Friday, May 30, 2014

Translators & Ambiguities

English translations of the Bible reflect the learning, skills, and philosophies of the translators. With respect to translation philosophy, when ambiguities appear in the original text, some translators slant the wording towards a clearly-defined interpretation while others try to keep the wording as ambiguous as the original language leaving the interpretation up to the reader. The issue of ambiguity has both ethical and exegetical implications.
Ethically, when does a translator have the right to alter the stated textual expression? There exists an assumption by the readers of the English Bible that the translator has accurately transferred data from the biblical language to English without adding to or subtracting from the original meaning of the author. This assumption borders on foolishness stemming from ignorance. No translation represents the original perfectly; all translations exhibit varying degrees of loss from the biblical text. But when the translator intentionally moves a text from obvious ambiguity to a clear interpretation, unproven and perhaps unprovable in the context, has he or she not crossed over an ethical boundary?
Exegetically, why do ambiguities in the biblical text arise? At least two sources exist: (1) what was unambiguous to the ancient readers becomes ambiguous to a later generation or people group because of culture and distance. (2) Some ambiguities are intentional so that the text can be read and applied variously—a feature common to all literary societies (technically called polysemy). What this means exegetically, then, is that the baseline for translating ambiguities is to leave them intact unless undeniable contextual proof exists to turn an “apparent” ambiguity into a clear statement.
Psalm 56:12a (English) is a case in point regarding textual ambiguity:
KJV and RSV — “Thy vows are upon me, O God”
NASB — “Thy vows are binding upon me, O God”
NIV — “I am under vows to you, O God”
ESV — “I must perform my vows to you, O God
NET — “ I am obligated to fulfill the vows I made to you, O God
NKJV — “Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God”
Each of these translations struggles with the relationship between the noun “vows” and the pronominal suffix “Thy” (only evident in the KJV, RSV, and NASB). Is the suffix “Thy” ( ךָ) appended to the noun “vows” (נְדָרֶ֑י) subjective making the God the subject of the verbal idea underlying the noun (vows made by God, KJV, RSV, NASB) or objective viewing David as the object of the verbal idea in the noun and introducing into the translation an unstated subject “I” (vows made by David, NIV, ESV, NET, NKJV)?
Commentators struggle with this as well. Tate (Psalms 51-100, 65) paraphrases the sentence with an objective interpretation, “I have bound myself with vows to you, O God.” A number of commentators follow suit. But Gaebelein (The Book of Psalms, 235) takes the subjective viewpoint, “Upon me are Thy vows, O God,” which he explains, “The very vows of God are upon him, which means that God Himself has vowed to keep the feet of His Saints.” Clearly from the standpoints of translators and commentators an ambiguity exists.
The approach to the problem of biblical ambiguity must begin with what is possible and then what is probable. If the literal Hebrew phrase “Your vows” cannot reflect both objective and subjective ideas the translator/interpreter has no choice but to follow what Hebrew allows. In this instance, the genitive function in Hebrew allows both (see Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 2nd ed., 11; Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, p. 416).
The investigation of probability may begin first with a question: Is God ever the subject of the verb meaning “to vow (נדר)”? Of the 31 occurrences of this verb in the Hebrew Bible, God is never the subject.  However, the semantic meaning of “vowing” differs little if any from “making a promise,” (Koehler, Baumgartner, Richardson, Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 674). The noun in Psalm 56:12 is a derivative from the verb, therefore one cannot rule out the subjective idea.
Second, can the broader context of Psalm 56 justify the concept of a divine vow/promise? With the emphasis on God’s word upon which David depends and upon which he finds comfort and encouragement in his trials (English verses 4, 10, 11), the subjective idea finds adequate justification. But also the objective interpretation can be supported by verse 12b where David clearly states that he will give “thank offerings,” the clause being understood as a parallel statement to or an extension of verse 12a.
A strength of the subjective interpretation is the contextual emphasis on God’s word from which David gains encouragement and strength. A strength of the objective interpretation is the preposition “upon me” (עָלַ֣י) that begins verse 12 and may be a preposition of “obligation” (Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 2nd ed, p. 52). Another source of strength for the objective view is a parallel in Psalm 50:14, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving And pay your vows to the Most High” (NASB, a psalm by Asaph). The apparent ambiguity dilemma in Psalm 56:12 leads to these conclusions:
(1) The subjective interpretation . . .
(a) finds a basis in the contextual emphasis on God’s word as a source of strength for David.
(b) finds strength in the non-parallel structures of verses 12a and b—David could unambiguously have written,  אֲשַׁלֵּ֖ם תּוֹדֹ֣ת לָֽךְ/  נְדָרַי לך אלהים אדּר, “to You, O God, I will pay my vows / I will render thank offerings to You.”
(3) The objective interpretation . . .
(a) finds support in the prepositional phrase “upon me.”
(b) fits well with the parallel passage of Psalm 50:14.
If polysemy, intentional ambiguity, exists in this verse, a real possibility, the readers can take away both the truth (1) that God’s word is the source of encouragement (subjective) and (2) that God Himself is the object of praise (objective). But whether intentional or not, the fact of textual ambiguity has ethical and exegetical aspects that every translator must consider. In the above translations of Psalm 56:12a (Hebrew verse 13a) the KJV and RSV may best reflect the ethical and exegetical concerns discussed by maintaining a level of ambiguity.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Psalm 67

