Thursday, March 20, 2014

1 Kings 18:27: Doing His Business

I was recently reading 1 Kings 18 concerning the famous and amusing story of Elijah vs. the Prophets of Baal.  This may have been the first time I read it in the NABRE, so I noticed something at 18:27 that was different from most other translations:  

RSV:
And at noon Eli′jah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

NRSV:

At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

NAB:

When it was noon, Elijah taunted them: "Call louder, for he is a god and may be meditating, or may have retired, or may be on a journey. Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.

NABRE:

When it was noon, Elijah taunted them: “Call louder, for he is a god; he may be busy doing his business, or may be on a journey. Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.

The NABRE's "He may be busy doing his business" was striking when I came across it.  (The ESV and NLT have similar renderings, but the NABRE's is slightly different.)   I decided to do a little research on this and fairly quickly found an old CBQ article from July 1988 by Gary A. Rendsburg about this verse. Rendsburg is a Jewish history professor at Rutgers.  As Rendsburg points out: "In short, there is good reason to conclude that both elements in the hendiadys, siah and sig, refer to excretion and the phrase should be rendered 'he may be defecating/urinating.'  These would certainly be powerful words from the mouth of Elijah and would be a most appropriate mock of the Canaanite god Baal (416)."  Indeed it certainly would be.  They also seem to fit the context of what Elijah is saying, more so than "meditating" or "musing" do.  Elijah is calling-out the bogus god Baal and rendering him counterfeit.  


It seems the vast majority of other translations do not follow this, the exception being the new NABRE Old Testament.  If you go with interpretation, the next question is how to translate this into English.  Do you go with something like "he may be defecating?"  The ESV and NLT go with "relieving himself."   Or perhaps, like the NABRE, do you go with a less explicit wording?  I think most American readers will be able to understand what "doing his business" means, but would "relieving himself" have been a better rendering?

12 comments:

Biblical Catholic said...

I think we tend to forget that the ancient peoples were not as squeamish as we are about certain matters and tended to speak with a far greater bluntness than we are accustomed to.

I think it is pretty clear in the original language that Elijah is mocking Baal by suggesting that he is in the bathroom....but only rarely do translations seem willing to come right out and say this....instead censoring it.

In the same way, there is another passage involving King Saul where he stops by the side of the road to urinate and in most translations why he stopped is only vaguely described.

And I understand that in the original Greek, Jesus' discussion of foods that are clean 'for whatever you eat goes through you and passes into the latrine' is actually a lot more direct than that.....but most translations censor it.


On the other hand, the scriptures do use euphemisms to describe sex, the most common being 'knew'.....'Adam knew his wife' or 'lie with'.....yet most modern translations seem quite willing to actually make the translation more direct than the original. So we have translations that say 'had intercourse' or 'had relations' or even just simply 'had sex', although you might encounter 'slept with'.....

So where the scriptures are blunt describing bodily functions, translations tend to use euphemisms, but where the scriptures use euphemisms to describe sex, modern translations tend to be extremely direct.

Ancients no doubt would be confused by our hang ups. We won't talk about bodily functions, but we bluntly discuss sex.




CarlHernz said...

This is where my Jewish heritage comes in handy. The NABRE is very correct in its rendering. It is a euphemism meant to imply that Baal was not divine but like humans who must "relieve themselves." Similar euphemisms like this occur when the description is used that is meant to be derogatory. For example, though the NABRE just has "single male" in this instance, at 1 Samuel 25:22 the expression is actually "anyone who urinates against a wall" for the men David wants to see dead.

So what's up with all this "waste" talk in the Bible? In Hebrew culture and language the word used for false gods in idol form is "gullium," and literally means "logs of excrement." Anything of contempt is generally spoken of in this way in Biblical Hebrew culture.

The men David felt deserved nothing better than death were thus spoken of in a manner referencing how they eliminated, and so is Baal by Elijah in the instance you mention.

Elijah's words are a taunt, much like the English taunt is sung: "Nyah-nyah, nyah nyah-nyah." Or "Your god can't hear you because he has to poop!" This was a way to say Baal was mundane and to play off the words used to describe false gods.

Jason Engel said...

I had hoped the NETS would have used more blunt language, but I have no clue how "prating" is a word much less a reference to bowel movements.

Theophrastus said...

I find that this conversation has an interesting overlap with Tim's on-going focus on study Bibles.

One thing that is possible with most contemporary study Bibles (but not possible with the Oxford NABRE study Bibles format) is for the annotation to not only explain but actually correct a translation.

Tim referenced the RSV and NRSV; here are how the leading academic study Bibles of these translation treat 1 Kings 18:27:

NOAB-RSV (OT 1973) has this note:

One of the sharpest satires on paganism ever penned. "He has gone aside" is probably a euphemism for attending to natural needs.

NOAB-NRSV4 (2010) has this note:

"He has wandered away," a disrespectful euphemism meaning that Baal has to relieve himself.

HarperCollinsSB-NRSV2 (2006) has this note:

"Wandering away," perhaps a euphemism for taking care of bodily functions.

