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 | , , , ,


  1. I really appreciate this post. I’m lacking in knowledge and this really helps.

    Comment by Scripture Zealot | February 16, 2011

  2. Joel,

    I like what you’ve done here, and I think it’s helpful, but I have a question about this statement:

    It’s pretty clear that the second part doesn’t mean “who favors the needy gives the poor man’s maker honor,”

    What makes it pretty clear? I don’t see the connection (could be that I’m just dense!) The “poor” and the “needy” are parallel, and practically synonymous, aren’t they? So giving the poor/needy man’s Maker honor is giving honor to one’s own Maker.

    No matter how I read the verse, I keep thinking that the intended message seems to be the very question (and answer) it generated in Jeff’s mind: “Whose Maker? Both have the same Maker. So be humble and don’t oppress your fellow creature. No matter how lofty and powerful you think you are, you’re NOT the Maker.” In other words, I wonder if the Hebrew is purposely ambiguous to help us connect the One Maker to both individuals?

    Proverbs 17:5 presents a similar thought, though apparently without the chiasm:
    “He who mocks the poor taunts his Maker;
    He who rejoices at calamity will not go unpunished.” (NASB)

    Prov 22:2 draws the conclusion:
    “The rich and the poor have a common bond,
    The LORD is the maker of them all.” (NASB)

    This shows that the thought of both individuals/classes having the same Maker at least might have been in the author’s mind when he penned the other two verses.

    Derek Ashton

    Comment by theoparadox | February 18, 2011

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