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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Translating Heb. 1:7

Today's post is by Iver Larsen, a Bible translation consultant:

Heb 1:7 is an interesting exegetical challenge, because it is one of those rare cases where the vast majority of translations IMO have gone astray. This post is a bit long, like a brief article.

Let me start by quoting some English versions:
KJV: Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.
RSV: Who makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.
NIV: He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.
TEV: God makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.
NLT: messengers swift as the wind, and servants made of flaming fire.
CEV: I change my angels into wind and my servants into flaming fire.
NJB: appointing the winds his messengers and flames of fire his servants.
The last one is different from the others for very good reasons.

The passage is a word for word quote from the LXX version of Psalm 104:4 (103:4) with a very minor adjustment of the last two words from "flaming fire" to "flame of fire". The last expression with the Greek noun FLOX is more common than the corresponding verb FLEGW. FLOX (a flame) occurs 7 times in the NT and 61 times in the LXX, whereas FLEGW (to flame) does not occur in the NT, but 22 times in the LXX.

The flaming fire is associated with the awesome presence of God as on Mt. Sinai and also with punishment. In Rev 1:14 Jesus is described as having eyes like a flame of fire. It is at times associated with lightning or the fire that results when lightning strikes. For instance:
Isa 29:6 "the LORD Almighty will come with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire." It is likely that the thunder and flames of a devouring fire (lightning) are connected by chiasm.
Isa 30:30 "The LORD will cause men to hear his majestic voice and will make them see his arm coming down with raging anger and consuming fire, with cloudburst, thunderstorm and hail."
Isa 66:15 "See, the LORD is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire." (Another chiasm).
Ps 105:32 "He gave them hail for rain, and lightning that flashed through their land." (RSV)
Ps 105:32 "He gave them hail for rain, [and] flaming fire in their land! (KJV)
Notice how "flaming fire" was translated by "flashing lightning".
Jer 23:29 "Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces"
(Although the Hebrew here has only "fire", the LXX has "flaming fire" the exact same phrase as in Ps 104:4). The image suggests lightning.It is a fairly common theme in the OT for God to use the elements of nature in fighting against his enemies. When Barak and Deborah defeated Sisera's army by the wadi of Kishon, the army was swept away by torrential rains and a surge of water through the river. See Judges 5:20-21. In this kind of attack from heaven, the thunderstorm, the lightning and the rain combines to a serious force against an army that depends on chariots that can get stuck in the mud.

So, the "winds" referred to in Heb 7:1 and Ps 104:4 must be the thunderstorm that God is using as his "messengers" to combat the enemy. Likewise, the "flames of fire" must refer to lightning and possibly accompanying fires that go with a thunderstorm and also are used by God as his "servants" to combat the enemy. The NIV study note for Ps 104:4 says: "The winds and lightning bolts of the thunderstorm, here personified as the agents of God's purposes (see 148:8, cf. 103:21)."

The interesting thing about the translation of Heb 1:7 is that everybody agrees that this is a quote from Ps 104:4. So, how do these same translations render Ps 104:4? For ease of comparison, I am copying the rendering of Heb 1:7 from above
as the first line. The second line is Ps 104:4:
KJV: Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.
KJV: Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire

RSV: Who makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.
RSV: who makest the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers.

NIV: He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.
NIV: He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.

TEV: God makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.
TEV: You use the winds as your messengers and flashes of lightning as your servants.

NLT: messengers swift as the wind, and servants made of flaming fire.
NLT: The winds are your messengers; flames of fire are your servants.

CEV: I change my angels into wind and my servants into flaming fire.
CEV: The winds are your messengers, and flames of fire are your servants.

NJB: appointing the winds his messengers and flames of fire his servants.
NJB: appointing the winds your messengers, flames of fire your servants.
It is not clear why some versions say "your" rather than "his" for Ps 104:4, because the Hebrew text has "his":
עֹשֶׂה מַלְאָכָיו רוּחוֹת מְשָׁרְתָיואֵשׁ לֹהֵט
I assume it is a translation decision to avoid the poetic shifts between 2nd and 3rd person in this psalm. In any case, this is not significant, since the reference to God is clear enough.

It is interesting that only KJV and NJB are consistent in giving the same translation of the Hebrew and LXX text. The KJV is clearly wrong, and it does not make sense. The other versions of Ps 104:4 make good sense in the context, since it talks about the power of God as the ruler of all creation, using the winds as his chariots and the thunderstorm as his weapon. I think the TEV did very well for Ps 104:4, but made nonsense out of Heb 1:7.

