A Hebrew Ambiguity and A Translator’s Interpretation

Different understandings of passages in English Bibles are often based on different interpretations of the grammar of the Hebrew or Greek text. Consider the underlined words from Deuteronomy 30:20 . . .

“. . . by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life . . . .” (New American Standard Bible, NASB)

“. . . and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For (הוּא) the LORD is your life, . . .” (New International Version, NIV)

Pronouns stand in place of nouns. Consequently, a regular need for interpreters is to determine a pronoun’s antecedent. The NASB locates the antecedent for the Hebrew pronoun translated this (הוּא) in the preceding ideas of lovingobeying, and holding fast. The NIV traces the antecedent for the pronoun (הוּא) back to the word LORD. Which interpretation is the more probable?

First, a Hebrew pronoun can legitimately have preceding ideas as antecedents. But the feminine pronoun is typically used (Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, paragraph 135p). The pronoun in Deuteronomy 30:20 is masculine. However, ambiguity occurs, “In the Pent., הוא is of common gender, the fem. form הִיא occurring only 11 times” (Brown, Driver, & Briggs, (1977). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 214). Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Second, a Hebrew pronoun generally agrees with its antecedent in gender and number (Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, paragraph 145). Furthermore, for clarity, a pronoun normally agrees with the nearest antecedent. Again, the pronoun in Deuteronomy 30:20 is masculine singular, and the nearest preceding masculine antecedent is “him,” then “his,” and finally the noun “LORD.”

In this instance it appears that the NIV may have the best reading based on the grammar of the pronoun. But is it the best interpretation in the context? The context of the NASB translation is clearly on covenant obedience to God. Moses lays out the lifestyle that will insure national blessing. Verses 18-19 contain covenant language and verse 20 supports this view admirably. On the other hand the NIV focuses on a personal relationship to God, the author of life and death and the blessings and curses imbedded in the covenant. Again, the contextual evidence is strong. Since both interpretations have clear contextual justification, and all else being equal, the reading that conforms closest to the grammar of the language may enjoy interpretive priority, in this instance the NIV. However, exegetically the pronominal ambiguity in the text favors the NASB.

Moses draws primary attention by means of the masculine personal pronoun to a spiritual connection with the LORD, the Source of life and blessings, but also secondarily to obedience to His covenant by way of the ambiguous pronoun (הוּא). We appear to have in this verse a both/and interpretive option for the pronoun, and the NASB reading is better suited than the NIV to permit the ambiguity to become evident to the interpreter.

To apply the thought, it is possible to obey God’s rules without exhibiting genuine spirituality. Isaiah 29:13 says as much and is quoted by Jesus speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, “You hypocrites!, Well did Isaiah prophecy about you saying, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me’” (Matthew 15:7). It would appear that a biblical principle exists: Genuine spirituality results in obedience to God’s will whereas mere obedience can exist apart from genuine spirituality!

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