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.