Joel M. Hoffman, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning
Thomas Dunne Books, Feb. 2010
…something about this process of breaking up a word and looking at its parts resonates deeply with many people. When most people hear that “apologizing is important because it leads to a feeling of unity,” they evaluate the proposition with their head. Does it makes sense? Why? Who is making the claim? What is the evidence? By contrast, many people evaluate “atonement is at-one-ment” with their heart. It’s cool. It’s a neat wordplay. And, surprisingly, even rational thinkers sometimes give the statement more weight because of the wordplay. Similarly, even the most rational people in modern society tend, unknowingly, to believe things that rhyme more than they otherwise would. “A stitch in time saves nine.” It (nearly) rhymes. It must be true. Even people who don’t know what it means think it’s probably accurate. (It means that mending clothing with one stitch before a small rip becomes worse will save more stitches later. Take care of things before they get out of hand.) In the infamous O.J. Simpson trial, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran tried to put a glove on Mr. Simpson’s hand. The glove was too small. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” Cochran told the jury. “Fit.” “Aquit.” It rhymes, so it must be true. The strategy was incredibly effective, even though it mixed rational thought with, in this case, poetry.
A slightly longer example involves medieval monks who were tasked with copying ancient religious manuscripts. The manuscripts had to be copied by hand because printing had yet to be invented, and the job had to be done by monks because most laypeople were illiterate. So some monks would spend their days copying Greek and Latin manuscripts, preserving the ancient texts by writing them anew. It turns out that due to its architecture, the interior of the typical monastery is an ill-advised place to read and write. There’s not enough light. So the monks put tables just outside their dark buildings and used these tables as copying desks. Because these fixtures were immobile, they were called stationary booths. As the general population in Europe grew more literate, more and more people needed writing supplies: paper or parchment, quill pens, blotters, and so forth. Before specialized stores arose to fill this consumer need, people had two choices: They could make their own supplies, or they could try to buy them. Buying was easier, and the most convenient place to find writing supplies was one of the monks’ stationary booths. By association, then, the supplies themselves came to be called stationary supplies. (The technical name for this sort of expansion of meaning is “metonymy.” It will come up again later.) Only afterward did an arbitrary spelling decision assign the ending “-ary” to the word that means “immobile” and the ending “-ery” to “writing supplies.” Both words actually have the same etymology.
This is why airlinese sounds the way it does. Flight attendants tend to emphasize exactly the words that normal speakers do not. For example: “We have arrived at the Atlanta airport… .” Most speakers naturally emphasize “arrived” in that sentence. But the emphasis on “arrived” naturally raises other possibilities in the minds of those who hear the sentence. “Crashed,” for example, is one possibility the airlines would rather passengers not think about. By emphasizing “have,” the flight attendants only raise the possibility of “have not [arrived],” which, by comparison, isn’t so bad.
Let us consider yet another possibility. What if the “cleverness” of having used “ten kilometers” doesn’t come from within the sentence but rather from the culture? For example, suppose we have an American English story about a patriot who, in a demonstration of his love for his country, walks 1,776 miles by foot. How should that be translated into Modern Hebrew? Americans reading the story immediately recognize the figure “1776.” Should the Hebrew translation have a number that, like the English, is immediately recognizable?
Babylonians could multiply small integers. Accordingly, in addition to multiples of ten, “round numbers” in antiquity were products of small numbers. Two times three, three times four, etc. That’s why there were originally six days in a workweek (two times three), twelve hours in a day and twelve hours in a night (three times four), sixty seconds in a minute and sixty minutes in an hour (three times four times five), and so forth. How then should the description of Noah’s ark in Genesis 6: 15 be translated? The Hebrew tells us that the dimensions are “300 amas long by 50 amas wide by 30 amas high.” The KJV version, not surprisingly, keeps the numbers and translates ama as “cubit.” By that translation, however, a matter-of-fact statement about the ark has become esoteric. (The English “cubit” comes from the Latin word cubitus, “elbow,” and one cubit is the length from the king’s elbow to the end of his middle finger. So “cubit”— that is, “elbow”— was just like “foot.”) The U.S. version of the New International Version converts the figures into feet: “The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high.” That’s much more useful for an American reader, but what about the figures? Did they have some particular significance that they no longer do?
