Wrestling with truth/faithfulness/loyalty/love

25 09 2009

I’m preparing to preach on the seventh commandment: you shall not commit adultery. We’ll begin this week with a study on the faithful love that God demonstrates toward His people. I did not realize the massive amount of material that I would encounter: there is this cluster of Hebrew words (’emet, ‘amen, ‘amunah, etc.) that are difficult to translate into English. They overlap some with the Greek pistis and pistos, which can also be challenging to translate. It’s hard for a native English speaker to understand how the same noun can mean “faith” or “faithfulness,” depending on the context. Then all of this overlaps with the longstanding debate about the connotations of chesed. Most of these words are used many times in Scripture, so there is a pretty large mountain of data to be mined here.

These are not obscure issues. They help to explain some of the remarkable translation differences in some well-known passages, like the end of Psalm 37:3:

  • KJV “verily thou shalt be fed”
  • ESV “befriend faithfulness”
  • NASB “cultivate faithfulness”
  • NIV “enjoy safe pasture”

For the reader of the English Bible, the translators’ decisions on these questions can dramatically change the apparent meaning of a passage. For example:

  • Matthew 23:23 Are the weightier provisions of the law “justice, mercy, and faith” or “justice, mercy, and faithfulness”?
  • Galatians 5:22 is the fruit of the Spirit faith or faithfulness?
  • Micah 6:8 love mercy? love kindness?

Then there are passages that are difficult for the English reader to understand because of our unfamiliarity with the Hebrew usage:

  • Joshua 24:14 Fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth.
  • I Samuel 12:24 Fear the Lord and serve Him in truth with all your heart.
  • Genesis 24:27 God has not forsaken … His truth toward my master.
  • I Kings 2:4 Walk before me in truth.

As it stands, the English in those passages doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We wouldn’t say: “Joe, don’t forsake your truth toward your wife.” I suspect that most English readers think that I Samuel 12:24 means to truly/really serve God; or they think it means to serve him in the truth. Both concepts are true, but with that preposition the most likely meaning for ‘emet there is “faithfully.”

So I’m learning a lot, and I’d better get back to it! Sunday is coming soon.


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