Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Words Have Meaning

Any translator of any text can tell you that picking an appropriate English word for a word from another language can be a nightmare. It is usually the case that more than one English word can share some connotations with a particular word from another language. Specifically, that is the case when rendering Biblical Hebrew and Greek into English.

The English Revised Version attempted to solve that problem by always rendering a particular Hebrew/Greek word by the same English word. Anyone who has read that version knows that that is not really a solution. On the other hand, rendering for the sense can cause problems as well. For example, in Genesis 4:1, the KJV reads, "And Adam knew Eve his wife." The New American Standard reads, "Now the man had relations with his wife." Both of these renderings are accurate. But the NAS obscures something in the original that the KJV retains. In the opening chapters of Genesis, the word "know" (Hebrew yada') and its variants are important, and each of its occurrences are rendered by some form of the word "know" in the KJV. However, the NAS loses that by rendering the verb yada' by "had relations." Technically, it is accurate, but something is nonetheless lost.

Such losses become more significant when the English rendering is not even technically accurate. On Genesis 43:3, Robert Alter comments, "'The man' refers elliptically to the phrase the brothers previously used in their report to their father . . . Their repeated use of this designation aptly dramatizes their ignorance of Joseph's identity. In the second half of this chapter, there is pointed interplay between the references to the brothers as 'the men' . . . and to Joseph's majordomo as 'the man.'"

To be continued.

On Job

Now that the reading schedule has us most of the way through Job, I thought I'd put forth some information on the book. There are innumerable commentaries and study books on Job, most of them problematic for a variety of reasons. The critical commentaries all assume that the Book of Job was written very late. In addition, they mostly assume that some parts of the book are out of order (the reader can consult such study Bibles as the New Oxford Annotated Bible, or the Harper-Collins Study Bible to verify that much of modern scholarship holds these positions). The problem is that most of these textual relocations occur more in the mind of the commentator than they do in the text.

So the difficulty is first of all to deal with the text as it stands. The second problem, particularly for the layman, is not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The classic case of the latter (at the risk of offending a number of my colleagues) is Joseph Caryl's Practical Observations on the Book of Job, which is twelve large volumes. Very few readers have the patience to labor through that kind of treatment. I would venture to add that very few of those who do would be able, after having completed the task, to give a synopsis of the development of the Book of Job, or to show how any particular passage relates to the book as a whole. No doubt the work of Caryl is very fine, and the man who reads it will learn much solid theology. He will, however, learn precious little about the Book of Job per se.

So to start, I think the beginning reader of Job needs a guide that will help him make sense out of the book as a whole. In attaining this end, he can do no better than William Henry Green's little book, Conflict and Triumph: The Argument of the Book of Job Unfolded. In 177 pages (in the reprint by Banner of Truth Trust) Green takes the reader through the entire Book of Job and helps him make sense of the whole thing.

Once the reader has an overall grasp of the book and its purposes, he can then profitably move on to more in-depth commentaries. To begin here, I would suggest David Atkinson, The Message of Job in the Bible Speaks Today series from InterVarsity Press. Another good work at this point is Francis Andersen's commentary in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Christ and Jacob's "Ladder"

Benjamin Glaser asked what I thought about Jesus' use of this passage. For those who are unaware, Jesus made a clear allusion to the account of Jacob's dream in his response to Nathanael (John 1:43-51). In this statement Jesus identifies himself as the ladder. The reference probably has no better concise explanation than that found in the comment on Gen 28:12 in the Geneva Bible (this is the 1599 Geneva Bible, recently republished by Tolle Lege Press, not the New Geneva Bible, which became the Reformation Study Bible). That note reads: "Christ is the ladder whereby God and man are joined together, and by whom the angels minister unto us; all graces by him are given unto us, and we by him ascend to heaven."

The ladder (or stairway, or ramp) clearly represents the connection between God and man. The fact that angels ascend and descend on that ladder seems clearly to indicate that it is by means of the ladder that the ministry of the angels to men is enabled. The further fact that Genesis 28 is the account of the establishment of the covenant with Jacob makes the covenantal significance of the ladder quite clear. Thus, the ladder represents Christ, through whom the covenant is mediated to man.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Jacob's Vow: Genesis 28

The following is the note on this passage in the new Apologetics Study Bible: "Because Jacob's vision at Bethel was his closest encounter with God up to this point in his life, he was convinced this place was unique. For him it was 'the house of God,' (the literal meaning of Bethel, and 'the gate of heaven' (v. 17). At his stage in God's progressive revelation, he could not see that no earthly spot could play this role (Acts 7:48-50). Like his brother Esau, Jacob had not been a man of faith. But, even though the conditions he states toward the Lord (Gn 28:20-22) fall short of true faith, they represent a step in the right direction."

