hebrew people, he wrote in Hebrew; and the part of the Book of Daniel that has to do with the Gentile nations and the Gentile peoples, he wrote in Aramaic. And the great sweep of his visions that have to do with the times of the Gentiles, he wrote in the Gentile tongue and the Gentile languages of those Gentile nations of Assyria and Babylonia and Persia. And he wrote in Aramaic, and I would think for a very practical reason; when he wrote in Hebrew for his own people he was writing for the Jew. But when he wrote of the great sweep of the empires, and of God’s sovereignty in the governments of the world, he wrote in Aramaic, in order that the peoples of those nations and provinces could understand what it is that God said to them; which is a reminder to me that God wants us to know the sweep of His sovereign will.
We are not to live beclouded and confused, nor ever defeated and in despair. God wills for us that we see with clear and perfect vision His hand in the destiny of the nations. And that is why Daniel wrote in Aramaic; that the nations and the diplomats and the ministers of the governments of the world might understand the sovereign will and grace and mercies of our living God. All these things capture my very soul.
Well, you got you a song to sing? We must sing it now. And while we sing the song, a family you, to put your life in the church [Hebrews10:24-25]; one somebody you, to give himself to Jesus [Romans 10:8-13]; a couple you, to come forward, “Here I am, pastor, and here I come this morning.” In this balcony, around on this lower floor, you come and stand by me. “Here I am, pastor, and here I come.” Do it now, on the first note of the first stanza. Make it this morning, while we stand and while we sing.