Why is NJB alone in making a translation that makes sense and recognizes that the author of Hebrews is quoting this Psalm, intending the same meaning? The point in Hebrews 1:7 is that the angels are not up there at the same level as God (and not to be worshiped). Even the thunderstorm and lightning are used by God as his "angels", i.e. messengers. "Jesus is far above the angels" is the major theme of this passage in Hebrews.

Let us look at exegetical summaries and commentaries. The Exegetical Summary give two exegetical options:
1. The articular nouns TOUS AGGELOUS ‘the angels’ and TOUS LEITOURGOUS ‘the servants’ are objects of hO POIWN ‘the one making’, and the anarthrous [accusative] nouns PNEUMATA ‘winds’ and FLOGA ‘flame[s]’ are predicates [Alf, Blm, EGT, GNC, Hu, Lg, Ln, My, NTC, TH, TNTC, WBC; all versions except NJB];
2. ‘Winds’ and ‘flames’ are the objects, and ‘the angels’ (= ‘messengers’) and ‘the ministers’ are predicates [NIGTC; NJB]: who makes winds his messengers and flames of fire his servants. The Septuagint cannot carry the other interpretation [NIGTC].
One brave commentator (NIGTC) and one brave translation (NJB). NIGTC is Paul Ellingworth's commentary on Hebrews. The UBS Handbook on Hebrews was written by Nida and Ellingworth in 1983. It says for Heb 1:7:
"The Hebrew text of Psalm 104.4 may mean either (a) God makes winds and flames into his messengers and servants; (option 2 above)
or (b) God turns his servants into winds and flames. (option 1 above)
The Greek text can mean only (b)."
Paul Ellingworth's commentary was published in 1993, and it says:
"The meaning of the quotation is ambiguous in the MT, which may mean either:
(a) who makes winds/spirits his angels/messengers … , or
(b) who makes his angels into winds.
The LXX cannot mean (b)."
The reader ought to be confused by now. The Handbook by Nida and Ellingworth says that the Greek text of Hebrews 1:7 *can only* mean (b), the same as option 1. Ellingworth says 10 years later that the Greek text of the LXX *cannot* mean (b), the same as option 1.

But the Greek text is exactly the same. I would say that both statements are overstatements. The Greek text is open to both interpretations, and what it can or cannot mean is the subjective evaluation of the exegete. If we take context and common sense into account, there is no doubt in my mind that Nida (and Ellingworth) was wrong in 1983 and Ellingworth right in 1993, and that the NJB gives the correct interpretation of Heb 1:7, although not a very clear translation.

For those who know Greek, let me quote the Greek text:
ὁ ποιῶν τοὺς ἀγγέλους αὐτοῦ πνεύματα, καὶ τοὺς λειτουργοὺς αὐτοῦ πυρὸς φλόγα
and transliterated:

Literally: He who makes/uses winds [as] his messengers
and [a] flame of fire [as] his servants.
Greek has flexible word order so that one cannot know by the order what phrase is the object and what is the predicate. The order in this case is probably influenced by the Hebrew word order, since the LXX here is an extremely word-for-word Hebraic-sounding rendering. Nor does the case marking solve the issue, since both the objects and the predicates are in the accusative. That the Greek words for winds and flame are without the definite article probably reflects that the Hebrew words have no articles here. But it also agrees with the indefinite nature of "winds" and "lightning". The text is not talking about specific winds and a specific bolt of lightning, but of wind and lightning in general. God can use a wind as his messenger, and lightning as his servant. It is certainly possible to understand the Greek text in Heb 1:7 and in the LXX in sense (a), option 2. If we did not have context to go by, both the Hebrew and Greek text might be open to both interpretations, but the context is decisively against sense (b), option 1 in both Ps 104:4 and in Heb 1:7.

The literal rendering "make" doesn't make much sense in English. The idea is that God commissions or uses winds as his messengers and lightning as his servants in the context of war against his enemies or punishment of his enemies. Just think of Elijah who called down fire/lightning from heaven (2 Ki 1:10), and the "sons of thunder" who were tempted to do the same (Luk 9:54, cf. also Rev 13:13 and 20:9)

My suggestion for translation would be something like the TEV for Ps 104:4, but the same in both places (except possibly a "your" in the psalm and a "his" in Hebrews.)

