Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Mosaic Ambiguity and A Translator’s Decision

Different understandings of passages in English Bibles are often based on different interpretations of the grammar of the text. Consider Deuteronomy 30:20 (italics mine):

“. . . 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 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 noun it replaces. The NASB locates the antecedent for the Hebrew pronoun translated this (הוּא) in the preceding ideas of loving, obeying, and holding fast. The NIV traces the antecedent for the pronoun back to the word “LORD” and, therefore, replaces the pronoun in question with that word. 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.

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

In this instance it appears that the NIV has the best reading based on the grammar. 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 support this view satisfactorily. 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 contextual justification, the reading that also conforms closest to the grammar of the language must enjoy interpretive priority—in this instance the NIV.

By way of application, Moses draws primary attention to a spiritual connection with God, the Source of life and blessings, and secondarily to obedience to His covenant. To further the thought, it is possible to obey God’s rules without 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.