The old cliché that to translate is to betray is sometimes unfair; but not in the case of modern English versions of the Hebrew Bible. On the face of it, this is a puzzling state of affairs. In purely quantitative terms, we live in a great age of Bible translation. Several complete English versions have appeared since mid-century, as have many individual books.1 In the same period, moreover, our understanding of ancient Hebrew has been considerably enhanced by a great deal of philological, archeological, and linguistic work. It would be natural to expect all this energetic scholarship to have helped produce a vivid and precise English translation as close to the spirit of the original as to its letter.

But this is not so. Modern English versions repeatedly put readers at a grotesque distance from the Hebrew Bible. To this day, the Authorized Version of 1611 (the “King James Bible”), for all its inaccuracies, archaisms, and insistently Jacobean rhythm and tone, remains the closest we have yet come to the distinctive experience of the original.

Some observers have explained this curious situation by pointing to the general decline in sensitivity to the expressive resources of the English language, the nuances of lexical values, the force of metaphor and rhythm; and certainly our ecclesiastical and scholarly experts do not begin to match in rhetorical brilliance the committee entrusted by King James with the creation of the Authorized Version. There remain, nevertheless, some brilliant stylists among English prose writers today, and if our age has been graced with remarkable translations of Homer, Sophocles, and Dante, why not of the Bible?

The root of the problem lies, I believe, in the intrusion into the realm of translation of inappropriate philological goals. I intend here no disrespect. Without philology, reading the Bible would be like walking through a great and ancient museum with all the lights turned out. To read over the shoulder of a great philological critic like Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167) is to see many important but obscure things leap into focus for the first time. Once we know, for example, that the biblical na?al most commonly indicates not simply a brook, creek, or stream but a very particular kind of freshet that floods a dry desert gulch during the rainy months and vanishes in the heat of the summer, Job’s “my brothers have betrayed like a na?al” (6:14) bursts suddenly into poetic life. But there is a great difference between philology as a tool for understanding literary texts and philology as an end in itself.

For the philologist, the great goal is clarity; but simple clarity can quickly become too much of a good thing. Literature—and perhaps the Hebrew Bible in particular—sometimes purposefully cultivates enigma, engages its audience in establishing elusive motives and connections, delights in setting ambiguities against each other in an interplay not intended to be neatly resolved. By contrast, the philologist, too often dedicated to “disambiguating” the text, ends up reducing, simplifying, and denaturing it. These unfortunate consequences are all the more pronounced if, as is often the case, the philologist also has an underdeveloped sense of literary diction, rhythm, and the uses of figurative language.



The unacknowledged heresy underlying most modern English versions of the Bible is that translation should explain the Bible rather than simply representing it in another language; in the most egregious instances, this means explaining the Bible away. In their zeal to uncover the precise meanings of the biblical text for the instruction of a modern readership, translators frequently lose sight of the way in which the text intimates its meaning—which is to say, the distinctively artful manner in which ancient Hebrew prose (and poetry) deploys its resources to articulate its vision.2

One salient characteristic of biblical Hebrew is its extraordinary concreteness, manifested particularly in a fondness for images anchored in the human body. The general predisposition of modern translators, acting in the name of clarity, is to translate these images into abstract terms which bear about the same relation to the original as near-beer to fine brew.

A good deal of the biblical language I am speaking of here is what a linguist would call lexicalized or dead metaphor—concrete imagery made to stand for some more general concept, which then becomes a fixed term in the vocabulary. Dead metaphors, however, are by no means as dormant as the adjective suggests, for the ghosts of the old concrete meanings continue to hover suggestively over the new abstract ones. This is something philologically driven translators do not appear to understand.

The price paid for the avoidance of metaphor can be seen by looking at any characteristic Hebrew term and the role it plays in a biblical story. Thus, the Hebrew noun zera‘, seed, can be understood both in the agricultural sense and in the human sense—that is, as the term for semen; by metaphorical extension, therefore, it also comes to mean progeny. Modern translators, unwilling to trust adult readers to understand this, variously render the word as offspring, descendants, heirs, progeny, and posterity. But there is evidence that the biblical writers themselves never entirely forgot the biological origin of their term for offspring.

