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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Micah 1:5 - Jacob and Samaria

On Sunday I found this question as part of Micah 1:5 in an English Bible version I am checking:
What is the transgression of Jacob, if not Samaria?
So far, I have been unable to understand this wording. I don't understand what the biblical author was saying about the relationship between Jacob and Samaria. This translation wording is nearly identical to those from several other Bible versions:
What [is] the transgression of Jacob? [is it] not Samaria? (KJV)
What is the transgression of Jacob? Is it not Samaria? (RSV, NRSV, ESV)
What is the transgression of Jacob But Samaria? (NJPS)
What is Jacob's transgression? Is it not Samaria? (NIV, TNIV)
What is the rebellion of Jacob? Is it not Samaria? (NASB)
What is the rebellion of Jacob? Isn’t it Samaria? (HCSB)
What is the revolt of Jacob? Is it not Samaria? (NWT)
What is the crime of Jacob? Is it not Samaria? (REB, NJB, NAB)
What meaning, if any, do you get from the wording in question, or the wordings from any of these other versions?

Do you think that the biblical author intended his question(s) to mean something to his hearers?

I start with the assumption that people intend what they say to be meaningful to their hearers. Of course, sometimes people do not follow that assumption. But without evidence to the contrary, I assume that the author of Micah intended what he wrote to communicate meaning to his hearers.

I suspect that there is ellipsis in the Hebrew text of Micah 1:5 containing some implicit information which the biblical author knew and assumed that his audience knew and could infer from his words.

What do you think that implicit information might be?

If you were to reword the question to make that implicit information explicit, what are some possible rewordings?

What, if any, principles might be suggested for Bible translation practice from translation wordings above?

As you wrestle with these questions with me, feel free to consult as much of the context of the questions (in question!) in Micah as you would like.

Are there any other thoughts that you have as you think about this wording from Micah 1:5?

13 Comments:

At Tue May 01, 02:38:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

You will find a lot more problems like this in Micah chapter 1. In fact probably the whole prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible can be understood properly only if a lot of background information is known. The parts we think we understand without it are probably misunderstood - like Isaiah 7:14. My feeling is that it would go well beyond the scope of a Bible translation to explain such things, and would make for a massive Bible. The alternative is to leave explanation for a study Bible (but I note that the NIV Study Bible does not explain this puzzle) or to expect those who read the prophetic books to have first read and understood the historical parts of the Hebrew Bible. If they have done the latter they will immediately realise some senses in which Samaria is Jacob's transgression.

 
At Tue May 01, 04:06:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

I'm sorry, this is a simple passage to understand. At that time, there was a divided kingdom. The Northern kingdom was called Israel, which is also known as Jacob (see Genesis 32:28). The capital city was Samaria. Note the parallel passage about Judah/Jerusalem in the same verse. The sin of Israel is identified as Samaria, and the judgment is delivered against Samaria (see v. 6-7). I really don't understand why this is viewed as puzzling.

 
At Tue May 01, 04:11:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

I agree with Peter, a good translation would not make any attempt to define what is not defined in the Hebrew. As Wayne said previously and rightly, a translation should be neither more nor less clear than the original. It may or may not be the case that the author expected his words to be understood by anyone reading them. But we can't read his mind about that, we can only appeal to the words he left which may or may not have been clear in saying what he intended.

In this case, Samaria and Jerusalem are both places, and more particularly they were the capital cities and religious centers of Jacob (i.e. Israel) and Judah, respectively. So the ellipses I would supply is to read "transgression" as something like "proof of transgression", "place of transgression", "source of transgression", or other options along those lines. The need to supply an ellipsis like this exists in the original, and so it should also exist in a good translation. In this respect the ones you listed did a good job in avoiding the temptation to guide the English reader into one particular interpretation. The question you gave of asking us to figure out a good ellipsis was great. That is just the kind of question students of the Bible need to ask themselves all the time as they study the Book inductively. I'm thankful for versions that leave these questions unanswered so we can work through that process.

 
At Tue May 01, 04:34:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

What is the transgression of New Albion? Is it not Las Vegas?

 
At Tue May 01, 04:40:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Anon. wrote:

The sin of Israel is identified as Samaria, and the judgment is delivered against Samaria (see v. 6-7). I really don't understand why this is viewed as puzzling.

Maybe it is only puzzling to me, but I'll explain what is puzzling. I can understand how the sin of a place or a people could be idolatry, murder, adultery, etc. I don't understand how a sin of a people can be Samaria, the name of a place or the people who live in that place.

To my brain, sin is a "something" (action or attitude) not a place or a person.

 
At Tue May 01, 05:34:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

So, when we say "Los Angeles is sinful", do you not understand that because a place cannot sin?