A footnote is needed in Heb 1:7 to explain the relationship between "messengers" and "angels", unless the target language uses the same word for both.

Iver Larsen


At Sun Feb 12, 10:26:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

It would be interesting to see the Hebrew text for this as well.

At Sun Feb 12, 02:08:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

It would be interesting to see the Hebrew text for this as well.

Ask and ye shall receive :-)

At Sun Feb 12, 06:04:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

The KJV makes sense only in that it matches verse 14. It seems like everything worked back from there for the KJV.

At Sun Feb 12, 08:32:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

Iver Larsen's contribution was quite interesting. It looks as if there is a tendency to see "spirits" instead of "winds" in conjunction with "angels," and otherwise obscure in translation what should be evident in the original.

Martin Buber is said to have been alarmed by the decision that Greek would no longer be required of Anglican candidates for ordination, wondering how they could recognize without it that "the Spirit" which blows in John 3:8 is also "the wind." From Larsen's evidence, having the Greek in front of them had not made much difference for some translators, at least in the face of precedents.

I would point out two Jewish translations, confronting the Hebrew text only, which resolve shifts in person in Psalm 104:1-4 differently, but show no hesitation in making verse 4 part of an extended description of the relation between God and the visible world, and avoid the potentially misleading "angels" to translate by sense. (Although the use of ecclesiastical language in "ministers" is an interesting concession to established usage.)

JPS ("The Holy Scriptures," 1917): Psalm 104 (on the model of the Revised Version)
Bless the LORD, O my soul.
O LORD my God, Thou art very great; Thou art clothed with glory and majesty.
2 Who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment, who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain;
3 Who layest the beams of Thine upper chambers in the waters,
who makest the clouds Thy chariot, who walkest upon the wings of the wind;
4 Who makest winds Thy messengers, the flaming fire Thy ministers.

NJPS ("The Book of Psalms," 1972 ; "TaNaKh: The Holy Scripture," revised text, 1985): Psalm 104
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
O LORD, my God, You are very great;
You are clothed in glory and majesty,
2 wrapped in a robe of light;
You spread the heavens like a tent cloth.
3 He sets the rafters of His lofts in the waters,
makes the clouds His chariot,
moves on the wings of the wind.
4 He makes the winds His messengers,
fiery flames His servants.

At Sun Feb 12, 09:04:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Interesting. I'm not sure I buy this, but do appreciate it.

And it just brings home the fact that translation of Scripture often has complexities for which we can be thankful that people like yourselves can work through, to help the rest of us understand.- and even have good translations, for that matter.

I will say, maybe there's a good rebuttal to this position (as it says in Proverbs). I like to hear other sides then try to decide.

At Mon Feb 13, 06:42:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...


This is thought-provoking. Amazing how seemingly idiomatic translations can still use awkward phrases like "flames of fire"!!!

It is worth noting that Psalm 104 is using poetic language to talk about God. We assume that God is not riding around on clouds like chariots, etc. This is beautiful language trying to capture something of God's majesty. But in Hebrews the author is interpreting the Psalm literally, or at least using the psalms language to make a simple comparison between angels and the Son.

I expect that the Psalm is using the word in the sense of "wind" while the writer of Hebrews is using it in the sense of "angel/messenger." And from what we know about the quality of the author's Greek I think we do well to give him or her the benefit of the doubt and assume that the writer was using this Psalm in a very conscious way, i.e. aware of the ambiguities.

I would have to disagree with you and say that while many of the major English translations are awkwardly worded, I think they are correct in translating this as angel in Hebrews and wind in the Psalm.

I have quite possibly missed your point in a major way, but it's early and I trust you'll forgive me if that is the case.

At Mon Feb 13, 06:48:00 AM, Blogger LawyerDad said...

This blog is always great about providing empirical and statistical evidence. I haven't bothered to look up Wallace on this (that's as advanced as my Greek Syntax research gets), but any other examples of


where the rendering is #2=direct object, and #1=predicate/indirect obj/ whatever?

At Mon Feb 13, 07:56:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Interesting. I'm not sure I buy this, but do appreciate it.

I think yours is a good response, Ted. For me, reading a post like Iver's, which is controversial, demonstrates the strength of committee translations. There is great value in raising an exegetical option as Iver has done and then having it evaluated by scholarly peers.

