God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Translation Challenge: Isaiah 28:16

My last post was in response to a question about the final verb in Isaiah 18:26. In my opinion, the really beautiful poetry in that verse lies in the verbal repetition in the middle.

Here’s a guide to the Hebrew:

lachen ko amar adonai YHWH
so thus said Adonai God
hin’ni yisad b’tzion aven
I founded in Zion a stone
even bochan pinat yikrat musad musad
a stone trial corner precious foundation founded
hama’amin lo yachish
the believer not will hurry

We have a phrase of introduction (“therefore thus says the Lord GOD”, NRSV) and one of conclusion (“One who trusts will not panic,” NRSV).

In the middle we have the word “stone” repeated, appearing first at the end of a phrase, then again to start the next one. The effect is like, “…I put stones, stones that will….” It reminds me of great oratory, with each phrase building on the previous one. But it’s hard to do in English.

The NRSV, for example, destroys the pattern by using “a foundation stone” to end the first phrase, and then “a tested stone” to start the next. The ESV seems to be trying to mimic the effect with its stilted, “I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone,” for the first part, but then it, too, opts for “a tested stone…” for the next part, missing the repetition. Most other translations are similar. (JPS’s “stone by stone” seems neither here nor there to me. It doesn’t preserve the poetry or the original meaning.)

The LXX also misses the wordplay — though it should be easier in Greek than in English because of the freer word order allowed in that language — but the Vulgate gets it: ego mittam in fundamentis Sion lapidem, lapidem probatum…. (“I put in the foundation of Zion a stone, a stone of testing….”)

Then we have another repetition, this time of the sounds musad, first as a noun, then as a verb. In English, “foundation” can’t be verbal, so the closest we can come is “founding the foundation,” but “found” doesn’t mean what we need it to. A clearer English example would be “established the establishment,” but this time “establishment” doesn’t mean what we need it to.

Again the Vulgate comes pretty close, with …in fundamento fundatum…. Again the LXX misses the wordplay.

Incidentally, it is not at all clear what the phrase means, partly because the masculine musad (“founded”) doesn’t seem to have a masculine antecedent. (With a tiny change, we can move the second musad into the final phrase, duplicating the trick of starting a phrase with the word that ended in the previous one. In that case, we would have “…a foundation. The foundation of the believer will not hurry.” But for now let’s stick with the text we have.)

So here’s the challenge: Who can find a translation that contains two pairs of repeated words, like the original?


January 14, 2010 - Posted by | translation challenge | , , ,


  1. I wish I had more insight into this passage, but no bells have rung, yet. The only thing I would mention is the contrast between a solid, permanent sounding cornerstone, and the “blowing in the wind” sound of one who “hurries.” The laying of the stone is solemn, calculated and precise, while “hurrying” is silly, impromptu and willy-nilly.

    You might have misgivings for posting your *lack* of clarity on this text, but it is, in fact, refreshing to be invited into the *process* of pondering an obscurity.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 14, 2010

  2. Therefore thus says the Lord God,
    I set in Zion a stone–
    A stone of testing, richly set, set in the corner;
    One who trusts will not panic.

    I don’t really understand “a stone of testing.” Could “even bochan” mean “a well-tested stone”?

    Comment by Will Fitzgerald | January 15, 2010

    • Bill: I really like “…richly set, set in the corner.” It comes closer to conveying the flavor of the Hebrew than anything else I’ve seen.

      I don’t really understand “a stone of testing.” Could even bochan mean “a well-tested stone”?

      Maybe — and many translations offer “tested stone” or “stone that has been tested.”

      The other possibility — based on Zechariah 13:9, e.g. — is that it means “refined” or “processed” in some way. And I think this is more likely. To really explore this approach requires knowledge of how they built buildings back then, and how a cornerstone could have been prepared.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 15, 2010

      • The word “bochan” is an ancient Egyptian word. It specifies a stone that is set aside for inscription. The inscription is that the Lord is declaring that he is the cornerstone of Judah and that the populace are not to be dismayed when judgement arrives. Refer to Peake’s commentary of the Bible.

        Comment by George Mitrov | February 20, 2012

  3. Hmmm here’s my attempt before looking at the others. I like Bill’s but I would not use panic because of the usage in the psalms. O Lord make haste to help us.
    Therefore – thus says my Lord Hashem
    Look at me – I establish in Zion a rock
    a proven rock
    a precious corner foundation established
    the one believing will not be in a hurry

    My rationale is here

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | January 15, 2010

  4. Therefore, this is what the Lord YHWH says:
    Look! In Zion I establish a rock,
    a rock that will test, a precious foundation,
    founded so those who believe won’t be shaken.

    A bit free perhaps, but what do you think?

    Comment by John | January 15, 2010

  5. ISTM that we have all been what psychologists call “pinned” by the NT’s suggestion that Isaiah is referring to “believers” when he says “he that keeps faith,” but ISTM that he errs because he is reading the LXX, rather than the Hebrew. ISTM that “he that keeps faith” is YHVH, rather than “the saints.” It is YHVH that is an unhurried builder, who carefully and judiciously applies the measuring rod and the plumb line of justice.

    Note that Peter is most certainly using the LXX so his reading is skewed completely differently from the Hebrew:

    1 Peter 2:
    6 Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded.
    7 Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner,

    But the original context is not speaking of faithful Christians but of a faithful builder:

    Isaiah 28:
    16 therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner-stone of sure foundation: he that believeth [“keeps faith” – YHVH] shall not be in haste [as I build].
    17 And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding-place.

    Paul echoes the idea of haste when he contrasts building with readily gathered, but unreliable materials with taking great pains to gather costly but enduring materials:

    1 Cor 3:
    10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.
    11 ¶ For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
    12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;
    13 Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.
    14 If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
    15 If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.

    Once again, Paul claims to be the builder, whereas Jesus, in the gospels, claims to be the builder:

    Mt 16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I [Jesus] will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

    I think that a “stone of testing” may be the “point of reference” for the whole building. That is, every subsequently laid stone must line up with the first stone. This would give a graphic background to the abstraction “according to Christ Jesus”:

    Ro 15:5 Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus:

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 15, 2010

  6. The Jewish Encyclopedia has some interesting information about ancient cornerstones.


    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 15, 2010

  7. John’s point is a good one – do we see the possibility that the one who believes is the one who builds and that the one who builds is the one who is faithful? The master builder is the one who comforts and so has the name Nehemiah or comforter. This gives poignancy to the plea for haste from the faithful psalmist who recognizes the need for a unified deliverance. Perhaps the core of this promise and faith is implied in the Shema. And the consequences are that we are able to act in faithfulness also. It is as if the schema is an original strand of DNA and we are its unfolding and replicating. But now I go beyond translation – yet reminding myself that I often fail to imagine the possibilities of who’s who in any particular verse.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | January 15, 2010

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