Let’s talk about bilingual code switching..

In Hebrew class this spring, we studied the book of Daniel–well, some of it. The middle section of the text came to us in Aramaic. Now, when I say ‘text’ I’m referring to what we have in the Hebrew and Protestant Scriptures, handed down from a group of scholars, the Masoretes. As a beginning Hebrew student, my relationship with these guys is complicated. They gave us vowel pointers which is good, but also made reading rather difficult in other ways. Challenges aside, I found that decoding Daniel was actually interesting and even got excited about some of the implications for today.

For example, the narratives that make up the first six chapters are stories of what God does for his people, beginning with delivering them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. This won’t necessarily come as a surprise once you’ve read 1Kings, especially the part about King Manasseh. In verse one of chapter one, God gave Jerusalem to the Babylonians (a complicated statement embroiled in betrayal, threats and punishment), then in verse 17, God gives wisdom, insight and knowledge to four young Israelites bound for the royal court. It’s an interesting parallel: seeds of redemption are sown in Daniel and his friends just as Yahweh appears to have sealed the destruction of the Israelites. Life from the ashes of death.

Then in chapter two, it switches from Hebrew to Aramaic, the lingua franca of the time. This part fascinates me, especially since I don’t fully understand it. One scholar, Portier-Young, brought contemporary sociolinguistic study on bilingual speakers into the discussion. Additionally, power and empire studies relate here, as well. The narratives were (most likely) written at a time when the Israelites had recently lost their temple and, essentially, their identity. While it would seem to make more sense for the whole text to be in Hebrew, it’s possible that the narrative vignettes about Daniel and his friends in the royal court were intended to be shared with whomever would listen. Anyone in the empire could hear about the power of Yahweh to deliver (his) servants. Talk about a testimony!

What about the rest of the Hebrew text? Chapter seven begins the sequence of visions and revelations, which were possibly written at a later time, using the Daniel character who, back in chapter one, was given insight into visions and dreams. (If that sounds sacrilegious, think about how many writers there were for the X-men films, based on the comic books and the time lapse between the two forms. The beauty of narrative is how meaning compounds when characters are resuscitated). Back to Daniel, the vision is recounted first in Aramaic, then in Hebrew (chapter eight), the first code switch. Visions in and of themselves are coded language, so we get the impression that narrative is no longer a ‘safe’ genre. Whatever encouragement the authors are intending for the Jewish people must be veiled.

The part of the story that caught my attention most revolved around the verb “to stand.” Daniel stands before two powers: earthly (Nebuchadnezzar) and heavenly (the holy messenger). In the face of earthly powers, Daniel stands with God-given knowledge, insight and wisdom. In the face of heavenly powers, Daniel falls and must be strengthened by the holy messenger, and is told to “stand in [his] standing place.” This contrast, simple as it is, teaches us something about where to look for our source of strength, how to stand before kings and rulers, courts and nations. For many of us raised in an American church, it’s nearly impossible to understand the place of the powerless. Yet, I think we’re learning to at least listen to the stories of those made to feel like second-class (or worse). Daniel is one such story that can remind us that life is not all victory all the time. That coming out on top is not the norm. My prayer is that Daniel can become a text today as it perhaps once was that crosses cultures, societies and languages, for the purpose of proclaiming what good things God will do.

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