God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How God Makes Peace

A question arrived via e-mail about the different Hebrew verbs that mean “create” or “make” and how they relate to “peace.”

There are three Biblical Hebrew verbs that all mean roughly the same thing: asah, yatzar, and bara.

Later Jewish thought would differentiate them, giving asah the most basic meaning (like “do” or “make” in English), yatzar the more specific meaning of “fashion” or “form,” and bara the most specific meaning: “create in the way that only God creates.”

The question was why, when God creates peace (shalom), the verb is asah and not bara.

For example, we read in Job 25:2 that God asahs shalom on high (a passage that would later form the basis of one of the most common Jewish prayers). In another famous line, also co-opted into the Liturgy (with a huge modification),* Isaiah 45:7 notes that God yatzars light and baras darkness, asahs shalom and baras evil.

While it’s true that bara is almost always reserved for God’s work, there may be exceptions, like Ezekiel 21:24, where Ezekiel does the baraing. (Ezekiel there, as in other places, is called “son of man.” The combination of “son of man” and a verb usually reserved for God raises all sorts of interesting interpretations.) On the other hand, some people think that the verb in Ezekiel doesn’t mean “create” but rather is a homonym with a different meaning.

Either way, I think this is a good opportunity to revisit how parallelisms work in Hebrew. The poetry of Isaiah 45:7 doesn’t come from the way the verbs match up with their objects. Rather, the poetry lies in the pairs that are created when phrases are juxtaposed. In this case, the three verbs are so commonly put in parallel that they blend into the poetic background. The poetry comes from starting with an obvious pair of opposites (light and dark) and then a non-obvious pair: peace and evil. The message is that peace is to evil what light is to darkness. The verbs are just there to create grammatical sentences.

Though it’s always tricky to draw general conclusions from the stylized writing in Job, we do see another lesson in Job 25:2. Even if bara is reserved for what God does, it doesn’t follow that everything God does gets the verb bara.

Finally, “makes peace” in English has two meanings: “create peace” and “work things out.” I think the Hebrew may have been similarly ambiguous.

(*) The early Jewish rabbis, perhaps not wanting to admit that God creates evil, changed the line — and (“with all due respect”) watered it down — in the liturgy, replacing “evil” with “everything.”

March 9, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 5 Comments

Top Translation Traps: Relying on Structure

Perhaps the biggest translation mistake I’ve seen is relying too closely on word-internal structure to figure out what words mean. We saw this last week with toldot and in a comment regarding etymology.

I call this the trap “word-internal structure” (even though it applies to phrases, too).


As usual, we can look at modern languages to see how poorly internal structure reveals the meaning of a word.

Two examples from my recent And God Said include “hostile,” which doesn’t mean “like a host,” even though the pattern of “infant” and “infantile” would suggest otherwise; and “patently,” which means “obviously” even though a patent by definition must be non-obvious. We see that even with something so simple as adding “-ly” to a word, we can’t rely on structure to tell us what a word means.


Also from And God Said comes this example about phrases:

A more detailed example highlights the issue. English has a verb “pick” and two words “on” and “up” that can be added to verbs. “Pick” (as in “pick a lock”) means, “open stealthily without a key.” “Up” means “away from gravity” and “on” means “touching and located in the direction of open space.” (All of these definitions are approximate. That isn’t the point here.) This knowledge, however, doesn’t explain why “pick on” means “annoy,” “pick up” means “increase” (as in, “pick up the tempo”), and “pick up on” means “discern.”

This demonstrates the important fact that phrases, like words, don’t always get their meanings from their parts. (Another favorite example is “drive-through window.”)


We’ve already seen one clear case where internal structure leads us astray. The internal structure of the Hebrew word toldot suggests that it specifically has to do with “birth,” or maybe “generations” or “descendants.” But we saw that it does not.

Another example comes from the Hebrew phrase “spy after” in Numbers 15:39. The verb there is tur, which means “spy” or “explore.” And the preposition is acharei, “after.” But — just as with “pick up” and “pick on” — it’s a mistake to assume that we can understand the phrase just by knowing its parts. In this case, the phrase occurs nowhere else, so we’re stuck with a problem. The full sentence — important enough in Judaism to be included in the m’zuzah that adorns doorways and the t’fillin that serve as ritual prayer objects — is this: “this will be your tassel. When you see them, you will remember all of Adonai’s commandments and do them. Do not ??? your heart and your eyes, after which you lust.”

(Two notes are in order: “heart” is misleading here, as is “lust.” Also, t’fillin enjoys the utterly useless English translation “phylacteries.”)

