Translations – David Bentley Hart

This is New Testament stuff, but he’s spot on about many (most?) translations being ‘tribal’.

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The Image of God – Part II

In the previous post I attempted to clarify whether mankind constituted the image of God or each individual human. Grammatically, the collection of humans (= mankind) was the image of God, not each individual person. In this post, I try to divine the meaning of the Hebrew word commonly translated as ‘image’, צֶלֶם (tzelem). In two of the most famous verses in the Bible, Genesis 1:26-27, God announces to His heavenly court that he will create mankind in1)This preposition is grammatically a Beth of Essence and is probably better translated as ‘as’ instead of ‘in’. Why is this important? Because the use of ‘as’ suggests that mankind is the image of God and not a simple representation of God – like an image in a mirror. His image and then does exactly that.

However, I will fail in what has become a task of sisyphean proportions. Oceans of ink have been spilled and an eternity of graduate student time has been spent in the pursuit of the best English understanding of this word, tzelem. I hope it will not surprise you (but it does most people as it did me) that ‘image’, while a decent translation, does not really convey what the author would have us understand about the relationship between God and his created image. Nor does there appear to be a better choice. Nevertheless, let’s see what we can come up with.

The controversy orbits around the meaning of tzelem principally because its meaning is neither consistently attested in Holy Scripture nor in other languages cognate with Hebrew (e.g., Aramaic; for example Daniel 2:31 in which tzelem is usually translated as a statue that metaphorically represents a series of kingdoms). Of the seventeen instances of its use, three of the verses rightly understand tzelem as various kinds of physical images – of boils (1 Sam 6:5), of men (Ezek 16:17), or of idols (Num 33:52). But in the other six verses in which tzelem is used, its translation to ‘image’ is tenuous. Indeed, when the meaning of tzelem in these other verses — a shadow (Psalms 39:7, 73:20), an image of God (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6) and of Adam (Genesis 5:3) — are taken into consideration, the common understanding of tzelem as ‘image’ seems manifestly too narrow.

So, what do we know so far (let’s continue to use tzelem so as not to presuppose the conclusion)?

  1. Mankind is created to be God’s tzelem (Gen 1:26-27).
  2. The tzelem is passed from father to son (Gen 5:3).
  3. To murder a person is anathema to God because the murdered person is God’s tzelem2)The wanton killing of an animal, though proscribed in the Hebrew Bible, is not viewed as a capital offense.(Gen 9:6). God therefore values those who are as His tzelem above and beyond those that are not.
  4. Psalm 39:6 implies that a disordered tzelem leads to a life without thought or purpose and constitutes a recipe for disaster. In this verse, tzelem might be likened to a moral compass that when rightly ordered keeps us on the straight and narrow.
  5. God judges people by how they lived out their lives as God’s tzelem (Psalm 73:20)

With the exception of its use as representing a shadow or a moral compass, most occurrences of tzelem are in the context of physical idols or some semblance of the divine.

An arguably better understanding of tzelem used in the context of creation is a functional one. By ‘functional’ I mean to argue that the context and grammar of Genesis 1:26-27 suggests that tzelem, no matter what the word literally meant to its original audience, is used by the Genesis author to confer an ability to mankind – the ability to rule over God’s creation. Let’s take a closer look at that notion:

Here’s Genesis 1:26:

Then Elohim said, “let us make mankind as our image according to our likeness – that they may rule over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the beasts of the earth, and over every creeping thing creeping upon the earth. So Elohim created mankind as his image; according to His likeness He created it; male and female He created them.

One of the important interpretations of this verse is the observation that God’s tzelem confers upon mankind the ability (and authority?) to rule over the God’s creation3)c.f. Genesis 2:7 and 2:19 from which arises the idea of the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov as conferring the ability of man to rise above his natural animal instincts.. To this end, for example, are translations from the NIV and the NET:

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”(NIV)

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”(NET)

The NIV and NET translators understood the second clause to be subordinate to the first. In other words, the second clause clarifies and substantiates the first thereby establishing the purpose for which God conferred His image on mankind, i.e., that they may rule. According to this interpretation, the tzelem possessed by mankind, no matter what its literal meaning, is understood as a divine quality that marks mankind as possessing the responsibility, ability, and obligation to be stewards of God’s creation.

