Biblical history

Looking very closely at Bible translation questions

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One of the things that fascinates me about the Bible is that there is no one definitive translation. There are parts that are unclear. For example, take Genesis 49:10. It can be interpreted in different ways, each with their own potential meanings. The verse is part of Jacob’s blessings to his sons. The oldest three sons are given criticism for previous behaviour, and the bulk of the honour goes to Judah. This reflects or predicts – depending on whether one believes the Bible was written by man or God – the idea that King David was said to be from the tribe of Judah, and that Jerusalem is within that tribe’s territories. If the Bible was written by man, as I believe, then this passage would have been written sometime after David.

The big question in Genesis 49:10 is around one particular word, which is either the word Shiloh or broken into the two Hebrew words shai lo. Shiloh could refer to a Biblical city and early cultic center or it could be taken literally as “he whose it is.”

The International Standard Version: The scepter will never depart from Judah, nor a ruler’s staff from between his feet, until One comes, who owns them both, and to him will belong the allegiance of nations.

The ISV version gives the text a messianic prediction. The tribe of Judah will rule until “he whose it is” arrives.

Robert Alter’s translation: The scepter shall not pass from Judah, nor the mace from beneath his legs, that tribute to him may come and to him the submission of peoples.

This translation, very close to the English Standard Version’s translation, implies that the political power of Judah will extend beyond the borders of Canaan, and tribute will come in from elsewhere.

Other translations include “until Judah comes to Shiloh” implying perhaps that the person Judah visits the cultic center of Shiloh or that the tribe takes over the northern tribes. However the word for the nations or people in the later part of the verse is not normally used for the people of Israel but rather for foreigners. One possibility is that the text is referring to the time after the northern kingdom has been destroyed by the Assyrians, and then the Assyrians themselves were weakened and the southern monarchy extended north as far as Shiloh. At that point the population of the area would not just be the people of Israel but also those settled into the land by the Assyrians. There’s also a possibility the text is referencing to Shiloh not as a literal place but as a mythical memory of a time when they were united under one cult based out of Shiloh. Perhaps it is predicting that Jerusalem will be the next cultic center. (Perhaps the people of Jerusalem once envisioned capturing Shiloh as having a similar meaning as the much later crusader’s dream of capturing Jerusalem? That comparison is made in an article by Serge Frolov.)

There is a question also of whether the “until” refers to a prediction of the end coming or simply a statement of how tremendous Judah’s power would be. Which of the following sentences does it have more in common with? The caterpillar eats and eats until it becomes a beautiful butterfly. Or the flower blooms until the first frost. Can you see the subtle meaning difference?

In the grand scheme of things, what does it matter what this ancient text actually meant? Deciphering the meaning would help in dating when the passage was written, but even that carries little meaning for every day life. Yet learning about it can be a way of exploring the complexity of language and words. We have to think carefully about the implications of subtle interpretation changes. Think of it as an intellectual exercise.

Moving away from the specific translation details, but keeping questions of the Genesis text in mind, we can draw comparisons with aspects of modern life. In what ways does the promise of power to Judah resemble the American belief in manifest destiny? How is the promise of power (more to Abraham’s descendants than Judah in particular) used to justify actions today in Israel? In the Bible places like Jerusalem, and to a lesser extent Shiloh, end up taking on significance beyond their physical reality. What places in our modern world that do that? (“The white house” refers to more than just a building, right?)



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