Spellchecking the Bible

Michael S. Heiser

The words of the original biblical text cannot always be read with certainty. Genesis 49:10 is a famous example. These three translations show the differences.

NASB: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”

ESV: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”

NIV: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.”

Three translators arrived at different conclusions because the Hebrew text itself is ambiguous. The problem is one word made up of four letters: שילה (shiyloh).

The NASB takes these four letters as spelling “Shiloh,” the place where the ark of the covenant was kept during the days of the Judges, Samuel and David. As it is written, this is how the word should be pronounced, but “Shiloh” is not spelt this way anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. 1 The odd spelling has led many translators to suspect that “Shiloh” is not the correct translation.

Another problem with translating this word as “Shiloh” is that the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible produced a few centuries before Christ, which is often quoted by the New Testament writers—has a different rendering. The Septuagint literally reads: “until that which is stored away for him comes.” The Hebrew text used by the Septuagint translator did not read שילה (shiyloh).

The Septuagint translator saw one of two things. The four consonants in our problem word could have been divided into two words: שי לה (shay loh). That option would result in “until tribute comes—is brought to him.” 2 The ESV reflects this option. Or, the text of the Septuagint translator may have had three consonants instead of four. His Hebrew Bible may have read שלה (shiloh). Although this is a frequent spelling for “Shiloh” in the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint translator did not regard the word as the place name. Instead, he took the word as a combination of two other words: ש (“that which”) followed by לה (“to him” or “to whom”). The result is typically translated, “that which to whom it belongs.” When the verb (“he/it comes”) is added, we get something akin to the NIV: “until he comes to whom it belongs.”

Traditional Hebrew Text

שילה (shiyloh)
“until Shiloh comes” (NASB)

Hebrew Behind Septuagint: Option One

שי לה (shay loh)
“until tribute comes to him” (ESV)

Hebrew Behind Septuagint: Option Two

שלה (she loh)
“until he comes to whom it belongs” (NIV)

Both of the possible Septuagint textual readings have a messianic flavor. They speak of a person—specifically, a descendant of Judah—coming to reign, or having tribute brought to him as king. While translators don’t have to guess about messianic prophecy in dozens of other places, Gen 49:10 has kept them guessing for centuries.

KJV-ism:

“Go the extra mile”
“And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain” (Matt 5:41 KJV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 2


1. The most frequent spelling is שׁלה (shiloh), but שׁלו (shilow) and שילו (shiylow) also occur. To further muddy the waters, some scribes “corrected” Genesis 49:10 to read שׁלה (shiloh) so it would conform to the most frequent spelling elsewhere.
2. The word שׁי (shay, “tribute”) occurs in Isa 18:7, Psa 68:30 and Psa 76:12.

Finding Sustainment

Rebecca Van Noord

Exodus 39:1–40:38; John 6:52–71; Song of Solomon 5:5–9

Following Jesus isn’t like developing a crisis-aversion system. So often, it’s tempting to treat our faith in this way—relying on Him when things get tough or when others expect us to do so. But He wants us to rely on Him continually.

After Jesus miraculously fed the crowds, He told them that He was the bread of life. But they were fickle. They wanted evidence—another sign. Instead of feeding their transient desires, Jesus delivered hard teaching: “The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me and I in him” (John 6:54–56).

For the Jews, this teaching would have been shocking and strange—drinking blood was forbidden by Old Testament law, and He was speaking about His own body. They followed Jesus because they wanted a sign, a prophet, or a Messiah. A sacrifice was not part of their plan.

But a sacrifice was exactly what they needed. Forgiveness and eternal life were discarded by some, but not by all. Simon Peter’s simple confession is actually quite stunning in the midst of all the confusion: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69). The disciples didn’t put hope in a transient sign—in one meal. And although they didn’t always understand Jesus’ teaching, they recognized that He was the true bread of life, and they relied on Him for sustainment even when His teaching seemed strange to their ears.

How are you challenging yourself to accept all the teachings of Jesus—not just the ones that are easy? How can you put your hope in Christ and look to Him for continual support?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.

Shelf Life Book Review: Interpreting Gospel Narratives

Chelica Hiltunen

Interpreting Gospel Narratives: Scenes, People, and Theology
B&H Publishing Group, 2010

In this book, Timothy Wiarda shows how exploring character development, plot line, object description and setting can lead to a deeper understanding of the biblical text and its theological implications.

Understanding gospel narratives can often be difficult, with seemingly unrelated scenes and details inhibiting our ability to draw practical conclusions. Wiarda’s book explores the complexity of narrative while providing techniques for understanding the text. His work is driven by his belief, based on John 15:26–27, that two testimonies continue to affect the church: the Spirit’s and the apostles’—both found in the gospels.

Wiarda uses examples that show how narrative details can lead to discerning theological emphasis. He explains how passages function within the narrative whole. His method provides insight to gospel episodes and traces overarching and connecting themes for use in practical, theological application.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation . Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 2

Mission Impossible Translating

Eli T. Evans

“If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar, but if he adds to it, he is a blasphemer.” 1 These harsh words from the Talmud describe the catch-22 that translators find themselves in: Hew too close to the original, and you mangle the translation; stray too far, and you misrepresent the original. Yet, translation is necessary because people rarely learn a new language to read a new book. German philosopher Thomas Mann sums it up: “Who would wish to discourage the peoples of the world from translating merely because it is fundamentally impossible?”

