God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Who is the Wonderful Counselor?

Polycarp asks on the About page how “wonderful, counselor” of Isaiah 9:5 (9:6) should be translated.

It’s a difficult question with a longer than usual answer. But here goes.

As with “Prince of Peace,” we assume that the title “wonderful, counselor” — whatever it means — describes God after whom the child in Isaiah 9 is named, not the child himself. But translating the two-word combination is tricky.

Wonderful

The word for “wonderful” here is the noun peleh, commonly translated “wonder” or “miracle.”

As I point out here, one way of looking at things holds that there were no miracles in the Bible, because miracles are by definition extra-scientific, and there was no science in the Bible. So many people prefer “wonder” for peleh.

A peleh is normally something that is done, as, for example, in Exodus 15:11 (“Who is like you, Adonai … doing peleh!”) or Psalm 77:15 (“You are God who does peleh.”) We also note that the word is usually singular, as though it’s a collective noun. (It usually ends up as the plural terata in the LXX, a word that encompasses not just peleh but other “signs” as well.)

When we see peleh used here as what God is — rather than what God does — the word stands out, and I think that the attempt to turn “wonder” into “wonderful” through translation is probably misguided.

If peleh is indeed a collective noun in Hebrew but not in English, the right translation may be “wonders.”

On the other hand, the whole notion of giving people names that describe the deity after whom they are named is so foreign to most English speakers that whatever we do will end up sounding a little odd, so maybe we may as well stick with “wonder” here.

Counselor

The Hebrew for “counselor” is yo’eitz. The word is used frequently enough in parallel with other words and phrases that we know that a yo’eitz is wise (e.g., Isaiah 3:3), that a yo’etiz can consult to a king (e.g., 1 Kings 12:6), and that kings can have more than one (2 Chronicles 22:4).

We also see it used in parallel with such words as “prophet” (navi) in Isaiah 29:10 and “judge” (shofet) in Isaiah 1:26. Accordingly, it looks like “adviser” or “counselor” is a pretty good bet, but the emphasis of the Hebrew word seems to be on the qualities of what the person is, not what the person does.

The difference is sometimes hard to appreciate, but for an example we can compare “attorney” (what a person is) and “litigator” (what a person does), though the analogy isn’t perfect.

Wonder-Counselor

So what are the words doing together?

Isaiah 9 is not the only place we find what looks like a combination of peleh and yo’eitz. We see it in Isaiah 25 and Isaiah 28, too.

Isaiah 25 is a self-contained text that describes God’s victory over evil. The end of the first verse proclaims that God “does/did peleh,” adding in parallel “eitzot from afar,” (presumably “from a long time ago”) — the word eitzot is the plural noun connected with the verb yo’eitz.

It’s not clear if this passage is meant to reflect actual history or not, but either way, the combination of peleh and a word related to “counselor” is interesting and confusing at the same time. How is peleh like eitzot? Why are they in parallel? And does the odd juxtaposition of the two concepts here connect to Isaiah 9?

Isaiah 28 uses a verbal form of peleh in connection with the singular of eitzot. The verb, hiphli, is a common modal verb, sometimes representing “to do wonderfully,” and sometimes (as in Numbers 6:2) conveying a broader meaning. In Isaiah 28, it’s how God is/does eitzah, “counsel.”

And again, it’s not clear if this phrase is related to Isaiah 9.

But it does seem clear that, at least in these two passages, “counselor” isn’t quite right. Who is there for God to counsel? Rather — and this accords with what we saw before — it looks like the word focuses on not on what the counselor does (that is, counsel) but rather what the counselor is (smart? wise? something else?).

Isaiah 9

All of this brings us back to Isaiah 9, and the phrase peleh yo’eitz. Both of these words seem to describe what God is (though for peleh this is an atypical usage), but beyond that we have more questions than answers.

