Morgan Park

 Baptist Church

Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor

11024 S. Bell Avenue 

Chicago, IL 60643


Reflection August 7, 2016

Bible Translations

Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth

     We, Christians, rightly acclaim and believe that God inspired the words of the Bible. This is one of our foundational beliefs. But there might well be confusion about what this means.

     In this past Sunday’s sermon, I brought up the fact that what I believe to be one of the most important insights of the Old Testament is absent in many Bible translations. The verse I referenced the Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon) chapter 8, verse 6.

     In the Bible translation that we use at our beloved church, this verse is translated thusly: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. (New Revised Standard Version)

     I believe this translation is not a good translation of the Hebrew. Now I’m absolutely NOT a Hebrew scholar - but the last word of the verse is salhebetyah. I believe the verse is better translated thusly: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong as death, jealousy (or ardor) is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. (English Standard Version)

     Here is also an important translation which is arguably the best translation of the Hebrew: Set me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, passion as cruel as Sheol; its flashes are flashes of fire, the flame of Yah(weh). (Complete Jewish Bible)

     The point I wish to make is that love is “a flame of Yahweh” - “a flame of God.” If God is who we say God is - then God is the Source of All Love. Love is the energy of God made manifest in our world.

     We contain the spark of the divine within each and every one of us. Traditionally we have spoken of this divine fire, this godly love-energy, as the human soul. We have - to put it bluntly - a piece of God within us at our deepest level. This divine energy pushes us to seek union and communion with each other and with our God. I preached about this on Sunday.

     But let me return to the issue of translations. As I stated in the beginning of this reflection: we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. But we must be cautious. Our traditional understanding of divine inspiration is that God inspired the Bible ONLY in the original texts.

     Unfortunately, we do not have the originals, we have copies that were copied over and over throughout a considerable amount of time. Sometimes those who were doing the copying inserted their own ideas and “corrections” into the Biblical text.

     We encountered this reality when we were discussing Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians. In Chapter 14, verses 33b - 37, we have something included into the text that was probably not there when Paul originally wrote the letter: As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?

     The New Revised Standard Version places this whole section in parentheses. Why? Because Paul did not write it! It was added later by someone who wished to “correct” Paul’s original text. There are many reasons why this is believed by our best Bible scholars.

     Yet how many of our sisters have not been allowed to preach or teach in church because of this passage allegedly from Paul? Paul must certainly be appalled that someone had the audacity to “fix” his letter! This is but one of the issues that arises with trying to discern the original Biblical text.

     Recently, I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to understand why so many Biblical translations fail to get Song of Songs 8:6 correct. Why is the sole mention of God in the entire Song of Songs dropped from so many current (and past) translations?

     Are Bible translations “protected” by God’s inspiration? NOT AT ALL! No Bible translation is protected from error by God - including the hallowed King James Translation, which also mistranslates Song of Songs 6:8.

     I wish I knew Biblical Hebrew and New Testament Greek better than I do. I was always inspired by my Scripture professors who would translate as they read a passage aloud to us in the original languages. But I do explore as best I can when I ponder the Biblical texts prior to my preaching.

     Our Moslem sisters and brothers have as their holy text, the Quran. It might be enlightening to know that the Quran is considered the Quran ONLY in Arabic. When translated into another language, such as English, it is no longer considered to be the Quran.

     Perhaps we Christians should likewise be cautious when it comes to our holiest texts. God does not inspire those who provide the multitude of translations flowing from the presses. Some translations are better than others. Normally I like the New Revised Standard Version. Yet every translation is an attempt to discern what the Hebrew and the Greek ACTUALLY says. This is a profoundly difficult task! No translator gets it right all the time!