Bible Translation & Interpretation

Many arguments exist among bible scholars and bible believers about bible translation and interpretation. Some believe that interpretation is a corruption of the Word of God. This, of course, is a silly notion. Interpretation is and always has been required to translate the bible into languages other than the original language scriptures were recorded in. In fact, for thousands of years, as the Hebrew language and language itself has evolved, interpretation has been necessary to adapt ancient languages to modern understanding and concepts.

This is especially true when translating scriptures from Eastern to Western languages because often the way of thinking between these two sectors are opposed to one another.

Consider modern cultural differences. In some countries entering a person’s personal space is not only acceptable but a sign of endearment and positive relationship. We’ll call this country “Country A”.  In it, a lack of personal boundaries symbolizes that the other person is not a threat. While in other countries doing so is offensive or viewed as a threat. We’ll call this “Country B”. So consider the following statement from both counties’ perspectives.

“The boy approached closely to the girl and her countenance changed.”

If you are from Country A, you might think she likes him or is in love with this boy… But if you are from Country B, you may immediately interpret this to mean the girl was in danger and afraid of or offended by him.

This dilemma is ever present when studying the bible. Most Westerners instinctively view the text from a western perspective, thus, they have interpreted it from that very perspective. The amazing thing about scripture is that, in most cases, the surface perspective of the West is often just as true as the deeper understanding that could be honed from a Hebraic perspective of the East.

Thus, we get different interpretations of scripture as we attempt to understand and reveal it at its depths. The only problem is that each of us has a unique perspective determined by our experiences, level of knowledge, and how we view and value scripture. Let’s look at a verse from Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 1:13 can be translated several ways, because translation itself, relies on interpretation. The King James, English Standard, and Youngs’s Literal translations each represent the slightly different perspectives of the translators. Even a self-proclaimed “literal translation, such as Young’s isn’t literal at all but interpreted. Comparing the columns titled “Possible Literal Translations 1” (PLT 1) and “Possible Literal Translations 2” (PLT 2) we can identify some certainties in translation such as these in bold:

PLT 1: Give him to you men, wise ones and intelligent ones and knowledgeable ones, to your tribes and I will cause them to be named in your heads.

PLT 2: His gift to you men – wisdoms, and intelligences, and knowledges to your tribes and I will cause them to be named in your heads.

Despite this, the YLT uses verbiage different from these certain literal components which can only be translated one way. Still, YLT interprets a term referring to knowledge or knowledgeable ones to mean people who are known, a concept of election by popularity, which is uncommon in Hebraic thought. It also does not align with the context of this passage and its counterparts of qualities of the mind such as wisdom and intelligence. It also elects the Hebrew word for “name” to mean “set”, which would be an entirely different Hebrew word, Shab or שב rather than Sham or שם.

The KJV and ESV are known interpretations of scripture, rather than literal translations. In other words, neither attempts to communicate the exact meaning of Hebrew words and phrases, but to interpret them in a way westerners will understand.

For example, the KJV reads, “Take you wise men…” the Hebrew word used here can be given or gift, but not take.  So “take” is interpreted based upon the understanding of the translator and how he believed readers would best understand this phrase. Furthermore, “wise” is not an adjective or modifier of “men” but part of a list of three types of men or three qualities given to men; i.e. wise ones/wisdom(s), intelligent ones/intelligence(s), and knowledgeable ones/knowledge(s).

The ESV opts to translate knowledge to “experience” despite these not being the exact same thing. It assumes that, biblically, knowledge can only be acquired by experience. From a  western perspective, this infers that a significant or particular amount of time is required to know something. This is a very abstract idea that warrants many questions. How much time is required to know? What will be known? What must I experience to know?… And so on.

So, while interpretation is necessary for translation, complete or “shalom” interpretation requires that we study scripture through the lenses of a Hebrew, rather than Westerners.

When studied Hebraically, one can see the historical and spiritual perspectives of scripture and understand them more completely. Deuteronomy 1:13, for example, describes how, in ancient times, Moses organized the people into a functional nation. Appointing qualified individuals as leaders of tribes. On the other hand, it also describes a certain spiritual significance, one that many people conclude when trying to apply scripture, but rarely realize that the applicable instruction is actually written in the manuscript just as is the historical story.

Just two verses down, we see confirmation of this truth and another example of the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of scripture.

Here, in verse 15, English interpretations provide a strange list of the numbers of people individuals would lead… 1000’s, 100’s, 50’s, and 10’s.  This phrase is actually repeated more than once in the bible and is always interpreted similarly. However, there is no explanation in the bible as to why these particular numbers are relevant to Israel’s governing structure.

Interestingly, each of these phrases translated as ” 1000’s, 100’s, 50’s, and 10’s” have more significant and relevant meanings. The Hebrew word translated as “captains, commanders, and princes” in each bible translation respectively, is שרי or shari, a word literally meaning cords. These cords are things that tie one thing to the other, such as representatives. In modern nations, countries have ministers of certain governmental functions, although it is titled differently int he US.  There are ministers of defense, education, justice, etc. This what is being explained here.. that some of these qualified men would link or “tie” Israel to education, justice, compliance, and taxation. Moses explains that these men would ensure that Israel receives and comply with all that Yahuwah determined to be functional for His nation.

Understanding this allows us to know what is good and Godly in this world and what is not. It demonstrates what justice and prosperity really look like in any nation of people.

Israel is supposed to set that example for the world. Demonstrating what a just nation looks like and these laws that Moses is revealing in Deuteronomy explains how Israel should and will accomplish this!

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