Every once in a while (and especially when my eyes and mind are tired, as they happen to be at the moment), a familiar word I’m reading will suddenly seem unusual, as if I’m encountering it anew although I’ve used it for years.
Sometimes I’m simply trying to verify its spelling — as happened, embarrassingly enough, during one panicked all-nighter in college, when halfway through writing a term paper I actually questioned whether “off” had one “f” or two. But at other and less sleep-deprived moments, I sense a word has more to say than I’ve usually been willing to hear.
And lately, the word that’s been vying for my extra attention is one found hundreds of times in Scripture: “behold.”
The English translation — which does double duty for the Hebrew hineni and the Greek idou — certainly sounds biblical, and the existence of a popular furniture polish by the same name doesn’t detract from that gravitas. As scholar Leah Zuidema notes, “the word ‘behold’ is not one we often use,” since “somehow our everyday actions don’t seem worthy of this word. ‘Behold, I picked up a gallon of milk on the way home’ just doesn’t seem to work.”
Zuidema’s point becomes even clearer when you consider some of the specific occurrences of “behold” in the Bible, which recent translators, acknowledging the rather archaic tone of the English word, have often rendered as simply “here I am.” In Genesis 22, Abraham utters hineni three times — first in response to the Lord’s voice (Gen 22:1); next to an unknowing Isaac, whom he has consented to sacrifice as part of a divine test (Gen 22:7); and finally once again to God, who commands Abraham, now proven obedient, to stay his hand from slaughtering his son (Gen 22:11).
Despite the sparse phrasing of the passage — in which, as the New American Bible, Revised Edition notes, “motivations and thoughts are not explained” — Abraham’s inflection must have shifted with each utterance of hineni, from zeal to sorrow to bewildered relief. The late songwriter Leonard Cohen (who, despite his years of wild living, was steeped in the Jewish and Christian faith traditions) captured some of that anguish in one of his final compositions, “You Want It Darker.” As Cohen wrestles throughout the verses with the mysteries of the divine nature and human suffering, he returns — backed by a Jewish cantor and synagogue choir — to what becomes an inevitable chorus: “Hineni, hineni / I’m ready, my Lord.”
Hineni does not leave one unscathed, observes Jewish cantor Matt Axelrod: “Whenever a character in the Bible underwent a moment of profound change or crisis, he pronounced this same word: Hineni. Here I am.”
Such transformation is also apparent in the New Testament, where the Greek idou conveys that same sense of encounter between divine and human, life and death. In response to the angel Gabriel’s message, Mary prefaced her assent to become the mother of Jesus with what was likely the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek term Luke set down: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38).
Later, John the Baptist would testify to Jesus with the same word — “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29) — and to this day, that cry echoes triumphantly at every Mass.
In other passages, idou works more subtly (and in fact is not always translated from the Greek), but with no less effect. When Peter challenges Jesus about the cost of discipleship — “Look, we have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” (Mt 19:27) — Jesus’ answer transplants the whole question into eternity: “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:28).
On the cross, Jesus entrusts Mary and “the disciple … whom he loved” to each other: “Woman, behold your son. … Behold your mother” (Jn 19:26, 27).
Appearing to John in Revelation, the resurrected and ascended Christ invites each one of us to discern the call to a deep, personal relationship with him: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, (then) I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).
And a few chapters later, Christ reminds us that though its day and hour are unknown to us, his glorious return is imminent: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:12).
In Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and every other tongue, the summons remains the same: our God beckons us without cease, and if we will but lift our eyes and still our hearts, we can indeed behold him — and say, in the lexicon of the soul, “Yes, Lord; here I am.”
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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