[The following first appeared in the September 2018 issue of Christianity Today: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/september/job-13-15-though-he-slay-me-translation-original.html]
In my last blog, I discussed Job’s protest. In this commentary on Job 13:15, I explain how the different translations came about.
Commentary on Job 13:15: Translations
Much of the difficulty arises from our dependence on scholars who translate the text of Job into English. Let’s look at how some of the modern translations deal with Job 13:15. We already know the familiar King James Version (KJV) reading: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him.” The New International Version (NIV) translates, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” This NIV rendering agrees with the KJV and with our popular remembering of Job’s words. On that same page, however, the NIV footnote reads, “Or, He will surely slay me; I have no hope–/yet I will.” Note that the footnote reads opposite of the text translation: “I will hope in him” vs. “I have no hope.” How could the same Hebrew words be translated to mean the opposite of one another?
Other versions, however, choose the footnoted reading. The Revised Standard Version (RSV), for example, reads: “Behold he will slay me; I have no hope; yet I will defend my ways to his face.” The translation published by the Jewish Publication Society of America (JPS) renders the verse, “He may well slay me; I have no hope; Yet I will argue my case before Him.” And the New English Bible (NEB) Oxford Study Edition reads, “If he would slay me, I should not hesitate; I should still argue my case to his face.” Their study note on v. 15 reads, “An older (and traditional) translation incorrectly renders the verse as expressive of unflagging trust in God: ‘Though he slay me, I shall wait for him.’”Some translations translate one way, but others with the opposite meaning. How do we account for the difference? And how do we decide which is correct?
How we translate Job 13:15 centers on whether we read with what is written, (called in Hebrew the Kethiv, “Written”), or we read with what is spoken, (called in Hebrew the Qere, “Spoken”). Describing the scribal process of hand copying sacred manuscripts, J. Weingreen, author of a Hebrew grammar states, “corrections of recognized errors are retained in the text…due to the extreme reverence felt [for the text] and acts as a safeguard against tampering with it.”
But the scribes may “speak” not only for errors but also for an objectionable written word. If such a word conveys “an offensive or indelicate meaning,” though written in the text (Kethiv), [it] is “often replaced in reading (Qere, footnote) by another word—usually a euphemistic one.”Although not a mistake, he provides an example of substituting the spoken for the written text in the divine name, YHWH. Too sacred to speak, when encountered in written text, the reader speaks ‘Adonai(Lord). As we have seen, KJV and NIV translations of 13:15 generally follow what is spoken. The NEB translates “hesitate” instead of “hope,” but nevertheless chooses the written over the spoken by retaining the “not.”
Was the written text a “mistake,” or an infelicitous, offensive, or indelicate word? The scribe may have encountered Job’s vehement protest, allowed the text to stand, but added a note for the reader to say (Qere) “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” to avoid Job’s hopelessness. If so, that could have led some modern translators to also soften the impact of the text. As a result, they reverse the meaning of the written text.
[My next blog examines the context of this verse within Chapter 13 and within the book as a whole.]