Thursday, December 6, 2012

Oh Say, What is Truth?

The thirty-second chapter of 2 Chronicles begins with an odd statement:

And after these things and this truth (ἀλήθειαν) came Sennacherib, king of the Assyrians, and he came against Judah. (2 Chronicles 31:1)
This is an odd statement to make. Any Greek reader would be struck by the strange turn of phrase. It is not the kind of thing that would appear in a Greek historical narrative.

The Chronicler has just spent two chapters describing the Passover celebration of Hezekiah and his organization of tithes, offerings, and priests. Is this what constitutes truth for the Chronicler: proper observance of the rituals and correct ordering of affairs to serve God.

We may actually have something of a mistranslation here, although it is an instructive one. The Hebrew term translated as truth is 'emet. Now 'emet can mean truth, but here and elsewhere it probably means faithfulness.[1] This underscores a point that has been made by several commentators, that for Hebrew speakers, truth and faithfulness were the same thing and that truth did not mean the same thing for Hebrew speakers as it did for Greek speakers.

So for the Chronicler, writing in Hebrew, it was after the faithfulness of the people in the time of Hezekiah that Sennacherib came and tested them by besieging them. Beleaguered, shut behind walls, kept from their work, with insults hurled at them by their foes, the people were able to show the Lord their faithfulness. They were thus true, though not in the Greek sense.

Sometimes things and people can be true in both the Hebrew and the Greek sense, but sometimes one has to chose whether to be true in the Hebrew or the Greek sense.

[1] HALOT 1:68-69. Note that the editors say that it is difficult sometimes to distinguish between meanings of truth and faithfulness.