Thursday, February 25, 2010

Was Elijah Afraid?

This post was prompted by a remark that a friend posted on Facebook the other day. After events at Mt. Carmel, Jezebel sends a threat to Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-2). Verse 3 then begins, "Then he was afraid" (ESV). Or does it begin, "And when he saw that" (KJV and NKJV)? The difference here is as follows:

1) The Hebrew text was originally written with consonants only, as the vowels were understood. Later, as the knowledge of the language began to wane, a system was developed to mark the vowels so that the correct pronunciation of the text would not be lost.

2) The consonantal text at the beginning of 1 Kgs 19:3 reads vyr'. The standard Hebrew text with vowels has this as vayyar', which means "and he saw."

3) However, a few manuscripts of the vocalized text (i.e., the text with vowels) have it as vayyira', which means "and he feared."

4) This second reading is backed up by the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, which has ephobethe "and he was afraid." "And he was afraid" is also found in the Syriac version and the Latin Vulgate.

5) However, if the reading should be "and he was afraid," the expected consonantal text would be vyyr', which would be vocalized as vayyiyra'. This is not what the vast majority of manuscripts have.

6) It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the problem originated with the Septuagint, where a less than fully careful translator simply misread the text (not entirely uncommon in the Septuagint version of 1 & 2 Kings). This mistake probably also lies behind the Syriac and Vulgate readings, because both of those versions were affected by the Septuagint.

In my estimation, the KJV/NKJV rendering is more likely correct.

What significance does this have interpreting the text? First, it removes fear as the primary motive for Elijah's flight. That is, he appears (from what we learn later in the story) to have been motivated more by pride (I alone am left), frustration (the showdown had convinced Ahab, but not Jezebel), and disappointment, than by fear. It is the resulting sense of failure that then drives him to Horeb.

All that being said, most modern English versions reach the opposite conclusion from the one I have reached. Both formal equivalence translations (ESV, NASB, NAS(Update), Holman CSB, and NRSV) and dynamic equivalence translations (NIV, TNIV, NLT, etc.) have some variation on "Elijah was afraid."

1 comment:

Travis said...

very helpful, thank you. Is it safe to say that Elijah may well have been afraid, even if the Hebrew text does not explicitely state that? v. 3 notes that Elijah "ran for his life"; most often, those running for their life are also experiencing fear.