Monday, January 23, 2012

Die or Be Slain?

If you're preaching Sunday, you may want to consider the passage from Deuteronomy. Or you may not; it doesn't jump out and scream "preach me." One verse, in particular, has attracted our attention today.

Here's the original:
אַ֣ךְ הַנָּבִ֡יא אֲשֶׁ֣ר יָזִיד֩ לְדַבֵּ֨ר דָּבָ֜ר בִּשְׁמִ֗י אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־צִוִּיתִיו֙ לְדַבֵּ֔ר וַאֲשֶׁ֣ר יְדַבֵּ֔ר בְּשֵׁ֖ם אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וּמֵ֖ת הַנָּבִ֥יא הַהֽוּא
The verse is usually translated along these lines:

  • KJV: But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.
  • NASB: But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’

But the final clause is sometimes rendered this way:

  • CEV: ... and you must also kill any prophet who claims to have a message from another god.
  • NIV: ... a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

Ruh-roh. There is a significant difference between the these two ideas -- the prophet shall die, or the prophet shall be put to death. It is, least, significant to the prophet in question. One allows passivity -- natural causes, old age -- where the other demands agency, either God's or, in the bloodthirsty case of the CEV, the community's.

Unfortunately, our once-respectable Hebrew skills have declined, and we are an ocean away from our trusted research tools. (So far that we don't even have our own BHS, and have trouble making out the points in online texts). Our first thought was that the problem is the binyan of the verb to die -- is it maybe a huqtal, with a passive/causative effect? Then we were reminded that the future can have an imperative sense. (This guy defends the idea that it is the community's job to kill presumptuous prophets, but he doesn't seem like a great source).

But the bottom line is that we're a bit muddled here. Die or be slain? This verse is unlikely to figure largely in our eventual sermon, but ... gosh, we're curious. Can a kind hearted Hebrew scholar (or sharp seminarian) give us some insight?

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