David singing in Psalm 8:5-6a seems to support this idea when he wrote/sang,

You have made him4)Refers back to the word enosh in 8:4, meaning ‘man’. Both Harris et al, and the BDB suggest that enosh may denote man as a frail and helpless creature. In any case, by using this term for ‘man’ rather than adam or ‘ysh, David may be contrasting the majesty and awe of God with the frailty of man for its literary effect. a little lower than yourself [because of the tzelem] and crowned them with glory and honor [because of God’s likeness]. 6 You enabled mankind as rulers over the works of your hands;

What do you think?


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The Image of God – Part I

Genesis 1:27 has confounded biblical scholars and theologians for millennia. Of course, as you might imagine, the debates over its meaning are legion. Of the numerous controversies, however, there are two that are interesting to me from a translation viewpoint – and both controversies center on the meaning of the Hebrew word בְּצַלְמוֹ(bə·tzal·mu)1)Lit., “as-his-image”, or more correctly its root, צֶלֶם (tze·lem) most frequently translated as ‘image’. They are:

  1. Who or what becomes the image of God? Is it mankind (a collective noun) that is the image of God or is it each individual male and female?
  2. What does it mean to be the image of God?

The first question is essentially a grammatical one and the easiest to address. The second is very complex and has no easy answer so we’ll leave that one to the next post.

NOTE: In the following translation, the relevant nouns that are marked with the (ms) or (mp) superscript 2)ms = masculine singular, mp = masculine plural to make the task of finding the antecedent of the two indefinite pronouns easier.

Gen 1:27:

And God created mankind(ms) as His image.
     As an image of God He created it(ms).
          Male and female He created them(mp)

Once again, this is a simple problem of determining the correct antecedent of the two indefinite pronouns – ‘it’ in the second line and ‘them’ in the third line. And it is a simple problem. First, ‘mankind’ is the only choice for the antecedent of ‘it’ For example, ‘mankind’, like ‘flock’, is a collective noun and can be parsed as either a plural or singular noun depending on the author’s intention. In this case, the author meant ‘mankind’ to be understood as a singular noun, like “flock of birds” or “herd of cattle”. By contrast, note that the second indefinite pronoun in the third line, ‘them’, is plural and must refer to the collection of humans composed of males and females.

In other words, the grammar of the verse indicates that mankind, not the individual humans, constitute the image of God. By way of explanation, perhaps an analogy will clarify. Flocks of geese in flight often arrange themselves in the shape (or image) of an arrow. So, while we might describe such a flock as the image of an arrow, we would not claim that any individual member of the flock looked like an arrow.

Correctly interpreted, this is exactly what the grammar of the first two lines of 1:27 reveal. The collective, mankind, is the image of God – not the individual human. This actually makes sense when viewed in the context of Genesis 2:24 and the idea that marriage is a reunification of sorts between male and female to form “one flesh” and thereby reconstitute the image God. According to this interpretation, the institution of marriage in 2:24 constitutes the image of God, not the individual husband or wife3)As far as I have been able to learn, this is a view held by a number of scholars, though certainly not the majority..

While the grammatical view is perfectly reasonable, Genesis 5:1-3 confounds this interpretation.

Gen 5:1-3:

In these verses Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, is described as being his father’s likeness and image. Here’s a grammatically correct translation of the first two verses:

…When God created mankind, he made it in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and called them “mankind” when they were created.

In these verses, a paraphrase of 1:27, mankind is treated as a collective singular noun while the two male and female individuals are grammatically (and logically) plural. So far, so good. But now it gets very strange,

3 When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.

What’s going on here? In this verse, the singular noun, son, is described as being the image and likeness of his father!

One [unsatisfactory4)to me, anyway] explanation is that Seth, having been the product of the union of Adam and Eve, constituted an image and likeness of mankind because he bears both maternal and paternal elements5)In the language of modern-day biology, Seth contains roughly equal amounts of maternal and paternal DNA. This has some support from Genesis 2:24 in that some scholars (but by no means the majority) believe that “one flesh” refers to the child as representing the reunification of the male and female – a reconstituted mankind if you will)). Since the initial couple (in both Genesis creation stories) were not created biologically but divinely they would not be considered to have been made in God’s image and likeness.

So, if this explanation is correct, each human born of the union of a man and a women (i.e., everyone), does, in fact, constitute an image of God.

What are your thoughts?

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Sin Crouching At The Door

Here is my translation of this theologically important verse (Genesis 4:7):

If you do well, will you not be exalted? But, if you do not do well, sin blocks the door and its desire is for you. Therefore, you must master your emotions.

The key understanding in this verse is that Qayin failed to control his emotions. In this verse, the door of temptation(see, for example, the RSV translation below) was occupied by homicide (a sin) motivated by jealous anger. Qayin, unable to control his rage, sinned by killing his brother. God instructs Qayin (and we, the readers) that emotions whose expression would be sinful must be controlled.

In other words, we are to manage sin by resisting those emotions that lead to sinful behavior. It is destructive emotions (anger, jealousy, greed, pride, etc.,) that lead to sinful behavior and it is these emotions that must be controlled.

Now, on to the exegesis.

This interpretation is qualitatively different than the conventional understanding. Here’s the RSV’s translation1)NOTE: The symbolism of the door is explicit in this, and most other, English translations.:

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Now, the RSV (and all of the other English translations I’ve studied) make a crucial [but understandable2)Understandable because when the choice of an antecedent is not obvious it’s reasonably safe to favor proximity.] grammatical mistake. A mistake that leads the reader to believe that it is sin that must be mastered. The mistake arises from a fundamental difference between English and Hebrew. Hebrew, unlike English, is inflected for gender. For example, the English indefinite pronouns (e.g., ‘it’, ‘they’, etc.,) can refer to any noun. So, for example, the pronoun ‘they’ can refer to either a group of males or a group of women.

Not so in biblical Hebrew. Hebrew indefinite pronouns must always refer to a correctly gendered noun3)There are rare exceptions that occur in poetic passages. Genesis 4:7 is not such a passage.. In this case, the Hebrew word for sin is female and the Hebrew indefinite pronouns translated as ‘its’ and ‘it’ both refer to a masculine noun. As the Hebrew word for ‘sin’ is feminine, ‘its’ and ‘it’ cannot refer to sin. Here’s the RSV’s translation again but I’ve left the indefinite pronouns out:

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; [masculine noun’s] desire is for you, but you must master [the masculine noun].”

The question before us, then, is to what do these two pronouns refer. To answer that question we turn to the previous verse, 4:6. Again, from the RSV:

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?

The phrase “fallen countenance” is translated from the Hebrew phrase,נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ, literally translated as “your face has fallen“. In biblical Hebrew the word for face, (פָּנִיםpaneem) is masculine4)By the way, the Hebrew word for ‘door’ is also masculine but as the antecedent of ‘it’ doesn’t make sense, e.g., “the door is crouching at the door” but when accompanied by an adjective ‘face’ is used to indicate a person’s emotions, moods, and dispositions. So, for example, a “hard” face is indicative of defiance (Jeremiah 5:3), impudence (Proverbs 7:13), ruthlessness (Deuteronomy 28:50). A “shining” face is evidence of joy (Job 29:24). A “shamed” face points to defeat, frustration, humiliation (2Sam 19:5). A “flaming” face is one convulsed by terror (Isaiah 13:8). An “evil” face is a face marked by distress and anxiety (Genesis 40:7). And a “fallen” face stems from very strong anger or displeasure (Genesis 4:5-6).5)See Harris, et al (ref #1782a

We learn from this verse that we are to master our natural emotional impulses6)Also see the article, “Jan2017 – On Being Human. Qayin allowed himself to express his anger.

sin blocks the door: is translated from the Hebrew phrase  לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ the literal meaning of which is “regarding the door, sin [is] lying down“. Cassuto points out that the door is symbolic of temptation and represents decisions with which are faced in our day-to-day living.

you must master your emotions: translated from the Hebrew phrase,וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל־בּוֹ, meaning “and you must rule over it“. Rightly understood, ‘it’ refers to the anger expressed by Qayin’s face (his fallen countenance). The emotion to be mastered in this story is an anger so deep that its expression (homicide) would be a very grave sin. Qayin stood before temptation’s door (his desire to act on his resentment) and acquiesced by taking out his rage at God’s rejection of his sacrifice by killing his brother.

ASIDE: As most scholars will tell you, the translation of Genesis 4:5-7 “bristles with difficulties”7)Sarna, pp 33-34. Much of the controversy surrounds the literary nature of the text and Sarna’s book is a good place to start if you’re interested in this aspect of translation. One particular [mis]understanding common to a number of Evangelical interpretations is that it is a demon or the devil that crouches in the door. However, there really is no linguistic, contextual, or literary context for such an interpretation.

Now, go and study

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Posted in Bible Culture, Biblical Ethics and Morality, Biblical exegesis, Biblical Hebrew, Grammar | 3 Comments