Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

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If the burning bush, talking serpent, and the talking donkey conversed with each other, how would the verbal exchange go?  

Ooh, I love this question. Here goes:

‘Hey, Bushy. How goes it?’

‘Very funny, Snake-Eyes. You know very well that nothing “goes”, with me. All I can do is just sit here, waiting for another Moses, who I just know won’t come till history starts all over again. It just burns me up thinking about it.’

‘What about Elijah? Wasn’t he here the other day?’

‘Pah! Don’t talk to me about Elijah. The guy was so exhausted for having run all the way here from the Galilee in forty days and nights, one nothing more than a cake and a cruse of water, he didn’t even see me.’

‘Trust me—having to crawl everywhere on my belly just to get around, constantly in danger of being crushed under some human heel, is no picnic either. It’s Toni, here, who has it cushy.’

‘Easy for you to say,’ said Toni dolefully, as she came up the hill. ‘You try riding with bloody Balaam on your back all day long, whacking you repeatedly with a stick because he can’t see God’s angel standing, clear as day, right there in front of you with a raised sword in his hand. You’d be all too happy to slither away or just sit there in the middle of the desert, with nobody bothering you.’

‘The truth is, none of us have it easy,’ said the snake. ‘Life’s a bitch, and then you die.’

‘Yes, well, if you hadn’t tempted Eve into eating from the Tree of Knowledge, none of us would have been in this predicament,’ said the bush. ‘I wouldn’t be burning, Toni here would have frolicked happily with all the other wild asses, and you would still have legs and chatting up birds in the Garden of Eden.’

‘Give him a break,’ said Toni, uncharacteristically spirited as she spoke up in the snake’s defence. ‘He just played the part he was given. The real problem—what all our troubles have in common, in case you haven’t yet noticed—is humans. Take them out of the picture, and the whole world will go back to normal.’

‘True enough,’ grumbled the snake. ‘Fortunately, the way they’re going, it won’t be long now.’

‘Why, what time is it?’ asked the bush, who was not much good at keeping time, since every day was like the next.

Two minutes to midnight,’ said Toni explained, helpfully. ‘That’s why I’m here. I wanted a front-row seat.’


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Was the golden calf of the Bible not Israelite at all, but actually the Egyptian Apis or Hathor?

It was definitely not Hat’ḥor , for the simple reason that a number of statues of Hat’ḥor at the turquoise mining site now known as Serabit el-Khadim were defaced with Hebrew graffiti—not something that worshippers would do:


The Egyptian goddess Hatḥor (a.k.a. Astarte) at Serabit-el-Khadim in the western Sinai Desert

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What is the Hebrew word for “God’s purpose”?

The word purpose presupposes that one has no control over the future, so can only hope to achieve a particular outcome through intent, action, and hope.

This doesn’t apply to God in the Judaic concept: He knows and controls the future, so it’s only a question of what does He want.

God’s want, or desire, in Hebrew is רצון האל (retzon ha’el).

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What is correct: ‘Here is a bag and a pen’, or ‘here are a bag and a pen’?

This is a classic mongoose question—one of my favourite kind—so-called after the story of a South African farmer who, concerned about an influx of poisonous snakes on his land, tentatively agreed to a Ministry of Agriculture official’s suggestion that he adopt a mongoose (which is very adept at hunting snakes).

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In Hebrew, how do you differentiate between vav (ו) and bet (ב); tav (ת) and tet (ט); alef (א) and ayin (ע) and hei (ה)? Why don’t we change the spelling of some words if the pronunciations are now the same to simplify spelling?

Here’s a thought: how about we get rid of colours, so our sight is ‘simplified’ to just black-and-white?

I don’t understand the obsession that so people have about simplifying spelling (in all languages). Spelling is a vital link to our past—if you iron out differences just so similar-sounding consonants are spelled the same, you lose key information about the roots of the words and how they relate to each other.

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Which commandment was the most difficult for the Israelites to accept when they received the Torah at Mt. Sinai?

As the Book of Exodus itself suggests, it was the probably the second:

(in Square Hebrew script: לא תעשה לך פסל וכל תמונה)

—i.e. ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness’

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Is it risky to study to become a book translator since machine translation is becoming increasingly accurate?

A surprising number of translators still parrot the old line (as I did myself, as recently as 2015), that “machines will never substitute humans in translation.”


I beg to differ. In answer to the above question—yes, it is risky: human translators, I’m afraid, are about to go the way of farriers and saddle-makers a century ago.

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