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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Isaiah 40:6, translating hesed

Dr. Claude Mariottini, professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary, recently blogged on the meaning and translation of Hebrew hesed in Isaiah 40:6. He cites the KJV, HCSB, NIV, RSV, and NJB and concludes that their translations of hesed as "goodliness," "goodness," "glory," and "beauty" (RSV and NJB), respectively, are not as accurate as translations of the NRSV and TNIV which make clear that hesed is referring to faithfulness or commitment on the part of God's people:
The New Revised Standard Bible has a much better translation of this verse: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6)

The Today’s New International Version also reflects the intent of the writer: “A voice says: ‘Cry out.’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flower of the field.’”
Dr. Mariottini concludes:
In Isaiah 40:6 the prophet is saying that the commitment of Israel to the covenant was like the flower of the field: it did not last very long. He is also saying that God’s word, his promises to Israel, endure forever because he is faithful to his commitment to the relationship.

We must reread Isaiah 40:6 from a different perspective and learn anew that God does not want “goodliness.” God wants the commitment of his people.
I notice that the NET Bible footnote for Is. 40:6 supports Dr. Mariottini:
The LXX, apparently understanding the antecedent as “grass,” reads “glory,” but חֶסֶד (khesed) rarely, if ever, has this nuance. The normal meaning of חֶסֶד (“faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”) fits very well in the argument. Human beings and their faithfulness (verbal expressions of faithfulness are specifically in view; cf. NRSV “constancy”) are short-lived and unreliable, in stark contrast to the decrees and promises of the eternal God.
I am grateful for Better Bibles which are more accurate.

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At Thu Dec 15, 09:50:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I agree with Mariottini: the Hebrew text of this verse almost certainly refers to human faithfulness, as in the TNIV rendering. (TNIV has many improvements over NIV quite apart from its gender neutral language.) The problem, as Mariottini notes, is that translators here have followed the quotation of this verse in the New Testament, 1 Peter 1:24, or else the LXX version of the verse. Both of these Greek versions refer to the "glory" (doxa) of a human (LXX anthropos) rather than to their faithfulness. And, according to BHS, there is some support from the Syriac and from the Latin Vulgate for the reading "glory" rather than "faithfulness". So this is basically a textual issue. However, in a case like this the Vulgate and the Syriac could well be dependent on the New Testament if not on LXX, and "faithfulness" fits the original context very well. So I would support the TNIV rendering here, and suggest that the LXX reading was an error, caused perhaps by the LXX being translated from a faulty copy of the Hebrew.

At Thu Dec 15, 05:32:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

On a different issue, I've long been convinced that in Is 40:6 most translators punctuate wrongly. My feeling is that the words "All flesh is grass..." are a continuation of what "I" said, that is that they provide the readoning behind the question "What shall I cry?" and not the content that must be cried out.

Now, I could well be wrong, (in this case for example the translators could point out that the cantillation might support their reading) but the point is that print English translations decide the issue the other way by the punctuation they add to the text...

It could be interesting to post on the role of punctuation in a good translation!

At Thu Dec 15, 06:34:00 PM, Blogger Chuck said...

Interesting. Thanks for the post Wayne.

At Fri Dec 16, 03:45:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Indeed, Tim. It looks to me, from a cursory reading, as if the point is that the prophet doesn't want to cry out mere human words, but only God's word. He gets his answer from God in v.9: what he is to cry is initially simply "Here is your God!", and perhaps then also vv.10-11 and what follows.


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