The Challenges of Bible Punctuation

You might be familiar with the oddities of the English language in the picture above. Another example I’ve heard of is that there’s a huge difference between, “I like cooking my family and pets,” and “I like cooking, my family, and pets.” Good grammar can save lives!

One unique thing about our bibles is that with ancient manuscripts, we don’t find modern punctuation. Likewise, depending on where you place a comma, period, or question mark, a verse can sound vastly different! Bible translation is often an extremely difficult task. Not only do scholars have to find English equivalents of old words, but they must also organize it into modern-sounding clauses and sentences.

One of my seminary professors put it this way: Every translation is an interpretation.

Interpretation is the act of crafting meaning out of something. We interpret what a painting signifies for a culture. We interpret and process how a song makes us feel. And we definitely interpret the bible, too. Every bible translation out there makes decisions on what particular modern words to use. Every translation structures sentences a certain way, making it readable for us today. Translation always involved some degree of interpretation.

Genesis 22 is a practical example of this abstract idea. Where we place periods and add clarification words can potentially alter the meaning of the biblical text.

To to simplify the translation, these verses literally read:

by Myself I have sworn says Yahweh for on account of which you have done-thing this and not have withheld-your son-only that blessing I will bless you and multiplying I will multiply-your descendants as the stars…

Difficult to understand for us today, right?

As you might guess, modern translations “tidy up” the ancient text a bit and make it flow according to modern languages. Without it, passages would sound very archaic, strange, and confusing! So we add punctuation, switch words around, and even fill in the gaps where there might be an implied word.

In my sermon yesterday, I noted that God did not want Isaac to die. Perhaps God was testing Abraham’s sense of justice and doing what was right. One of the reasons why I think this is a legitimate interpretation is because of what the ancient Hebrew text actually says. To clean up the choppy word-for-word translation from above, regardless of bible translation, there are basically two distinct clauses regarding Abraham:

  1. “I have seen that you have not withheld your son.”
  2. “I will bless you and multiply you…”

In some bible translations, scholars have connected these two ideas–one leads to another. For instance, many translations read: “Because you have not withheld your son, I will bless you…” This reading implies Abraham was rewarded for his supposed “good work” of wanting to sacrifice his son.

But note that the word “because” is not found in the original Hebrew text. In reality, we could just as easily make these two independent sentences. In other words, we could read the passage as: “I have seen that you have not withheld your son. I will bless you and multiply you…” Maybe God is simply describing an observation–Abraham was about to kill his son. Perhaps God’s blessing in Genesis 22 is not contingent upon Abraham’s action with Isaac. Maybe God was just reiterating the original covenant to Abraham. This alternative reading falls in line with what we as Christians believe about God’s grace: God gives it to us regardless of our action… We never “earn” grace ourselves! Despite Abraham’s struggles, God remained faithful to that covenant.

I think it is clear that Abraham struggled with justice–in my sermon I noted Abraham’s tragic episode with Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham did a great job of obeying divine commandments, but he needed to take it a step further and pursue Godliness in his own life. Likewise, I think the interpretation I explored on Sunday can be a unique option to consider.

Bible passages often mean different things for different people. The important thing, however, is that we continue to read the stories of scripture and discuss them with one another. We might disagree on the meaning of something, but God continues to speak to us in the process.

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