From the About page comes this great question: Does Genesis 15:1 mean “your [Abram’s] reward will be very great” or “I [God] am your great reward”?
The NRSV translates it, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great,” while the KJV has a different understanding: “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.”
The issue is the final phrase in Hebrew, which (disregarding tense for a moment), according to the NRSV, means “your reward is good,” while the KJV thinks it means “your good reward.” Together with the first part of the sentence (“I am your shield”), the NRSV version ends up, “I am your shield and your reward is good,” while the KJV is also coherent: “I am your shield, your good reward.”
It turns out that the Hebrew is actually ambiguous.
To understand the text here we need a detour through a handful of related bits of Hebrew grammar. (And, really, what says “fun” more on a Friday morning in early September than a handful of Hebrew grammar?)
First, adjectives in Hebrew generally follow nouns, and there’s no word for “a” or “an.” So, for example, from the Hebrew words yeled (“boy”) and tov (“good”), we get yeled tov, “a good boy.”
Secondly, Hebrew does have a word “the” in the form of the prefix ha-. When it’s used, it gets put on both nouns and adjectives. So “the good boy” in Hebrew is ha-yeled ha-tov, literaly “the-boy the-good.” Furthermore, some phrases (technically called “definites”) behave like they have “the.” One such case is possessives. So “my good boy” in Hebrew is “my-boy the-good” (yaldi ha-tov).
Thirdly, Hebrew almost never uses “to be” in the present tense. So, for example, “I am your shield” in Hebrew is just “I your shield.” (The KJV — foolishly, in my opinion — sometimes uses italics in English to reflect the Hebrew grammar in these cases.)
The combination of the first and third bits create potential ambiguity. While yeled tov can mean “a good boy,” it can also mean “a boy is good.”
As a matter of practice, though, this kind of ambiguity is rare, because of the second bit. Hebrew differentiates between “the good boy” and “the boy is good” by using “the-boy the-good” (ha-yeled ha-tov, as we’ve seen) for the first one, and “the-boy good” (ha-yeled tov) for the second.
Similarly, “your good reward” is “your-reward the-good” in Hebrew (s’char’cha hatov), while “your reward is good” in Hebrew is “your-reward good” (s’char’cha tov). So you might expect that we’d be able to distinguish between “your great reward” and “your reward is great.”
Unfortunately, the word for “great” here is harbeh, and, together with m’od (“very”), it forms the invariant phrase harbeh m’od. Unlike most modifiers, that phrase never takes “the.” So “your reward is very great” in Hebrew is (as we see here in Genesis 1:15) “your-reward very great” (s’char’cha harbeh m’od) but “your very great reward” is the identical Hebrew, because, in this case, the expected “your-reward the-very-great” doesn’t exist.
This means that, as a matter of translating this sentence, the Hebrew is truly ambiguous. So we have to look elsewhere for clues.
One such clue might be the tenses. The first is present tense, and the second — if, as in the NRSV, it is its own clause — is also present tense. So the NRSV has to explain why the sentence doesn’t mean, “I am your shield; your reward is very great.” This seems to point in the direction of the KJV.
On the other hand, tenses are notoriously idiosyncratic, and anyone who’s looked at Hebrew knows that we commonly see one tense in Hebrew and a different one in English.
The commentator Rashi suggests that God is assuaging Abram on two fronts: he will not be punished, and he will be rewarded. So Rashi thinks the line means “don’t fear, Abram, I will be your shield [so you will not be punished] and you will be rewarded.” So Rashi would have sided with the NRSV.
I have some more thoughts, but nothing to convince me solidly one way or the other. (For those who are curious, here’s a list of where the phrase harbeh m’od appears: Genesis 15:1, Genesis 41:49, Deuteronomy 3:5, Joshua 13:1, Joshua 22:8, I Samuel 26:21, II Samuel 8:8, II Samuel 12:2, II Samuel 12:30, I Kings 5:9, I Kings 10:10, I Kings 10;11, II Kings 21:16, I Chronicles 20:2, II Chronicles 14;12, II Chronicles 32:27, Ezra 10:1, Nehemiah 2:2, and Jeremiah 40;12.)
So I’m opening up the question here. Based on context, which translation do you think makes more sense? And why?
Frequently a Hebrew or Greek word will, in the eyes of English speakers, “mean more than one thing.”There are two ways for this to happen. The first is when there are really two foreign words, similar to the situation with “bank” in English (both a financial institution and the side of a river); that’s not what I have in mind here. The trickier case is when the foreign word only has one meaning, but that meaning is more general than any English word, so it takes two (or more) English words to cover the same semantic territory as the one foreign word. This is depicted graphically to the right.
