GETTING THE RIGHT MEANING

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (KJV)]

Author John Greco wrote of answering a call for a 24-hour phone prayer ministry to find a man in crisis. Sobbing, the caller confessed that he was a dog breeder and that he hadn’t known that every dollar he gave to the church was a sin that made God angry. A new believer, the man had been following a Scripture reading plan with his King James Bible. That morning, he’d read Deuteronomy 23:18: “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the Lord … for even both these are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” Thinking God found his tithe from selling dogs disgusting and sinful is what had him so distraught. What the man didn’t understand, but Greco patiently explained, was that, in the Old Testament, “dog” was a euphemism for “male prostitute.” Reassuring his caller, Greco read the same verse from the NIV translation: “You must not bring the earnings of a female prostitute or of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord….” The King James, being a word-for-word translation, had given the literal translation rather than the original meaning. The NIV, being about half way between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations, used “male prostitute” with a footnote that explained it had been “dog” in the original Hebrew.

Curious, I looked up this same verse in a variety of translations. My NLT, which moves a little further down the thought-for-thought-chain, translates the words in question as, ”the earnings of a prostitute, whether a man or a woman” and also provides a footnote with the original word. Like the King James, the RSV is a word-for word translation but it adds a footnote indicating “dog” meant “sodomite.” The VOICE, a paraphrase translation, refers to the earnings from “cult prostitution.” Although each version is different, they all are right in their own way.

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and many of its original words don’t translate easily into English. For example, there were at least four different Greek words (phileō, storgē, eros, and agapē) for our one word “love.” Moreover, like “dog” for “male prostitute,” idioms often are difficult to translate. In 1 Samuel 24, the word-for-word KJV says that Saul went into a cave “to cover his feet” which doesn’t make sense to us. Covering his feet, however, was a Hebrew idiom for relieving himself (which the thought-for-thought translations make clear) and does make sense.

Because it is the first Bible I ever read, I will always treasure the King James translation; its version of the 23rd Psalm remains my favorite. Nevertheless, when I read that same psalm in the TLB, NLT, or Message versions, I see other nuances. Until reading the TLB’s “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need!” I hadn’t thought of it in terms of cause and effect. Rather than the “valley of the shadow of death,” the NLT broadens it to “the darkest valley,” and the Message refers to “Death Valley.” Thinking of actually traversing Death Valley—an unforgiving land of extremes where one could die from lack of drinking water or drown in a flash flood—and crossing more than 3 million acres of desolate wilderness—gives new depth to some very familiar words!

When we’re struggling to understand a difficult passage of Scripture or when we’ve heard or said the same verse so often that it’s lost its impact, using another translation is often helpful. Whatever Bible translation or translations we have on our bookshelves, however, the important thing is to open and read them!

Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (MSG)]

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