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Isaiah 24-27 – Textual Issues

I’m approaching the textual issues for these four chapters from the point of view of English translations. I want to look for those textual issues that actually have an impact on major English translations. This is a procedure you can follow any time you study a Bible passage, assuming you don’t know Greek or Hebrew and can’t use original language tools. Check the footnotes in a variety of translations, and note readings that are used as the primary text, or that are suggested as alternates. These may results from several sources:

  • LXX/Septuagint
  • Syriac
  • Other versions, Latin, Coptic, Georgian, etc.
  • Other Hebrew manuscripts-there are, indeed, some small variations even in late Hebrew manuscripts.
  • Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Conjecture, normally tagged something like cn or cj (Check the abbreviations in your Bible translation for details)

This list applies to the Hebrew scriptures. In the Pentateuch, add the Samaritan Pentateuch as a source. In the New Testament, you need a different list.

I’m going to limit my list this time to the New Living Translation, the New Revised Standard Version, and the Revised English Bible. I’m limiting the number to three just for space. There are a number of other good Bible translations to use in this type of study, including especially the New English Translation and the English Standard Version.

These versions contain the following numbers of textual footnotes in the four chapters we are considering, including places where the translators indicate that the Hebrew meaning is uncertain:

  • NLT – Has a small number of translation notes; no textual notes. (The absence of textual notes is significant also.)
  • NRSV – Lists seven verses with textual notes
  • REB – Lists eight verses with textual notes

The value of looking at multiple versions is illustrated here. As you will see in the chart, the REB and NRSV lists only match in one case. We will compare readings in the NLT, where in some cases an issue is resolved by the translators, but they did not feel a footnote was necessary. In normal study, you can survey more translations. I looked at the English Standard Version, Contemporary English Version, and the New English Translation, though I did not include them in the chart.

24:15 the eastern regions, footnote indicates that the Hebrew is uncertain in the east In eastern lands
All translations reflect one probable reading. There is no textual variant, but there is some uncertainty as to translation
25:5 deletes “heat in the shadow of a cloud” includes this phrase, but divides the poetic lines differently Includes all, divides as REB
This passage using some difficult phrasing. REB sees the phrase “heat in the shadow of a cloud” as out of place, NLT translates as is, but NRSV begins a conditional clause at the end of verse 14, carrying it forward into verse 15, thus including the phrase, but nonetheless making greater sense of the passage. Personally I would go with the NRSV translation here; REB is deleting a phrase because it is too uncertain to translate.
25:11 despite the struggle of their hands with every stroke of his hands and all their evil works
The NRSV marks the word “struggle” with a footnote indicating the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain. Even though neither the NLT or the REB provide a footnote, it is clear from the difference in their rendering that the meaning is somewhat uncertain. The problem is with the rendering of the Hebrew word ‘arbah, “movements (or nimble movements)” associated with hands. The meaning is clearly metaphorical, and the translations differ in their rendering. This is a good issue to resolve when you get to exegesis.

I call attention to the fact that only comparing translations and comparing footnotes would bring this type of issue to the attention of a Bible student who does not read Hebrew.

26:4 he (using the parallel line with “LORD” to indicate the meaning) LORD GOD LORD GOD
Another NRSV footnote not reflected in the others. The Hebrew reads “Yah YHWH,” and this is handled differently by the different translations. Since there is no significant change in meaning, the rendering is largely a matter of taste. Many commentators regard the duplication as an error as the use of the abbreviated “YAH” is unusually before the full tetragrammaton “YHWH.”
26:8 We have had regard to we wait for you we love to obey your laws
The REB here claims to follow the 1QIs(a) reading, which leaves off the “you” suffix on “we hope (for)” or “we look to.” Literally as far as possible, “Even/also the path of your judgments, YHWH, we look to [you]” which would allow a number of renderings. Is it in the path of judgments that they look to the Lord, or is it the path provided by God’s judgments that they look to? Again, though the scroll and the versions that generally follow it suggest a reading here, exegesis is more likely to provide an answer to how this should be rendered. Note again that only one version provides you with the footnote indicating there is something to study here.
26:11 zeal for your people zeal for your people eagerness to defend your people
Hebrew literally reads “zeal of the people” here. Only the REB provides a footnote indicating we are dealing with a variant, though all three versions make the same translation choice. Again, the footnote alerts you to an issue.
26:16 chastened by the whisper
(REB also notes that Hebrew reads “they” rather than “we” as other versions translate)
poured out a prayer bowed beneath
Both REB and NRSV call attention to the issue here. This is one to settle in exegesis, though you should be very careful in coming up with a decision if you can’t check the Hebrew.
26:18 REB note word “like” in the Hebrew delete “like” delete “like”
All translations render in a similar way, but REB calls your attention to an underlying variant. It is not at all certain how one would translate if the word “like” is included.
26:19a their bodies (second line), footnote indicates Hebrew “your body” Your dead (collective) their bodies
The meaning here is identical, but REB again alerts us to the textual issue.
26:19b those long dead those long dead in the place of the dead
This is not a textual issue but one of translation. The Hebrew word is “shades.” NLT takes it as the dew falling in the place where the shades live, thus “place of the dead” while the other translations take “shades” as those who have been dead a long time.
27:6 time to come days to come the time is coming
Hebrew is literally “those to come” or “the coming ones” which could certainly refer to days. All three versions take this as a reference to time.
27:8 His quarrel with Jerusalem ends . . . By expulsion He has punished Israel only a little
Hebrew literally “by expulsion, by exile you contended against them.” I would suggest the variety of renderings makes a footnote a good idea, but only the NRSV provides one in this case.

*F: – footnote reading; T: – reading incorporated into the text

This is obviously an incredibly quick tour of the textual issues in the chapters. Many will find these all too minor to take very seriously, but I think they do illustrate the type of information a serious Bible student can find by working with multiple translations and making serious use of the footnotes. Unless you can work with the source material in the original languages, you will have to settle your choice between the renderings of various versions during your exegesis.

My next entry on Isaiah will deal with various elements of the passage as they can be examined with form criticism. Remember that this will be a kind of dissection approach to the text. Later we’ll look again at the whole to ask what genre the whole composition is.

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