October 21, 2003


Category: Bible,Bible - OT - Deuteronomy :: Permalink

On Sunday afternoon, my Scripture reading (as background for the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 41, dealing with the Seventh Commandment) was Deuteronomy 22:9-30. In preparing for that sermon, I noticed two major translation problems.

In Deuteronomy 22:9, the NKJV reads, “You shall not sow your vineyard with different kinds of seed, lest the yield of the seed which you have sown and the fruit of your vineyard be defiled.” The KJV, NASB, and NIV all have the same thing: “be defiled.”

But the word in Hebrew is a form of the verb qadash, and everywhere else that word appears it means “to be or become holy.” A quick glance through my Hebrew concordance reveals that nowhere else in the whole Old Testament does the word refer to something defiled, and my lexicons do not give “defiled” as an option for qadash.

Later on in that same passage, the NKJV has this: “A man shall not take his father’s wife, nor uncover his father’s bed” (Deut. 22:30). The NIV gives up translating completely and settles for a paraphrase: “he must not dishonor his father’s bed.” The KJV has “… nor discover [i.e., uncover] his father’s skirt,” which is much closer. The NASB is similar: “he shall not uncover his father’s skirt.”

The word rendered “bed” by the NKJV and “skirt” by the NASB and KJV is the word kanaf, and it’s the word for a bird’s wing. By extension, it applies to the wings or corners of a garment, which is how it is used earlier in the passage: “You shall make tassels on the four corners of the clothing with which you cover yourself” (Deut. 22:12, NKJV).

By translating kanaf as “bed” as the NKJV does or by paraphrasing as the NIV does, the connection between Deuteronomy 22:12 and 30 is lost. The reader can no longer see that all the laws in Deuteronomy 22:13-30, which deal with fornication, adultery, rape, and seduction, are bounded by laws about the corners or wings of a man’s garments. But those corners or wings have everything to do with the laws about sexual morality which they surround.

In the Bible, taking a bride is spreading one’s wing (or the corner of one’s garment) over a woman. That’s what Ruth asks Boaz to do for her (Ruth 3:9). That’s what God did for Israel (Ezek. 16:8; cf. Ruth 2:12). The husband-to-be would symbolically take his wife-to-be into his cloak so that she is covered by his garment’s corner, that is, by his wing.

The corners of Israel’s garments had tassels on them, which represented and reminded Israel of her holiness (Num. 15:38-41). To uncover someone’s corner or wing, then, is to violate the holiness of their marriage bond. And that’s what Deuteronomy 22:13-30 is all about. But you’d never know it if you read most translations.

Furthermore, you’d never know from most translations that mixtures become holy. If you sowed field seed in your vineyard, both the produce of the seed and the produce of the vineyard become holy, which would mean that you couldn’t eat it. (The Berkeley Version takes this stab at a paraphrase: the produce will “be confiscated to the sanctuary.”) As Jim Jordan points out in his essay, “The Law of Forbidden Mixtures,” there are mixtures in God’s sanctuary, the most notable of which is that the priests wore linen garments embroidered with coloured wool (all coloured cloth in the Bible is wool: they couldn’t dye linen). Ordinary Israelites were forbidden to wear mixtures, but the priests wore mixtures. Mixtures in the Old Covenant become holy.

And the tassels that the Israelites wore on their garments had a blue (and therefore woolen) thread in them. Each Israelite had a little mixture, a little bit of holiness, on the four corners of his garment. So the corner or wing that a man spreads over his wife has a tassel symbolizing holiness.

But you’d never spot any of this symbolism if you just read the standard English translations. Instead of reproducing what the text of Scripture actually says, the translators have attempted to give their own interpretations. They read that the produce of mixed seed is holy and they say to themselves, “Nope. That can’t be right. Mixtures are bad, so … let’s make that defiled instead.” They read about uncovering a father’s corner and they assume that readers won’t be able to figure it out. It’s an obscure idiom, they think, and so they simplify things by speaking about uncovering the father’s bed or they simply paraphrase to try to “get the meaning across.” But the ironic result is that in so doing they fail to get the meaning across, because the meaning is bound up with the words God uses.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:34 pm | Discuss (0)

Leave a Reply