God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Why Chiasmus Matters in Proverbs 14:31

Jeff (at Scripture Zealot) wonders about Proverbs 14:31:

Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
but he who is generous to the needy honors him. (ESV)

Jeff’s question is whether “his” in the first half of the verse is “the oppressor’s” or “the poor man’s.”

As it happens, about a decade of linguistics research last century was devoted to similar matters, the typical case involving questions like whose picture got taken if “John’s friend took his picture.” Nonetheless, taken by itself, the Hebrew in the first part of Proverbs 14:31 is potentially ambiguous.

But we get an answer by looking at the second part, because it forms a chiasm with the first part. That is, the first and second lines are parallel, with matching parts in each.

So “oppresses a poor man” in the first half is like “generous to the needy” in the second, and “insults his Maker” is like “honors him” in the second. Furthermore, the word order is reversed in Hebrew, along the lines of:

Who oppresses a poor man gives insult to his maker,
and he gives him honor who favors the needy.

It’s pretty clear that the second part doesn’t mean “who favors the needy gives the poor man’s maker honor,” so “his maker” in the first half is “the oppressor’s maker,” as is “him” in the second half.

So The Message got that part of the meaning right with “You insult your Maker when you exploit the powerless; when you’re kind to the poor, you honor God.” The Message also gets points for not turning the inclusive Hebrew into gender-specific English, though it loses a point for turning “him” into “God.”

Beyond this specific verse, I think it’s interesting that knowledge of how Hebrew poetry works can help clarify the original meaning of the text.

February 15, 2011 Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , | 2 Comments