Translations for the literal “spy after” include “follow after” (ESV), which I don’t think is even an expression in English; “[go] wantonly astray after” (NAB); “going after the lusts of” (NIV); and “follow” (NRSV). Except for the NRSV, all of these translations (wrongly, in my opinion) insist on putting the word “after” in the translation. (The LXX gives us diastrafisesthe opiso, while the Vulgate has the single word sequantur, from sequor, “to follow.”)

Hebrew word-internal structure is complicated, and — depending on personal constitution — either immensely enjoyable or the ultimate barrier to learning Hebrew. Either way, it’s hard to ignore Hebrew’s rich word-internal structure, but sometimes translation demands that we do.

By way of further example, we can consider the Modern Hebrew word m’sukan. It is the passive of the active m’saken. The active means “endanger.” So word-internal structure points us to “endangered” for a translation of the passive. But that’s wrong. The word means “endangering.” In other words, the passive means almost the same thing as the active. “Dangerous” is the usual translation.


When I discussed energeo (responding to discussions by J.R. Daniel Kirk and on BBB — then BBB followed up, as did T.C. Robinson), one comment noted that I “miss[ed] the distinction between the active in Matthew 14:2, Galatians 3:5 etc. and the middle or passive in Galatians 5:6 and James 5:16.” I think we see from the discussion here that, while the active/passive/middle distinction is not to be ignored, neither can we rely on it to tell us what words mean. It’s possible (as we just saw in Modern Hebrew) for a passive form not simply to indicate the passive of what the active form indicates.


It seems to me that two lessons are important.

First, word-internal structure, while sometimes helpful and often fun, is an unreliable way to figure out what a word means.

Secondly, phrases are just like individual words in this regard.

So when we look at a word or a phrase, I think it’s important not just to look at its formal structure.

March 8, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

God’s Word and Joel 2:11

Thanks to Wayne at BBB for pointing out that the God’s Word translation (GW) has a new website.

One page on the site compares representative passages as translated in GW and other versions.

I noticed Joel 2:11, which GW translates as, “The day of the Lord is extremely terrifying. Who can endure it?” I was disappointed to find the poetry (and one of the words) of the Hebrew missing. Here’s the original:

ki gadol yom YHWH v’norah m’od umi y’chilenu
for great day-of ADONAI and-awe-inspiring very and-who contains-it

The passage is tricky for three reasons:

1. The Hebrew syntax here is important. The first part (ki gadol yom Adonai) is the normal way of saying “the Lord’s day is great.” But the addition of v’nora m’od (“and very awe-inspiring”) after the noun creates a second, intensifying phrase. It’s like, “great is the Lord’s day, and very awe-inspiring,” except that “great is the Lord’s day” is hardly normal English.

2. The word nora (“awful”? “awesome”? “awe-inspiring”? etc.) is hard to translate into English. The original idea is the sort of fearful admiration one might feel toward an encroaching lightning storm.

3. The final word normally means “to contain,” or maybe “to hold in.” The progression in meaning may have been similar to the English “to bear,” which is both “to carry” and “to endure.”

Working backward, GW’s choice of “endure it” is reasonable for (3).

“Terrifying” for norah at least has the benefit that it doesn’t seem worse to me than other reasonable choices.

But what happened to gadol and to the Hebrew syntax? I understand that any translation can accidentally miss a few words — I know I’ve published translations that in retrospect seem wrong to me — but the publishers of GW chose to highlight this verse as an example of their success.

So I’m left wondering what happened here.

March 3, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , | 13 Comments

Here’s the Story of Toldot

From the about page comes a question about the Hebrew word toldot:

I ran across Genesis 6:9 in the TNIV, which says “this is the account of Noah and his family.” I’ve checked the KJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, Message, Luther’s translation (1545), the Amplified Bible, the NLT, and the Leningrad Codex for good measure. Only the TNIV and NLT mention his family.

We don’t have a good word for toldot is English (at least, not that I can think of). Though it occurs only about a dozen times in Genesis (and then once in Exodus and once in Ruth) it’s an important word. In a sense, what Genesis is about is toldot.

Unfortunately, the usual translation “generations” is completely wrong, and comes from a misunderstanding of how to interpret Hebrew. (Specifically, it comes from using word internal structure to figure out what a word means. This is the second time that that translation trap has come up this week. I’ll try to write more about it soon.)

We first encounter the word in Genesis 2:4: “These are the toldot of the heavens and the earth as they were created.” There’s a lot to bicker about in that translation. What follows, though, is what’s widely called “the second account of creation,” so one thing is clear: “generations” makes no sense here. “These are the toldot” introduces the story of creation: heaven, earth, plants, (lack of) rain, etc. There’s nothing about generations there.

