The English Bible is a secondary source for Bible study. Originally, the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The overall purpose of these posts is to encourage the study of the Bible in the biblical languages. Copyright, Dennis O. Wretlind, 2013.
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 undeniablecontextual proof exists to
turn an “apparent” ambiguity into a clear statement.
Psalm 56:12a (English) is a case in point regarding textual
KJV and RSV — “Thy vows are upon me, O God”
— “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”
— “I am obligated to fulfill the vows I made to
you, O God”
— “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,
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,
The investigation of probabilitymay 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:
The subjectiveinterpretation . . .
a basis in the contextual emphasis on God’s word as a source of strength for
finds strength in the non-parallel structures of verses 12a and b—David could unambiguously
have written, אֲשַׁלֵּ֖ם תּוֹדֹ֣ת לָֽךְ/נְדָרַילך אלהים אדּר, “to
You, O God, I will pay my vows / I will render thank offerings to You.”
objective interpretation . . .
support in the prepositional phrase “upon me.”
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.