Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Old Testament Violence (2) - Translators

Modern translators of the Old Testament generally choose the harshest possible translation of Hebrew word that often have a broad range of meanings. It seems that they want to portray God as being really harsh on evil. I can see why Jewish commentators would prefer the harshest meaning, because it vindicates their history of violence. However, I cannot understand why Christians with a New Testament revelation of God should take “harsh” as their default position, when the context does not require it. A change in the way that these passages are translated would give a totally different view of God.

I can understand why Jewish translators and commentators would prefer the harshest meaning, because it vindicates their history of violence and trust in the power of war. The problem with this is that they justify their own actions at the expense of harming God’s name and character. Given that Christians have a fuller revelation of God’s character, we should avoid the harsher meanings of Hebrew words, unless the context requires it. We do not need to honour the warmongering and violence of the Israelites. Our primary objective should be to honour God.

A good example of the translation problem is the Hebrew word transliterated as “herem” or “charam”. Interpreting this word is pivotal to understanding the Deuteronomy and Joshua. Herem is usually translated as “totally destroy” or “ban”, despite the fact that the word can take a variety of meanings. The primary meaning of “herem” is not destruction, but “separation” and “setting apart” or “exclusion”. This should be the starting point for our understanding of what God said to Israel.

Old Testament scholars are not sure about the correct meaning of this word. No one has been able to come up with an explanation of that covers all these uses. Given this uncertainty, sensible translators should be cautious about assuming that “herem” mostly means “destruction”. Using the harshest possible translation of a word is unwise (unless you want to make the Old Testament seem harsh).

This example is repeated again and again in the Old Testament. Translators of Deuteronomy and Joshua seem to prefer the harshest possible translation. I can understand why the early Christian translators and expositors, like Calvin and Luther might choose a harsh version. They were supported by kings and emperors who lived by the power of the sword and whose ruthless violence makes Joshua look like a wimp.

We now live in a different world and have a better understanding of God’s ways. Given Jesus’ non-violent life and death, Christian translators should default to the milder meanings of these words where that is consistent with the context. I mention a few examples in the rest of this article, but my knowledge Hebrew is limited. We really need a Hebrew expert who is not bound by the traditional approach to re-translate these books with the mildest possible meaning that is possible within the context. We would then get a totally different picture of God.


Unknown said...

Didn't God Himself destroy men violently? The Egyptians in the Red Sea, The plauges in Egypt, the whole generation of those who mummered and complained in the wilderness, especially the ones who got swallowed up by the earth! even the man who without thinking tried to steady the Ark of the Covernant and perished.

Ron McK said...

Yes. God did destroy some people. The difference is that he has sufficient knowledge to be able to judge fairly. Humans do not have that wisdom. I will explain this in a fuller post later today.