God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Who is the woman in Ruth?

Also from the About page:

Here is a question — I have explored the usage of ish and ishah in Ruth (here) and I was surprised to see in 3.14:

vatakom b’terem yakir ish et-rei’eihu
vayomer al-yivada ki-va’a ha-isha ha-goren

and she rose before a man could recognize his friend
and he said — let it not be known that `the woman’ came to the threshing floor.”

This seems a strange use of the definite article! I wondered if it was a little joke between them.

I think he’s talking about her specifically, in which case “the woman” is what we’d expect. The other possibility is that “the woman” and “the man” are the heroes of the story, and this is a clever metareference, in which one character (the man) refers to another (the woman) in the way the narrator does; but I don’t think so.

I don’t agree with the rendering in the NIV (probably based on the identical KJV) that he doesn’t want it known that a women — any women — was there. I think he doesn’t want it known that she was there.

(Incidentally, I think the first part, “before a man could recognize his friend” is better translated, “before one person could recognize another” or even “before anyone could be recognized.” It seems like an indication of darkness to me — akin to “before you could see the hand in front of your face,” which doesn’t really have anything to do with hands or faces.)


December 6, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 1 Comment

Q&A: What kind of good child was Moses?

From the About page:

I have a question about Exodus 2:2. What does it mean that she saw that baby Moses was tov?

Could it be a statement of affection, the way we refer to children and pets as “good?” Or does “seeing that…good” simply echo Genesis 1?

Interesting question.

I don’t think it’s an echo of Genesis — I’m not even sure the authors of Exodus 2 knew the text of Genesis 1. And for what it’s worth, the LXX agrees, using the rare asteios here. (The Greek of Hebrews 11:23 and of Acts 7:20, which retell the story in part, matches. In Acts 7:20 we have the addition that Moses was “asteios to God.”)

But beyond that, I don’t see a clear way to narrow down the meaning, because there are so many ways of being “good” in English and in Hebrew. The word could refer to aesthetics, health, providence, etc. So we have to rely on context.

And even that doesn’t help much, for two reasons. First, I’m not sure the sequencing of the usual translation is right (“when she saw that he was tov she hid him for three months”). Secondly, even if we do see cause and effect here, the passage is at best suggestive. Had he not been tov would she not have hidden him? If so, maybe tov means “healthy and strong,” or maybe even just the opposite of “stillborn.”

All of which is a long way of saying that it’s hard to narrow down the meaning beyond something positive.

December 6, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , | 1 Comment

Did God Sit on a Chair or a Throne?

In my last post I asked whether we should use modern terms like “womb” and “stomach” to translate the ancient beten, which was used for both.

Similarly, what about “chair” and “throne”? It seems that, at least in the OT, one word was used for both different modern concepts.

The Hebrew for both is kisei. It’s a common word, so it’s not hard to find examples of a kisei for commoners (I Samuel 1:9, e.g.), for kings (II Samuel 3:10, e.g., where it’s used metonymically for “kingdom”), and for God (Psalm 11:4).

Though the Greek thronos is used consistently in the LXX for kisei, in the NT thronos seems more narrowly reserved for kings and other dignitaries (Luke 1:32, Revelation 4:4) and God (Matthew 5:34), though Satan (Revelation 2:13) gets one, too.

The Greek kathedra is used in the NT for ordinary chairs (Matthew 21:12), and in the LXX for the Hebrew moshav “seat” and more generally shevet “sitting.” (The Hebrew moshav seems to include seats of any kind, both “chairs” and “thrones.”)

Another way of looking kisei in the OT is to compare it to the modern English word “shoe.” Even though kings and ordinary folk wear different kinds of them (I think), there’s only one word for them (I think).

The translation issue is forced in I Kings 2:19, where King Solomon sits on his kisei and also orders a kisei brought for his mom (which, at the risk of editorializing, is really sweet). The KJV, ESV, and NJB use two different words here, first “throne” (for the king) then “seat” (for mom). The LXX (in Greek), NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV use the same word twice. (I’m a little surprised to find the “essentially literal” ESV using two words here, and the generally more idiomatic NLT sticking with one.)

The original Hebrew of I Kings 2:19 emphasizes the equality of Solomon and his mother. The KJV emphasizes the inequality of the two. The NRSV preserves the equality, but does so by giving Bathsheba a throne.

Elsewhere, the translator has to decide between “chair” and “throne” for God. By choosing “throne,” God is necessarily like royalty; and while that’s certainly a common metaphor for God in the OT, how do we know it’s always what the Hebrew meant? In the famous vision of Isaiah 6, for example, the only clue to a kingship metaphor is the word “throne” in English.

Should a translation preserve the OT way of looking at things that are sat upon (if you’ll pardon my grammar), the NT way, or go straight for the modern English way?

December 6, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments