God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Things to do with Your Hands

A string of comments on a thread at BBB raises the issue of what it means in Ezekiel 6:11 to “clap your hands” in horror (NRSV, NAB, NLT, and others).

It turns out that the Hebrew doesn’t say “clap” but rather “strike with.”

There is a Hebrew verb “clap” — macha — and it represents joy. I’ve always found the vivid image of nature clapping its (her?) hands (Psalm 98:8, e.g., or Isaiah 55:12) to be one of the most joyous and uplifting.

There’s also a Hebrew verb “strike” — hikah — and that verb seems to represent violence. By itself, hikah can even mean “to slay.” (This is the verb commonly once translated as “smite,” and, in fact, the KJV gives us, “smite with thine hand” here.) More generally, the verb is also used for things like Moses hitting the rock (in frustration or anger) to get water from it in Numbers 20:11.

In Ezekiel 6:11 we find not macha (“clap”) but rather hikah (“strike”). The translation should read, “strike with your hands…” (The NIV comes closer than some others with “strike your hands together.”)

I’m not sure why this verse caused so much confusion, but it seems to me that the faulty translations blur what could be an important point: hands can be used to celebrate or to attack.

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June 11, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice | , , ,

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