God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Nabal the Fool

From the About page:

Wikipedia, the source of all truth, says that Nabal in 1 Samuel 25:25 is “euphemistically translated as fool.” So far as I can tell, it’s always translated as fool or something similar. I can’t seem to find a dirty meaning for “nabal” anywhere. Is that because mainstream scholarship is too prudish or is Wikipedia talking nonsense?

I’ll complain about Wikipedia another time, for now just noting that I took a look at the article and I could find very little right about it.

I don’t think that “fool” is a euphemism here.
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February 22, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , | 4 Comments

Q&A: Who is the Wonderful Counselor?

Polycarp asks on the About page how “wonderful, counselor” of Isaiah 9:5 (9:6) should be translated.

It’s a difficult question with a longer than usual answer. But here goes.

As with “Prince of Peace,” we assume that the title “wonderful, counselor” — whatever it means — describes God after whom the child in Isaiah 9 is named, not the child himself. But translating the two-word combination is tricky.


The word for “wonderful” here is the noun peleh, commonly translated “wonder” or “miracle.”

As I point out here, one way of looking at things holds that there were no miracles in the Bible, because miracles are by definition extra-scientific, and there was no science in the Bible. So many people prefer “wonder” for peleh.

A peleh is normally something that is done, as, for example, in Exodus 15:11 (“Who is like you, Adonai … doing peleh!”) or Psalm 77:15 (“You are God who does peleh.”) We also note that the word is usually singular, as though it’s a collective noun. (It usually ends up as the plural terata in the LXX, a word that encompasses not just peleh but other “signs” as well.)

When we see peleh used here as what God is — rather than what God does — the word stands out, and I think that the attempt to turn “wonder” into “wonderful” through translation is probably misguided.

If peleh is indeed a collective noun in Hebrew but not in English, the right translation may be “wonders.”

On the other hand, the whole notion of giving people names that describe the deity after whom they are named is so foreign to most English speakers that whatever we do will end up sounding a little odd, so maybe we may as well stick with “wonder” here.


The Hebrew for “counselor” is yo’eitz. The word is used frequently enough in parallel with other words and phrases that we know that a yo’eitz is wise (e.g., Isaiah 3:3), that a yo’etiz can consult to a king (e.g., 1 Kings 12:6), and that kings can have more than one (2 Chronicles 22:4).

We also see it used in parallel with such words as “prophet” (navi) in Isaiah 29:10 and “judge” (shofet) in Isaiah 1:26. Accordingly, it looks like “adviser” or “counselor” is a pretty good bet, but the emphasis of the Hebrew word seems to be on the qualities of what the person is, not what the person does.

The difference is sometimes hard to appreciate, but for an example we can compare “attorney” (what a person is) and “litigator” (what a person does), though the analogy isn’t perfect.


So what are the words doing together?

Isaiah 9 is not the only place we find what looks like a combination of peleh and yo’eitz. We see it in Isaiah 25 and Isaiah 28, too.

Isaiah 25 is a self-contained text that describes God’s victory over evil. The end of the first verse proclaims that God “does/did peleh,” adding in parallel “eitzot from afar,” (presumably “from a long time ago”) — the word eitzot is the plural noun connected with the verb yo’eitz.

It’s not clear if this passage is meant to reflect actual history or not, but either way, the combination of peleh and a word related to “counselor” is interesting and confusing at the same time. How is peleh like eitzot? Why are they in parallel? And does the odd juxtaposition of the two concepts here connect to Isaiah 9?

Isaiah 28 uses a verbal form of peleh in connection with the singular of eitzot. The verb, hiphli, is a common modal verb, sometimes representing “to do wonderfully,” and sometimes (as in Numbers 6:2) conveying a broader meaning. In Isaiah 28, it’s how God is/does eitzah, “counsel.”

And again, it’s not clear if this phrase is related to Isaiah 9.

But it does seem clear that, at least in these two passages, “counselor” isn’t quite right. Who is there for God to counsel? Rather — and this accords with what we saw before — it looks like the word focuses on not on what the counselor does (that is, counsel) but rather what the counselor is (smart? wise? something else?).

Isaiah 9

All of this brings us back to Isaiah 9, and the phrase peleh yo’eitz. Both of these words seem to describe what God is (though for peleh this is an atypical usage), but beyond that we have more questions than answers.

The biggest question is whether these are two concepts or whether — as translations commonly indicate — peleh modifies yo’eitz. And even here Hebrew grammar helps us only a little. Normally when two nouns appear side by side in Hebrew, it’s the second that modifies the first, not the other way around. So melech Shin’ar, just for instance, is a king of a place, not a kingly place. So peleh yo’etz could be a counselor-like wonder.

