God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Who is the Prince of Peace?

Two questions from the About page ask about Isaiah 9:5 (9:6), “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (NRSV).

The final phrase of this child’s name (“Prince of Peace”) are probably the most famous, so we’ll start there.

The Hebrew is sar shalom, that is, sar of shalom. While the English “Prince of Peace” has a nice alliterative ring to it, there’s little support for translating sar as “prince,” and even “peace” for shalom is a bit misleading.

Sar

The Hebrew sar is generally someone in charge of something. For example, we find in Genesis (21:22, 21:32, etc.) that Phicol is in charge of Abimelech’s army; Phicol there is the sar of the army. Later in Genesis, Potiphar is sar of the tabachim (this is probably an expression, perhaps “chief steward”). There’s a sar of the jail (“jailkeeper”), of drink (“cupbearer”) and baked goods (“chief baker”).

In Exodus 2:14 the term is used generically when a Hebrew challenges Moses with the rhetorical question, “who made you sar and judge over us?” In Numbers 16:13, a verbal form of the noun is used to mean “rule over us.”

Joshua has a vision of a sar of the Lord’s army, and throughout the books of Samuel and Kings we find various sars over various armies.

In Jeremiah 39:3 we find a variety of Babylonian names with the word sar in them.

In short, it looks like a sar was a leader of some sort, but not necessarily royalty. For me, “prince” implies royalty, so I’m not happy with the translation. (Also, the English word “prince” is more often used for the Hebrew word nasi.)

We have at least two expressions in English that I can think of — “lord over us” and the ironic “who died and made you king?” — that show the connection between royalty and leadership, but in modern Western cultures the two are not the same. Some royalty are powerless figureheads, and some leaders (most, in fact) are not royalty.

So to the extent that “prince” implies anything more than “leader,” I think it’s misleading. I would prefer, “leader,” “director,” or “ruler.”

Peace

The word shalom is even harder. While it does mean “peace,” its general implication — at least in its original context — matches only partially with what the English word “peace” implies.

A particularly telling passage comes from Psalm 29:11: “The Lord will grant strength [oz] … and peace [shalom]” to the people Israel. Why would they need strength if there’s going to be peace?

The answer lies in two different conceptions of peace. Both of them involve lack of war, but they differ in how to achieve that peaceful state.

The “peace” we are most familiar with now — at least in my culture — involves, at least as a goal, coexistence. The state of peace between the U.S. and Canada, for example, means that they exist side by side.

Another way of looking at peace is perhaps most familiar from the pax Romana, the “Roman peace.” That term doesn’t mean that all of the different cultures in the Roman empire existed side by side. Rather, it means that Rome conquered the other cultures, assimilating them into the empire. The defeated cultures couldn’t fight back, so there was pax, “peace.”

(We see something similar in the American “secretary of war” who became the “secretary of defense” without — to my knowledge — any change of the job description.)

The original Hebrew word shalom is closer in what it implies to the pax of the pax Romana than to the English word “peace.” (I should be clear: this is in its original context. It didn’t take long for the term to be revised to mean what the English “peace” does.) This is not to say that shalom didn’t describe what we now call “peace,” any more than in Modern English we use “peace” even when one side has destroyed the other. But the implications of shalom were different than what’s implied by “peace.”

It’s always difficult to know what to do when you have a translation that means the right thing but implies the wrong thing.

In our case, the original sar shalom was probably in charge of keeping order — perhaps by preventing war, but also perhaps by winning it. “Peace” to me seems to exclude the latter, but I don’t think we have a better translation available to us.

The sar of shalom

Regarding the combination, I don’t think the word shalom describes what the sar was, but rather (as elsewhere) what the sar oversaw. So the sar shalom wasn’t the “peaceful ruler,” but rather the “ruler in charge of shalom.” And as we’ve seen, that’s a tricky concept to convey in Modern English.

Finally, this note from The Jewish Study Bible is helpful:

This long sentence is the throne name of the royal child. Semitic names often consist of sentences that describe God[…] In Akkadian, the name of the Babylonian king Merodach-baladan (Isa. 39:1) means “the god Marduk has provided an heir.” These names do not describe that person who holds them but the god whom the parents worship.

So it looks like the child is named sar shalom, but God is the sar shalom.

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January 22, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , ,

5 Comments »

  1. The problem is that English “prince” has changed its meaning. It used to mean “leader”, but now it has come to mean “junior member of the royal family”.

    Sounds like a better rendering would be “commander of the occupying forces”. More David Petraeus or Ray Odierno (but without the continued bombings) than Prince Charles.

    Of course if the Jewish Study Bible’s “royal child” is correct, the rendering “prince” could be appropriate after all.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | January 22, 2010 | Reply

  2. Two images came to mind as I read your musings…

    UN Peacekeepers… but more significantly, the Preamble to the US Constitution:

    “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
    http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html#Preamble

    Domestic Tranquility
    One of the concerns of the Framers was that the government prior to that under the Constitution was unable, by force or persuasion, to quell rebellion or quarrels amongst the states. The government watched in horror as Shay’s Rebellion transpired just before the Convention, and some states had very nearly gone to war with each other over territory (such as between Pennsylvania and Connecticut over Wilkes-Barre). One of the main goals of the Convention, then, was to ensure the federal government had powers to squash rebellion and to smooth tensions between states.
    http://www.usconstitution.net/glossary.html

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 22, 2010 | Reply

  3. I’ve skimmed through a book on ANE warfare called By Arrow, Sword, and Spear. Somewhere in there I read that a ruler made an empire and then declared himself “prince of peace,” much in the way of the pax Romana. At least in the context of Isaiah, I’m sure there is some political backdrop to the total phrase “prince of peace.” Let me note, though, that the book was on sale at Barnes and Noble and is not scholarly (no references!).

    Thank you for the lexical work here. I found the sar half to be particularly educational. I’m aware that the Jewish understanding of peace is much more than the absence of war. Everything about the Messianic Kingdom in Isaiah can probably be related to shalom, including prosperity. And Paul’s statement that God is not a god of chaos, but of eirene/shalom is particularly instructive to see its connotation of order.

    And then, of course, there is shalom as well-being in 2 Sam 11:7, which makes no sense in the LXX.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | January 22, 2010 | Reply

  4. Non-Muslims are often hoodwinked by Muslim protestations that they are for “peace” (salaam) when their definition is intrinsically tied to the rule of Allah. For example, where Shariah is the law of the land, is “the land of peace.” Everywhere else is “the land of jihad” – even if there is a truce at the moment. Peace comes exclusively through conquest and control, rather than by co-existence.

    If I’m not mistaken, that is largely the scriptural concept as well. Peace/Shalom is where God has put down all enemies and he rules unchallenged.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 23, 2010 | Reply

  5. […] with “Prince of Peace,” we assume that the title “wonderful, counselor” — whatever it means […]

    Pingback by Q&A: Who is the Wonderful Counselor? « God Didn't Say That | February 16, 2010 | Reply


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