Why do we need a new translation?
This project began with an interest in Isaiah, who is immensely important for Latter-day Saints. Not only is he quoted extensively in the Book of Mormon, but Christ himself commanded the Nephites to search the words of Isaiah (III Nephi 20:11). Unfortunately, the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament is one of the most difficult to read and understand, not only in English, but also in the original Hebrew. That is because he has a large vocabulary and many of the words he uses do not appear anywhere else, and we simply cannot be sure what they mean. On the other hand, with the decipherment of the cuneiform languages (principally the Babylonian and Assyrian dialects of Akkadian) and the discovery of many Phoenician and Punic inscriptions (which are descended from the Canaanite mother-language as is Hebrew), we are now in a much better, and more informed position regarding the meaning of the Hebrew of Isaiah than were the King James Translators several centuries ago. And there have indeed been many new translations, but most of these seem to be colored by theological prejudices, such as the assumption that the Virgin Birth could not really have been a "virgin" birth. Even more common is the assumption that prophets of old could not really have foreseen the future or known about Christ. Therefore it might be time for an LDS translation of Isaiah (with explanatory material concerning the historical and geographical backgrounds) to make the teachings of that prophet more accessible to Latter-day Saints, and that was the impetus for this present work. Moreover, as the work progressed, I realized that it might be very useful if we not only present Isaiah, but ALL the Old Testament prophets in a more accessible form.
Those chapters of Isaiah which are cited in the Book of Mormon were treated as follows: first I worked to revise the Hebrew text according to the changes indicated in the Book of Mormon, and then I translated the resulting (corrected) Hebrew text into modern English, using what scholars have learned about Biblical Hebrew during the last hundred years or so to improve the translations of words whose meanings were not at all known to the KJV translators, (which Joseph Smith seems to have followed whenever possible), but which have since been clarified (in many cases, but not all) by additional information coming from sources such at the Dead Sea Scrolls, the discoveries of Canaanite and Phoenician inscriptions (Hebrew is, after all, a Canaanite language), and also the light cast on the Hebrew vocabulary by Akkadian texts.
I may be accused of taking liberties with the Book of Mormon Isaiah passages by adjusting the vocabulary somewhat according to the facts presented above, but perhaps the criticism will not be quite as severe if I point out that Joseph Smith himself might have allowed some revision at this point in time, realizing that his language sounds a bit archaic to us, and also noting that he purposely worked to make it somewhat archaic, probably in order to bring it in line with the 17th century English that is used in the KJV, which was considered the “sacred language” as far as the early Americans were concerned. I believe that he had good reason to keep the Book of Mormon in that style of language in order to remove what might have been the heftiest outcry at the time, viz. “It doesn't read like the Bible!” And in line with that thought, we must realize that when translating known Old Testament verses, he seems to have been very careful to change anything that was doctrinally wrong or ambiguous, but was content to leave other material as it was in the KJV if it was not doctrinally objectionable. In the words of Daniel Ludlow:
"There appears to be only one answer to explain the word-for-word similarities between the verses of Isaiah in the Bible and the same verses in the Book of Mormon. When Joseph Smith translated the Isaiah references from the small plates of Nephi, he evidently opened his King James Version of the Bible and compared the impression he had received in translating with the words of the King James scholars. If his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James Version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible; then his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, copied it down. However, if Joseph Smith's translation did not agree precisely with that of the King James scholars, he would dictate his own translation to the scribe. This procedure in translation would account for both the 234 verses of Isaiah that were changed or modified by the Prophet Joseph and the 199 verses that were translated word-for-word the same. Although some critics might question this procedure of translation, scholars today frequently use this same procedure in translating the biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls." (Ludlow 1976: 141f.)
Notes on translation techniques
A word or two about translation techniques might also be in order. First, there is rarely an exact equivalence between any two languages except, perhaps, for numbers. It is true that zwanzig in German corresponds to twenty in English, so that is a rather exact correspondence. But Frau in German does not exactly correspond to woman in English, for Frau can mean more than woman. It can also mean wife. And the reverse is also true. Woman in English is not always Frau in German, because there are other words in German that may mean woman, such as Weib. And that problem of multivalence (multiple meanings or nuances for a single word) becomes greatly magnified when we are dealing with entire sentences or paragraphs. And with Hebrew, the problem of multivalence is much worse, because even at the level of single words there may be many different meanings. For example, Hebrew has at least four different words for man, each with a different nuance. Therefore any attempt at a "literal" translation is likely to produce a document of unintelligible gibberish. Therefore, the best translators attempt to understand the idea behind the words (after all, words are merely symbols for ideas), and then decide how best to express that idea in the target language. And that then presents a whole new set of problems, because word usage in any given language will vary from place to place and also changes over time.