But some words, because of their semantics, allow both possibilities. And “wonder” is such a word. So even though the Hebrew could mean “counselor-like wonder” (if the two words were connected), it could also mean “a wonder of a counselor,” which is to say, basically, a wonderful counselor.

But because the words for “wonder” and “counselor” appear in parallel elsewhere, I think that they are meant to reinforce each other, not modify one another.

So “wonderful counselor” certainly doesn’t do the trick of conveying the Hebrew words. But neither does “wonder, counselor,” though it comes closer. I think “wonder” is okay. But the problem with “counselor” is that — at least to me — it indicates actual counseling, whereas the Hebrew yo’eitz, as we saw, reflects certain innate qualities, not actions.

Beyond this it’s hard to know what nuance to try to capture in translation. “Wonder, Genius” might be the point, or, “Wonder, Knower,” though I suspect that there’s a better pair of English words lurking somewhere.

Any ideas?

February 16, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , | 11 Comments

Q&A: Straightening the Crooked Paths in Isaiah 40:3

From the About page comes this question:

Mark 1:2 and Isaiah 40:3 — is the idea that crooked paths need to be straightened, or that obstacles need to be removed?

Neither, actually.

Isaiah 40:3 is a variation on classic Hebrew parallel poetry. We have two parallel phrases, each with four words. For example, from the NRSV, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD// make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” we have:

A. In the wilderness [bamidbar] prepare [panu] the way [derech] of the Lord [Adonai]

B. Make straight [yashru] in the desert [ba’arava] a highway [m’silah] for our God [leiloheinu]

We might bicker over the lexical translation choices (“highway” seems particularly out of place), but the point is that we have two ways each of referring to four things: God, the desert, the road, and making the road. The first three are pretty easy to translate, but then things get complicated.

The first way of making a road here in Hebrew is panu, more literally “to clear” or “to turn aside.” Translators usually correctly render this verb with an English word that has to do with making roads.

Unfortunately, though (and, come to think of it, ironically), the English choice of “make straight” for the second Hebrew verb here (yashru) leads readers astray. The central point wasn’t so much “straight” as “make.” Like panu derech (“make a way”), yashru m’silah means to prepare a path. So a better translation might juxtapose “clear the way” and “make a path,” or, preferably, some more poetic equivalent.

By focusing readers’ attention on “straight,” the English translation misses both the poetry and the point.
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January 27, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Q&A: Isaiah 28:16 and What Happens to Believers

From the About page comes a question about the last verb in Isaiah 28:16:

His [Dietrich Boenhoffer’s] reading said that “he that believes does not flee”. Is that what this says?


The Hebrew verb at the end (yachish) clearly means “hurry,” — compare Isaiah 5:19 and Psalm 119:60 — so the phrase should mean: “believers will not hurry.” The problem is that that doesn’t seem to make any sense.

This particularly poetic line is important in its own context. Isaiah uses it to interrupt his prophecy of doom with a line of consolation.

The verse is even more important in the context of the NT, becuase it’s quoted (inexactly) in Romans 9:33 and I Peter 2:6. However, the NT quotes the LXX, which has “be shamed” (kataisxunthi) instead of “hurry.”

The Hebrew for “be shamed” would be Y.B.W.Sh, while “hurry” is Y.Ch.Y.Sh. Differences between the LXX and the Hebrew frequently come down to confusion between letters. It’s easy to see how a vav and yud could be confused — it’s one of the most common mistakes — but it’s harder to understand how a bet and a chet could be. They look nothing alike and do not sound at all the same.

If the LXX is right, the passage means: “I [the Lord God] have established a stone in Zion … believers will not be ashamed.” At least the meaning is clear.

If the Hebrew is right, the only thing I can think of is that the point is that God will build Zion, so believers should be patient and not hurry to do it themselves. It’s coherent, I suppose, but I’ve yet to see that interpretation in any translation, and it doesn’t sound right to me.

I feel like we’re missing something here. Any ideas?

January 14, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Q&A: How do you work, O vocative?

From the About page:

As a grammar lesson, I tried parsing Psalm 117. There is a possible usage of a ‘he’ marking the use of the vocative (BDB 1.i) but the article is missing on the first colon kol goyim and present on the second shavxuhu col ha’umim. It seems to me that ‘praise the Lord all ye nations’ is different from ‘praise the Lord, all nations’. While both may be vocative, English vocative would be ‘praise the Lord O nations all’, and English suggests preaching rather than invitation if the you or ye is added. What do you think about the use of ‘he’ as signaling the vocative and then the problem of expressing this in English?

