When Translations Differ . . .

All Bible translations interpret the Scriptures. One valuable aspect of an English translation consists of people having the Bible in their native tongue, but not all translations interpret Scripture the same.

Conscientious scholars, preachers, teachers, and anyone committed to serious Bible study and proclamation should compare different translations to see if and how they vary in their interpretations before presenting the results of their study to others. The critical question must be, “Which interpretation agrees best with the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek text of the passage under consideration?” Of course, not all students of the Bible can read these ancient texts, but enough Bible study tools exist to partially alleviate this problem.

Hoses 7:13 provides one example why investigating the Hebrew language becomes important. Consider the italicized portions of these commonly used English translations:

  • (NKJV) “Woe to them, for they have fled from Me! Destruction to them, Because they have transgressed against Me! Though I redeemed them, Yet they have spoken lies against Me.
  • (NASB and ESV) “Woe to them, for they have strayed from Me! Destruction is theirs, for they have rebelled against Me! I would redeem them, but they speak lies against Me.
  • (NIV) “Woe to them, because they have strayed from me! Destruction to them, because they have rebelled against me! I long to redeem them but they speak about me falsely.

These competing interpretations involve:

  • The timing of redemption. Is the verse speaking of the past, present or future? Hebrew primarily looks to the context for establishing the nature and time of a situation or event rather than the verb form as in English: (Waltke & O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 1990, para. 20ff; S. R. Driver, A Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew, 1998 edition, Chapter 1)
    • The NKJV ties redemption historically to the past.
    • The other translations connect the time to the present and future.
  • The interpretations attached to these times.
    • The NKJV refers the verse to the past salvation experience of Israel at the Red Sea.
    • The other translations focus on present and future rather than the historical past.
  • The practical applications of the passage.
    • The NKJV denounces God’s people who should repent of their sins because of their salvation.
    • The NASB and ESV emphasize God’s willingness to redeem Israel if she repents and returns to faithfulness to the Covenant.
    • The NIV emphasizes God’s longing to redeem his people.
  • The tentative conclusion.
    • Observing what some Hebrew grammarians say, (1) The imperfect form of the verb [to redeem] cannot be taken as referring to the redemption out of Egypt because it does not function grammatically as a past time verb, and (2) The syntax of the verb is rather voluntative or optative as in the NASB, ESV, and NIV.
    • See Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (1996). Commentary on the Old Testament (Vol. 10, p. 72); Spence-Jones, Hosea, 207; Gesenius Hebrew Grammar, ; Ronald J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, 2nd edition, Chapter 3)

English and Hebrew communicate differently and the Bible interpreter must take this into account when and before pontificating “Thus sayeth the Lord.” Otherwise he or she better be prepared to deal with “But why does my Bible say . . . ?

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