The biggest question is whether these are two concepts or whether — as translations commonly indicate — peleh modifies yo’eitz. And even here Hebrew grammar helps us only a little. Normally when two nouns appear side by side in Hebrew, it’s the second that modifies the first, not the other way around. So melech Shin’ar, just for instance, is a king of a place, not a kingly place. So peleh yo’etz could be a counselor-like wonder.

But some words, because of their semantics, allow both possibilities. And “wonder” is such a word. So even though the Hebrew could mean “counselor-like wonder” (if the two words were connected), it could also mean “a wonder of a counselor,” which is to say, basically, a wonderful counselor.

But because the words for “wonder” and “counselor” appear in parallel elsewhere, I think that they are meant to reinforce each other, not modify one another.

So “wonderful counselor” certainly doesn’t do the trick of conveying the Hebrew words. But neither does “wonder, counselor,” though it comes closer. I think “wonder” is okay. But the problem with “counselor” is that — at least to me — it indicates actual counseling, whereas the Hebrew yo’eitz, as we saw, reflects certain innate qualities, not actions.

Beyond this it’s hard to know what nuance to try to capture in translation. “Wonder, Genius” might be the point, or, “Wonder, Knower,” though I suspect that there’s a better pair of English words lurking somewhere.

Any ideas?

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February 16, 2010 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. If the early Christians understood it to refer to Christ (although that might be difficult to ascertain given that Justin used the LXX which has a different wording?) then could the ‘wonder’ part be linked to the ‘wonder’ of the Virgin Birth while ‘counselor/knower’ become linked to either Comfortor or perhaps along the lines of Wisdom?

    (Trying to keep from theology here, only to see how it might have moved early Christians into theological directions.)

    Comment by Joel | February 16, 2010 | Reply

    • I’ve been trying to figure out how we might know how early Christians understood the Hebrew. (We know how they understood the passage in general.)

      You’re right that the LXX doesn’t match up with the Hebrew closely enough to use that source as guidance, though the mismatch potentially tells us that even back then there was some confusion over the line.

      The DSS quote the line in 1QM 11:10 (which Sukenik numbered 3:10). Starting in 11:8, “…For children come through the [sea-]breakers of death [9] and a women pregnant with a boy is racked by her pangs, for through the breakers of death she gives birth to a male and through the pangs of Sheol emerges [10] from the crucible of the pregnant woman a wonder couselor with his might [peleh yo'eitz im g'vurato] and the boy is freed from the breakers….”

      But, again — though it’s interesting — I’m not sure how it helps.

      I think Jerome specifically claimed there were six titles given here to the Lord, but I don’t have details.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 17, 2010 | Reply

  2. Many thanks for this. It is much more helpful to follow along on the journey than to get “the answer.”

    I wonder if, in line with your “who he is, rather than what he does” slant, his “counsel” is not what he gives to others but what he has available to himself. That is, he makes decisions based on a bottomless understanding. In other words, he is one who has awesome [in the non-trivial meaning] insight. When he says something in a group, he gets reactions like this:

    Luk 4:22 And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, Is not this Joseph’s son?

    Honestly, Joel, I feel a bit of that wonder myself when you seem to peg some of these thorny texts so insightfully. Now, don’t let that go to your head, but you really seem to have a unique gift. And to be honest, I think it is because the rest of us are just dumb!

    Here’s another possible allusion:

    Mat 7:28 And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine:
    Mat 7:29 For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 16, 2010 | Reply

    • Here’s another illustration:

      Joh 7:43 So there was a division among the people because of him.
      Joh 7:44 And some of them would have taken him; but no man laid hands on him.
      Joh 7:45 Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him?
      Joh 7:46 The officers answered, Never man spake like th

      Comment by WoundedEgo | February 16, 2010 | Reply

  3. “Brilliant sage”? Better yet: exalted sage.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | February 16, 2010 | Reply

  4. He who (counsels/advises) (with/through) wonders is a … give me a title here…

    Counselor by wonders?

    Wonder filled advisor?

    This is hard to speak of yet magnificent in the understanding.

    Comment by Tom Moeller | February 18, 2010 | Reply


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