Tuesday, February 8, 2011

“Do You Understand What You Are Reading?”

Hebrew is a delightful language! However, western-oriented students generally get frustrated by some of its characteristics: right-to-left reading, fluctuations of vowels, expansive nature of word meanings, syntax, ancient idioms, and the strangely fluid nature of verbal time (past, present, future). These matters may be difficult for the student but they also challenge scholars who in turn influence Bible translators. To be crystal clear: How the Hebrew text is understood and the English Bible subsequently translated determines its interpretation.

This posting focuses on the issue of verbal time. Scholars do not always agree as to whether a particular verb in a specific context speaks of the past, present or future since time is a secondary matter in Hebrew verbs (Arnold and Choi, A guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 36). This results in different English translations and interpretations. Obadiah 12-15 presents a case in point. Notice the variations in the wording of the bold portions in the New King James Version (NKJV) and the New International Version (NIV) as representative examples of commonly used translations:


12 “But you should not have gazed on the day of your brother
In the day of his captivity;
Nor should you have rejoiced over the children of Judah
In the day of their destruction;
Nor should you have spoken proudly
In the day of distress.
13 You should not have entered the gate of My people
In the day of their calamity.
Indeed, you should not have gazed on their affliction
In the day of their calamity,
Nor laid hands on their substance
In the day of their calamity.
14 You should not have stood at the crossroads
To cut off those among them who escaped;
Nor should you have delivered up those among them who remained
In the day of distress.
15 “For the day of the LORD upon all the nations is near;
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
Your reprisal shall return upon your own head.


12 You should not gloat over your brother
in the day of his misfortune,
nor rejoice over the people of Judah
in the day of their destruction,
nor boast so much
in the day of their trouble.
13 You should not march through the gates of my people
in the day of their disaster,
nor gloat over them in their calamity
in the day of their disaster,
nor seize their wealth
in the day of their disaster.
14 You should not wait at the crossroads
to cut down their fugitives,
nor hand over their survivors
in the day of their trouble.
15 “The day of the LORD is near
for all nations.
As you have done, it will be done to you;
your deeds will return upon your own head.

The verbs in the NKJV indicate past activity; in the NIV, the immediate future. Do these verses reflect Edom’s sin in the past or Edom’s potential sin in the future?

As discussed by Arnold and Choi, (Ibid, 57), the issue of time relates to whether the verbs are Imperfects, a verb form focusing on progress that can have reference to the past, present, or future, or Jussives, a verb form expressing a desire, wish, or command connecting to the present and future. The NKJV editors considered the verbs Imperfects; the NIV translators, Jussives.

Two issues of Hebrew grammar justify the NIV interpretation: (1) The Imperfect and Jussive verb forms are identical in spelling except for the Hiphil (causative) verb stem where a difference exists. In verses 12 and 14 two clear Jussives appear, “boast” (תָּגְדֵּל) and “hand over” (תַּסְגֵּר). The Imperfect forms of these verbs are תַּגִדִּיל and תַּסִגִּיר. No confusion of verb forms exists. Therefore, in verses 12-14 either all the verbs are Jussives or the writer switched from Imperfects to Jussives arbitrarily—an unlikely scenario. (2) A second aid to resolve this translation variation involves the negative found throughout verses 12-14. This particular negative (“not” אַל) “governs the jussive” (Waltke and O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 516). Based on these two grammatical observations, the NIV wins the debate.

But then a context complication arises. Verse 15 seems to say that Edom did wrong in the past and will be judged accordingly in the future. But the immediate context of verses 12-14 with the Jussive verb forms encourages a departure from sinful acts in the present and future. These verses appear to be ignored by verse 15b that has a past time reference—or does it?

Baker, writing in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 1457, suggests this historical scenario:

When did all of this happen? This probably took place when the Philistines and Arabians attacked Jerusalem in the days of Jehoram, Jehoshaphat’s son . . . . Since Obadiah told Edom not to do such things (cf. “should not” in Obad. 12-14) again [italics added], he was probably writing about a time before Jerusalem’s total destruction by Nebuchadnezzar.

In other words, Edom did wrong in the past and is being encouraged to change its ways in the future. Though plausible, this scenario creates a contextual disconnect between verses 12-14 that focus on the future and verse 15b that connects either to the past or to the far distant future as suggested by Baker. He continues:

Besides her past humiliation, Edom will be repopulated in the future . . . and with other nations will again come under God's wrath in the forthcoming day of the Lord when Christ returns to establish His reign. God's judgments on Edom corresponded to her crimes. What she . . . had done to Judah would then be done to her.

This future perspective means that verse 15b should be translated, “As you will have done, it will be done to you.” A future perfect English translation connects smoothly with Baker’s historical outline. The first verb of verse 15b (NIV, “you have done” עָשִׂיתָ) can indeed be functioning as a future perfect (Waltke, O’Connor, Ibid, 491). Such a translation leaves open the possibility that Edom had the option to repent and change her ways, and it keeps intact the prophecy of Edom’s eventual demise. In short, a future perfect translation maintains contextual continuity.

As a conclusion, translations that interpret the verbs as Jussives should make a clear connection between verses 12-14 and verse 15. This can be done easily by translating the first verb of verse 15 as an English future perfect, “As you will have done [from this time forward], it will be done to you.” The bracketed insertion could perhaps be footnoted to coordinate with the historical scenario.

How the Hebrew text is understood and the English Bible subsequently translated determines its interpretation. Beekman and Callow (Translating the Word of God, 32) state that an accurate translation “faithfully transmits the message of the original.” Obadiah’s message comes by way of Hebrew grammar and contextual continuity—the domain of Bible scholars. Translators must incorporate their conclusions making it possible for readers to interpret the English Bible accurately.

To redirect a familiar dialogue, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I except someone translate the text accurately!”