Saturday, January 23, 2021

A Matter of Words

This year, I am reading through the NET Full Notes version of the Bible. If you haven't heard of this translation, it is a work by a team of scholars in which they explain nearly every translation decision they made in a footnote. Some pages of this Bible contain just a handful of verses of the actual text, while the rest of the page is filled with 30 or so footnotes about Hebrew roots, Greek words, ancient manuscripts, and modern language. 

The aim of the translators, as is the aim of most translators, is to create a version of the Bible that is as close to the original reading as we can get but also readable for today's Christian. In other words, they want to stay true to what the Bible says, but they want you to understand it. And of course, for a theology nerd who loves footnotes in general, the work from the original languages is particularly fascinating to me. 

That said, I am just a few weeks into this Bible translation, barely into Exodus, and I already find myself rolling my eyes at some of the decisions that these translators have made in favor of 'readability.' For example, when reading through the patriarch stories and early into Moses, there is a note that explains that they have chosen to say "walking stick" instead of "staff," even when the Hebrew word indicates "staff," because to the modern reader, a "staff" is a roster of employees of a particular person or organization and not, well, a stick in the hand of a shepherd. 

This is just one example of extreme nitpickiness of words that they have noted so far. 

And on one hand, it strikes me that they don't give the biblical reader enough credit. But then on the other hand, I wonder if perhaps I take my own familiarity with words too naturally. After all, I know what a biblical staff is, so doesn't everyone? 

So I catch myself, and I pull back and I wonder if perhaps this isn't a better way. If perhaps these translators actually do have it right and that this sort of clarification is necessary for many readers. Maybe there are a bunch of Christians out there who read 'staff' and think about a roster of employees and so, they need to see 'walking stick' instead. 

And then I find myself wondering if I still agree with the decision if it is only one person who reads the Bible more correctly because of this change of words. If this substitution helps one person better understand the Word of God, then I'm all for that...aren't I?

Then again, am I really? 

Because I also understand that when we're talking about the patriarchs, we're talking about a shepherding people. We're talking about a people for whom the staff was not just a walking stick; it was a tool of their trade. When we read later in Psalm 23, we read that the Lord's rod and staff comfort us, as they would in the hands of any good shepherd. And then, I wonder if the Lord's 'walking stick' is a much a comfort to me as His 'staff,' the tool of His trade. 

Now, I could go off on a tangent here about how if the staff of a shepherd is a mere walking stick, then of course, it's a comfort that God has a means to steady Himself. It means He is trustworthy and stable, that I can lean on and rely on Him.

But that's insufficient, because we know that the shepherd's staff was not just for his own use; it was for the good of his flocks, as well. 'Walking stick' gives the impression that it's just for the man, and not for the flocks, so this doesn't capture the essence of the biblical text. Another note would be needed to explain the use of the walking stick for the benefit of the flock, and, well, if you're going to put in a note to explain the use of the walking stick, why not just keep 'staff' and use the note to explain that? 

It seems like such a simple thing, but it's raised a deeper issue for me in terms of biblical translation and reading. In terms of the ways that we engage God's Word for the masses. 

More on that, tomorrow.  

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