Have you ever misread something you were reading? Maybe you were skimming along, and on your first pass, you read the sentence, “I read the book,” in the present tense. Then after a few lines, you had to go back and scan the passage again, only to realize that it was, in fact, in the past tense. Maybe it was something even more nefarious, like reading desert as dessert, or vice versa. I’m sure these occurrences are rare, but they’ve happened to all of us from time to time.
It’s hard for some to imagine, but the same kind of thing might have happened in the Biblical text. It’s possible that the scribes, while copying the text, thought that they read the wrong thing, and wrote what they thought they were reading. Take a moment to think about my first example, though. If you were copying that story by hand, and you accidentally interpreted the word “read” in the present tense instead of the past tense, do you think it would make a difference to the next reader? Now take a moment and imagine adding vowel length markings. Instead of marking it as “rêad” you mark it as “reȧd.” Is that going to confuse your next reader just a little bit?
Deuteronomy 32:8 might have something very similar going on. You see, at one time, Hebrew was written only as consonants, not even spaces between words. Currently, the Hebrew text is often preserved with spaces, vowels, and cantillation marks marking tone. The last few words of Deuteronomy 32:8, as preserved in the printed Hebrew Bibles, reads “לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל,” and is accurately translated in the King James Version as “according to the number of the children of Israel.” However, another reading exists in the Greek Septuagint. They translated “למספרבניישראל” as “κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ.” This is translated “according to the number of the angels of God.” Where did the Greeks get the idea that these were Angels of God, not sons of Israel?
The context is one key clue. The beginning of the verse talks about God dividing the sons of Adam. This sounds like the division of the nations after the Tower of Babel, but Jacob who would become Israel wasn’t born then. Even Abraham wasn’t born yet. So how could God divide the world according to the number of sons born to a man who wasn’t born yet?
There are exegetical ways to deal with this. There’s another explanation, though. It’s possible that the Greek translator read it as, “לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יְשַׁר־אֵל.” (according to the number of children of the upright of God.) It’s the same consonants. It’s only small changes in vowel pointing. There’s another possibility. Some critical texts imagine an original text that read, “לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי אֵל.” (According to the sons of God.)
There’s a deeper question. What is the real, reliable Hebrew text of the Old Testament?
We can break this down even further. Are the consonants, the vowel points, the cantillation marks, and the qure readings preserved in the Masoretic text the most reliable Hebrew Old Testament text? For my purposes, this really means what is the base text I, as an amature Bible translator, am going to use to translate the Old Testament?
Just for the point of simplicity, I’ve decided to use a single text to translate from. Rather than comparing all the available manuscripts and versions of every text and selecting what I think is most likely, I’m just sticking to a single text. For the vast majority of the Old Testament, I’m using the Masoretic text. At one time, I was considering making a translation with no footnotes. Since thinking this issue through, though, I’ve come to another decision.
The vowel points, the cantillation marks, and the qure readings all go together as a unit. The Masoretic text places the qure vowels under the kere readings in the main text, so it is impossible to create a pure translation that follows the vowels but not the qure readings. I’ve rethought my decision about footnotes, and I’ve decided to include footnotes when I make my translation. My main text is going to follow the vowel points and qure readings, but when the Greek Septuagint seems to have read the text another way, I’ll make a footnote for that alternate reading. There are some cases where the Greek translator seems to have made up a text or interpreted the text in a way that goes against the consonants we have now, and those I won’t mark. For example, in the genealogies of the first ten chapters of Genesis, the Greek edition has different numbers for the ages many of the patriarchs had their sons. It is possible that the Greek translator picked up on some mythical element common to Hebrew and Greek culture which was better expressed in different numbers. It’s not possible that he read the consonants wrong when translating to get the new numbers. Only in cases where I can imagine an alternative vowel pointing or a trick of the eye leading to the Greek reading will I make a footnote for it.
But that also leaves open the question of which is really the best. In my own opinion, at least regarding Deuteronomy 32:8, I think that the reading following the Septuagint make the most sense. I also tend toward thinking that the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible is very well preserved. (More on this coming up in another post.) I think that the vowels and spaces represent one level of interpretation of this consonantal text. There are even places where the original scribe who decided where to put medial and final forms of the consonants disagreed with the interpretation of the scribe who decided where to put spaces. For example, in Isaiah 9:6, The first word is usually written לםרבה. If this is interpreted as “למרבה,” it could mean “Of the increase.” If it is interpreted instead as ” לם רבה” then it might mean “Of them who are many.” (Although it would be an odd construction for this.) Not a hugely important difference exegetically, but still worth noting that different scribes had different opinions on how the text should be rendered when you remember that the version of the Hebrew Alphabet that Isaiah used didn’t have either spaces or final forms of letters.