In the days of King James translators, meat referred to solid food in general, while the muscles of animals (which we call "meat") were referred to as flesh (hence, the fleshpots of Egypt etc.). And if I ask someone in northern Ohio to "give me a poke," they might hit me; whereas in southern West Virginia they would know that I wanted a paper bag. All this means that there is no single "correct" translation. A translation may take many different forms and still be "correct." On the other hand, not all translations are correct. For example, brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, while bronze is normally an alloy of copper and tin. Therefore, if someone wants to translate the word "brass" (as in "brass plates"), but choses a word in the target language which refers to an alloy of copper and tin, then that translation is incorrect.
In any case, the translation presented in this volume is an attempt to put Isaiah, and the other prophets, into a more readable version of modern English. The two main difficulties in translating Isaiah in particular reside in the fact that he has a very large vocabulary, and many of the words are indeed multivalent, while the meaning of other words is still very uncertain. Nevertheless, it is hoped that his doctrine will be made more accessible by having removed some of the barriers of language.
A note on vowel pointing: the original Hebrew text was written without any vowels (with a few possible exceptions regarding the use of waw or yod that will be known to Hebraists). The vowels were added after the time of Christ, i.e. centuries after the original consonantal texts had been written. That was done by sages living in or near the city of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, hence the system is sometimes referred to as the "Tiberias" system of vowel pointing. By that time many of the Jews were no longer familiar with the proper pronunciation of many of the words in the ancient writings, so the creation of this pointing system was an effort to preserve the traditional pronunciation. In some cases, however, the pointing may now be either misleading or incorrect, thus adding an additional layer of difficulty to the process of translating. Therefore the reader will see occasional reference to this issue. 1
If a budding Hebraist happens to look closely at my translation, he/she will find that there is a rather loose handling of singular vs. plural when translating nouns. That is because the Hebrew often uses singular nouns to refer to a whole class, and in order to convey that nuance, we have to translate those nouns in the plural rather than the singular.1 This is rather common. Much less common is the reverse, meaning that an English singular noun must be used to translate something that is grammatically plural in the Hebrew text.
The use of verb tenses may also seem to vary from that of the Hebrew original. In point of fact, we do not always know that tense was actually intended in the original Hebrew. That is because in Hebrew there are two main tenses: perfect and imperfect. Either something already happened, or it didn’t. That might seem easy enough, but the picture become infinitely more complicated by the use of the so-called waw-consecutive, which employs perfect verb forms with an imperfect meaning and vice verse. Then there is the so-called “prophetic perfect,” which we are rarely able to detect with absolute certainty. So the tenses used in the English translation may vary from translator to translator.
Also, I must point out that there is almost never a verse which can only be translated one way. Often several variations are possible, and all would fall within the rubric of “correct.” Hence, each translator is influenced by his or her own background and idiolect. Therefore we must all beg our readers for a little flexibility.
There are two terms in particular which I would like to address, while discussing translation techniques. The first is the translation of the term yahweh tseva’oth, which is translated in the KJV as “the Lord of hosts.” This is misleading on two counts: first, the use of the word “Lord” as a euphemism for the divine name stems from Jewish usage which seems to go back to the Second Temple Period (or time of Christ). It found its way into the KJV, but it causes problems because the Hebrew text also uses the word ‘adonai, which literally means “lord.” Sometimes we even find the juxtaposition of ha’adon yahweh, which would then have to be translated as “the Lord, the Lord.” To get around that difficulty, some translators render that term as “the Lord God,” but then we have the problem that the actual word for “God” is ‘elohim, which also occurs in the Hebrew. The problems are then compounded by the fact that Latter-day Saints understand that there are two different individuals to be considered: the Father and the Son. Ultimately, the only way to avoid all these problems is to use the names of the Father and Son separately, as indeed the Old Testament prophets did! So in my translation, I used “God” for ‘elohim, and used “Yahweh” for the divine name (of the Son) which sometimes appears in the KJV as “Jehovah.” 2
That explains why I use Yahweh (the closest we can come to correctly pronouncing the divine name) for the Son, whom we know as Jehovah from the temple and from the KJV. And the term tseva’oth does indeed mean “hosts” (as was used in earlier centuries to refer to armies), but when it is used in conjunction with the name of Yahweh, it refers to heavenly hosts, rather than earthly armies. Therefore, I have regularly translated the term yahweh tseva’oth as “Yahweh of the Heavenly Hosts.”
