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Deo Gratias Posts

The Word of the Lord

Posted in books

Recently I was asked what Bible translation my church uses. In the past, this would spiral into a discussion over the only acceptable translation—the honored King James—and a footnoted discussion on why every other translation is wrong. Instead I sat there, perplexed, and replied, “I don’t know. A few different ones.”

It does matter, to an extent. There are some awful translations out there (Don’t talk to me about the Message), but I used to spend so much effort trying to prove that one singular translations as correct. I’ve attended Bible studies dedicated to the defense of the KJV. I have charts of incorrect passages in other translations, just to prove them invalid. “It’s nice that you believe,” we’d say, “but are you reading the real Bible?”

But once, when attending a Bible study where everyone had a different translation… it was awesome. We compared phrases and footnotes; someone would offer insight on the original Hebrew, and we picked apart what each translation interpreted it as. Though each Bible used different words and phrasing (some of which were downright comical), we determined they were all authentic compared to the original text. This experience was more enlightening than declaring any as “invalid,” and perhaps taught us more than any single translation could.

Ancient Hebrew isn’t a cut-and-dry language. One word can have several meanings, depending on intent and context. I recently read Dennis Prager’s Rational Bible, a study from the Jewish perspective. It delves into the original Hebrew text and its intent, which I’m most inclined to trust. My favorite part of the delve is the most seemingly basic of our mutual religious faith: the Ten Commandments. There’s debate over the Ten even among Christians, but I’m going to side with our Jewish brothers on this one.

And now, a quick comparison!

Exodus 20:13: Thou shalt not kill

The Torah and most Christian translations don’t vary much on this one. It’s pretty straightforward: Don’t kill other people. But aren’t there instances where God Himself contradicts this? People died for touching the Ark, and He commanded the Israelites to go to war. But the key word—kill—is an imperfect translation. The original Hebrew word is better translated as “murder” or “kill deliberately,” which means something entirely different. People go to war for good and honorable reasons, and have killed others in self-defense. But that’s not what this is talking about.

And another:

Exodus 20:7 (Torah): You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your God, in vain, for Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain.

Alternately, the KJV states “will not hold him guiltless,” which even in English has a slightly different meaning. Being guilty isn’t the same as God’s refusal to absolve. We’re all guilty (i.e. sinners), but there’s only one situation where we won’t be forgiven for that sin: and not because we’ve slipped and said “Oh, my God.”

The Hebrew word for “take” is better translated as “carry”—i.e., don’t give Christians (or Jews) a bad name. Don’t do evil in the name of God, or you’ll be wiped from His memory. If you carry the title of Christian or Jew (or wear the jewelry, or have a Jesus fish on your car), you represent God Himself. He doesn’t think well of those who sully His name.

This stuff is fun! Not just because I’m a nerd with a Writing degree, but because the Word is magnified with each interpretation. Hebrew is a complex language, and two English translations can say completely different things and still be true to the original. So what version do I use? My primary is the RSV Catholic edition, but I’ll peek at the KJV because it’s the one I grew up with (and let’s admit, sometimes it just sounds prettier). I also have a Torah and will sometimes reference the NIV. Like God Himself, the Word can’t be confined. Through studying multiple versions, and picking apart the original text, you get a fuller idea of what it all means.