Monday, February 8, 2010

Job and His English Interpreters

Every now and then I come across a Bible verse where translations of English Bibles display remarkable and confusing contradictions. Job 13:15 represents a dramatic example. Notice the following:

“Behold, he will slay me; I have no hope” (Revised Standard Version, RSV)
“Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” (New American Standard Bible, NASB)
“God might kill me, but I cannot wait.” (New Living Translation, NLT)
“Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (New King James Version, NKJV)

Is Job’s statement a declaration of certain death, possible death, no hope, hope, impatience, unbelief? A variety of interpretation issues are involved in unraveling this apparently contradictory and confusing array of translation options. Syntax, word study, textual criticism, and context are necessary elements in deciphering Job’s exclamation.

The first issue to resolve is the textual problem to establish the most likely wording of the verse. The Hebrew text presents two options, one in the text itself and the other in the margin. The different choices create very different translations. The RSV and NLT translate the second clause in negative terms whereas the NASB and NKJV give positive readings. Obviously a textual decision needs to be made.

This textual problem involves similar sounds of the two readings, a common problem in the transmission of ancient manuscripts. The text contains the negative “not” (לא) while the margin substitutes a preposition with an appended personal pronoun (לוֹ). The Jewish editors of the Masoretic text, the preferred Old Testament manuscript used by scholars, placed in the margin what they considered to be the original reading. This reading is also found in the text of numerous other Old Testament manuscripts. The NASB and NKJV followed this ancient textual critical decision. The RSV and NLT chose to stay with the reading in the text. The present discussion accepts the marginal reading as original and the one that appears to accord best with the context.

Syntax refers to the relationships between words in a sentence and includes a variety of meanings for the different parts of speech (see Ronald J. Williams, Hebrew Syntax: An Outline, for a review). In the above translations the verb in the initial clause communicates either a simple future idea (RSV), a concession (NASB, NKJV), or a possibility (NLT). In the second clause, the verbal idea is viewed as either an ongoing but uncompleted mental activity (RSV, NLT) or a simple future declaration (NASB, NKJV). Each of these interpretations is possible, but each cannot be correct.

The first word study issues involved the initial particle seen in the Hebrew text (הן). This could be a demonstrative interjection, “behold” (RSV), or a conjunction used in combination with a Hebrew verb (יקטל) to communicate a concession or a condition (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 243; John E. Hartley, The Book of Job, 221). The NASB and NKJV translators apparently chose this latter option. In contrast Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, p. 497, says that “the meaning see is no doubt preferable” in apparent agreement with the RSV. Again, both possibilities cannot be right.

The second word study matter concerns the Hebrew verb יחל translated as waiting (NLT), hoping (RSV, NASB) and trusting (NKJV). When this verb is followed by the preposition ל, “for,” as in this verse, the resultant meanings are “to wait for” or “to hope for” (see William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 133, and Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 403-04). In this instance, since there is a close semantic connection between “waiting” and “hoping,” the choice will depend upon how the context affects the sentence. The “trusting” terminology of the NKJV, though close in meaning to waiting or hoping, has a different perspective. The major dictionaries do not include this sense for the word used (see also Harris, Archer, Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, I, 373-74).

As in any interpretation, the context of the passage in question plays a determinate role in sifting through various options. Often one enters the realm of probabilities instead of certainties. The interpreter must now examine the context of Job 13:15 as a guide through the maze of syntax and word study differences.

Does the context suggest that Job expects God to kill him? It does not appear so. Job wants an opportunity to present his case before God and is convinced that he will be vindicated (verses 15 and 18). He may lose his case and be killed, but he firmly believes that he will be exonerated. Therefore, the probability appears greater that the NASB and NKJV with their “concession” statements should be given priority in interpretation.

Regarding the second syntax issue, the ongoing mental state of waiting/hoping or a future expectation, the broader context of verse 15 would point to a future idea. Job wants to present his case and wait for the verdict from God. The verdict will follow his defense; therefore, the future idea is more probable and so translated in the NASB and NKJV. (See Hartley, The Book of Job, 221-23, for a different interpretation of the context.)

The difference between “waiting” and “hoping” relates to the above tentative conclusion. If the resolution of Job’s contention with God follows his defense, “waiting” for the condemnation or vindication becomes the point at hand with “hoping” coming in as a weak second. Therefore, the NLT seems to “carry the day” in this matter.

In an attempt to capture all of the interpretive conclusions, the following translation is tentatively offered: "Though He may kill me, I will wait for Him." The English translation that most closely approximates this rendering is the New American Bible, “Slay me though he might, I will wait for him.”

Here is my paraphrased interpretation of the verse: “Although God might find me guilty and kill me after I make my defense, I will wait for His verdict, but I am confident that He will find me not guilty.” Such an interpretation coordinates well with the preceding desire on Job’s part to argue his case before God (verses 3 and 13) and with the following context where he knows that he will be vindicated (verse 18).