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"A fish's mouth is its undoing" (Portuguese proverb) - complement to podcast GMTM-4 Hineni

Most of my linguistic interaction with our guide, Shira, in Israel (see podcast GMTM-4-E Hineni) had to do with how to pronounce the words on signs. Because Hebrew is normally written without vowels, it is a real challenge even for beginners who can read the consonants but who have to guess how words are actually pronounced. If I handed you a paper with the two letters “bt” with no vowels and asked you how to pronounce them, what would you say? Bait, bit, bet, but/butt, bot/bought, boat, boot, or beaut/butte, not to mention about, abet, or obit? What about beet/beat, or bite/byte)? If they appear in a sentence, as an English speaker, you would know by the context which meaning is intended. I taught English as a foreign language for many years. Pity the poor students. Even though English includes the vowels and diphthongs in the printed form, think of how many ways the combination “-ough-“ is pronounced in English, for example. Due to my linguistic curiosity, I pestered Shira every day to explain something about her language.

And talking about the way words are pronounced, allow me to take another brief linguistic side trip here. The words we use when we speak and write and even the way we pronounce them betray us and reveal who we are. Peter found that out as he stood by the fire and denied knowing anything about Jesus, who was at that moment being tried by the Jewish leaders. Having denied Jesus three times, he was challenged by someone a third time, who came up and said, “You certainly are one of them, since even your accent gives you away.” Matthew 26.73

While I was serving as US consular agent for Madeira (2001-2013), I had the opportunity to go to Naples for meetings at the Command Headquarters of the US 6th Fleet. My colleague, the consular agent from Venice, took us on a tour of Naples and we stopped to eat at a sidewalk café. She did all the talking with the waiter in Italian, but his first words to her were, “You’re from Venice, aren’t you?” My limited knowledge of Italian wasn’t enough to hear the difference between the northern accent of Venice and the southern accent of Naples, but to fluent speakers of Italian, there was no doubt about where each one came from.

Peter’s northeastern Galilean accent gave him away. In the OT, Judges 12.1-7, the Ephraimites and Gileadites went to war, and to escape the slaughter, the fleeing Ephraimites tried to cross the Jordan River, claiming they were Gileadites. “Say, ‘Shibboleth’ then,” they were told. And their speech betrayed them, because the Ephraimites invariably said, “Sibboleth”, as their dialect didn’t have the “sh” sound. That “small” difference meant an immediate death for all who could not say “Shibboleth”.

It only takes a few words to reveal which side of the Atlantic Ocean an English speaker comes from, or if they’re from “Down Under”. The same is true for Portuguese speakers who come from Brazil or Portugal. Even though it’s been more than 40 years since we left Brazil, there are still enough traces of the Brazilian intonation and pronunciation left in my speech, that it’s not unusual for someone to say to me, “You were in Brazil, weren’t you?”

When our local guide, Shira, related the history of how the Jews returned to Israel in the last century, she repeatedly used expressions like, “they returned to the land”, “see how the land is today”, pointing out productive farms where barren desert had been. She wasn’t using the term “land” the way we Americans would, for example. She wasn’t talking about the soil, or the earth beneath our feet. While the Hebrew word “eretz” is used for “the earth” … Gen. 1.1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the ‘eretz’”, Shira gave away her Jewish identity by referring to “the land”, the literal translation of the Hebrew word “haaretz”. To the children of Israel, that word became synonymous with the land of Canaan promised to them. Their hope, their dream was to dwell in “the land”. If that word is familiar to you in any way, it may be because that’s the name of Israel’s longest-running newspaper, “Haaretz”- The Land.

Shira’s words, “the land”, revealed her Jewishness to me, and our words reveal a lot about us to others. Do others recognize that we have been with Jesus because of the language we use, or the talk we don’t engage in?

There is a proverb in Portuguese that says, “A fish’s mouth is its undoing (cause of death).” The Biblical proverb goes like this, “When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is wise.” Proverbs 10.19 In the New Testament, James describes the destructive power of the tongue, “The tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.” James 3.6

In Matthew 15.18, Jesus said, “What comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man.” He warned us, “I tell you on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak. For by your words, you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Matthew 12.36-37

That’s a sobering thought, or it ought to be. The prayer of the Psalmist in Ps. 19.14 seems most appropriate here: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.

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