God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

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?

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December 6, 2009 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 Comments »

  1. Part of meaning is politics and feeling. Kings sit “high on a throne of royal state” and others don’t. I think Pope ridiculed Milton’s poem somewhere – “High on a royal seat” – Peri Bathos – but I can’t find my copy from alas nearly 50 years ago to confirm my memory.

    For my translations, I try and let sound rule the decisions – if two words sound alike the let them be translated to sound alike. This is of course impossible some of the time, but where there is the same word as you describe here, I would choose the same word in the target language.

    Comment by bobmacdonald | December 6, 2009 | Reply

  2. Interesting post. I wonder if the US commander-in-chief might provide a more suitable illustration of this issue today (rather than your shoe example)?

    When the President steps on any plane (i.e., flies on it), it becomes Air Force One. The same, of course, is not true of the average person. A plane is still a plane. I’m not sure, but perhaps that kind of reasoning is what persuaded some of these translation committees.

    Comment by sethmehorn | December 6, 2009 | Reply

  3. I am reminded of the joke:

    ****
    Why are a Kansas tornado, a Florida hurricane and an Alabama divorce the same? Because *somebody* is gonna lose a trailer!
    ****

    How is this applicable? Either way you go, you’re going to need a footnote!

    (And I really like that joke!)

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 10, 2009 | Reply

  4. By the way, there is much more to ponder about thrones and chairs… When does one “sit” on a chair/throne and when does on **preside** from a throne. For example, I think this is obviously talking about “presiding,” rather than just “sitting”:

    Eph 2:6 And hath raised us up together, and made us **sit** together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:

    Also, the way I understand the notion that there is a “chair/throne of God and of the lamb” is that they are not simultaneously occupying the chair – as Paul says:

    1 Cor 15:
    25 For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.
    26 The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
    27 For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him.
    28 And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.

    Also, rather than supplying “O” to make these verbless sentences “work” grammatically, could one supply “is”?:

    Ps 45:6 Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre.

    Heb 1:8 But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.

    Also, might THRONOS refer to a “throne room” at times?

    Re 5:6 And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.

    Re 19:5 And a voice came out of the throne, saying, Praise our God, all ye his servants, and ye that fear him, both small and great.

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 10, 2009 | Reply

  5. […] issue further is how the text is presented in translations. According to Joel M. Hoffman over at God Didn’t Say That, there’s some discussion over whether Solomon should sit on a chair or a throne. In the […]

    Pingback by » 1 Kings 2: Cleaning the slate Carpe Scriptura | February 6, 2015 | Reply


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