As you identify with your two-part question at the end, there are two parts to translating the vocative (as there are with most matters of translation): (1) understanding how it works in Hebrew; and (2) figuring out how to do the same thing in English.

Part 1 is comparatively easy. Part 2 is harder.

First, for those who don’t know, “vocative” technically refers to a specific noun form that is used in addressing someone (or something). For example, in Russian, bog means “God,” but if you’re talking to God, you use the word boge instead. That’s the vocative. We don’t have a true vocative in English, but when we really need it, we can use the prefix “O,” as in, “O God….” (The Russian case is complicated. Poke around in various grammars and you’ll learn two things: Russian has a vocative case and Russian doesn’t have a vocative case. But it does. Really.)

To the best of my knowlege, Hebrew also doesn’t have a vocative. And the heh does not serve this fucntion.

Rather, nominative nouns in Hebrew are used for address. So elohim is “God” both as a form of reference and as a form of address. Conveniently, the verb form in Hebrew (usually) makes it clear when someone is being addressed rather than talked about. In Psalm 117, the verbs hal’lu and shabchuhu are both plural imperative, indicating that a group is being addressed. In other languages, the addressees might be in the vocative case.

In addition, both definite and indefinite nouns can be addressed. We see both in Psalm 117. First “all nations” are addressed, then “all the peoples.” It’s not clear why one should be definite and the other not, but this doesn’t affect the vocative nature of the phrases. (As a guess, the heh was omitted from the first half of the line to make it sound better in ways that we no longer understand.)

Expressing the vocative is tricky in English. Sometimes we can make do without any marking. For example, “God, save me!” is clear and grammatical in English.

Other times — for reasons that are not clear — the vocative interpretation is unavailable in English. For example, Psalm 103 begins with a command to “my soul” to praise the Lord. But “Praise the Lord, my soul” doesn’t quite sound right. It’s unclear. (Also, nefesh doesn’t mean “soul,” but that’s for another time.)

Two partial solutions present themselves in English.

The first is the archaic “O.” For example, “Praise the Lord, O my soul” for Psalm 103 is clearer. But it sounds archaic, because we don’t use “O” in normal speech in English. (“O police officer, please don’t give me a ticket…”)

The other solution in English is to use the pronoun “you.” This, too, is stilted, and only works sometimes. “Praise the Lord, you my soul” sounds ridiculous in English.

On the other hand, this second solution works marginally well in Psalm 117. “Praise the Lord, all you nations” is a little bit clearer (to my ear) than “Praise the Lord, all nations.”

Still, both “O” and “you” turn what should be a simple sentence into an overly formal or archaic one. But to leave them both out sometimes leaves an unclear sentence.

The problem isn’t just the lack of a vocative in English, by the way. It’s the combined lack of a vocative and clear imperative.

So Psalm 103, Psalm 117, and many of the other imperatives cause problems for the translator.

I think that these vocatives/imperatives — so simple in Hebrew and so convoluted in English — also serve to remind us how complex translation can be.

January 12, 2010 Posted by | general linguistics, Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Q&A: Morphology in Ruth 2:10

From the About page:

Still working on he and vav and I came across this pair of words in Ruth vatishtachu artza.

Two questions — why the vav at the end of the first word? And why the he at the end of the second? KJV translates it as if it were hithpael — she bowed herself to the ground.

I’m playing catch-up after a wonderful visit to Israel, so I thought I’d start with a grammar question. (After all, nothing says “fun” like a little morphology.)

The first word is a wonderful combination of all sorts of grammatical processes. It’s the apocopated hitpa’el, future feminine third person singular. The root is Sh.Ch.H, and the shin and the tav metathesize (“switch places”) as expected with sibilants in hitpa’el.

By apocopated (“short”) I mean that the the final heh from the root Sh.Ch.H has dropped off, as final hehs frequently do in the future third-person singular. (Another example is vayavk instead of vayivkeh for “he wept.”)

So we would expect the form to be vatishtachv instead of vatishtachaveh. The extra vowel in the longer form under the chet — the “a” after the “ch” in transliteration — comes to prevent the frequently undesirable condition of a syllable ending with a chet. In the shorter form, however, another stratagy prevents a chet-final syllable. The consonantal vav becomes vocalic. This, too, is a regular part of Hebrew grammar — consider the prefix “and” which can be v’- or u- (among other possibilities) — but grammar books don’t often emphasize the general nature of this process.

So the first word is just “she bowed.” (Perhaps “bowed herself” was English when the KJV was composed, but now that translation is just wrong.)

As for artza, the final heh is directional. The word means “toward the ground.”

So we have metathesis, apocopation, and resyllabification in the first word. And — perhaps refusing to disappear completely — the missing heh from the first word shows up on the second.