Translating poetry is especially “impossible.” Not only must translators convey the meaning of the original, they must give some sense of the feeling the poem evokes. Composer Claude Debussy said that music is the space between the notes. Perhaps poetry is the space between the words.

The spaces between the words of Psalm 137 are filled with sorrow, bitterness, remembering and forgetting, and a profound sense of loss.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion. 2 We hanged our harps
Upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
And they that wasted us required of us mirth,
Saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song
In a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee,
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
If I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;
Who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee
As thou has served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh
And dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

» QUICKBITS:

The Talmud contains Jewish laws, stories and wisdom from several centuries. According to Jewish tradition, the Talmud was the oral law given to Moses when he received the written law at Mount Sinai.

This translation from the 1873 Cambridge Paragraph edition of the King James Bible is poetic, but at 165 words, it is twice as long as the Hebrew original. For example, “to the roof of my mouth” is only one word in Hebrew (לחכי, lekhiki; verse 6). The Hebrew refers to the inner part of the mouth, not the visible part. Should the translator use English mouth, which can mean both? Or palate, as the New Jerusalem Bible does? (Most English translations follow the KJV.) The italicized words in “Let my hand forget her cunning” (verse 5) were added for clarity; the Hebrew simply says, “let my right hand forget.” As with everything in translation, these are tradeoffs: Extra words provide accuracy, but at the cost of communicating the original’s pithiness. But it isn’t fair to count words, of course: Hebrew is not English, and poems tend to contain dense idiomatic expressions.

“We hanged our harps” (verse 2) employs alliteration: the repetition of consonant sounds to create a rhythmic musical effect. The equivalent Hebrew phrase talinu kinnorotenu (תלינו כנרותינו) has repeated t and n sounds. Here, the KJV trades accuracy for poetic effect. Though more accurate, the ESV’s “We hung up our lyres” just doesn’t have the same ring, nor does the NLT’s “We put away our harps.”

Verse 7 has the Edomites (Hebrew, “sons of Edom”) cheering on the Babylonians. The Hebrew line is guttural and harsh: ‘aru ‘aru ‘ad hayesod bah (ערו ערו עד הימוד בה). There is something scandalous, even offensive, in their chant. The repeated word means “to uncover,” often with reference to nakedness (e.g., Lev 20:18). The KJV rendering, “Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof,” has an admirable rhythm, even though raze (or rase: ASV, RSV) has passed from common usage. The NRSV’s “Tear it down!” is literal, but neglects the scandalous connotation. The ESV’s “Lay it bare,” is accurate and accessible, but loses some of the roughness. Again, it’s all about tradeoffs.

There is a lot of truth in the saying, “It loses something in translation”—especially for poetry. What can the biblical student do? It would be best to read the Scriptures in their native tongue, but not many of us will do that. In the meantime, we should read as many translations as possible and keep an original language dictionary or Bible software handy. But please, don’t be too harsh on the translators. Theirs is an impossible task.

Pick up Figures of Speech Used in the Bible at Logos.com/Speech

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 2


1. All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Labor of Love: Jerome’s Latin Translation

Rick Brannan

In the late fourth century AD, when half the world spoke Latin, the Latin translation of the Bible was a mess. Several different editions, today collectively known as the “Old Latin,” were circulating among Christians. There was a need for a consistent, thorough revision and correction of the translation from the original sources. Damasus, the pope at the time, selected the scholar Jerome to revise the old translations. Today, Jerome’s Latin translation is known as the Vulgate.

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“Addressed to Pope Damasus, AD 383: You urge me to revise the old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures which are now scattered throughout the whole world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the Greek original. The labor is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous; for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all; and how can I dare to change the language of the world in its hoary old age, and carry it back to the early days of its infancy? Is there a man, learned or unlearned, who will not, when he takes the volume into his hands, and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, break out immediately into violent language, and call me a forger and a profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections therein?”1

Jerome (ca. 345–420) was one of the most accomplished scholars of the early church. In addition to his work as primary translator of the Vulgate, he composed commentaries, letters, histories and introductions to books of the Bible. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Jerome valued the Hebrew Scriptures over the popular Greek translation known as the Septuagint. Because of this, he studied Hebrew. He pioneered the method used by translators around the world today: translate the Old Testament from the Hebrew and Aramaic, and the New Testament from the Greek.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 3 No. 2


1. Jerome’s letter to Pope Damascus, AD 383. Recorded by Eusebius Hieronymous in his “Preface to the Four Gospels.” Adapted from Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Vol. VI (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997), pgs. 487–88. For more resources on the church fathers, go to Logos.com/ChurchHistory. Pick up Rick Brannan’s The Apostolic Fathers Greek–English Interlinear at Logos.com/AFInterlinear.