Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Curious Case of Psalm 37:3

Last Sunday morning in Sunday school, one of the verses we looked at was Psalm 37:3. I had a copy of the ESV, and my wife had a copy of the NASB. She noted that the second half of the verse said, “Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.” I looked at the ESV, which says, “Dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.” Since the two translations are very different, she asked me what explained the difference. Off the top of my head, I suggested that there are two verbs in Hebrew, spelled exactly alike, but with very different meanings. Checking it that afternoon, I discovered that my hunch was correct. Ordinarily, the context will be sufficient to determine which of the two verbs is intended. But in Psalm 37:3, the context is sufficiently vague that it is not clear at first which verb might be intended.

The NASB translators chose one verb, which ordinarily means to tend, shepherd, or graze. Hence, the NASB translators took an extended sense of that verb and rendered it “cultivate.” This is the rendering also suggested by the nineteenth century German scholar Franz Delitzsch. The ESV translators chose the other verb, which means to have dealings with, thus the somewhat extended sense of “befriend.”

Then I got curious and looked at other translations. What I found is that there is no consensus on the translation of the passage. Usually in this kind of case, there will be a certain unity among translations, so that one choice will be a clear favorite. No so with Psalm 37:3. The following are the various translations that I have pulled up in my Bible study software (in addition to the ESV and NASB):

Common English Bible: Live in the land and farm faithfulness.
Christian Standard Bible: Dwell in the land and live securely.
God’s Word to the Nations: Live in the land, and practice being faithful.
KJV: So shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.
NIV: Dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
New Jerusalem Bible: Make your home in the land and live secure.
NKJV: Dwell in the land and feed on his faithfulness.
New Living Translation: Then you will live safely in the land and prosper.
New RSV: So you will live in the land, and enjoy security.

Then, just out of further curiosity, I looked at the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). It says, “And inhabit the land, and you shall shepherd its riches.”

All of these versions, except the Septuagint, can be defended as acceptable translations of the Hebrew text. But, as you might suspect, some are better than others. It is the better ones that point to the meaning of this apparently simple verse that hides a real complexity beneath its surface.
I’ll deal with that discussion in the next post.


Byron G. Curtis said...

Ben—The Septuagint seems to be based on reading "'emunah" (faithfulness) as "hamonah," (its riches). See the critical note there in BHS.

If so, that's a case of alef–hey confusion, perhaps caused by oral transcription in the underlying Hebrew text, which was then received by the Greek translator.

If so, the Septuagint shouldn't be impugned: merely explained. The poor fellow competently translated what was in front of him.

I recognize that you didn't diss the LXX, but some of your readers might wrongly infer from the post that they can dismiss LXX without examination.

Benjamin Shaw said...

Thanks for the clarification, Byron. I'll add it to the next post.