Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lost in translation: When one verse can mean two things

Hebrew, in its ancient form, was a language where the vowels were left unwritten. That is to say: the original texts of the Old Testament did not have the vowel marks written in. Later, when the vowels were added, sometimes more than one reading was possible.

Imagine if someone reading English saw a word written as only the consonants "strk". What does that mean: Stark? Strike? Stork? Stroke? The surrounding words can help piece together the likely meaning; still, sometimes we cannot be completely sure about which word was meant.

The ancient Hebrew sages had an interesting approach to this problem. They allowed more than one reading of the letters. By considering more than one word in these places, they could take more than one meaning from the same verse.

Consider this verse from the Psalms which, according to the Talmud, was sometimes read in two different ways:
"Come, behold the works of the Lord, who has made desolations in the earth." (Psalm 46:8)


"Come, behold the works of the Lord, who has made names in the earth." (Psalm 46:8)
Are they really both legitimate?
The comment in the Talmud supporting the alternate reading was:
Read not "shammoth" [desolations] but "shemoth" [names]. Berachoth 7b
If we keep in mind that the vowels were not in the original, we can take the sages' point that either reading is possible.

In reviewing the Biblical commentaries in the Talmud, it is common to see two different wordings allowed for the same verse. Here are only a few of the other instances in the Talmud:
  • Read not "sabe'a" [satisfied] but "sheba'" [seven].
  • Read not "morashah" [inheritance] but "me'orasah" [betrothed].
  • Read not "goyim" [nations] but "ge'im" [lords].
  • Read not "adam" [a man] but "edom" [an Edomite].
  • Read not "be-fares" [when he scatters] but "befaresh" [when one pronounces distinctly]
  • Read not "be-zalmon" [in Zalmon] but "be-zalmaweth" [in the shadow of death]

There are literally hundreds of uses of this principle in the Talmud; it was a well-accepted and established practice. And, given the lack of vowels in the original, it was appropriate to the original language.

Consider one more possible example of this principle, this time coming from a New Testament reference back to the ancient Hebrew prophets:
He went out and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: He shall be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:23)
There is no Old Testament text that is customarily translated that way, calling the Messiah a Nazarene. But apparently, there is a text that could have been translated to refer to the Messiah as a Nazarene, if another acceptable reading of the same letters had been chosen. The church fathers traced that reference in Matthew back to Isaiah 11:1, but not in the Greek translations that they often used; only in the Hebrew texts. The "branch" from Isaiah 11:1 is "netzer", very much like the town Nazareth and its people the Nazarenes. So the New Testament authors may well have been using the accepted principle of using different readings with the same root letters: read not "branch" but "Nazarene".


Martin LaBar said...

That's interesting. I'm continually amazed that God's truth is preserved, in spite of human weaknesses like word meanings.

Weekend Fisher said...

You're setting off my irony-meter, y'know. ;)

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF