God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: On the Sons of Gods

From the about page comes this question:

Here is something I ignored when I translated Job and I don’t think I should have. In chapter 1 we get the b’nei ha-elohim. In chapter 38 we get the b’nei elohim without the definite article. I am thinking that the first should be the children (or sons) of the gods or of the mighty, and the second the children of God? This is without looking up Tur Sinai and all the other references I used that are since back in the library — so I ask you instead (thanks).

Don’t thank me yet, since calling this “Q&A” might be a stretch. I don’t have much of an answer.

The difference between ha-elohim and elohim seems like it has to be important, but I’ve yet to find a satisfactory explanation of the two. I do know that the simplistic approach of using “the” in English for ha- here doesn’t work. These may be dialectal variants, they might be the same thing, or they might differ in ways we haven’t figured out yet.

In general I think it’s a good idea to use different English for different Hebrew, but in this case, I don’t think we have that option. “Children of the gods” versus “children of God” is likely to be wrong, as is “children of the mighty.”

Though both ha-elohim and elohim are common, we find b’nei ha-elohim only in Genesis 6 and twice in Job, and b’nei elohim only in Job 38:7.

So an important related question is who these god children are. The Jewish Study Bible (which I highly recommend) has this to say:

[Job 1:]6. The divine beings presented themselves before the Lord: Similar meetings of the Lord enthroned on His heavenly throne and all the heavenly host standing before Him on either side are reported by the prophet Micah son of Imlah in 1 Kings 22.19-23, by the prophet Isaiah in Isa. ch 6, and in Ps. 82 and Dan. 7.9-10. The members of the heavenly court, here and in Ps. 82 called divine beings (here lit. “sons of the gods”; in Ps. 82.2 lit. “gods”) are called in 1 Kings ch 22 “the heavenly host”; in Job 4.18 they are called “servants” and “angels”; in 15:15 they are called “holy ones” and “the heavens,” while in 25:5 they are identified with the moon and stars, who, with the sun, are called “the whole heavenly host” in Deut. 4.19. Typically, these divine beings, though they have great power, may not act independently of God. [My emphasis.]

The LXX translates “angels of the God” in Job 1 and 2, and “my angels” in Job 38.

With all of this in mind, I think both phrases refer to the same group. (Maybe the b’nai here is like the word b’nai in b’nai yisrael, and these are the Lordites.)

At any rate, my suggestion is to pick a phrase that’s likely to be accurate, capitalize it, and hope for the best.

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November 15, 2009 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. I love it – thank you. God didn’t say that – and hope for the best. That’s is a lovely laid back style of loving the word.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | November 15, 2009 | Reply

    • Just to be clear: I don’t think that in general “Hope for the best” is a great translation strategy. Rather, it’s an admission of defeat. But this is the rare case where I think an educated guess is as good as we’re going to get.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 16, 2009 | Reply

      • ‘Hope for the best’ has become an idiom in English – perhaps I heard in those words: ‘Hope for the good’. The myriad of questions related to culture, policy, religion, and language that we encounter while translating is part of the long process of informing our faith. When I began translating the psalms 3 years ago, I used for a while Martin Rosenberg and Bernard Zlotowitz’s 1999 translation. They quickly taught me that what my uninformed faith had taken as unambiguous was sometimes comprised of words whose meaning no one could decipher. In all cases my translations are first a reaching out to an unknown author then secondly to known but sometimes uncommunicative colleagues – hoping indeed for joy across time and psychological space – both of which are often seemingly impermeable.

        Comment by bobmacdonald | November 16, 2009


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