At the end of the story in Genesis of the Binding of Isaac, for example, God reiterates His promise to Abraham, “I will surely multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the shore of the sea” (22:17). If “seed” here is rendered “offspring” or “descendants,” we lose the richly concrete way in which the text imposes visually, on the retina of the imagination, the picture of millions of seeds scattered like the constellations across the vast expanses of the skies, or piled on the shores of the sea. The meaning of the statement is not fundamentally altered, but its power is diminished, making it harder for a reader to sense why these ancient texts have been so compelling through the ages.

Another example: the most metaphorically “extended” body part in biblical Hebrew is the hand. Just as in modern Western languages, “hand” can be employed figuratively to express such notions as power, control, responsibility, and trust (and also, in biblical Hebrew, memorial). But most modern translators substitute one or another of these abstract terms, introducing clarity to what was already perfectly clear and subverting the literary integrity of the story to no purpose.

Two sequential episodes in Genesis end with Joseph’s being cast into a pit (the first is a dry cistern, the second an Egyptian prison). In both episodes, “hand” is a focusing device that defines and also complicates the moral themes of the story. In the first, Reuben, overhearing his brothers’ murderous intentions, seeks to rescue Joseph “from their hands.” He implores them, “Lay not a hand upon him”; a few verses later, another brother, Judah, adds, “Let not our hand be against him.”

E. A. Speiser, in his version of Genesis in the Anchor Bible series, renders the key words in both these phrases as “do away with [him].” Speiser explains in his notes that it would be illogical to have Reuben or Judah say, “don’t lay a hand on him,” since the counsel proffered involves the opposite: seizing Joseph, stripping him, and throwing him into the pit. But that, in fact, is precisely the moral logic of the text. Neither Reuben’s nor Judah’s proposal is an entirely innocent one, and their plans to save Joseph do indeed involve a violent laying-on of hands. Moreover, once Joseph has headed south with the Ishmaelite caravan, those same fraternal hands take the tunic they have stripped from him, douse it in blood, and turn it over to their father, Jacob, encouraging in him the bitter illusion that Joseph has been torn apart by a wild beast.

The image of hands offering Joseph’s garment as false evidence returns brilliantly at the climax of the subsequent episode in this story, in which the wife of Joseph’s Egyptian master attempts to seduce him and—having failed—accuses him of trying to rape her. As Joseph flees her advances, “he left his garment in her hand” (she has, in fact, virtually torn it off his back). But in accusing him to her husband she alters the narrator’s twice-stated “in her hand” to “by me,” i.e., by my side, implying that Joseph had disrobed deliberately. The narrator’s deployment of repeated terms has conditioned us to be attentive to these pivotal words, “he left . . . in the hand of,” for in the six verses that constitute the opening frame of the story, “hand” appears four times, the last and most significant occurrence being a summary of the confidence Joseph’s master Potiphar had placed in him: “And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand.”

The invocation of “hand” in the two episodes thus forms an elegant A B A B pattern: in the first, hands are laid on Joseph, and this action is carried forward at the very beginning of the subsequent episode when he is bought by Potiphar “from the hands of the Ishmaelites”; then we have the supremely competent hands of Joseph himself, into which everything is entrusted and by which everything succeeds; then, once again, violent hands are laid on Joseph, as Potiphar’s wife strips his garment from him precisely as his brothers had done; and finally, Joseph—now in prison for attempted rape—again has everything entrusted to his dependable hands by his prison-warden, the key phrase repeated twice in the three-and-a-half verses of the story’s closing frame.

A kind of dialectic is thus created between the hands of Joseph and the hands upon Joseph. It is a dialectic utterly characteristic of biblical narrative, and it is exactly what is lost when translators tamper with the purposeful and insistent physicality of the Bible’s language.



There are, alas, ways other than word choice in which modern English versions similarly implement the heresy of explanation. Most pervasive of these is the tendency to repackage biblical syntax for an audience whose reading experience is assumed to be limited to Time or Newsweek.

The fundamental difference between biblical and modern English syntax, it is often asserted, is that the former employs parataxis, a system characterized chiefly by the use of parallel clauses linked by “and,” and the latter hypotaxis, characterized by the use of subordinate clauses and complex sentences. Modern English has a broad array of discriminations in its system of verbs, and a whole armament of subordinate conjunctions to stipulate different relations among clauses. Biblical Hebrew, on the other hand, has only two aspects of verbs (they are not quite what we call tenses), one indication of a jussive mode (when a verb is used to express a desire or exhortation to perform a given action), and a rather modest number of subordinate conjunctions. The characteristic biblical syntax is additive, and in Hebrew the “and” that links parallel clauses is not even a separate word but a particle, vav (“hook”), prefixed to the first word of the clause.

Modern translators generally assume that this syntax will be either unintelligible or alienating to modern readers, and that it should therefore be entirely reconfigured. But there are two basic problems with this procedure. First, it ignores the fact that parataxis is the essential literary vehicle of biblical narrative: the way the ancient Hebrew writers saw the world, linked events in it, and artfully ordered and chronicled reality. I would even argue that the decision not to order events in ramified networks of causal, conceptual, or temporal subordination was a conscious one: as numerous passages demonstrate, hypotaxis—the use of complicated syntactic subordination—was an available option, which the biblical writers by and large rejected.

Second, the modern translators’ assumption presupposes a very simplistic notion of what constitutes modern literary English. Among the great 20th-century novelists, there is not one whose use of language and syntax resembles even vaguely the patly consistent orderliness posited by recent translators of the Bible as the modern norm. Among Americans, William Faulkner in particular echoes biblical language and cadences, while a mannered stylist like Ernest Hemingway surely had the Authorized Version in mind when he made “and” his most prominent connective. The contemporary novelist Cormac McCarthy emulates both Hemingway and Faulkner, working often with parallel utterances nearly identical in structure to biblical prose. The continuing appeal of paratactic structures for writers in our own age suggests that it remains a perfectly viable way to represent in English the studied parallelism of verbs and clauses of ancient Hebrew narrative.



Still another reason advanced for suppressing the ubiquitous “and . . . and . . . and” of the Hebrew Bible concerns what is called “the vav of conversion.” This is a vav prefixed to verbs at the beginning of a sentence or clause, whose sole function, many contend, is not to signify “and” but to “convert” a past action to a future one, or vice versa. Yet it is far from clear that the fulfillment of one linguistic function automatically excludes all others; and it is perfectly likely that for an ancient audience, the vav appended to a verb both converted its temporal aspect and continued to signify “and.” Be that as it may, the general modern practice of suppressing the “and” when it is attached to a verb has the effect of changing the tempo, rhythm, and construction of events in biblical narrative in a stylistically ruinous fashion.

Here is a narrative sequence in which the maiden Rebekah draws water for the camels of Abraham’s servant (sent by his master to find a bride for Isaac). I cite it first in my own version, which reproduces every “and” and every element of parallel syntax:

. . . and she came down to the spring and filled her jug and came back up. And the servant ran toward her and said, “Pray, let me sip a bit of water from your jug.” And she said, “Drink, my lord,” and she hurried and tipped down her jug on one hand and let him drink. And she let him drink his fill and said, “For your camels, too, I shall draw water until they drink their fill.” And she hurried and emptied her jug into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water and drew water for all his camels.

Now here is the version of the Revised English Bible. The REB is in general one of the most compulsive repackagers of biblical language, but its rendering is roughly interchangeable with any other modern version:

She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up again. Abraham’s servant hurried to meet her and said, “Will you give me a little water from your jar?” “Please drink, sir,” she answered, and at once lowered her jar on her hand to let him drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I shall draw water also for your camels until they have had enough.” She quickly emptied her jar into the water trough, and then hurrying again to the well she drew water and watered all the camels.

As it happens, the modification of biblical parataxis is not so extreme here as in other passages in the REB version. “And she let him drink his fill” has been changed into an adverbial clause, “When she had finished giving him a drink” (actually in consonance with the otherwise paratactic King James Version); “and she hurried” is compressed into “quickly”; “and she ran again” becomes the participial “hurrying again.” But the most striking divergence between the two versions is that mine has fifteen “and’s,” corresponding to fifteen occurrences of the particle vav in the Hebrew, whereas the REB uses just five.

What difference does this make? To begin with, the vav, whatever its linguistic function, is by no means an inaudible element in the Hebrew text: we must keep constantly in mind that these narratives were composed not merely to be decoded by a reader’s eye, but to be heard. The reiterated “and” plays an important role in creating the rhythm of the story, in phonetically punctuating the forward-driving movement of the prose. Its elimination in the REB and in all of the REB’s modern cousins produces an abrupt, awkward effect, a kind of narrative arrhythmia.

But more is at stake here than pleasing sounds, for in the rhythmically deficient version, the heroine of these repeated actions is subtly but significantly reduced. Although she performs approximately the same acts—politely offering water to the stranger, lowering her jug so that he can drink, rapidly going back and forth to the spring to bring water for the camels—in the compressions, syntactical re-orderings, and stop-and-start movements of the modernizing version her actions are made to seem rather matter-of-fact. This tends to obscure what the Hebrew highlights, which is that Rebekah is doing something quite extraordinary—a rare biblical instance of “Homeric” heroism.

Whereas the servant asks only to “sip a bit of water,” as though all he wanted was to wet his lips, Rebekah responds by having him drink his fill, and then insists on drawing water for the camels, until they too are satisfied. An ancient audience surely did not need to be reminded that a camel after a long desert journey can drink as much as 25 gallons of water, and there are ten camels here. The chain of verbs tightly linked by all the “and’s” does an admirable job of conveying the image of a young woman hurling herself with prodigious energy and speed into her task. Even her dialogue, integrated syntactically and rhythmically into the chain, scarcely breaks the rhythm. In short, the parallel syntax and the barrage of “and’s,” far from being the reflex of a “primitive” language, are as purposeful in furthering the ends of the narrative as anything to be found in a sophisticated modern novel.



Finally, no English translator I know of has seriously confronted the central question, what is the level of style of the Bible? Most proceed as if the Bible did not have a style at all, and therefore as if the English style chosen could be promiscuously borrowed from boardroom or bedroom or academic journal, with little regard to the precise tonality which particular Hebrew words may have carried with them from their native linguistic habitat.

Because we have no record of ancient spoken Hebrew, and because whatever evidence there once was of extra-canonical varieties of Hebrew writing has long since crumbled into dust, any conclusions we may draw about the stylistics of biblical Hebrew must be a little precarious. But should we therefore assume that the citizens of Judea in, say, the time of Jeremiah spoke as he does in his prophecies?

With regard to vocabulary, there is some evidence that what we see in the canonical books was not identical with everyday usage, and in fact may paradoxically be much more limited. As Angel Saenz-Badillos has observed in his recent History of the Hebrew Language3 it is hard to believe that the biblical lexicon, highly restricted as it is, could have served all the purposes of daily existence in a developed society.

The book of Job is instructive here. In his impulse to forge a poetic imagery that will represent man, God, and nature in a new and even startling light, the poet draws on highly specific terms from manufacturing processes, food preparation, and commercial and legal institutions—language that is not used elsewhere in the Bible. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that, roughly like the French of France’s neoclassical theater, the Hebrew of the Bible is a consciously delimited language, and that writers and audiences alike understood that only certain words were appropriate for the literary rendering of events, at least in prose.

One of the great scholarly mysteries is the emergence toward the end of the pre-Christian era of a new kind of Hebrew which became the language of the early rabbis. It is widely recognized that this new Hebrew reflected the influence of the Aramaic vernacular, and that it also incorporated a vast number of Greek and Latin loan-words. What is puzzling, however, is that rabbinic Hebrew also uses a good many indigenous Hebrew terms that either do not appear in the biblical corpus at all or are reflected there only in rare and marginal cognate forms. The standard terms in rabbinic Hebrew for sun and moon, and some frequently used verbs—to look, to take, to enter—are entirely different from their biblical counterparts, but do not seem to be influenced by any of the languages impinging on Hebrew. Where did these words come from?

In his indispensable study, The Language of the Bible and the Language of the Sages,4 the Israeli linguist Abba Ben-David offers the intriguing and, to my mind, convincing proposition that rabbinic Hebrew was built upon a biblical vernacular which had, for the most part, been excluded from the literary language of the canonical texts. This biblical vernacular did not become visible in an evolved literary form until the early 3rd century C.E. in the Mishnah, which represents the written formulation of centuries of legal and homiletic commentary on the Bible. But it is distinctly possible that when a 9th-century B.C.E. Israelite farmer mopped his brow under the blazing sun, he did not point and say shemesh, as the sun is invariably called in biblical prose texts, but rather ?amah, as it is regularly designated in the Mishnah.

There is, of course, no way of determining how far back into the biblical period various elements of rabbinical language may go. It is sufficient for us here merely to grant the likelihood that the language of the canonical texts was not identical with the vernacular, and that it reflects a specialized or elevated vocabulary and perhaps even a distinct grammar and syntax.

Let me cite a passage that may give us a glimpse of what this excluded vernacular background looked like. In biblical narrative as we have it, characters speak proper literary Hebrew, with no intimations of slang or dialect. A remarkable exception is Esau’s impatient first speech to Jacob in Genesis 26. Inarticulate with hunger, he sputters, “Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff.” Not only can he not come up with the ordinary Hebrew term for stew, and so makes do with ha’adom ha’adom hazeh—literally “this red-red”—but he uses a verb for “gulp down,” hal’iteini, which appears nowhere else in the biblical corpus but in the Talmud is a commonly used term for stuffing food into the mouth of an animal.

Of course, words undergo semantic shifts over a period of more than a thousand years. But it seems safe to assume that even a millennium before the rabbis, hal’iteini would have been a cruder term for feeding than the standard biblical hal’akhil. What I would guess happened at this point in Genesis is that the author, in his zeal to characterize Esau’s crudeness, quite exceptionally allowed himself to introduce into the dialogue a vernacular term that would jibe nicely with his phrase, “this red red stuff.”

In other words, here is an exception that helps prove a rule: namely, that in its own time the language of biblical narrative was stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identified by its audiences as a language of literature, distinct in certain ways from the language of quotidian reality. I would, however, stress the “certain.” Biblical style is neither lofty, ornate, nor euphemistic, and if its vocabulary reflects a specialized literary lexicon, it also makes abundant use of ordinary Hebrew words, among them the recurrent terms like “hand” and “seed” on which I have commented above.

Biblical prose, then, is a formal literary language but also, paradoxically, a plain spoken one; and one, moreover, that evinces a strong commitment to using a limited set of terms again and again, making a virtue out of repetition.



What is the implication of this analysis for an appropriate modern English equivalent to ancient Hebrew style? The right direction was taken in the King James Version, following the great model of William Tyndale’s translation almost a century earlier. There is no good reason to render biblical Hebrew as contemporary English, either lexically or syntactically. While the Bible should certainly not be represented as fussily old-fashioned, a limited degree of archaizing coloration is entirely appropriate, in combination with other strategies for creating a language at once stylized and direct, free from the overtones of contemporary colloquial usage yet retaining a certain timeless homespun quality.

An adequate English version should also be flexible enough to indicate the Bible’s small but significant modulations in diction and its counterpointing of prose with elevated poetic insets—something the stylistically uniform King James Version entirely fails to do. And it should avoid at all costs the modern tendency toward elegant variation, the practice of substituting synonyms for the Bible’s repeated words; for the literary style of the Bible turns everywhere on significant repetition, not variation. Finally, the mesmerizing effect of these ancient stories will hardly be conveyed if they are not rendered in a cadenced English prose that broadly corresponds to the powerful rhythms of the original.

Biblical Hebrew has a distinctive music, a lovely precision of lexical choice, and a suppleness of expressive syntax that by and large have been given short shrift by its translators. Although the structural and semantic differences between ancient Hebrew and modern English are immense, a translator who truly honors the stylistic integrity of biblical language may find that literary English has more equivalent resources than modern instances suggest.

1 The most influential translation in this period has probably been the New English Bible, completed in 1970 and extensively reworked as the Revised English Bible (1989); this undertaking was originally sponsored by the Church of Scotland and the Church of England, with participation by other Christian groups. The New Jewish Publication Society version (1962-82) has had wide circulation among American Jews. The major new Catholic version is the New Jerusalem Bible (198S). The separate volumes of the Anchor Bible, done by different scholars with varying agendas, began to appear in 1962, but some individual books still await completion. Below the threshold of serious translation, the sundry contemporary efforts to render the Bible in basic English, colloquial American, or “gender-free” language scarcely merit discussion.

2 Among contemporary Bible translations, the one signal exception to these strictures is Everett Fox's version of the Torah, The Five Books of Moses (Schocken, 1,024 pp., $50.00). Emulating the model of the German translation done earlier in the century by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Fox goes to the opposite extreme from current practice, his English has the great virtue of reminding us, verse after verse, of the strangeness of the Hebrew original—but at the cost, often, of producing something that is not quite in English. The result is more a text for study than a fluently readable version that conveys the stylistic poise and power of the Hebrew.

3 Translated by John Elwolds. Cambridge, 400 pp., $42.95 (1994).

4 Hebrew, 1967

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link