We have the same problem when talking about years. Genesis 5: 8 tells us that Seth lived to be 912 years old. Notice the “12” at the end. That was a round number in antiquity. Whether Seth was really that age or not, readers of ancient Hebrew would see such a number as a round number, while we do not. Genesis 14: 4 talks about “twelve years” of service. Should the translation make it “ten”? An even clearer case for translating round numbers (according to antiquity) into round numbers (according to modernity) comes from Genesis 17: 20. There the second part of Ishmael’s blessing consists of two parallel parts: “twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.” Clearly, having “twelve princes” is poetically akin to becoming a great nation. Any ancient reader of Hebrew— regardless of their view of the literal truth of the story itself— would know the “twelve” here isn’t meant to be taken literally. Twelve was a round number, similar to the “thousand” in “I’ve told you a thousand times.”
Talking about pregnancy is taboo in some circles, so new words to describe pregnancy keep popping up in the language. Once “with child” was a common expression. Then that became too common, so people started using “pregnant,” Latin for “expecting,” as in “expecting a child.” Then that became too common, and now some people prefer the English “expecting.” In yet another move away from talking about the woman and her womb and so forth, many people use “pregnant” and “expecting” for both members of a couple, so in some dialects it’s not just the woman who’s “pregnant” or “expecting,” it’s the couple.
Levav & Nefesh
The most important commandment, according to Jesus in Matthew 22: 37, Mark 12: 30, and Luke 10: 27, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (NAB and, essentially, NRSV). Jesus himself (using Greek) is quoting Deuteronomy 6: 5 (which is in Hebrew), and that line is central to both Jews and Christians. Deuteronomy 6: 5 is part of the text that Jews traditionally affix to their doorways, and, as we just saw, Jesus calls this the most important commandment. The combination “heart and soul,” or some variation of it, appears nearly forty times in the Bible, further emphasizing how important these two ideas were in antiquity. But here’s the problem. The Hebrew words for “heart” and “soul,” the words in Deuteronomy 6: 5 that Jesus quotes, are levav and nefesh, respectively. And they are severely mistranslated. In fact, the translations miss the point entirely.
[So:] The nefesh was like the hardware of humanity and the levav like the software. It should not surprise us, then, that levav and nefesh were used together to form an expression. And it is precisely that expression that appears in what Jesus calls the most important commandment. We are supposed to love God with everything about us that makes us human. Unlike the usual English translation, which limits the commandment to our “heart,” excluding our thoughts, the Biblical commandment includes emotions and thoughts and more. And again unlike the usual English translation, the Biblical commandment specifically addresses our corporal, physical existence.
Casuistic & Apodictic
Technical words help distinguish the Ten Commandments from other laws. Laws that prescribe consequences are call “casuistic.” Those that simply state right from wrong are called “apodictic.” … Why say “Don’t steal” when another part of the Bible already has a punishment for stealing? The answer is that Leviticus 5 is a legal system, while the Ten Commandments are a moral framework. The point is that stealing is wrong. The severity of the offense has nothing to do with getting caught or punished.
Curiously, court records of the time don’t reference the Code of Hammurabi in the way we would expect them to if they were really the law of the land. So the role of the code may not be exactly what it seems. Some scholars think that the Code of Hammurabi, coming as it does before the Ten Commandments, diminishes the importance of the Bible. In their minds, the Ten Commandments are merely a revision, sometimes not even a good one, of something that the Babylonians had long before. But like our modern American laws, the Code of Hammurabi merely prescribes consequences. It lacks the fundamental force of the Ten Commandments. (In technical jargon, all of the laws in the Code of Hammurabi are casuistic, not apodictic like the Ten Commandments.)