At Mon Feb 13, 08:15:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Lawyerdad, your line of reasoning makes sense only if you assume that this verse as quoted in Hebrews is in good idiomatic Greek of the 1st century AD, rather than what it in fact is, a very literal translation from some centuries earlier of a Hebrew text. Think what misunderstandings might result from analysing a text quoted from KJV, or even from ESV, as it it were good idiomatic modern English, without reference to the original or recognition of the non-standard form of English being used. In this verse in Hebrew, "angels/messengers" and "servants/ministers" are necessarily definite because they are possessed, and so are likely to be translated into Greek with an article even if proper idiomatic Greek would drop the article. And as articles are rarely used in Hebrew poetry, "winds" and "flames" are anarthrous even if perhaps to be understood as definite.

To go back to the original posting: This is interesting. But I find it hard to understand why Iver Larsen says that the context in Hebrews is "decisively against sense (b)", i.e. "God turns his servants into winds and flames". I would not of course want to understand this literally. But it is of course a quotation from poetry. And, taken as poetic imagery, this makes good sense for "God gives his angels/messengers and servants the speed and power of wind and fire". That is not probably not the meaning in context of the verse in the original psalm, but it is by no means impossible that this is how the author understood the LXX Greek of the verse taken outside its original context.

It seems to me rather that what the context in Hebrews is decisevely against is a reference to messengers rather than angels. The context in Hebrews is the contrast between Christ and angels. The author has just stated that Christ is superior to angels/messengers (1:4) and that they worship him (1:6). The same word could mean either "angels" or "messengers", but in this context it cannot refer to inanimate or for that matter human messengers, it must be refer to angels. And this very verse (1:7) is introduced by καὶ πρὸς μὲν τοὺς ἀγγέλους kai pros men tous angelous "and, on the one hand, concerning (or to) angels/messengers". So the quotation, as understood and used by the author to Hebrews, must be about angels. Now I accept that it could mean "he makes winds into his angels", i.e. wind is the raw material for angels, and perhaps we cannot rule out that sense. But this cannot just be about natural forces used as God's messengers, it must be some kind of statement about angels.

Therefore, it seems to me, Iver's suggested rendering for Hebrews 1:7, something like "You use the winds as your messengers and flashes of lightning as your servants" (Psalm 104:4 TEV), would entirely destroy the point of the argument in context, as the link with "angels" would be lost to anyone (even some clergy, it seems from Ian's comment) who is unaware that the same word is used for "messenger" and for "angel". Yes, the footnote which Iver suggests might help to explain what is happening, to those who actually read footnotes, but given the choice between a bad translation in the text with a correction in a footnote and a good translation in the text, I know which I would prefer. The very minimum adjustment to this TEV rendering necessary for it to make sense in the context in Hebrews is to replace "messengers" by "angels". But I am still not entirely convinced that this kind of translation would make proper sense.

At Mon Feb 13, 07:53:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

I accept that is probably impossible to convey directly the breath/wind/spirit/soul ambiguities of "pneuma" and "ruach" using modern English. (In which we have, over time, made such distinctions for our own purposes.) The now-specialized meaning of "Spirits" seems to me too opaque in this context. I happen to understand it, but a translation intended for graduate students in English is of limited use.

(A quick lesson on the histories of words and expressions like inspiration, respiration, vital spirits, spirits of wine, high spirits, etc. is clearly not on the agenda for most readers, so a need for it should be avoided if possible.)

Throwing in capitals for "Messengers" (or "Emissaries," or "Envoys") might suggest to those looking at the text that something more than an errand boy is being described where the originals have "angelos" and "malach." I wouldn't argue that "Angels" is clearly wrong in either context; I assume that it is an obvious implication.

However, I would think that a good translation would try to indicate that Hebrews is interpreting an accepted scriptural text in a (then) new way. It may be desirable to avoid a tautological rendering which assumes that the meaning being offered is completely obvious already; but I can see some people finding the difference between the text and its application confusing. If this is a problem, it may have no one good solution, at least for those not prepared to look at even a short note.

In any case, I would argue that the translation of the Psalm should not be pre-adapted to the interpretation in Hebrews, but allowed to fit its own context. (I would think that the larger context -- possibly including Psalm 103 as well -- may be found to illumine the argument in Hebrews, too, but I won't presume to suggest how.)

At Tue Feb 14, 07:40:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Good comments Peter and Ian! I love this blog!


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