That is a common understanding of Jacob's vow: He is bargaining with God, attempting to manipulate God into dealing with him to his profit, just as he has dealt with his brother and his father. There are several things about the passage, and the vow in particular, that argue the wrongness of that interpretation. First, when Jacob awoke from the dream, he confessed both the presence of God and his own ignorance. He also stated his own fear, when he said "how fearsome is this place!" (v. 17). Many translations render that "How awesome is this place!" There are two difficulties with that rendering. First, the word "awesome" has been almost completely devalued in modern American English. Second, the root of the word rendered "awesome" is the verb "to fear." Hence my rendering "How fearsome is this place." (The Contemporary English Version has it, "This is a fearsome place!") Jacob was terrified by the fact that he was ignorant regarding the fact that God was there. This does not seem the sort of situation where Jacob felt himself in charge and able to manipulate.

Second, the vow itself has regularly been misunderstood. Any vow has two parts. The first part is called the protasis (the "if" part). The second part is called the apodosis (the "then" part). Though an argument regarding the Hebrew syntax can be made for either of the following possibilities, the second seems more likely, certainly fits the context better, and is more consistent with other vows in the Old Testament than is the first rendering. The first rendering is: If God will be with me and watch over me on this journey, if he provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father's house, then the Lord will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a marker will be God's house, and I will give to You a tenth of all that You give me (vss 20-22, Holman Christian Standard Bible). The second rendering is: Then Jacob vowed a vow saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way which I am going, and will give to me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return in peace to the house of my father, and the Lord will be God to me, then this stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar shall be the house of God, and of all that you give me, I will tithe a tenth to you.

The difference between the two versions is where the "then" occurs. With the first, the then makes Jacob's acceptance of God conditional on God fulfilling the preceding items. In other words, according to this view, Jacob says, God, if you will do the following, I will do you the great favor of taking you as my God, and I'll give you a tithe. The second places the "then" after God, but before the pillar. The significance of that difference is as follows. First, in the wording of the vow, regardless of where the "then" is put, the bit about God is not that Jacob will take God for his own God, but rather that God will take Jacob for his own. It is the language of covenant relationship: "I will be you God, and you shall be my people." Second, the content of Jacob's vow is clearly a response to the promises that God made in the dream (vss 13-15). In other words, Jacob's vow is a response of faith to the promises of God, and to the fact that God has already taken Jacob on, being his covenant God

Friday, January 04, 2008

Long Time Gone

It's been about ten months since I posted anything, so it's time to get back to work. I'll be posting at minimum once a week this year. The posts will usually be prompted by the readings from my daily Bible reading calendar.

I try to read through a different version of the Bible every year, so after thirty years or so of doing that, I've obviously read through the English versions that are readily available. I have not, for example, read through the 1881 English Revised Version. As part of my reading this year, I am reading through Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, and Willis Barnstone's The New Covenant: Commonly Called the New Testament. The latter is a translation of the four gospels and Revelation by Barnstone, who is a professor of comparative literature at Indiana University, previously professor of Greek at Colgate University. Both of these translations have the strengths and weaknesses of individual translations. Translations of the Bible by individuals can certainly be more interesting than committee translations, because the committee system weeds out the eccentricities of the individual. A translation by an individual can be brilliant and insightful. It can also be pedantic and odd.

Alter's translation is generally quite good, and he makes an attempt to render Hebrew word-play into English. These attempts he usually highlights in his commentary. This is the sort of thing that most translations reserve for marginal notations, and it is nice to see them in the text. Some of them obviously work better than others.

Barnstone's translation tries to bring out the Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic) background of the gospels. The most obvious way in which he does this is by rendering all the names in what amounts to the modern Israeli transliteration of Hebrew names. For example, Jesus is Yeshua; John is Yohanan; and Zebedee is Zavdai. He also renders John the Baptist as Yohanan the Dipper (Matt 3:1). This is certainly infelicitous. It assigns a meaning to baptizo that can certainly be defended, but probably not in every case. In addition, he then becomes inconsistent about it, because he renders the verb "immerse" in Matt 3:6, but "dipping" in 3:7. Still, it is refreshing to read a translation that makes one think about what the underlying Greek says. On the other hand, it also gives one a fair amount of respect for those early English translators who decided to simply transliterate with "baptize," rather than making an almost impossible choice regarding an English equivalent for the Greek baptizo.

If anyone has any questions or comments, please feel free to send them. Although I will be posting only once or twice a week, I will be checking the site every day.