I came across a perfect verse this week to illustrate what I love about Hebrew. It also highlights what must be a headache of Old Testament translators. I think many of us mistakenly think it can’t be that difficult to take words from one language and put them into another — if you know both languages well! I know I used to wonder why people didn’t just translate the Bible word for word. I didn’t understand that the very structure of languages can vary wildly. Even learning a bit of French will show you this though. “Jus de pomme” for example is “apple juice” in French. Translated word for word, it would sound ridiculous in English — juice of apple. We just don’t talk like that. French and English are very closely related languages, however, with over 10,000 of our words originating from French. So you can imagine how difficult translation would be between languages that are not so closely connected.
Hebrew is one of the most ancient languages in the world. It is built from a relatively small number of roots. These three letter roots get prefixes or suffixes attached to them or a letter added here and there to change them into nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc. So, for example, you can easily tell that the word for “head” comes from the same root as the words for “beginning,” “first,” “chief,” “creation,” and even “Sunday” (the first day). The word for “mirror” shares a root with the verb “to see.” One of the reasons I love Hebrew’s foundation in these roots is that it makes it a relatively simple language, yet the word pictures and associations these roots conjure up in your mind as you’re reading is amazing. It just brings the text to life in ways that English never could. God’s word is spiritually living and active, but did you know it’s linguistically alive too?
So, back to the verse I was referring to earlier. Proverbs 11:30 says:
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and the one who is wise saves lives.Proverbs 11:30 (NIV)
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, but a cunning person takes lives.Proverbs 11:30 (CSB)
The NIV says “the one who is wise saves lives.” But I was surprised to see that the CSB said, “a cunning person takes lives.” Wow! They couldn’t be expressing more opposite ideas, could they? This phrase is three Hebrew words long — and takes, souls, wise. Robert Alter, in his very literal translation, says, “and the wise man draws in people.” I like that. It makes me think of Jesus’ promise to Peter and the rest of the disciples that they would become fishers of men.
So, why did the translators of the Christian Standard Bible choose to say it so differently? Well, I don’t presume to know the answer, but I’m guessing it might have something to do with all the contrasting statements around this verse. Hoarding grain versus selling it. Seeking good versus looking for trouble. Falling versus flourishing. Also, each of those three Hebrew words in the phrase have multiple connotations. The word I translated as “souls” really has no English equivalent. It refers to the breath of life in a creature, its lifeblood, its very life, and sometimes just to a person, somewhat like the English expression their “very self.” And the word for wisdom can also describe skill or cleverness. In Isaiah 3:3 this same word for wisdom is used to describe a “skillful” or “cunning” magician.
Well, how about the conjunction then? Could we find a clue there? I mean, are these two phrases joined by “and” or “but.” That would help to clarify the intended meaning. Well, that won’t do us any good in this case. The Hebrew word for “and” is actually just a one letter prefix — the letter vav (ו). Now, in modern Hebrew, ו is used mostly as “and.” There are other words (like אך, אבל, אלא) which are used for “but.” But in biblical Hebrew ו does double duty, and you have to rely on context to help you know if it’s there to link or to contrast, to be an “and” or a “but.” But we’re already confused about the context, so it looks like we’re running in circles!
Perhaps you’re beginning to see the dilemma of the translator. You could take it either way, but with startlingly different meanings. One “saves lives.” One “takes lives.” And that brings me to my very favourite thing about the Hebrew language. In English, we scratch our heads and wonder which one is THE right one? But in Hebrew, do we even need to choose? Obviously right is right and wrong is wrong in God’s eternal law! I am not trying to tempt you into some mind-bending exercise where two wrongs make a right or anything of that sort! But could the beauty of God’s word be that what in English appears to be so rigid and fixed, in Hebrew is breathing and flexing and speaking?
Let’s go back to our verse for a minute and not forget why we come to God’s word in the first place. What’s important is that a righteous life stands firm and bears fruit, harkening back to the tree planted by the streams of water in Psalm 1. A fruitful tree definitely attracts attention. It nourishes and refreshes. It draws hungry and thirsty souls to discover for themselves what those streams of living water are all about. We could also rightly contrast the cunning, devious plans of the wicked that fool people into pursuing colourful, artificial “fruit” only to realize too late that it has destroyed them.
Jesus had something to say about fruit and trees and righteous and wicked lives and cunning wolves in sheep’s clothing.
“Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.”Matthew 7:15-20 (CSB)
Which encouragement or warning do you personally need to be reminded of today? No, the Bible is not a “choose your own ending” chapter book! I am not saying that God’s word changes, but that it is ALIVE! And its living nature makes its ideas, though sometimes debatable, always applicable.