A simple example might be eitz in Hebrew, which means both “tree” and “wood” in English. It’s not that eitz means more than one thing. Rather, the Hebrew term is more encompassing than any English word. So we say that it “means more than one thing,” but really we just have a mismatch between English and Hebrew. (When the situation is reversed, we again generally resort to English-centric terminology, and say that the foreign language has two words “for the same thing.”)
I see three possible translation scenarios, depicted to the left. In the first two, context makes it clear how to translate the foreign word into English. These two cases are usually easy for the translator, and it’s generally only a linguistic curiosity that the foreign language has but one word for the two English ones. Continuing our example, the “eitz of knowing good and evil” is a “tree,” while the eitz of which the ark was built is “wood.”
But sometimes the usage of the foreign word spans both English words, and this is always a true dilemma for the translator. Neither English word suffices as a translation. We don’t see this with eitz, but lots of other words come to mind.
One example seems to be sarx in Greek (as was discussed extensively about a month ago by Peter Kirk, Clayboy, Mark Goodacre, Jason Staples and others, and again in passing yesterday by T. C. Robinson). It’s not exactly that sarx means more than one thing. Rather, its meaning includes “body” in English, but it is broader than that English word. When sarx is used for “body” or “flesh” (say, in Leviticus 13:24), it’s easy to find an English translation. But when it includes “body” and other important denotations as well, a good translation is elusive.
I think another set of examples comes from gender words. The Greek adelphos, for example, includes the English “brother,” but also what we might awkwardly call “co-member of society.” Again, the word doesn’t have more than one meaning, just more than one good translation, depending on context.
What other important words like this present themselves?
At the end of my discussion of anthropos, I concluded that one meaning of anthropos is “man,” and that we see that meaning in Matthew 12:10.
Here I want to suggest that, even so, “man” may not be the best English translation for anthropos. Here’s why.
One of my points before was that Greek makes it very difficult to talk about people without specifying their gender. (English makes it easy in the plural, but equally difficult in the singular. Had I written, “Greek makes it hard to talk about a person without specifying…” I would have been hard pressed to finish the sentence grammatically and elegantly.) Accordingly a Greek text about “just someone” will usually end up looking “masculine.”
Again (see here for the background), we can compare the situation to Modern Hebrew, with its two verbs halach and nasa. The former means “went by foot” and the latter means “went by vehicle.”
Suppose we have a Modern Hebrew text that reads, “Chris nasa to Tel Aviv to start his day.” We have two translation options:
1. “Chris traveled to Tel Aviv to start his day.”
2. “Chris went to Tel Aviv to start his day.”
At first glance, (1) looks like the obvious choice. Nasa means “traveled,” and it is what Chris did. We know he didn’t walk, because otherwise the verb would have been halach.
However, in favor of (2) is the fact that the original Hebrew doesn’t necessarily stress the means of transportation, while the English in (1) does. The Hebrew is as neutral as possible about how Chris got to Tel Aviv, while the same cannot be said for (1). As a speaker of English and Hebrew, I know that (2) is often the best translation of the Hebrew.
To look at the matter another way, imagine starting with an English sentence, translating it first into Greek and then back into English. I think we can agree that if we’re doing things right, the English that we start off with and the English that we end up with will be the same.
If we start with “Someone walked into the room,” we get either “anthropos…” or “gune…” in Greek, but we probably get the former. It stands to reason, then, that when we translate back, we should translate anthropos as “someone.”
At least, sometimes “someone” is the best translation of anthropos. We have a dilemma, because if we start with “a man walked into the room,” we might get the same Greek “anthropos….”
Part of the translator’s job in this case is to figure out whether the Greek text means to emphasize “man” over “woman” (in which case “man” is the better translation) or whether the maleness is incidental (suggesting “person,” “someone,” etc. as the better translation).
It’s pretty difficult to discern these nuances from the text, which is but one of many reasons that translation is hard.
The funny thing about what words mean is how hard it is to notice when they mean more than one thing, as, for example, “funny.” The way I’m using it here the word doesn’t mean “humorous” but, rather, “odd.”
Two thousand years hence, will scholars be arguing over whether “funny” should be translated into the then-equivalent of “humorous” or the then-equivalent of “odd”? Will they even know enough to ask the question?