Lines Scansion

NASB with alterations (The Hebrew Bible includes a one verse superscription that is not part of the Psalm proper. Therefore, the numbering in the Hebrew Bible is one verse ahead of the English Bibles.  For convenience, the following discussion will follow the English verse numbers. The brackets [] represents the author’s translation changes.)
      God be gracious to us and bless us,
         And cause His face to shine upon us—Selah.
      That Your way[s] may be known on the earth,
         Your salvation among all nations.
      Let the peoples praise You, O God;
         Let the peoples praise You, [all of them].
      Let the nations be glad and sing for joy;
         For You will judge the peoples with [fairness]
         And guide the nations on the earth. Selah.
      The peoples [will] praise You, O God;
         The peoples [will] praise You, [all of them].
      The earth [will yield] its produce;
         God, our God, [will bless] us.
      God [will bless] us,
         That all the ends of the earth may fear Him.
Effect of the Metric Center on the Psalm’s Development
The superscription of Psalm 67 provides no indications of historical background or authorship. The contents of the psalm, however, best looks to a time when all peoples of the earth will praise God for his salvation and equitable rule. This situation will be in evidence in Christ’s kingdom reign in the millennium. Arno Gaebelein (The Book of Psalms, 263 and 65) writes that the psalm pictures “prophetically the condition of the earth and the nations during the coming age of the Kingdom. . . .  When the King has come, when He occupies the throne of His glory and rules over the nations, . . .” Tate (Psalms 51-100, 159) declares, “Thus the psalm invites a messianic perspective which looks forward to an age when the relationship between Yahweh’s saving-work in Israel and his blessing-work in all creation will no longer be obscure but will lead the peoples of the world to rejoice and sing of his judgments and guidance.” This forward-looking time frame means that the verb in the metric center (verse 4b, תִשְׁפֹּט) should be translated as an English future tense as seen in the NASB, KJV, and NKJV. Psalm 67 looks beyond the present to the future, a future for which Christians worldwide eagerly await!
The psalm develops in seven stanzas, the centerpiece of which is verse 4 (Tate, 155). Verses 3 and 5 “bookend” this central verse with identical words but not necessarily identical syntax (word function).  The verb for “praise” (ידה) uses the same form for both the precative/jussive (strong desire or wish) and the imperfect aspect (future). Therefore, based on the future-oriented context beginning at verse 4b, verses 5-7 coordinate with that perspective.
Additionally, the metric center (verse 4b) focuses on the 2nd person (“You”) whereas the surrounding clauses (verses 4a and c) are focused on the 3rd person (“they”), effectively isolating the central clause. This centerpiece, the metric center, has two principal points: it states the cause (“for”) of the peoples’ rejoicing by describing the equitable nature of the divine Judge (“You will judge the peoples with [fairness]”). Verse 4c defines that fairness (“And guide the nations on the earth”). Some further clarifications are necessary, however, to explain and tie the last clause (4c) to the metric center (4b).
Verse 1 is a prayer of Israel with the clear allusion to the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26 as noted by most commentators. Verse 2 broadens the focus to “all nations” who can, like Israel, come to know God’s ways and salvation. The term “ways” (דּרכי, reading the plural with several Hebrew manuscripts) refers to the “required conduct” by God (Koehler, Baumgartner, Richardson, and Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 232) as expressed in “the progressive realization of His counsel” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, V, 440), in other words, in his revealed word. And this revelation of God is the standard whereby he will “judge” and “guide” not only Israel but all people (“guide,” נחה, is a correlative of “way,” דרך, in verse 2; see Koehler, Baumgartner, Richardson, and Stamm, 231 and 685 respectively). Tesh and Zorn (Psalms, 449, italics mine) tie the two words together, “It signifies conducting one in the right way.” In short, God will evaluate everyone on the same standards of conduct found in his revealed word, “with [fairness] without national bias. Verses 6 and 7 again refer to Israel (verses 6b and 7a) and to the entire world (verse 7b). But the entire world also includes earth itself as seen in verse 6a, “The earth [will yield] its produce.” This also will occur in the future when the earth will experience the longed-for redemption of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-21).
The verb of verse 6a translated “[will yield]” (נָתְנָה) has been a source of difficulty for numerous scholars. Bratcher and Reyburn (A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Psalms, 576) state, “In verse 6a most translations take the perfect tense of the verb (literally “has given”) to refer to past action: “The land has produced” . . . . Some, however, contend that this is an example of what is called the precative perfect”—a perfect aspect verb used for a strong desire or wish and translated “May the earth yield . . . .” However, if the millennial future fits the context better the verb could more clearly be labeled a “prophetic perfect” or a “perfect of certitude” (Williams, Hebrew Syntax, 2nd ed., 30; Tesh and Zorn, 449-50) and translated as a future.
In conclusion, Psalm 67 moves from the present to the future and ends where it began—a focus on God’s blessings on Israel as a catalyst for the entire world to know His ways, find salvation, praise Him, and fear Him.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Psalm 64

