God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Here’s the Story of Toldot

From the about page comes a question about the Hebrew word toldot:

I ran across Genesis 6:9 in the TNIV, which says “this is the account of Noah and his family.” I’ve checked the KJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, Message, Luther’s translation (1545), the Amplified Bible, the NLT, and the Leningrad Codex for good measure. Only the TNIV and NLT mention his family.

We don’t have a good word for toldot is English (at least, not that I can think of). Though it occurs only about a dozen times in Genesis (and then once in Exodus and once in Ruth) it’s an important word. In a sense, what Genesis is about is toldot.

Unfortunately, the usual translation “generations” is completely wrong, and comes from a misunderstanding of how to interpret Hebrew. (Specifically, it comes from using word internal structure to figure out what a word means. This is the second time that that translation trap has come up this week. I’ll try to write more about it soon.)

We first encounter the word in Genesis 2:4: “These are the toldot of the heavens and the earth as they were created.” There’s a lot to bicker about in that translation. What follows, though, is what’s widely called “the second account of creation,” so one thing is clear: “generations” makes no sense here. “These are the toldot” introduces the story of creation: heaven, earth, plants, (lack of) rain, etc. There’s nothing about generations there.

Genesis 25:12-13 gives us more information about the word toldot: “These are the toldot of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom the Egyptian Hagar, Sara’s servant, bore to Abraham. These are the names of Ishmael’s children … Nebaioth — Ishmael’s firstborn — Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam…” Because it’s the children of Ishmael that follow the introduction “these are the toldot,” — and because of the (wrong) English translation “generations,” it looks like toldot here is specifically introducing descendants. Indeed, the NAB translates the word here as “descendants.”

But the reasoning is faulty. Just because the descendants come next doesn’t mean that the word means “descendants.”

In Genesis 6:9 we read, “these are the toldot of Noah. Noah was a righteous man in his generation [dorot in Hebrew, not toldot]. Noah walked with God.” It’s not until the next verse that Noah’s children are listed. The toldot seem to include the fact that Noah was righteous.

Genesis 25:19 tells us, “these are the toldot of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham was Isaac’s father.” Particularly after the phrase, “Abraham’s son,” the sentence “Abraham was Isaac’s father” stands out. The toldot here seem to include Isaac’s father, not just his children.

More evidence comes from Genesis 37:2: “These are the toldot of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father” (ESV — which uses “generations” for toldot here). Here the word toldot includes particularly what happened with Joseph.

The bits of information that come after each person or thing’s toldot have something in common: they are all important for understanding the person or thing. In Genesis 6:9, it’s important to know that “Noah was righteous in his generation” in order to understand Noah. In Genesis 25:19, it’s important to know that Abraham was Isaac’s father; that’s part of who Isaac is. In Genesis 2:4, was follows “the toldot of the heavens and the earth” is important information about their creation. And so forth.

The word toldot seems to introduce something important to know.

It just so happens that descendants were particularly important in the Bible, so frequently the important bit of information regards children.

As for the TNIV’s “account of Noah and his family,” I understand the motivation, but I don’t agree with the translation. The passage is about Noah, even though it mentions his family.

By comparison, we might consider two English sentences: “What you have to know about Bill is that he loves sports” and “what you have to know about Bill and sports is that Bill loves sports.” They’re not the same thing, and to take one and render it as the other seems like a mistake to me.

I think “story” would work pretty well for toldot if the word didn’t have two meanings. “Story” can be “information about” (that’s like toldot) but also “tale.” The first meaning seems pretty good for toldot, but the problem is that the second meaning encroaches. And particularly regarding a text whose nature is a matter of fierce debate — is this is a story? history? fable? myth? etc. — prejudicing the issue with “story” doesn’t seem to work. (Still, some translations use “story” for toldot in places.)

At any rate, I think it’s important not to deflate the force of toldot, which is what I see happening in translations that substitute more specific terms for “toldot” or that over-explain the text.

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March 2, 2010 Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Miracles and Wonders

Are there miracles in the Bible?

The KJV uses the word “miracle” (or “miracles”) less than 30 times. The ESV, only about a dozen. And the NAB half of that, even with the apocrypha. Yet the word appears over 150 times in the NLT. So miracles pervade the Bible only in some translations. Why?

What’s going on, I think, is this:

The most common use of “miracle” in English is to refer to something (good) that science can’t explain. So it’s a miracle when a patient lives in spite of a deadly disease, or — depending on one’s view of the details — when a sea splits to let a people leave oppression. Miracles, by this way of thinking, are extra-scientific events.

But there was little science when the NT was written, and even less in the days of the OT. So to an ancient author, the splitting of the Red Sea would have been in the same category as, say, an eclipse. And neither of them would have been miracles, because — there being no science — neither one could have been considered extra-scientific. They were “wonders,” but they weren’t “miracles.”

So one approach holds that the word “miracle” is an anachronism in Bible translation, no different, really, than “neuron” would be. This is why many versions prefer “signs,” “wonders,” and even “portents” to “miracles.” (Though in many translations it seems that “miracle” was sometimes mechanically replaced by another term. For example, the ESV takes the KJV’s “John did no miracle” [John 10:41] and turns it in to “John did no sign.”)

The other approach suggests that we might know more about the text than the original authors: what if what the ancients considered “wonders” were really miracles, only they didn’t know it back then? (I think this question applies whether or not one believes the literal truth of the text. Before the text can be believed or not, it has to be understood.) Should a translation reflect our improved understanding?

October 25, 2009 Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments