God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

May I have my ear back, please?

Give Ear

At BBB, Wayne notes the oddity of the English phrase “give ear” for the Hebrew he’ezin.

I think it can be useful to look at what went wrong here.

The Root of the Problem

Hebrew has at least two words for “hear/listen.”

The first is shama. We find it, for example, in the imperative in the famous passage from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear [shma], Israel…”

The second is he’ezin. As it happens, that verb shares a root with the word “ear,” ozen. Accordingly, some translators (wrongly, in my opinion) feel the need to translate the word into an English word or phrase that contains the word “ear.” That’s where we get, for example, the odd “give ear, O Shepherd of Israel” for Psalm 80:1 (a.k.a. 80:2) in the KJV and others.

The Reasoning

The reasoning is flawed.

English happens to have an expression “give ear” (or so I’m told — I know Shakespeare used it, but outside of Bible translations I don’t think I’ve heard or seen it recently), but the appearance of “ear” in the expression doesn’t make it the right translation for he’ezin.

Modern Hebrew also has a verb he’ezin, and everyone knows that it means “listen.” In fact, a radio announcer will frequently address an audience as ma’azinim — “listeners.” “Ear givers” is quite clearly wrong. (As it happens, as with “ladies and gentlemen,” the Modern Hebrew expression is frequently “ma’azinim and ma’azinot” — male and female listeners.)

In Biblical (and Modern) Hebrew, the word for “spy” (m’ragel) shares a root with the word “foot” (regel), yet no translation that I know of ventures into “foot soldier” (or “foot spy” or “footer” or “foot maker” or “foot giver”).

And in fact, even if we take the flawed reasoning seriously, we still might end up with “hear,” not “give ear.” After all, “hear” contains the word “ear.”

The Solution

Accordingly, many translations avoid the now archaic “give ear.” Returning to Psalm 80, we find “listen” or “hear” in the NAB, NIV, NJB, and NLT. (I was disappointed to see “give ear” in the NRSV.)


We frequently find the verb he’ezin in parallel with shama, and this creates a little more complexity, because we need two different words to convey the parallelism.

For example, Moses’ great speech in Deuteronomy 32 opens with the double parallelism “he’ezin/heaven” and “shama/earth.” The KJV renders this as “give ear/heavens” and “hear/earth.” Other translations prefer “listen/heavens” and “hear/earth,” which I think works much better.

On the other hand, Psalm 78 is a real challenge, because there he’ezin is in parallel with hatu oz’n’chem, literally “incline your ear.” To “incline the ear” is a Biblical Hebrew expression, but I don’t believe we have it in English, Bible translations notwithstanding.

So to translate Psalm 78, we need two words or phrases, one only tangentially related to the ear, the other more specifically about the ear. It’s true that the ESV’s solution accomplishes this dual goal with “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!” But I fear it does so at the expense of intelligibility.

Any suggestions for a better way of translating Psalm 78?


August 22, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , ,

1 Comment

  1. I just used listen for the first one
    Listen my people to my instruction
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth
    – but maybe something a bit more imaginative would be suitable. It is after all the first great recitation of the history of Israel in poetry.

    In Psalms 14 and 53 I like the expression ‘leaned over to have a look’ at what was going on among the children of dust. There is something very physical about leaning, ear, and mouth that is lost in our listen and even hear – perhaps we should reinvent the guttural and have a break in “h’ear” to emphasize the physical intake of stuff from the anointed mouth. Most of our religion is far too abstract.

    Friends, etc, lend me your ear – is a phrase we were all made to memorize – and it is very physical. But you can take your ear back when you realize that Antony is after your heart not your ear.

    Asaph is after your understanding also – but when you ‘get’ the riddles
    I will open my mouth in a parable
    to ferment riddles from of old
    you won’t want to take back your ear because you will know the one who
    tended them as the completeness of his heart
    and in his discernment of his openness he guided them.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | August 22, 2010

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