Sunday, May 29, 2011

Notes on the KJV: Saving Face, or Can't Buy Me Grace

In his talk at Ohio State University’s conference on “The King James Bible and Its Cultural Afterlife,” David Richter pointed out several glaring inaccuries in the KJV translation. However, the more interesting aspect of his presentation—at least to me—was his work detailing the Hebrew word play lost in this (and, frankly, every other) English translation.

The trouble with translating Hebrew is that the language has a VERY limited vocabulary. Because there are so few Hebrew lexemes, every word carries multiple significations; the language uses variations of the same word to represent many different ideas. For this reason, reading Hebrew is more an art of interpretation than a science of translation/substitution. (Incidentally, during the conference one speaker pointed out that the ambiguity of Hebrew is so significant that some scholars wonder whether it was originally intended to be a spoken language. Can you imagine listening to someone speak and wondering which of five meanings each of his words carried? On the other hand, maybe that’s an argument for orality; body language and social context might have made it much easier to understand.) English has almost the exact opposite problem—there are so many words that the language allows you to say precisely what you want to say in almost wholly unambiguous terms. As a result, translating Hebrew into English always means stripping ambiguity and multiple meanings from the text in exchange for one clear statement.

Richter’s example of this principle in Genesis sheds some light on the conclusion of the Jacob-Esau story. As Jacob makes his return to Edom, he sees [MXNH] or “God’s host” of angels preparing the way (Gen. 32:2). Remembering that when he left Edom fourteen plus years ago Esau wanted to kill him, Jacob decides to divide his caravan into “two bands” [plural of MXNH] (32:7); then, if [MXNH] “one company” (32:8) is smitten, the other will escape. He hopes to find “grace” [XN] (32:5) in Esau’s sight, so he sends “a present” [MNXH] (32:13) of goods to Esau. The wordplay of the Hebrew here is that Jacob’s hoping for grace [XN] for his company [MXNH], but he sends a payoff [the NX in MNXH], which is the inverse of grace [XN]; he’s trying to BUY grace, that which cannot be bought.

Esau recognizes Jacob’s shiftiness when they two finally get together; he asks, “What meanest thou by all this drove [MXNH] which I met? And [Jacob] said, These are to find grace [XN] in the sight of my lord. And Esau said, I have enough [yesh li rav], my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself” (Gen. 33:8-9). Esau rejects Jacob’s attempt to purchase his forgiveness, to sanctify the stealing of his blessing. Jacob hears Esau and, perhaps offended by his brother’s refusal to forgive, rubs Esau’s face in his subordinate circumstances: “Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee”—I’ve brought you the equivalent of the birthright and blessing I stole; it’s just as good!—“because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough [yes li kol]” (Gen. 33:11). You’ll see that the English spoken by Esau and Jacob is identical: “I have enough.” But the Hebrew is NOT the same. Esau’s words mean, “I have plenty”; Jacob’s mean “I have it all.” In the end, after Jacob’s reminded Esau that he has taken EVERYTHING, he agrees to take Jacob’s bribe; Jacob is allowed to buy grace [XN] with a present [mNXh].

1 comment:

The Royal Buffington's said...

I cannot take credit for this quote, but I LOVED it - trying to figure out the meaning of the Bible is kind of like a jigsaw puzzle. If it came with all the numbers written on the back, you'd return it. The joy of the puzzle (and the Bible) is figuring it out for yourself.