God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Haiti and Jeremiah 25:7

Dr. Jim West’s comment that Jeremiah 25 is a good litmus test for translation — and his claim that the NLT doesn’t do badly — directed my attention to the NLT’s translation of Jeremiah 25. In light of some resent claims about the disaster in Haiti, Jeremiah 25:7 in the NLT jumped off the page at me:

“But you would not listen to me,” says the LORD. “You made me furious by worshiping your idols, bringing on yourselves all the disasters you now suffer.

I’ve bolded the part that struck me. The problem is that the Hebrew doesn’t say that. Here’s the original:

“You didn’t listen to me,” v’lo sh’matem eilai
says Adonai, n’um adonai
“so that you angered me” l’ma’an hach’isuni
with the works of your hands b’ma’asei y’deichem
to harm you.” l’ra lachem

The verse follows up on the previous one, in which God warns, “do not pursue other gods and serve them and bow down to them, and do not anger me with the works of your hands, and I will not harm you.” The repetition in verses 25:6 and 25:7 of “anger,” “works of your hands” and “harm” tie the two together.

Verse 25:6 is classic Hebrew parallelism, in which “other gods” from the first part is like “works of your hands” in the second part. These are idols. More interestingly, Jeremiah juxtaposes “pursuing/serving/bowing down to [other gods]” with “angering [God].” So one message of verse 25:6 is that “serving other gods” is like “angering God,” just as “other gods” are like “works of [human] hands.”

It seems to me that at the very least a translation of these two verses should (a) convey the point of the passage, and only the point of the passage; and (b) preserve the connection between the two verses.

The NLT fails (a), because the original verses do not say “bringing on yourselves.” Does the original text imply that the false-god worshippers have brought about their own punishment? Maybe, if you think that failing to heed a warning is the same as bringing something on yourself. But even so, turning an implication of the text into the text is a mistake.

The NLT also misses the connection with the previous verse: “Do not make me angry by worshiping the idols you have made. Then I will not harm you” (Jer 25:6, NLT). The switch from “angry” to “furious” for the same Hebrew word is misleading. The NLT rewrite of 25:6 lacks the parellism of the original, but I think it still conveys the similarity of angering God and worshipping idols.

Other translations do a better with (a), generally sticking to the text and not editorializing, and most stick essentially with the KJV: “[Jer 25:6] And go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, and provoke me not to anger with the works of your hands; and I will do you no hurt. [25:7] Yet ye have not hearkened unto me, saith the LORD; that ye might provoke me to anger with the works of your hands to your own hurt.” The parallelism in 25:6 is preserved, as is the connection between the two verses, because both have “provoke me to anger,” “works of your hands,” and “hurt.”

On the other hand, “do you no hurt” and “to your own hurt” are barely English.

The ESV changes “hurt” to “harm,” updating the English a bit. The NRSV does the same.

The NAB fixes verse 25:6 with “bring evil upon you,” but then keeps “to your own harm” in the following verse, breaking the connection between the two.

The NIV fixes verse 25:6 with “then I will not harm you” and follows up with “and you have brought harm to yourselves,” again shifting the focus a little.

The CEV correctly preserves the neutrality of the Hebrew in 25:7: “you are the ones who were hurt by what you did,” but in 25:6 that version invents a new premise: “I don’t want to harm you.”

Though there are some interesting translation issues in Jeremiah 25:6-7, it’s among the more straightforward passages, and I’m a little surprised how far some versions stray in translating it.

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January 31, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments