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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Are we polytheists?

The NIV translates the first two verses of majestic Psalm 91 as:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

The NIV follows the practice of most other English versions here, literally translating four different ways of referring to God in the original Hebrew.

Stepping back from my lifelong familiarity with these verses, it sounds to me that such English translations imply that there are four different referents, that is, four different beings in whom we "dwell", "rest", "take refuge", and "trust." (Actually, I think that the second sentence is clear the "the Lord" and "my God" are co-referential, so, technically, the two verses appear to refer to three entities.) It requires teaching beyond the words of the translation for the uninitiated hearer/reader to know that all four names refer to a single deity, the God of the Hebrew Bible. If this is startling to you, you will also need to step back from this particular text and think about how English refers to different entities. Think, for instance, about the following English:
Today I am flying back home with my wife and my friend and my director and my co-worker.
How many people am I flying with today? Just from these words, as they would normally be interpreted according to English syntax and semantics, it sounds like I will be flying with four different people. In actual fact, all four are the same person, my wife, Elena. But English grammar does not permit me to refer to them all as expressed in that sample sentence. To make it clear that they are all the same person, I would need to use English rules of reference to do so. I could do so with a revision of the sample sentence:
Today I am flying back home with Elena. She is my wife, my friend, my director, and my co-worker.
The most referentially accurate translation of Psalm 91:1-2 and other passages like it requires, if I understand English grammar correctly, revision so that it is clear that each reference to an entity is to the same entity. These beautiful verses refer to the same God who is referred to in four different ways:

the Most High
the Almighty
the Lord
my God

In the Hebrew (which has different referential syntax from that of English), these verses refer to only one god, not three or four different gods. So translation of these verses should accurately reflect that all of the names for deity refer to the same god.

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11 Comments:

At Tue Oct 04, 07:25:00 AM, Blogger Talmida said...

Nice point, Wayne. I find the first verse in the NIV much clearer with just a simple change in verb tense:

"He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High rests in the shadow of the Almighty."

To me, that sounds more like the Most High and the Almighty are the same person. No polytheists here! :)

It's a lovely example, though, of how participles can mess you up (I have trouble with Hebrew participles)! If only we could say "Abider in the shelter of the Most High..." or "Resident in the shelter of the Most High..." How about "Dweller in the shelter..."?

In that case, a future tense in the verb "rest" would work just fine.

It's only in trying to translate the Hebrew participle smoothly that one is required to add another verb. The English equivalents just don't work. In my attempts to translate accurately, I trip over participles a lot.

 
At Tue Oct 04, 10:27:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

Am I missing or is this not really a problem? I thought "LORD" was a placeholder for "YHVH" (commonly rendered as "Yahweh"), the name of God. Thus, any sentence using it clearly only refers to Him.

"I will say of Yahweh, 'He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.'"

To reflect this, your English sentence should have been, "Today I am flying back home with Elena, my wife, my friend, my director, and my co-worker."

I don't see any ambiguity of number in those sentences.

 
At Tue Oct 04, 02:26:00 PM, Blogger Joe said...

In my five and a half times through scripture in study mode, this passage has never suggested to my mind multiple Gods. I have always thought, perhaps because I see them in the context of the entirety of scripture, that they referred to the same entity, to wit: the God of creation.

Is this actually a problem for the young in Christ and Bible study?

 
At Tue Oct 04, 06:36:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

I wrote an exegetical study of Psalm 91 several years ago. It fits well to note the change in speaker between vs 1 (first voice) and vs 2 (second voice). While the LXX suggests the change in person(ἐρεῖ), as many commentators do also, the Masoretic Text (MT) fits well within the whole Psalm. If as suggested below, that the Psalm is a responsive reading, then the change in person is not necessary. Here is how I translated vv. 1-2:


91:1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
in the shadow of the Almighty he will spend the night.
91:2 I will say to Yahweh, “My Refuge and my Mountain Stronghold,
my God, I will trust in Him.”


The first verse reflects a chiastic structure, "he who dwells" parallels "he will spend the night", and the inner parallel has "shelter of Most High" and "shadow of the Almighty".

Regarding v. 2 I agree with the above comment, that the terms are appositives, building intensity of the focus of the person's trust.

 
At Wed Oct 05, 01:49:00 PM, Blogger Wayne said...

Joe said: In my five and a half times through scripture in study mode, this passage has never suggested to my mind multiple Gods. I have always thought, perhaps because I see them in the context of the entirety of scripture, that they referred to the same entity, to wit: the God of creation.

Is this actually a problem for the young in Christ and Bible study?


Joe, the problem stands out to me because I am a linguist and our job is to analyze languages, including English. As I stated in my post, there is no problem for those who are already familiar with Scripture and already know that these different names refer to the same God. There is a problem for those who only follow English grammatical rules and who are not already familiar with Bible versions which break English rules, as the NIV (and most other versions) does here.

