When Translators Theologise: Gen 14:20b

Following my previous rant on Mal 2:16, there were people who asked which translation would be best. While there are no perfect translations, I tend to use both NKJV and the NASB as they tend to be generally quite faithful to the Hebrew text. I avoid dynamic translations such as The Message, NIV, NLT, GNB due to their limited value for study purposes. One example of this would be in the translation of Gen 14:20b:-
NKJV – … and he gave him a tithe of all
NASB – … he gave him a tenth of all
but the other translations say:-
NIV – … Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything
JPSS – … And Abram gave him a tenth of everything
NET – … Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything
NRSV – … And Abram gave him one tenth of everything
ESV – … And Abram gave him a tenth of everything
The Hebrew text for this bit actually reads (from right to left):-
וַיִּתֶּן־ל֥וֹ מַעֲשֵׂ֖ר מִכֹּֽל
the transliteration and word for word translation:-
v-yitten_l-o                  ma’aser  me-kol
and-he-gave_to-him  tenth       of-all
The first problem you can already see is that there are no names in the text. No “Abram” and certainly no “Melchizedek”. The translators of NIV, JPSS, NET, NRSV, ESV took the liberty of inserting those names in order to make the text say things a certain way. But did they get it wrong in spite of their good (theological) intentions?
Secondly. If you read Gen 14:18-20 to get the full context, you will discover that this entire section was about Melchizedek doing things to Abram.
v.18 – we see that Melchizedek was the main actor – bringing out bread and wine.
v.19 – we see that he (Melchizedek) blessed him (Abram) with words that are contextually incontrovertible
v.20 – is a continuation of v.19 with Melchizedek as the main actor.
v.20b – this should simply be a continuation of everything else with Melchizedek giving Abram a tenth of all
If all you had was this text, this would be how you would have read it. There would be no way you would suddenly turn around and say that Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of everything just as you wouldn’t interpret v.19 as Abram blessing Melchizedek. What is going here is that the translators were looking at Hebrew 7:2 which said that Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek, and then decided to alter the translation of Gen 14:20b to make the text agree with Hebrew 7:2. In other words, they’re no longer translating here, but theologising because the plain text was inconvenient and disturbing in its implications. At the very least, if the context wasn’t clear – just leave it the way NKJV and NASB did, without taking the liberty to inject an interpretation that isn’t found in the original text.
So the question is – what do you do when the text says something inconvenient? Should translators smooth it out by injecting their own interpretation to avoid any textual difficulties? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that word for word translations are the way to go. Far from it. All good translations require contextual understanding. The problem with this and other examples is that the translators were authoring stuff that did not exist in the text, nor was what the text meant. They probably represented the prevailing theology of the day and/or desired to avoid theologically difficult translations.
Once again, I’m not addressing the question of Hebrew 7:2. I’m simply pointing out examples of where translators go amuck, and why I tend to stick to NKJV and NASB. Why two versions? That’s a story for another post if anyone’s interested.

Midnight Linguistic Rant: Malachi 2:16

One of the problems with English translations is that you have to take the word of the translators for what the Hebrew (or Greek) text of the bible says, and sometimes they get it so so so wrong. Worse yet, they get it wrong in ways that result in entrenched doctrinal positions. The case in point here is the text of Malachi 2:16
NKJV says “For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce …”
NASB and NRSV says “For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel …”
NET bible says “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel …”
JPS says “For I detest divorce – said the LORD, the God of Israel …”
Now, if you looked at all these versions – you’d pretty much come to the conclusion that God hates divorce, and who can blame you for it. All the English translations here seem to be saying exactly that.
But when you look at the Hebrew text, this is what it actually says:-
כִּֽי־שָׂנֵ֣א שַׁלַּ֗ח אָמַ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
[Note that Hebrew reads right to left.] Translated literally and word for word, it actually reads as follows:-
ki_sane               shalach  amar  YHWH elohei     Israel
“for_he-hates divorce” says   YHWH God (of) Israel
The operative word here is “sane” which is the third-person masculine verb for “hate”, ie. “he hates”. It is significant that while this was God speaking in the first person, he does not use a first person verb such as “seneti” which would have been correctly translated “I hate”. This means that God wasn’t referring to himself hating divorce here, but was referring to someone else who hated divorce.
Who was this person? If you look at the context of Malachi 2 as a whole, you will notice that God was addressing errant priests who had corrupted the covenant of Levi. They misled the people. This person dealt treacherously with the wife of his youth, a wife by covenant.
Even though he has gone off gallivanting with other women, he had not released his wife properly through divorce. It was this refusal to release his wife. Judah had run off with the daughter of a foreign God even though he was in covenant with God not to do so. Yet he pretends to still be “married” to God. This was the “treachery” of Judah (Mal 2:11 NKJV). So when the narrative comes to Mal 2:16, God was referring to this person saying that “he refused/hated divorce” even though that was the right thing to do for his wife given his treachery.
Why doesn’t he want to divorce his wife by covenant? Because he would be obliged to ensure that she is properly compensated if he divorced her. By not divorcing the wife, the poor woman is left neither here nor there, unloved by the husband and yet bound to an unfaithful man.
Now, I am not trying to make a case about divorce here. I’m just pointing out how bad some of the English translations can be – leading to completely different (and distorted) readings of the original text. Why can’t the translators just translate the text directly????!!!
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