Clarifying an Image

Imagery represents a universal staple in poetry and Hebrew poetry is no exception. To consciously or unconsciously remove or change the images of a poem diminishes it. When translating Hebrew poetry errors of this sort sometimes occur because of the overwhelming desire to clarify God’s word, an admirable goal but sometimes leads to a misreading of the Bible as originally written. Psalm 17:11 is one such passage. Consider these representative translations:

  • KJV–“They have now compassed us in our steps: they have set their eyes bowing down to the earth.”
  • NASB–“They have now surrounded us in our steps; They set their eyes to cast us down to the ground.”
  • NIV–“They have tracked me down, they now surround me, with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.”

Of these translations the KJV is the least problematic—

  1. It uses the antiquated term “compassed” whereas “surrounded,” as in the NKJV, is better.
  2. The phrase “in our steps” that begins the clause in the Hebrew text is an accusative of specification and ambiguous because of the various nuances of the preposition “in” (see Arnold & Choi, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 102-06). A rewording, such as “With respect to our steps,” focuses the verse well. However, the term “steps” could be sharpened to “tracks” as the NIV suggests and the conclusion will validate this conclusion (see Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 30).
  3. Finally, the narrow-focused term “ground” may fit the context better than the expansive word “earth” (see Holladay, 28).

The NASB takes second place in acceptability—

  1. The phrase “have now surrounded” translates well. This translation, however, also uses the ambiguous “in our steps.”
  2. The phrase “set their eyes” could be taken as metaphorical especially in light of the following purpose-oriented infinitive phrase “to cast us down.” However the phrase can be translated literally using “directed” or “fixed” (Holladay, 368) to eliminate any misunderstanding.
  3. The verb נטה does not mean “to cast down” but “to incline or bend towards” (Holladay, 235-36; Brown, Driver Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, 639-41). Such a translation would remove the purpose idea interpreted by the NASB (“to cast us down”) and removes the necessity to add “us” to the last clause, a pronoun not found in the Hebrew text.
  4. The preposition “to” focuses well the direction or fixation of the eyes (Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, p. 48).

The NIV comes in last in this series of translations—

  1. The paraphrase “they have tracked me down” captures the initial imagery but replaces “our/us” with “me,” a textual critical problem (see Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 116-117; Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 161).
  2. The last clause is the biggest problem with the NIV. The clearly metaphorical translation, “with eyes alert,” instead of the literal, “they have set [fixed] their eyes,” is too paraphrastic to enable the reader to understand the clear imagery of the Hebrew text.
  3. The verb נטה does not mean “throw” (See Holladay, 235).
  4. The purpose idea, “to throw” was apparently required by the translators because of the metaphorical translation “with eyes alert.” This and the extra-textual insertion “me” combine to alter the biblical image.

A translation that clarifies the image reads as follows, With respect to our tracks, they have now surrounded us; they have fixed their eyes on the ground. The picture is that of Saul and his forces searching for David and his men in the wilderness intently examining the ground for their tracks and possible location. Verse 12 justifies this interpretation and carries this image further with its stalking lion illustration.

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