January 8, 2010 Posted by | grammar, Q&A | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Q&A: The Details of Matthew 26:52

Here’s another question from the About page:

Should English translations seek to retain subtle distinctions, such as the difference between dying and perishing?

Much to my surprise, the (T)NIV chose to say “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Since I grew up reading NIV, but have since become a pacifist, this editorializing is a shock and disappointment to me.

I see three questions here.

The first is a theoretical question: “Should English translations seek to retain subtle distinctions, such as the difference between dying and perishing?” I think that translations should absolutely try to retain subtle distinctions. For example, even though “perishing” and “dying” are similar, they are not the same, and where one is the right translation, the other is not. So my answer to the theoretical question is yes.

The second question is more difficult: Is it possible? In other words, can we discern the nuances in the ancient Greek (or Hebrew) with enough precision to know how to render the words in English? I think the general answer to this question is, unfortunately, no. By and large, nuances such as “die” versus “perish” are exceedingly difficult to tease apart even in one’s native language. So although there are exceptions, nuances are often impossible to analyze in ancient languages.

And even when we do have a good sense of what the ancient words implied, it’s often impossible to find parallel English words.

The third question relates particularly to Matthew 26:52. What’s the right translation? I see two main issues.

The first issue is the first verb (lambano). It doesn’t mean “live.” (I don’t think you’re remembering the NIV translation correctly.) “Take” is a pretty good choice, as is “accept” (e.g., in John 5). “Draw” might work here, because one “draws a sword” in English.

The second issue is the one you point out. What does apollumi mean? Having drawn the sword, will one “die” or “perish”? Based on other usages (Luke 5:37, just for example, or the LXX to Jeremiah 23:1), “die” seems too narrow. We also see that the active verb means something like “destroy” so the middle that we see here should be akin to “be destroyed” (or, if you think the verb means “kill” — which I don’t — “be killed”).

The active/passive/middle nuances here seem pretty important to me. To me, “…die by the sword” seems largely metaphorical, while “…be killed by the sword” leans toward more literal possibilitIes.

(A final question arises regarding how Matthew 26:52 might be relevant to pacifism, but that’s surely for another time.)

So the right translation is tricky. But in spite of the well-known saying, “live by the sword…die by the sword” seems wrong here.

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , | 4 Comments

Q&A: Girl Nations and Boy Nations

From the About comes this great question:

I have a question about the gender of nations. It seems like nations can be referred with both masculine and feminine pronouns. Is there any significance with this change? For example, Moab is “he” in Isa 16:12, Israel is “he” in Jer 2:14; 50:17 but “herself” in Jer 3:11, and Babylon is “she” in Jer 50:29, just to name a few.

What a fascinating observation for those of us who love language.

Gender, as we know, is more complex than Language 101 classes would suggest (I have some particularly vexing examples here), and it’s not unheard of for words to allow two genders.

For example, the Modern Hebrew shemesh, “sun,” is generally feminine but in poetry can be masculine. In this case, the agreement choice even has implications for the translator, because masculine agreement is a sign of poetic register.

On the other hand, multiple gender agreement is fairly rare. So when we see dual agreement with so many nation-words (“Moab,” “Damascus,” “Egypt,” “Israel,” and others) we have to assume that this is more than coincidence.

To get a sense of the issue we need only look at Isaiah 17:1. There, damesek (“Damascus”) is first masculine, then feminine: hinei damesek musar [masculine] mei’ir v’hayta [feminine] m’i hapala, that is, “Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a pile of rubble.” “Will cease” is masculine and “will become” is feminine.

Another example is mitzrayim (“Egypt”). In Exodus 12:33 the word for the nation takes a feminine verb, in Psalm 105:38 (sometimes numbered 104:38), a masculine one.

Exodus 14:25 expands the data set a bit, because Egypt is personified as “I,” not “we”: vayomer mitzrayim anusa…, “Egypt said, ‘I will….’,” though every translation I know of, including the LXX, renders this as “we will…” Going back to Exodus 12:33, we see that even though mitzrayim takes a feminine singular verb at first, the continuation of the verse is masculine plural.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy way to gather all of the verbs that have a particular subject. So for now this is more like a “Q and not really A,” because I don’t have an answer yet.

(As a guess, this is a case of conflicting agreement considerations. For example, in English, “either he or I will be in jail” is perfectly grammatical. But it’s not so easy to put that sentence into the present. “Either he or I am in jail?” No. “Either he or I is in jail?” Also no. “Either he or I are in jail?” A little better. I suspect that, similarly, in Hebrew there were reasons for nations to be masculine and feminine, singular and plural. But without more data, it’s hard to form a more concrete conclusion.)