As for whether or not it's a problem for those who are new to Bible study (it could be Jews new to Bible study, not just Christians, since this passage comes from the Hebrew Bible), I don't know the answer. We can only find that answer from field testing among that target audience.

Thanks for your good questions. They keep me on my toes!

 
At Wed Oct 05, 01:53:00 PM, Blogger Wayne said...

I don't see any ambiguity of number in those sentences.

There is no ambiguity of number. The problem is one of identification of who all the referents in the two verses are. Do the different names refer to different entities/persons or the same person? We can't tell from these verses. English grammar requires that they refer to different persons. But there are translation solutions which follow English grammar and which do not inaccurately communicate a meaning not in the Hebrew text, that the different names refer to different persons.

We who read the verses and do not get the wrong meaning do so because we have been trained to disregard the appropriate English grammatical rule for how descriptions and names refer to people, when it comes to reading many Bible passages.

 
At Thu Oct 06, 11:02:00 AM, Blogger Funky Dung said...

It seems to me the fact that "the LORD" is actually a name, rather than a title, automatically clears up any amibuity about the number of referents.

 
At Thu Oct 06, 12:46:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

It seems to me the fact that "the LORD" is actually a name, rather than a title, automatically clears up any amibuity about the number of referents.

I think you are on to something here, but it probably needs to be worded a little differently. It is not clear in English that "the LORD" is a name rather than a title, at least if we are listening to the words, rather than reading them. I'm not sure what the uppercasing does to the name/title issue for "the LORD."

We do know that there can be more than one lord in English, and once we know which one we are talking about we would refer to that lord as "the lord."

For myself, I think I would view "the LORD" as a title, identical to "the lord" or "the Lord." I realize that all this is complicated by the fact that "LORD" is meant to be a conventional abbreviation for the Hebrew name for God. But Jehovah would be a name for me, as would YHWH and Yahweh. For me, as an English speaker, I can't use a definite article with a name, only with a title, regardless of whether that title is meant to substitute for a name.

It's difficult and complicated, isn't it? But we do need to follow the rules of English when translating to English, not the rules of some other language.

 
At Thu Oct 06, 12:49:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

It seems to me the fact that "the LORD" is actually a name, rather than a title, automatically clears up any amibuity about the number of referents.

I think you are on to something here, but it probably needs to be worded a little differently. It is not clear in English that "the LORD" is a name rather than a title, at least if we are listening to the words, rather than reading them. I'm not sure what the uppercasing does to the name/title issue for "the LORD."

We do know that there can be more than one lord in English, and once we know which one we are talking about we would refer to that lord as "the lord."

For myself, I think I would view "the LORD" as a title, identical to "the lord" or "the Lord." I realize that all this is complicated by the fact that "LORD" is meant to be a conventional abbreviation for the Hebrew name for God. But Jehovah would be a name for me, as would YHWH and Yahweh. For me, as an English speaker, I can't use a definite article with a name, only with a title, regardless of whether that title is meant to substitute for a name.

It's difficult and complicated, isn't it? But we do need to follow the rules of English when translating to English, not the rules of some other language.

 
At Thu Oct 06, 09:34:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

I think that it is actually very common in English to refer to the same person/thing by several different names in close proximity to each other. If, for instance, instead of "Today I am flying back home with my wife and my friend and my director and my co-worker" you said something more similar to the text, such as "Today I am flying back with my wife. While I am sitting with Elena on the plane..." etc., that would be prefectly normal English. Now, someone who didn't already know your wife's name was Elena might have the potential to become confused, and the other uses sound strange because referring to your wife as your "friend," though, I hope, accurate, sounds strange in our culture, I think. It is also normal in poetry in many languages, English included, to add information about someone or something by addressing him/her/it in various different ways. I actually don't see the rendering as being unnatural at all...

 
At Fri Oct 07, 11:38:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I think that it is actually very common in English to refer to the same person/thing by several different names in close proximity to each other.

You're right, Kenny. There are English grammatical constructions that do not invite the inference that one is talking about different referents. One of them is the appositive construction, such as:

"Today I am flying back home with Elena, my wife. "My wife" gives additional information about who Elena is. The English appositive is close in semantic structure to the poetic parallel contruction of Hebrew poetry.

We still need to be very careful that we only use English syntax in English Bibles. Otherwise, those who do not understand improperly used syntax and semantics of many English Bibles will not understand the correct meaning properly. Translations are *supposed* to give us the same meaning as the original text, but they often do not, because non-English or wrong English syntax is used. We who have studied the Bible for many years have become inoculated to the incorrect use of English in many Bible versions. But we should translate for English speakers so they understand the original meaning accurately, using only English syntax, just as the hearers/readers of the original biblical languages could get the meanings correctly because the biblical authors used syntax which was correct for the languages they wrote in.

 

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