Lines Scansion

NASB (The Hebrew Bible includes a one verse superscription that is not part of the Psalm proper. Therefore, the numbering in the Hebrew Bible is one verse ahead of the English Bibles.  For convenience, the following discussion will follow the English verse numbers.)
1       Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
         Preserve my life from dread of the enemy.
      Hide me from the secret counsel of evildoers,
         From the tumult of those who do iniquity,
      Who have sharpened their tongue like a sword.
         They aimed bitter speech as their arrow,
      To shoot from concealment at the blameless;
         Suddenly they shoot at him, and do not fear.
      They hold fast to themselves an evil purpose;
         They talk of laying snares secretly;
         They say,
         “Who can see them?”
      They devise injustices, saying,
         “We are ready with a well-conceived plot”;
         For the inward thought and the heart of a man are deep.
      But God will shoot at them with an arrow;
         Suddenly they will be wounded.
      So they will make him stumble;
         Their own tongue is against them;
         All who see them will shake the head.
      Then all men will fear,
         And they will declare the work of God,
         And will consider what He has done.
10     The righteous man will be glad in the LORD and will
              take refuge in Him;
         And all the upright in heart will glory.
Effect of the Metric Center on the Psalm’s Development
Psalm 64, a Lament of the Individual (Westermann, The Psalms, 55), typically includes the following segments:
Lament (“I,” “they,” “You” elements)
Expression of Confidence
As with all Psalms, however, the typical pattern gives priority to the situation in life. Psalm 64 develops in this fashion:
Invocation, 1a
Petitions, 1b-2
Lament (“they” only), 3-6
Expressions of Confidence, 7-9
            Towards God, 7
            Regarding Retribution, 8
            Expected Outcomes, 9
Praise, 10
The Psalmist begins with the petitions concerned with his own safety. The reason for his fears lies in the rather extensive descriptions of the adversaries including their arrogant sense of security (v.5, “Who can see them?”), their consummate planning (v.6a), and the depth of their wicked soul (v.6b). His confidence, however, arises as he expresses assurances that God will act on his behalf (v.7), that the wicked will reap the effects of their sins upon themselves (v.8), and that God’s actions will  become evident to all (v. 9). The psalm concludes with a declaration of praise for Yahweh’s deliverance (v.10).
The metric center of the psalm (5b) records the hubris of the opponents—they can do what they want because no one sees them ("them" refers to the speakers, the snares, or both), an attitude that stems from deep within their evil heart. Tate argues that verse 6b equals the pivotal expression in the psalm, “The inward nature and the human heart—how deep they are!” (Tate, Psalms, 132). One can agree with Tate that this equates to the theological center of the psalm but the metric center is the outward, arrogant expression of that inward state.
The connections between the verses preceding the center and those following are numerous and tie the psalm into a coherent whole:
Verses 2, 9—The works (פּעלי) of the wicked and the work (פּעל) of God
            Verses 3, 7—The arrow of the wicked (חץ) and the arrow
                                   (חץ) of God
            Verses 3, 8—The tongue (לשֹׁון) of the wicked
Verses 5, 7—The sudden (פּתאם) shooting (ירה) of an arrow by the wicked and by God
The overall message of the psalm highlights the psalmist’s anxieties over the cutting, secretive speech and hidden plots of the wicked (verses 1-6), the activity of God in response to the arrogant (verses 7-9), and praise of Yahweh by the “upright in heart” (verse 10).