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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Have you ever cut off your children?

Many of you who read this post have children? Have you ever cut off your children? Hmm, do any of you wonder what the phrasal verb "cut off" means in my preceding sentence. I hope so. I have wondered what it means. My American Heritage dictionary has these definitions for "cut off":
1. To separate from others; isolate. 2. To stop suddenly; discontinue. 3. To shut off; bar. 4. To interrupt the course or passage of: The infielder cut off the throw to the plate. 5. To interrupt or break the line of communication of: The telephone operator cut us off. 6. To disinherit: cut their heirs off without a cent.
Which of these meaning senses would seem reasonable in my question:
Have you ever cut off your children?
I have sometimes cut off my children by interrupting them or stopping them from saying something I felt they shouldn't say.

Let's try a variation on the verb. What do you think this question might mean?
How would you feel if your children were cut off?
I'm still having difficulty figuring out what either of my sample questions most likely means. Let's see if yet another sentence with "cut off" might clarify what that phrasal verb means:
The LORD loves justice, and he will not abandon his godly ones. They will be kept safe forever, but the descendants of wicked people will be cut off.
Does that help us understand what "cut off" refers to? It might, for those of us who have been taught what "cut off" means in Bible English. Oh, for those who wonder, the last quote was a translation of Psalm 37:28, and--don't be too shocked--the wording is not from either a literal or essentially literal translation. (We really do want to be equal opportunity employers on this blog!) Surprisingly, that translation wording is from the God's Word translation, which usually translates with fairly clear, understandable English. I consider that GW is a good translation with above average quality English for Bible versions. Perhaps "cut off" just slipped through the cracks on this one in GW. The translators of Ps. 37:28 likely deliberately included the words "cut off" in more literal English versions, including: KJV, RSV, ESV, NRSV, and NASB. The REB also uses the words "cut off."

So what is "cut off" supposed to mean in Psalm 37:28? There is some exegetical debate about its figurative meaning. TWOT gives the following glosses for karat, the underlying Hebrew word in question in this verse:
1048 cut off a part of the body, e.g. head, hand, foreskin; cut down trees, idols; cut out, eliminate, kill; cut (make) a covenant.
Some take karat to be a Hebrew metaphor for being done away with, destroyed, killed. The biblical contrast is that godly people will be safe forever, but descendants of wicked people will die, a punishment for them from God himself.

Versions which translate with that meaning of karat:
the children of the wicked will be destroyed (HCSB)
the children of evil men are wiped out (NET)
the children of the wicked will perish (NLT)
the children of the wicked will die (NCV)
He ... destroys the children of the wicked (CEV)
Did you already understand that meaning of "cut off"? If so, are you surprised that the meaning intended in Ps. 37:28 is not found in a good dictionary such as the American Heritage dictionary? (I would hope that the meaning of the biblical metaphor would be found in more exhaustive dictionaries, perhaps the OED, which I am not able to check, but maybe one of you will and can include it in a comment.) If a meaning sense intended in a Bible version is not found in a dictionary, which is supposed to represent the collective understandings of different meanings of words, what might we conclude? Do we assume that the dictionary is simply not thorough enough? Or do we question whether the literal translation of the Hebrew metaphor may not be the most accurate and clearest way to express the figurative meaning of that metaphor for most English speakers?

So many questions, but I'd better cut off my post before it gets any longer!


At Wed May 31, 02:38:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Wed May 31, 04:08:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I must say I would have understood "cut off" here, especially in the context of the next line "the righteous will inherit the land" (NIV) and as a potential parallel with the last line of v.38, in the sense of "disinherit", which is of course one of the English senses of "cut off". Or perhaps the point is more that their family line will be cut, in other words they will not have descendants. It is by no means certain that this line is saying that anyone will actually be killed. There is a similar contrast between "cut off" and "inherit" in vv.9,22,34, explained further in vv.10,20.

(I note that the verse divisions here are misleading; the acrostic structure of the psalm demands that the second half of verse 28 goes with verse 29, although there does seem to be some early textual corruption here, cf. LXX which has "lawless ones will be persecuted" for v.28c (the basis of TNIV's "Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed") where the Hebrew has "they will be protected forever".)

But I would agree that the language is not clear. If the translation teams understand the word as meaning "disinherit", they should use a word which more clearly means this. At least TNIV and TEV are more clear with "destroy" and "drive out" respectively, although I am not sure that these are correct.

A literal translation into the language I am working on is unambiguous: the word "cut", when used of an animal, means "slaughter" (for food) or "sacrifice", and can also be used in an extended sense of humans in the same way as English "slaughter". So we had to be less literal: "the wicked for generations will be cut (off) and thrown (away)" - an idiom which does not imply killing.

At Wed May 31, 07:39:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

I can think of one idiom that is fairly common in English: to cut off in the prime of life. This seems to have some overlapping meaning with the phrase that you are looking at.

At Wed May 31, 08:37:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

While it is true that "karet" can have a meaning of "destroy", it would seem that in this case "cut off" is the more accurate translation, since from context in this psalm, the wicked are expelled from the land and their descendents are "cut off" (separated) from the people. (See Exodous 30:33, for example). This is precisely the first definition given in the American Heritage Dictionary.

Thank you very much for this info in your comment.

Would you be willing to use a login name other than Anonymous? Your comments have been valuable here on this blog and it would be meaningful to me to be able to address you by some name that is more informative. If you prefer to remain anonymous, however, that is fine. I just like to honor people when they contribute so well as you do.

At Wed May 31, 08:56:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Thanks to comments, I have revised the post to reflect exegetical uncertainty over the meaning of karat in this verse.


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