Can someone provide a complete or nearly complete set of the verbs for, let’s say, “Israel,” “Moab,” “Egypt” and “Damascus”?

December 27, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Q&A: Who is bowing down in Psalm 97:7?

From the About page comes this question:

The NET Bible does not render imperatives in Psalm 97:7, while others do. Their footnote is helpful, but not enough for me to opine on which is right. What light can you shed on this?

The phrase here is hishtachavu lo kol elohim. The last three words mean, “to-him all gods.” As chance would have it, though, the verb that starts the phrase could be either an imperative plural or a third personal past plural form. (Except for 2nd person masculine singular future and 3rd person feminine singular future, this doesn’t happen a lot in Hebrew. Usually the role of a Hebrew verb is clear from its form.) For example, in Psalm 96:9, the word hishtachavu is imperative; in Jeremiah 8:2, 3rd-person past.

Furthermore, the word order is ambiguous because — unlike English — the post-verbal phrase in Hebrew can be a subject of any sort.

Finally, even context doesn’t help here.

So the Hebrew means either “all the gods bowed down to [God]” or “all you gods, bow down to [God].”

We do get a clue from the LXX — which translates hishtachavu as an imperative here — but the LXX is generally very unreliable when it comes to disambiguating Hebrew.

So in Psalm 97:7 we have that rare instance of a truly ambiguous text.

December 27, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Q&A: Is God’s Son The Son of God?

Another great question from the About page:

I have a question about Matthew 27:54. The centurion and the rest of the detachment set to guard Jesus’ body cried out and said “truly he was the Son of God!” — or is that really what they said?

Since it lacks the articles in Greek, and Latin doesn’t have articles, is it possible that they really said “truly he was the son of a god!”?

It’s a simple question with a complex answer.

There are two parts to understanding the issue.

The first is how Greek conveys possessives like “God’s.” In Greek, a possessor is marked by the genitive case, similar to the apostrophe “s” in English. So “God” in Greek is theos and “God’s” is theou. This same genitive also plays the role that “of God” does in English. Similarly “Paul” is paulos and “of Paul” and “Paul’s” is paulou.

At first glance, this seems to be Greek 101, but there a very important nuances that hide in the details. To get a sense of them, we can look just at English, and note that there are three expression that look like they should mean the same thing but do not: “Paul’s,” “of Paul,” and “of Paul’s.” Moving to less religiously charged words helps, so we can better compare:

  • I am a friend of Bill. / I am a vice-president of the company.
  • I am the friend of Bill. / I am the vice-president of the company.

  • I am a friend of Bill’s. / I am a vice-president of the company’s.
  • I am the friend of Bill’s. / I am the vice-president of the company’s.
  • I am Bill’s friend. / I am the company’s vice-president.

Some of these sentences are ungrammatical in English (“I am a VP of the company’s”) and some are odd (“I am the friend of Bill”). Proper names work differently that common nouns, which is why “friend of Bill’s” is so much better than “vice-president of the company’s.” Importantly, some of these phrases imply “the”: “I’m the company’s VP” most naturally means that the company has only one VP. In short, we see a lot of complexity, and subtle nuance related to (1) nouns vs. proper names; and (2) definite vs. indefinite readings.

The second part to understanding Matthew 27:54 is even more complex. “God” in Greek is either theos (“god”) or o theos (“the god”). In John 1:1, for example, the word was with o theos but the word was theos.

My guess is that the two ways of saying “God” convey different nuances, but I’ve yet to see a convincing analysis of the pattern, even though there are lots of partial explanations. Until we understand the pattern, though, I think it will be almost impossible to know how the two phrases for God interact with the genitive.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think that “[a] son of god” means “one son (among many) of one god (among many),” but that’s just based on our English grammar. The syntactically parallel “[a] son of Moses” is only likely — again based on English grammar — to mean “one son (among many) of (the one and only) Moses.” Yet the English “Moses’ son” might mean “(the one any only) son of (the one and only Moses),” even though the Greek would be the same in the last two cases.

We also have the word order to deal with. In Matthew 27:54 (along with 14:33), we find theou uios, instead of the more common reverse order.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think we can conclude that the Greek means what “a son of a god” would in English. So your interpretation is certainly possible, but I don’t think it’s more (or less) likely than the more common “Son of God.” (I also think that theou uios would have sounded very different in Greek than o uios tou theou [e.g., Matthew 26:63], with two determiners and a different word order — and as a guess, the word order adds more than it seems.)

I do think that we’re missing something important here, and Matthew 27:54 is a valuable clue.

December 13, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments