Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Are there mistakes in your Bible translation? Part 2

Today I would like to continue dealing with Dr. Hoffman's article Five Mistakes In Your Bible Translation. You can read the first part of this series here.

As I stated yesterday Dr. Hoffman points out what he calls five mistakes in Bible translations. The three of the "mistakes" are merely part of the translation process due to the fact that translation work is not merely replacing word for word. Part of the issue is that both Greek and Hebrew grammar structure is very different than English. A Bible that strictly followed a word-for-word pattern would be–at best–very difficult to read. Dr. Hoffman also gave two examples where the wrong words were used in the translation. 

Yesterday I covered Dr. Hoffman's assertion that Isaiah 7:14 mistakenly uses the word virgin instead of young woman. This passage is very popular in the Advent season because it was quoted by Matthew in regards to the birth of Jesus. The other example of this that Dr. Hoffman talks about is his assertion that the Tenth Commandment is not saying that we should not "covet." He says:

The tenth Commandment, commonly but wrongly translated as "thou shalt not covet," illustrates how internal structure or etymology can be misleading. Like the English "host" and "hostile" that share a root but don't mean the same thing, the words for "desirable" and "take" in Hebrew come from the same root. It's the second word, "take," that appears in the Ten Commandments. But translators, not recognizing that related words can mean different things in this way, misunderstood the Hebrew and wrongly translated the text as "thou shalt not covet" for what should have been "thou shalt not take."

Dr. Hoffman doesn't go into great detail in this article but rather has a linked video (I read the transcript via Read It Later) that goes into greater depth. In that video Dr. Hoffman says:

The Hebrew verb in the 10th commandment (or, for some, the 9th and 10th commandments) is chamad. As usual, we learn what the word means by looking at how it is used elsewhere.

The clearest case against "covet" is Exodus 34:24, which has to do with the three pilgrimage holidays, for which the Israelites would leave their homes and ascend to Jerusalem. Exodus 34:24 promises that no one will chamad the Israelites land when they leave for Jerusalem to appear before God.

It's absurd to think that the Israelites were worried about leaving their land for a while because other people would then desire it. After all, other people could desire the land whether or not the Israelites were around.

So it's pretty clear that chamad doesn't mean "covet" or "desire" there.

Dr. Hoffman is exactly correct. We do learn what a particular word means by looking at how it is used elsewhere. He goes on to detail five different places where the Hebrew word Chamad (think BaCH, very hard CH from the bottom of your throat) is used. In those places he states that they support what he understands to be the meaning of the word. His understanding is that the word means "to take" and not "to covet or desire." But he ignores the thirteen other places (not counting the two places where it is used in the context of the Ten Commandments) that the word Chamad occurs. Why might he do this?

My guess is that to replace covet or desire in those passages with take would make even less sense than it does in two of his examples. These passages run counter to the point he is trying to make.

But even the passages that he cites do not actually make his point. 

In both Deuteronomy 7:25 and Joshua 7:21 Dr. Hoffman wants to replace the word "covet" with "take." But he never gives his full English translation of those versed. Based upon what he is saying in the video here are how the passages would read:

Deuteronomy 7:25 – The carved images of their gods you shall burn with fire. You shall not take the silver of the gold that is on them or take it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared by it, for it is an abomination to the Lord your God.

Joshua 7:21 – When I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels, then I took them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.

That just does not make sense. Dr. Hoffman states:

Just from this context, the verb could mean covet, but other than our preconceptions of what the text should mean, we see nothing to suggest that translation.

But that is exactly what we see when we look at how the word is used elsewhere.

Genesis 2:9 tells us that every tree in the garden was pleasing (Chamad) to look at and good for food.

Genesis 3:6 tells us that Eve saw that the tree produced fruit that was desirable (Chamad) for making people wise.

Job 20:20 says that an evil man with not let anything he desires (Chamad) escape from him.

Psalms 19:10 tells us that the Law of God is more desirable (Chamad) than gold or the sweetest honey.

I could go on but the point is that we do need to look at how a word is used in other places in order to get a sense of what it means. And all of these passages would not make any sense using some form of the word "take." That doesn't mean that the same word cannot mean different things at times. (That is one hot dog. That is one cool cat.) However, it seems to me to be pretty clear that Dr. Hoffman is mistaken in claiming that the Tenth Commandment is an error in translation.

I would suggest is that our understanding of what it means to covet or desire as used through out the Bible might be deficient. The usage of the word seems to convey more than merely wanting something; more than merely wanting something a lot. It seems to mean that we want something so much that we start to scheme how to get it...even if we never actually take it. And that is still a sin.

Further reading:
Here are all the places that Chamad is used in the Bible.

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