The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible
by Sarah Ruden.
Pantheon Books, 2017.
Hardcover, 232 pages, $27.


“I have no formal qualifications whatsoever as a biblical scholar—not one degree, not even a single course credit.” This is a curious admission for an author to make in the preface of her work on biblical translations, yet Sarah Ruden candidly makes it. Her most recent book, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible, is a thoughtful and insightful work. Her impetus in writing stemmed from her dismay with modern biblical translations. Though not a scriptural expert, Ruden is well-versed in the classical Hebrew and Greek tongues, and it is this familiarity that allows her to assert that “most of what I see in English Bible is loss: the loss of sound, the loss of literary imagery, the loss of emotion, and … the loss of thought and experience.” In the pages that follow Ruden embarks upon the task of regaining a truer sense of Scripture and of revealing the Bible as a truly beautiful work that still matters in the world. As she herself puts it, her goal is to “make the book less a thing of paper and glue and ink and petrochemicals, and more a living thing.”

From its inception, Ruden notes, the Bible was a profoundly personal work. Its message of hope and promise resonated with the Jewish people as they yearned for freedom from bondage. Homeless and persecuted, mistrusted and despised, they tenaciously clung to the Scriptures. Ruden notes how ironic it is that a work of such enduring strength should come from such a wellspring of misery and weakness. For the early Christians too, the experience of living their nascent faith often entailed simple survival in the face of persecution and death. The hope and promise of Christ was concrete, yet tribulations were ever present along the road to salvation. Throughout the ages the Bible has evolved; it has unfolded and expanded with the needs of the people it has ministered to. Ruden describes this biblical progression as “living voices working things out.” This does not mean that errors did not occur as mankind transmitted God’s Word. Indeed, Ruden describes the business as a “messy” one. However, the Bible remains a personal and beloved book. Ruden is not shy to admit her belief, both as a Quaker and a classics scholar, that God’s truth is not diminished by the fallible instruments through which he works. His will is always accomplished.

What makes Ruden’s book so compelling is the esteem in which she holds words themselves. There is flexibility to Hebrew and Greek that reflects the flexibility of the ancient mind; as Ruden describes it, “it’s all there at once.” These words defy strict designation. Not adhering to any specific form, the treasure of these languages is found in their content. Ruden brilliantly shows how the repetition, rhythm, and inflections of the biblical languages serve to further the “painstaking development of terms” that is so integral to early translations. This depth of meaning is usually lost in the English translations, where fluidity, vitality, and imagery are all too often the casualties of structure, design, and lack of imagination.

The choice of a Genesis excerpt as her title is especially illustrative. Whereas standard English translations speak of God’s Spirit moving over the face of the water, bringing order from chaos, Hebrew uses the word rūach. This word signifies not a simple mobility, but a hovering, or a lingering. Ruden finds this particular image more evocative because it suggests a nurturing Creator, one near at hand. Even the word face is worthy of consideration. The author challenges the reader to look beyond its basic interpretation and consider instead its Hebrew meaning: “being in the presence of or before someone or something.” Ruden reveals the charming complexity intrinsic to the Hebrew language, where fewer words convey a broader, multi-layered image.

The treatment of biblical comedy in this work is somewhat surprising, yet delightfully engaging. Ruden maintains that the humor of the Bible is directly related to its joy. Whereas tragedy illustrates separation and division, humor displays reconciliation. Ruden submits the book of Jonah as just such an illustration of biblical humor. Jonah’s Hebrew name actually means “Dove,” which, far from its usual depiction as a bird of peace, was traditionally associated with cowardice! “Basic to humor is surprise,” writes Ruden, “but it has to be a surprise that makes sense.” Nothing is so small or silly that the Lord cannot use it for his purposes—even Jonah. Repetition is evident in these chapters, particularly with the word “big” (gedōl in Hebrew). Ruden points to the juxtaposition of the big city with the small, petty Jonah as a manifestation of the comedy that belongs to God. This is not slapstick humor here, but a more profound humor that undergirds the salvific message of God.

Ruden continues to clarify and sharpen the meaning of words in her discussion of the Beatitudes as found in Matthew 5. The English blessed is somewhat obscure, but what of the Greek? Ruden explains that the Greek word used here, makarios, meant happy, chiefly the happiness that relates to eternal life. Far from empty, feel-good promises, these beatitudes are pointed assurances offered by Christ to his people, a people who often experienced the worst life had to offer: toil, hunger, persecution, and death. It is in the Greek translations that Ruden upholds the Beatitudes as truly representative of what early Christians went through and why the Scriptures were so dear to them. Happiness, and the promise of it, was palpable. The translation here is so dramatic because it places the temporal and eternal together in one view. The full sense of this contrast is blunted in English, where this reality has been softened with the passage of time. It was the very immediacy of hardship and danger that spoke so powerfully to the early Christians.

Ruden readily admits to the temptation of easy translating, the bane of every translator’s existence. Ruden finds this to be particularly true of Hebrew’s rei-a. She is not satisfied with the trite English designation of neighbor. Other modern options vary: other, fellow Jew, fellow citizen, friend, companion, comrade. Ruden doesn’t care for any of them. Her methodology of “unpacking words to the greatest extent possible” is not a guarantee of success here. “I think chickening out is underrated,” she writes. Her honesty is refreshing. She gives a glimpse into the struggle of the translator. Hebrew does not force one to choose but rather invites one to explore. Unlike in English where any number of words are readily available to express a multitude of emotions, situations, and so on, there is a certain degree of stumbling in Hebrew. Despite her personal reluctance to offer a firm definition of rei-a, Ruden states that acceptance of standardization in translation is better than a lifetime of being hung up on a single word, what it means, or how it sounds. After all, the progression of the Bible is that of “living voices working things out.” If there is to be stumbling, then let it be a stumbling into clarity.

In The Face of Water, Ruden has brilliantly uncovered the beauty of ancient translations lost through time and has settled them again in their proper place. She has recovered the meaning of words that have become all too mundane and familiar. It is to her credit that she speaks so clearly even to those with no understanding of the Hebrew and Greek lexicons. Explaining words and comparing lines, pointing out rhythms and repetitions, she has communicated to both eye and ear a sense of the original beauty of these beloved passages. Her reader gains a deeper understanding and appreciation of these venerable peoples and the words they so diligently chose to convey the most fundamental of human experiences. Ideas and stories formerly deemed obvious and bland now assume new significance and life. The Bible does indeed matter, as much now as it did in the past, and its meaning and beauty will continue down the ages. With evident passion, sympathy, and wit, Ruden has accomplished her purpose.  

Elizabeth Bittner holds a B.A. in Political Science from the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and a Masters degree in the Humanities from the University of Dallas. She currently resides with her husband in rural Missouri.