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 »

  1. it’s ok that one verse jumped out at you but of course translation requires context. the context of the passage, in hebrew, supports the nlt.

    Comment by Jim | January 31, 2010 | Reply

    • Yes, but I don’t think that it’s the job of the translation to spell out the context. (For example, the context certainly supports “God is powerful,” but I wouldn’t put that phrase in the translation of 25:6.) I think that if the text is correctly translated, the context will come through — as it ought to — as context.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 31, 2010 | Reply

  2. My favorite “Haiti” passage is this one:

    Luke 13:
    1 ¶ There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? 3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
    6 ¶ He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. 7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? 8 And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: 9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 31, 2010 | Reply

  3. I agree: at the least, a translation should convey the point and nothing more. Ideally, it should also imply what the original implies, without changing it to a direct statement.

    The English writer in me would want to translate vv 6-7 like so:

    Do not go after other gods, [A]
    serving them and worshiping them. [B]
    Don’t provoke me [B] with the work of your hands, [A]
    and I won’t bring you harm. [C]

    But you didn’t listen, says Adonai. [X]
    You provoked me [B] — you provoked me [B]
    with the work of your hands, [A]
    bringing you harm. [C]

    For this to work, A is idolatry, B is provoking God’s anger, C is bringing harm, and X is a blank spot.

    Doing so would make the parallelism ABBAC, XBBAC.

    This rendering makes it seem that the act of provocation is what brings harm in v 7. If this is introducing clarity where the Hebrew leaves agency unclear in harm-bringing, then this translation wouldn’t work.

    Thoughts?

    Comment by Gary Simmons | January 31, 2010 | Reply

    • Mostly I like it.

      Why did you repeat “you provoked me” in v. 7?

      And I’m not sure about “provoke” instead of “anger.” For me, one issue is the general paradigm of a threat of the sort “if you don’t do X, I’ll do Y.” Who is really responsible for “Y” — the maker of the threat or the one who fails to do “X”?

      I think it depends on the situation, and I wonder if “provoke” instead of “anger” prejudices the answer here.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 1, 2010 | Reply

  4. I was recently having a discussion on a forum related to Judaism where I noted that it appeared to me that, not only in the NT, but in the OT as well, God appears to loathe Jews. By this I mean, all of his interactions with Jews seem to involve him expressing how disgusted he is with their behavior, how, if they don’t radically change (or, in Jeremiah, even if they do) he is going to “empty his machine gun into them” and, begrudgingly, spare just a few, so he won’t appear to have failed to fulfill his commitments. This verse in Jeremiah is an all-too-typical example.

    While he expresses so much contempt for Jews, I think it is fair to say that he is even more contemptuous of the nations – he just doesn’t go into it as often.

    What I wonder is if anyone can think of any passage in the OT or NT (or even Apocrypha) wherein God expresses that he is *pleased* by his people (or anyone else). I could only think of certain people “finding favor” such as Noah or David, and them only momentarily.

    I know “God didn’t say that” is largely about misreadings of individual passages, but I’m trying to reality check whether I’m misreading the macro-expression of God in relation to people.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 1, 2010 | Reply


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