The other term which requires some explanation is the Hebrew word torah, which is used by Jews to refer to the five books of Moses, but also used by them to refer to the law given to Moses by God; and in that regard, it can refer either to the written law (in the Pentateuch), or the oral law as contained in the Mishnah and Talmud. So it is normally understood as “law.” However, strictly speaking, in Hebrew it actually means “instruction” (from the root yrh), and therefore one who gives instruction is a “teacher” or moreh (from the same root). But if we, as Latter-day Saints, truly believe that the ancient prophets were in possession of the gospel as we understand the word (meaning “all instruction from God”), then they must have had a word for it. And it can be shown that the word torah is the very word which meets that definition. 3 Therefore, we even find expressions such as “the true gospel” in the writings of the Old Testament prophets. 4
In terms of my transliteration, it is intended for non-specialists, not for Semitists, so it has been simplified in many cases, however, some notes include words in the Hebrew script for those few students of Hebrew who may read this book.
I should also point out that the words in parentheses (in the scriptural sections) are words which do not appear in the original text, but which may be implied, or otherwise help make the passage in question understandable.
As stated above, this work was written for the purpose of making it easier for the average Latter-day Saint to understand the words and teachings of the Old Testament prophets. My contribution to achieving that goal lies in two areas: 1) providing a fresh translation that respects the language of today to the extent that I understand it myself, 5 and 2) providing relevant historical and geographical information that will help make sense of the references made by the prophets to those events, people and places of their time. These two aids will not, however, enable a person to come to a satisfactory understanding of the doctrine in all cases, and therefore I must point out that it will also be important to study the words and teachings of our modern prophets and apostles in order to complete our understanding of important teachings.
The reader will also soon notice that the copious footnotes contain, not only historical and geographical information, but also extensive comments on my treatment of the Hebrew or Aramaic texts. These comments can be ignored by the average reader. However, I felt it was important to include all that information, because new discoveries and research may throw additional light on the meaning of the Hebrew and Aramaic terms from time to time. And if, in the future, someone wants to update my work, that task will be much easier if that future translator has access to the rationale behind my treatment of difficult words or passages.
Historical, geographical and cultural material
It is very important, when seeking to understand the message of the prophets, that we try to gain an understanding of the backdrop against which the prophet delivered his pronouncements. No one speaks in a vacuum, and the prophets made frequent references to the things which they knew and had experienced, and the things which they expected their audience to be familiar with. That includes historical events, geographical details, and the cultural background of their own people and that of their neighbors. In order to provide as much insight as possible into those matters, I have included a section on the history of the Ancient Near East up to the time of the major prophets of the eighth century. In addition, there is a short section at the beginning of each of the prophetic books, which contains details that are important to know about that particular prophet.
The order of the prophetic books
In order to present things in some kind of historical order, I have tried to arrange the prophetic books more or less in chronological order. In some cases, particularly with the minor prophets, we are not completely sure when they lived and worked. In any case, having the books in chronological order will help the reader acquire the historical perspective that is one of the important elements in understanding the message of the various prophets. The order will, however, require some patience and perhaps frequent reference to the table of contents, since the order is very different from that of the King James Bible with which we are more familiar.
A word about medieval commentaries
The primary Jewish commentary on the scriptures for the past nine centuries has been that of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzhak). In his commentary to Isaiah, Rashi offered some valuable suggestions for the translation of words that were unclear. Some of these suggestions were no doubt his own, but often he relied on the Aramaic translation of Isaiah known as the Targum Jonathan. Talmudic tradition (Sukkah 28a) attributes it to Jonathan ben Uzziel, who was one of the tannaim who studied under Hillel the Elder (who was active from about 30 BC to 10 AD). Some modern scholars, however, question that authorship. In any case, that targum is a rather loose translation of the Hebrew, becoming at times more of a commentary than a translation. Nevertheless, Rashi relies on it to a significant degree. Therefore we may consult Rashi, but we must also remember that modern scholarship has thrown a lot of additional light on many passages which were vague, even to Rashi. Therefore, when there is a disagreement between Rashi and modern scholarship, we must carefully evaluate both and see which makes the most sense. Rashi is not always correct, but neither is modern scholarship.
Another medieval Jewish commentator I consulted was Abraham ibn Ezra, and like Rashi, references to him will be understood as references to his comments which appear on a verse-by-verse basis in the large Rabbinic Bible known among Jewish scholars as the mikraot gedolot. Finally, this work is not intended to replace the scriptures found in the Standard Works. It is intended merely as an adjunct to those scriptures, and will hopefully facilitate scripture study for Latter-day Saints.