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2014-08-25

It may not be obvious at first, but Number 35:31-32 is a perfect example of why the KJV is problematic to modern readers. To quote, “ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer.” The passage explains that they are guilty and deserve death, and continues to say you also shouldn’t take satisfaction for those who flee cities of refuge before the priest dies.

On its face, it seems rather self-evident, for who would ever take satisfaction in the life of a murderer? Well, except for all those who celebrate the murders of obstetricians like Barnett Slepian, George Tiller, and the several other doctors assassinated by Christians.

But the problem comes from the use of the word “satisfaction” which is most oftenly definied to mean, “fulfilling a need” or “a pleasurable accomplishment,” but the KJV uses it in a context uncommon to modern speech—a legal context. This is more obvious in modern translations; quoting the NIV, “do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer.” I can definitely endorse a law against letting murderers pay money to escape their crimes, as wealth should not make people above the law. But due to an inaccurate translation, this message will be lost on many KJV readers.

However, there is a deeper translation issue in this passage. Kopher, the word the translators converted to “satisfaction” and “ransom” has other, very different, meanings. It is also translated to a generic word for a village, a word for henna, a word for resins like pitch, and possibly others the translators missed. If you ever poke around in a Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, you’ll find that multiple unrelated definitions is the norm among Biblical Hebrew words. English has similar problems, although they’re often overstated. For example, words like “set” or “bar” are often cited as having over 200 definitions, but when you read through them, you’ll find that they’re just variations on a theme. However, words like “bow” have completely different etymologies, giving them truly distinct definitions, making them much more difficult to infer.

If you want to be sure of the intended usage of a word from a book, the best way to do it is to ask the author directly, but this is not possible for the bible. The next best thing to do is to look at how their contemporaries were using the word, but this is also extremely limited in the case of the bible because nearly all of the examples we have of Biblical Hebrew are from the bible itself! Without any of the authors or speakers left alive, it makes it very difficult to understand what an author intended when they used a word with several different possible definitions. Maybe the authors were trying to say, “don’t cover murderers in pitch,” or, “don’t accept a cheap payment from murderers.”

While bibles will occasionally have footnotes regarding insignificant translation issues (probably to make the readers believe the only translation problems are likewise insignificant), you never see a footnote or editor’s parenthetical pointing out that practically everything about the bible may be wrong.

 

Comments

sam writes:

 

rofl i am reminded of a joke about the word celibacy being miss translated by an order of monks who finds out that the actual word was supposed to be celebrate.

 

Oh the irony!