This work is primarily intended for the benefit of an LDS audience. For that reason, I attempted to avoid the usual scholarly approach of saying everything that could conceivably be said as regards both translation notes and the commentary. That means, of course, that I run the risk of being criticized for leaving out things that some people might have considered of some importance. But my guiding principle was to keep it simple enough that the reader would still concentrate on the message of the scriptures, and the translation notes and commentary were therefore limited to what I thought would aid that understanding rather than detract from it by losing the reader in a quagmire of contradictory scholarly minutiae. Nevertheless, there are still some chapters with rather lengthy commentary or translation notes, but I felt these were really important. I also took some liberties in matters such as transliteration and simplifed it (even to the point of likely incurring criticism from those few Semitic scholars who might peruse this book) to make it less cumbersome to a general audience. In particular, I did not always indicate the Hebrew aleph in the usual manner; nor did I attempt to distinguish between he and heth because of font problems. Anyone who is likely to notice that will probably be able to read the original Hebrew script anyway.I wish to thank Mark McConkie in particular for his valuable suggestions.
Our eighth article of faith says that “We believe the Bible to be the
word of God as far as it is translated correctly . . .” But we realized that the term “translated correctly” includes not merely the process of translation, but also the process of transmission. That must be emphasized, because both of these processes provide the opportunity for the original message to be distorted, or even completely deleted. For that reason, we need to discuss both of those processes in some detail.
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Textual transmission within a single language
After an ancient text was written down by a prophet or his scribe, how was it preserved for future generations (vertical transmission) or reproduced in many copies so that it could be read in multiple contemporary congregations or places (horizontal transmission)? There were no computers, no electronic storage or reproduction, not even printing presses. These things had to be done by hand, either by some faithful followers, or in scribal schools, or in religious institutions such as the monasteries of the Middle Ages. People tend to be imperfect and make mistakes, so inadvertent changes can creep into the copies which are being made, whether they are being made for the horizontal transmission or the vertical transmission. In the former case, this leads to differing traditions being established in the different locations. Imagine that you have to make a copy of an inventory of acceptable farm animals for interested people in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. In the first copy you miss the word for pigs, in the second you forget to copy the word for goats, and in the copy intended for Chicago, you miss copying the number of cows. Then you send out the copies. Imagine further that you are living at a time when there are no real means of communication between those three cities, except for an occasional letter carried by a traveler. Soon there is a tradition concerning acceptable farm animals in New York that does not include pigs; in San Francisco they do not consider goats acceptable, and in Chicago one is no longer allowed to own cows. That is precisely how different versions of New Testament books arose, with the Antioch texts being different from the Alexandrian texts and so on. And similar problems arose with Old Testament writings.
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In the case of vertical transmission, we can imagine that if one scribe overlooked a word, then what would happen if two or three thousand years of scribes forgot a word or two apiece? Thus the problem with vertical transmission is compounded over time. Now imagine that we combine the two processes, i.e. after the horizontal transmission, there is also a period of vertical transmission in each separate city. After a long period of time, we would expect the texts in each of the separate locations to become more and more divergent.
Now we have to consider mistakes that creep into the texts not only inadvertently, but intentionally. This happens when scribes disagree with the doctrine that they see. The resulting situation is worse than ever. These various types of problems in textual transmission are described by Ernst Würtwein as follows:
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“Many errors may be due to carelessness, especially if the copyist is a professional scribe who works rapidly and becomes casual, and further may not be familiar with the subject of the text he is copying. But even the scribe who approaches the text with interest and devotion may introduce corruptions. He may find an expression in his exemplar which in his view reflects an earlier scribe’s misunderstanding of the author, and in his concern for meaning of the text he naturally corrects it, just as we would correct a typographical error in a printed book. But his correction itself could very well reflect his own misunderstanding ! It is not only the casual or absentminded scribe who introduces errors, but the conscientious scribe as well. The next state in the process is obvious. A scribe copying a faulty manuscript – and no manuscript is without errors – will deal with his predecessor’s errors either by guesswork or with ingenuity, with the result of a series of intended improvements leading away from the original text. “All the writings which come to us from antiquity, including the writings of the Old and New Testaments, have suffered from just such (mis)adventures. . .”Ernst Würtwein, The Text of the Old Testament, translated by Erroll F. Rhodes, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979, p. xvii
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Such then are the errors due to the transmission process. But there are many more errors that creep in through the translation process. These can come about in the following ways:
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- a. The word or phrase in the source language is multivalent, i.e. can have several different meanings. We see this in English with certain words. For example, the English word “can” might refer to a container made out of metal, or it might be used as a verb meaning “to fire” someone; or it might be a slang term for someone’s derrière as in the expression “he just sits on his can all day.” Or a word might have different meanings, depending on which dialect of the source language it derives from. As an example of this, I grew up north of Dayton, Ohio, and if I said to someone there “I don’t care to do that,” I would be telling them that I really don’t want to do what they are asking. In other words, it is a negative reply to a request. But when I moved to Portsmouth, Ohio I discovered that that same sentence has completely the opposite meaning there. In Portsmouth, if someone says “I don’t care to do that,” it means “I don’t mind doing that.” So it is a positive response to a request.
