Thursday, March 04, 2010

Elijah's Fear

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

This is a good question. Verse 3 says (painfully literally), "And he saw, and he arose, and he went to his life." Now most modern English versions read something like this, "And he was afraid and arose and ran for his life" (NASB-Update). The rendering of the first verb clearly follows the Septuagint and early versions, as indicated in my previous post. However, I think the rendering of the first verb unduly influences the rendering of the last clause. Our understanding of that last clause is also affected by our own English idiom of running for one's life. The problem is that the last clause is susceptible of more than one interpretation. In Hebrew it reads vayyelek el naphsho. And he went to/for his life/soul/self. Generally speaking, Hebrew does not use the verb halak (seen here in vayyelek) in the sense of "flee." There's a different word that does that duty. Further, while nephesh (naphsho--his life) may mean life, it may also mean soul (the most common rendering in traditional translations) or self. The preposition el may also mean to, toward, or for.

My own reading of the entire passage is that vayyelek el naphsho probably ought to be rendered "and he went for himself." The whole episode lays out Elijah's preoccupation with himself. In what follows verse 3, there is no sense of fear. Rather, we see frustration, anger, pride, disappointment, etc., but no fear.

I think also this allows for a more consistent rendering of naphsho in verse 4, where the Hebrew says, "and he asked his soul/life/self to die." "He asked himself to die" makes better sense than "he asked his life to die."

Interestingly, the comment of the Geneva Bible on "and he went for his life" is, "Or, whither his mind led him."

As for the influence of the modern English idiom "to run for one's life," we ought to remember that an apparent similarity between what appears to be a Hebrew idiom and a known modern idiom may be a false rather than a true similarity.

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