What is a Targum?

About a month ago on a Sunday morning, we all stood on the front steps of St. E’s and several people read their hopes for the renewal of the neighborhood based on Isaiah 35. You may have noticed that at the top of that page there was a strange word – “targum.” Assuming that this wasn’t an advertisement for some kind of chewy substance, I thought I’d shed some light on the matter.

Targum is an Aramaic word which comes from the verb trgm, which means both “to translate” and “to interpret.” So a targum is simply a “translation/interpretation.” But why in the world would someone who speaks English want to use an Aramaic word for their translation? I mean, that is such Albernheit!!

Throughout the middle centuries of the first millenium B.C., Aramaic became the common language of the Ancient Near East (very similar to English in today’s world). This created a problem for Jewish society – how do you encourage people who only speak Aramaic to appreciate scriptures written in Hebrew? The solution that gradually developed was the targum tradition, which probably resembled the scene recorded in Nehemiah 8. In this chapter, the priest Ezra and several Levites read from the Book of the Law of God and then explain it to the people to make the meaning clear. This likely involved a translation – targum from Hebrew into Aramaic.

Over time the translations of the text acquired a fixed character, so that it was possible to speak of the biblical text (for example, the Pentateuch) and the targum of the text (i.e. the Targum to the Pentateuch). However, in rabbinic tradition a strict distinction was maintained between the two. In the synagogue service one person would read a portion of scripture twice, followed by a second person who recited the targum once for what had just been read. The recitation of the targum could be challenging, as it became acceptable to embellish the text in order to update it for contemporary places and events or explain
difficult passages.

Starting with the Targum to the Pentateuch (called Targum Onquelos), the targums began to be written down in the first century A.D. The Targum to the Prophets (Targum Jonathan) was written down over the next two centuries, and the remaining books followed afterwards in late antiquity and the middle ages.
To make things interesting, have you ever wondered what the Bible would have sounded like to Jesus and the early Christians in Palestine? There’s no way to know for certain, but one way we can get much closer is to read the targums (it’s a lot more complicated than that, but work with me). So, to get back to our exercise with Isaiah 35, I’m going to first give the biblical text, then Targum Jonathan, and then the exercise we did a month ago. Enjoy!

Isaiah 35:1-10 (Hebrew Bible, NIV)

1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus,
2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come,
he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there, 
10 and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Isaiah 35:1-10 (Targum Jonathan by Chilton)

1 Those who dwell in the wilderness, in a thirsty land, shall be glad, those who settle in the desert shall rejoice and blossom like lilies.
2 They shall exult abundantly, and rejoice with joy and gladness. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to them, the brilliance of Carmel and Sharon. The house of Israel – these things are said to them – they shall see the glory of the LORD, the brilliance of the celebrity of our God.
3 The prophet said, Strengthen weak hands, and make firm feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are eager in their heart to perform the law, Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God is revealed to take just retribution, the LORD is master of recompenses, he will be revealed and save you.
5 Then the eyes of the house of Israel, that were as blind to the law, shall be opened, and their ears, which were as deaf to listen to the sayings of the prophets, shall listen;
6 then, when they see the exiles of Israel who are gathered and going up to their land, even as swift harts, and not to be checked, their tongue which was dumb shall sing for joy. For waters have broken out in the wilderness and streams in the deserts;
7 and the parched ground shall become pools of water, and the thirsty areas springs of water; the place where jackals dwell, there reeds and rushes will increase.
8 And a fine highway shall be there, it shall be called the way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it, and wayfarers shall not cease, and those who have not learned shall not err.
9 No king who does evil shall be there, nor any ruler who distresses pass through it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the redeemed of the LORD shall be gathered from among their exiles, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be theirs, that does not cease, and a cloud of glory shall cover your heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall cease from them, from the house of Israel.

Isaiah 35 (Revisited for my neighborhood, a targum by Joy Tucker)

In ________________ the ________________ shall be glad and __________________!
Strengthen the _______________ and make firm the __________________.
Say to __________________, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come and save you!”
Then ___________________________________________________
and _____________________________________________________
and _____________________________________________________.
A new ___________________________________ shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.
And many will come to ______________________________ with singing; everlasting joy shall be on their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

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