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- b. The translator does not know what the word in the source language means. That is not unusual. There are some words in the Hebrew Bible that are so rare that no one knows for sure what they originally meant. In that case, translators merely guess. There will be some examples of that in the Genesis text. But in other cases, mistakes are made because the translator simply is not familiar enough with the source language. An example of this seems to occur in Luke 14:18 where Jesus is telling a parable about a man who made a great meal and invited a lot of people, who apparently did not want to attend. So the KJV renders “And they all with one consent began to make excuse.” Note that the word consent is in Italics, meaning that word was added by the translators, because the sentence did not make sense to them, so they added that word. But the problem is in the Greek text, which says apo mias, meaning “with one” and that was translated as such by the KJV translators. However, this mistake in the Greek apparently crept in because the person translating the text from Aramaic to Greek had a Syriac, or eastern Aramaic, text in front of him, and he was probably only familiar with western Aramaic. He then saw the Aramaic term mehda, which does not exist in western Aramaic, and he assumed it was a combination of the two words me and had; the first word meaning “from” and the second “one.” But actually, mehda is a Syriac word which means “immediately,” so the verse should have been translated with the meaning of “And they immediately began to make excuses. . .” which would make much more sense in that context.
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- c. The translator is influenced by his own theological preconceptions. This occurs especially with passages which show God as a person with a body. Such anthropomorphism has been objectionable to many translators throughout the ages, because they had accepted the (erroneous) concept that God is formless. Much of this went on in the translation of the Hebrew text into Greek in the creation of the Septuagint in particular. Those translators had been influenced by Greek philosophy to believe that God has no body, and therefore cannot appear to man in human form.
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- d. Finally, there are combinations of the above, as in the case where someone not thoroughly familiar with Hebrew may translate a phrase and change the meaning, partly because he or she does not understand the Hebrew, and partly because he or she does not accept a particular concept, such as the idea that Christ could be mentioned in the Old Testament, or that prophets really see the future. We see that, for example, in Zechariah 13:6 where someone is asked, “What are these wounds in thine hands?” and he answers “Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.” As just written (and this is from the KJV), we would see this as a clear reference to Christ. But suppose we read (Living Bible), “Then what are these scars on your chest and back? – I got into a brawl at the home of a friend.” Then we no longer see this as a Christological reference. Or worse yet (from the New English Bible), “What are those scars on your chest? – I got them in the house of my lovers.” These translations have removed any possibility of seeing this as a reference to Christ, and that is probably because the translators were not aware that the Hebrew word beyn originally meant “in,” whereas now we usually ascribe to it only the meaning of “between.” Since they saw the phrase beyn yadeikha “between/in your hands” and dismissed the possibility that it meant “in your hands,” they were left with “between your hands,” and they then probably thought to themselves, “well the only anatomical part between one’s hands is either the back or the chest!” Hence the bizarre translations that no longer reflect any connection with the suffering and crucifixion of Christ.
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The Hebrew Text
The standard Hebrew text of the Old Testament recognized today is called the Masoretic text, and is based on a manuscript called the Codex Leningradensis, which was written in 1008 A.D. and is kept in the library in St. Petersburg. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, much older (but not complete) manuscripts came to light, and some differences were discovered; but for the most part they showed the Masoretic text to have been fairly constant during that thousand year gap. We do know, however, that there were other Hebrew texts that were apparently very different, such as the assumed Hebrew Vorlage of the Septuagint, for the Septuagint contains a significant amount of material that is not present in the Masoretic text. Ultimately, we do not know exactly what the original text was. Fortunately, Joseph Smith restored a number of things that had been missing or changed in the Bible, and that kind of work that can only be done by a prophet under inspiration. But since we still use the “accepted text” in most of our daily work in the Church, there will hopefully be some value in looking more closely at what that text says; hence the current offering.
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Choice of language style
In the translation offered in this book, I have chosen to use the plainest modern English possible (in my own dialect, of course, which is something approaching what is called “Standard American English). While I am aware that the English of the KJV has been associated in our psyche with sacred things, we must remember that when it was first published, it was not intended to be considered a presentation of the scriptures in “sacred” language. The “sacred” language of that time, at least as far as the Catholics were concerned (and the Protestants who had been schooled in that tradition) was actually Latin, the traditional language of scriptures in the Catholic Church before and after the Protestant Reformation. Similarly, the “sacred” language for the Jews at that time (as now) was Hebrew. So the KJV version was intended to present the scriptures in the plain language of the people. After all, the problem at the time was that not everyone could understand Latin, so the people needed something that was easily understandable for them. Also, there is the problem that the meanings of words change over time, and in the KJV we see many words that no longer have the same meaning. For example, “meat” in the KJV did not always mean “flesh” but rather “food.” And “suffer” did not always mean being miserable, sometimes it meant “permit.”
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Furthermore, many years ago I heard a General Authority in General Conference make the statement that there is a principle expressed in the Book of Mormon which he believed in, viz. that, “It is not enough to speak so plainly that people can understand you, you have to speak so plainly that they can’t MISUNDERSTAND you!” So that is the principle that I have tried to follow in this translation of Genesis. I have tried to make it so plain that the intended message and theology can be understood as easily and readily as possible.
Important terms and abbreviations
- ANET - Pritchard, James B., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, second edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955
BDB- Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966
KJV– King James Version
LXX – this refers to the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament made by Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt before the time of Christ.
Masoretic text – this refers to the standard Hebrew text from which the Old Testament of the KJV was translated and which is also the standard work for Jewish congregations around the world.
Rabbinic Bible – known in Hebrew as the miqra‘ot gedolot, it is an edition of the Hebrew Bible (i.e. Old Testament) which contains the Masoretic Hebrew text, the Aramaic targumim (translations), and commentaries by Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, David Kimhi, Nahmanides, Gersonides and others. It was first published in 1524-25 by Daniel Bomberg in Venice.
Rashi – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, born in northern France (Troyes), was probably the best known medieval commentator on the Hebrew Bible. He lived from 1040 to 1104. His commentary on the Old Testament is an important part of the Rabbinic Bible.
- Targum (plural: targumim) – A targum is an Aramaic translation of any given portion of the Old Testament. The two most important are: Targum Onkelos (on the Torah, or Pentateuch), and Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel (on the Prophets). Other versions are also mentioned from time to time in this book.