I was reading a popular news website and came across a headline which read “Five Ways Your Bible Translation Distorts The Original Meaning of the Text.” It turns out the article is from a writer published on The Huffington Post, Joel Hoffman (see the article here).
Hoffman says that etymology, internal structure, and cognates are the three pillars of bible translation, and all are flawed means of translation, therefore all our modern bible translations are wrong. Etymology is the history of a word, like explaining why board of directors, and room and board use the word board, originally meaning a wooden plank. Internal structure is like saying that host should not be connected with hostile even though the first is found in the second. And cognates are taking a word from one language and using it directly in another as if the words meant the same.
That these techniques are flawed is indeed correct. However, this is something found in a first level undergraduate class on languages, and are certainly not mistakes that professional translators would make. Hoffman correctly tells us that context is critical for determining the meaning of a word. Again, first level undergraduate information, not something that warrants a headline that translations are necessarily wrong.
Hoffman goes on to say that the word for covet (chamad) in the ten commandments has been translated incorrectly. As evidence, Hoffman compares the following verses:
Exodus 20:17 (the commandment) “Thou shalt not chamad thy neighbors house…”
Exodus 34:24: “…neither shall any man chamad thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the LORD thy God thrice in the year.”
So according to Hoffman, the Ex 34:24 verse gives solid enough proof to determine that chamad really means take, and that the commandment is wrong, and every English translation that renders chamad as covet is incorrect.
Well, at least Hoffman got the part about the context correct. As such, a simple search for chamad reveals the term is used in the following passages:
Duet. 7:25: “The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not chamad the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it.”
Josh 7:21: “When I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I chamad them, and took them”
Is. 53:2: “and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should chamad him.”
Micah 2:2: “and they chamad fields, and take them by violence”
Prov. 1:22: “How long will the . . . scorners chamad in their scorning”
Prov. 6:25: “Chamad not after her beauty in thine heart;”
There is more, but you get the point. In each of these passages, the context prevents chamad from meaning take. Hoffman’s point is grossly wrong on the face of it, and proven by using his own advice. What Hoffman’s low level of teaching seems to indicate is that he’s cut his teeth on poor references such as Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, which makes some of the mistakes that Hoffman mentions.
Further, it is the height of arrogance to hint that every bible translation committee is wrong, and that one man has learned something that all these language scholars have somehow gotten wrong. It is horribly wrong to suggest that people who spend their entire careers studying languages have somehow missed such a basic mistake as Hoffman suggests.
I will not waste more time chasing down Hoffman’s other patently incredulous statements, such as people mistaking poetic language for literal (somehow the lover calling his girlfriend sister in the poem Song of Solomon is supposed to be misleading), and the bible translators supposedly also missed soul and murder. Golly, they must have gone to lunch early that day.
Arguably the worst of Hoffman’s lines is when he states, “Usually the King James Version got it wrong because they were not very good translators, and that was because they really didn’t understand language.” Really, Joel? Are you honestly prepared to look a team of modern professional translators in the eye and make such a false statement, given the level of non-scholarship you just demonstrated?
(all this reminds me of the similarly poor work of Michael White. See here.)
To the reader, be assured that all the modern translations of the Bible are correct, for they have been labored over by teams of people who give their lives to making sure of the accuracy of the word of God.