Was Khomeini ungrammatical when he said "America is the Great Satan" because America is a place?

When we say "Beijing wants to increase trade" does that make no sense because a place cannot have desires?

When "Washington accuses Moscow" of something, has an (doubly) incomprehensible act just taken place?

 
At Tue May 01, 10:57:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Anon. asked:

So, when we say "Los Angeles is sinful", do you not understand that because a place cannot sin?

No, I do understand this because it has a different syntax from the wording in Micah 1:5. There it states that Samaria *is* a sin, not that it is sinful. Your sentence is a nice example of figure of speech (metonymy, I think) where one entity (the place) associated with another entity (the residents of the place) can figuratively represent the residents.

Was Khomeini ungrammatical when he said "America is the Great Satan" because America is a place?

No, it's grammatical for the same reason I just gave above. However, had he said, "America is a sin," that syntax would not make sense to me since I don't know how a place or the people of a place can be a sin. I fully understand how a place or the people who reside there can be sinful.

When we say "Beijing wants to increase trade" does that make no sense because a place cannot have desires?

No, again, it's an appropriate figure of speech which is sanctioned by English syntax.

When "Washington accuses Moscow" of something, has an (doubly) incomprehensible act just taken place?

Ditto.

Each of these is different from saying that a place or a people is a sin or a transgression or a revolt, etc.

We can't force Hebrew syntax onto English. Apparently the ellipsis worked for Biblical Hebrew. I personally am not aware of how that same ellipsis can work syntactically and lexically for English.

If it does work for English, please tell me if these sentences sound grammatical to you and what they might mean, if they are:

1. Bulimics are a sin.
2. Greenland is a transgression.

 
At Wed May 02, 03:14:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

What is the transgression of New Albion? Is it not Las Vegas?

No, Anon, by Micah's argument it is the capital city, Washington DC (and also by the actions of the President based there, in insisting on continuing a war of aggression which can never be won, but that is another matter).

"Washington accuses Moscow" is a (double) metonymy, the place standing for the people of that place. And the same is surely true in Micah. But I agree with Wayne that Micah's metonymy is a strange one to modern English speaking ears. Rather a lot is being added here. More fully, I suppose it would be: "What is the transgression of the peoples descended from Jacob, excluding the tribe of Judah which became a separate entity, if not the bad things which are happening at Samaria, their capital city?" Now I would consider it legitimate to include this implied information in a translation. But I'm not sure it would be wise, for a typical target audience. I note that neither NLT nor GNT add anything like all of this, although they do clarify "capital city" and link with "to blame for".

 
At Wed May 02, 05:04:00 AM, Blogger Marc said...

The NET Bible has the following translation, which seems to attempt to fill in the ellipsis:

"How has Jacob rebelled, you ask? Samaria epitomizes their rebellion!"

 
At Wed May 02, 05:10:00 AM, Blogger Keith Schooley said...

I don't have enough facility with Hebrew to judge whether Micah's expression would have been more natural to the original readers, but isn't it possible that the intention was to provide a surprising construction, even in the original?

The NET Bible clarifies the issue somewhat: "How has Jacob rebelled, you ask? Samaria epitomizes their rebellion!" However, I think the clarity blunts the impact that the original construction was intended to convey.

I doubt that there is any real question, in context, of what point Micah was making: Samaria's very existence as a capital city is a testament to the rebellion of the northern 10 tribes against the house of David and against God.

 
At Wed May 02, 08:36:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

I don't know. We can say "Alice is a walking sin" or "America has sinned."

Moreover, an object can be a transgression. "What was the transgression at the foot of Mount Sinai? It was the Golden Calf." That sounds perfectly natural -- as opposed to "the making of the Golden Calf" or "the worshiping of the Golden Calf."

It would seem odd to say Samaria "epitomized" the sin since the punishment will fall on Samaria. It would seem that Samaria was a mere proxy for receiving the punishment of the Lord.

 
At Sun May 06, 03:03:00 PM, Blogger Dr. Claude Mariottini said...

Wayne,

I believe a simple reading of the text is possible in Micah 1:5 if we accept that Samaria represents the political rulers of the nation. Since Jacob represents the nation, Samaria represents the rulers of the nation who lived in the capital city. The capital city personifies the political leaders of the nation. The prophet addresses his oracles against the rulers of the house of Israel (Micah 3:1).

Claude Mariottini

 
At Mon May 07, 02:26:00 PM, Blogger Bill said...

I agree with anon. The very existence of Samaria as a capitol and place of worship when Jerusalem was the place of God's temple is an affront to God. It represents Israel's rebellion against God. The stigma associated with Samaria was evident even in Jesus' time, when he used a [good] Samaritan to make a point with the Jews, or with the woman at the well in John 4.

 

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