Genesis 25:12-13 gives us more information about the word toldot: “These are the toldot of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom the Egyptian Hagar, Sara’s servant, bore to Abraham. These are the names of Ishmael’s children … Nebaioth — Ishmael’s firstborn — Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam…” Because it’s the children of Ishmael that follow the introduction “these are the toldot,” — and because of the (wrong) English translation “generations,” it looks like toldot here is specifically introducing descendants. Indeed, the NAB translates the word here as “descendants.”

But the reasoning is faulty. Just because the descendants come next doesn’t mean that the word means “descendants.”

In Genesis 6:9 we read, “these are the toldot of Noah. Noah was a righteous man in his generation [dorot in Hebrew, not toldot]. Noah walked with God.” It’s not until the next verse that Noah’s children are listed. The toldot seem to include the fact that Noah was righteous.

Genesis 25:19 tells us, “these are the toldot of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham was Isaac’s father.” Particularly after the phrase, “Abraham’s son,” the sentence “Abraham was Isaac’s father” stands out. The toldot here seem to include Isaac’s father, not just his children.

More evidence comes from Genesis 37:2: “These are the toldot of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father” (ESV — which uses “generations” for toldot here). Here the word toldot includes particularly what happened with Joseph.

The bits of information that come after each person or thing’s toldot have something in common: they are all important for understanding the person or thing. In Genesis 6:9, it’s important to know that “Noah was righteous in his generation” in order to understand Noah. In Genesis 25:19, it’s important to know that Abraham was Isaac’s father; that’s part of who Isaac is. In Genesis 2:4, was follows “the toldot of the heavens and the earth” is important information about their creation. And so forth.

The word toldot seems to introduce something important to know.

It just so happens that descendants were particularly important in the Bible, so frequently the important bit of information regards children.

As for the TNIV’s “account of Noah and his family,” I understand the motivation, but I don’t agree with the translation. The passage is about Noah, even though it mentions his family.

By comparison, we might consider two English sentences: “What you have to know about Bill is that he loves sports” and “what you have to know about Bill and sports is that Bill loves sports.” They’re not the same thing, and to take one and render it as the other seems like a mistake to me.

I think “story” would work pretty well for toldot if the word didn’t have two meanings. “Story” can be “information about” (that’s like toldot) but also “tale.” The first meaning seems pretty good for toldot, but the problem is that the second meaning encroaches. And particularly regarding a text whose nature is a matter of fierce debate — is this is a story? history? fable? myth? etc. — prejudicing the issue with “story” doesn’t seem to work. (Still, some translations use “story” for toldot in places.)

At any rate, I think it’s important not to deflate the force of toldot, which is what I see happening in translations that substitute more specific terms for “toldot” or that over-explain the text.

March 2, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Why the True Meaning isn’t the True Meaning

Last month, Bill Mounce, C. Michael Patton, and Clayboy all alluded to the issue of etymology, which is surely one of the biggest translation traps (and important enough that I devote considerable attention to it in my And God Said).

Etymology is really fun. Tracing a word’s winding history, seeing how meanings mutated, and learning about the legacy of long-dead meanings are engaging and entertaining ways to delve deeper into language. This is probably why people look to etymology to figure out what a word means, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work.


As usual, we can start with some English examples to get a sense of things.

For example, people like to say that “commit” means to bundle your fate together with another’s, because, after all, “commit” comes from Latin that means “to put together.” It’s a lovely poetic thought (or not), but it’s not what “commit” means.

Similarly, “glamour” and “grammar” share an etymology, but that doesn’t mean that grammar is necessarily glamorous.

A third example comes from the English verb “to table,” which reflects the notion of sitting around a table at a meeting. But in America, “to table a motion” is to put the motion on the table where it won’t be seen until later; that is, it means “not to vote on.” By contrast, in England the phrase means to put the motion on the table in front of everyone, that is, “to vote on.” These two opposite meanings come from the same etymological source.

Hebrew and Greek

Hebrew and Greek work the same way as English in this regard, but still, at least one example seems in order. The root d.b.r gives us the words for davar (“thing”) and d’vorah (“bee”). The root may have originally been used for “speak,” and from there words based on it branched out, meaning (in the case of davar) “that which is spoken about” and (in the case of d’vorah) something that makes a buzzing sound not unlike speech.

But this doesn’t mean that bees in Hebrew are any different than in English. They don’t have a closer connection to speech than in English, for example. More generally, the perhaps interesting etymology does not tell us what the words mean.


The lesson is pretty clear: Don’t use etymology to figure out what a word means.

Finally (and this too is from And God Said), we can note that “in a lovely bit of irony that demonstrates our point, the word ‘etymology’ comes from the Greek for “true meaning.”

So the “true meaning” isn’t the meaning at all.

March 1, 2010 Posted by | translation theory, Translation Traps | , , , , | 15 Comments