The same technique can be used even with old translations. The Norton Critical Edition of English Bible (KJV) (2012):

"Persuing": possibly "defecating" (Heb. obscure).

These examples show how the study Bible format allows the annotator to clarify euphemisms or unclear phrases, or to update dubious translations with the latest scholarship.

But one study Bible does not have this advantage: the (Oxford) Catholic Study Bible because it is based on the (fixed) NABRE notes. Note that the NABRE has no comment on 1 Samuel 18:27.

--------------------

As another example, consider Daniel 3:92 (in Protestant Bibles and the Masoretic Text, Daniel 3:25). In this verse, Nebuchadnezzar sees the fourth figure in the fire. A traditional translation (D-R-Challoner and KJV) is that the four figure is "like the Son of God," leading to a famous Christological interpretation. However, contemporary critical scholarship usually views the four figure as being an angelic being.

This is a place where a note is genuinely helpful, and reviewing a range of academic study Bibles in my reach, they all address this point. However, the NABRE has no note here, and since the format of the (Oxford) Catholic Study Bible does not allow notes to be added, the point remains unaddressed on the page of the NABRE. (I have to say that I do not see a clear explanation point of this in the old "Reading Guide" notes of the CSB either, although this may simply be a consequence of matching the older translation that the notes were written for.)

I am pleased that some other formats of the NAB (such as the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture) have found ways to effectively annotate (and quite often correct) the English text of the NAB, but the Oxford format does not allow that.

Some readers criticize the NABRE notes for being too critical or too difficult, but I am here criticizing them for being not sufficiently detailed. Once the footnotes are specified, they are fixed and cannot be updated or supplemented until the translation is revised -- and thus they lack an advantage that many other study Bibles have.

Timothy said...

This is again a reminder that Catholics, who want a serious study Bible, that has those textual aids and notes will have to go with a third party study bible. The ecumenical NRSV's are certainly a good option, but it is a real shame that the a group of catholic scholars wouldn't take up the project of creating an NRSV Catholic Study Bible.

Theophrastus said...

Jason: I think the NETS accurately translates the Old Greek text that we have today, but that the text has been corrupted. I will put the technical details below.

---------------------------

Old Greek: καὶ ἐγένετο μεσημβρίᾳ καὶ ἐμυκτήρισεν αὐτοὺς Ηλιου ὁ Θεσβίτης καὶ εἶπεν Ἐπικαλεῖσθε ἐν φωνῇ μεγάλῃ, ὅτι θεός ἐστιν, ὅτι ἀδολεσχία αὐτῷ ἐστιν, καὶ ἅμα μήποτε χρηματίζει αὐτός, ἢ μήποτε καθεύδει αὐτός, καὶ ἐξαναστήσεται.

Masoretic Text: וַיְהִ֨י בַֽצָּהֳרַ֜יִם וַיְהַתֵּ֧ל בָּהֶ֣ם אֵלִיָּ֗הוּ וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ קִרְא֤וּ בְקוֹל־גָּדוֹל֙ כִּֽי־אֱלֹהִ֣ים ה֔וּא כִּ֣י שִׂ֧יחַ וְכִֽי־שִׂ֛יג ל֖וֹ וְכִֽי־דֶ֣רֶךְ ל֑וֹ אוּלַ֛י יָשֵׁ֥ן ה֖וּא וְיִקָֽץ׃

Here שִׂ֧יחַ is translated in the Greek as ἀδολεσχία, and it does indeed mean garrulity, idle talk, and meditation (note that the NETS gives "meditation" as an alternate to "prating.")

Further, שִׂ֛יג is translated in the Greek as χρηματίζει, and indeed, the primary meaning of this is "impart a divine message/warning" (see BDAG or Matthew 2:12, 2:22; Luke 2:26; Acts 10:22; Hebrews 8:5, 8:8, 11:17; etc.)

If we go with the meaning of χρηματίζει as "giving an oracle," then the sense of ἀδολεσχία which contextually makes sense is "garrulously talking" or, more concisely, "prating."

I think the real problem here is that the Old Greek is corrupt here, sense that the original translator intended was closer to the Greek term χρηματίζει (business). If we correct the Old Greek, we can translate as "meditating and doing business" which would more closely match the Masoretic euphemism. But the NETS translator may have felt obligated to respect the Old Greek text as we have it.

CarlHernz said...

Theophrastus has hit on something.

The NABRE rendition is based on a repointing of the Hebrew in 1 Kings. Previously the word in verse 27 read "meditating" or "conversing," but critical analysis has lead to the corrected reading of "dig a hole."

Now if you are confused on how 1 Kings 18:27's "dig a hole" gets turned into "busy doing his business," it's simple:

Jews say things in a very indirect manner. We do this even when we speak Yiddish and Ladino (even English if you are my aunt).

To illustrate, the word "feet" in Biblical Hebrew can mean "genitals." The angelic creatures described in Scripture who are spoken of as covering their "feet" with their wings can also mean they are not naked because their wings acted as clothing.--Isaiah 6:2.

Unless anyone knows the Torah's demand about dealing with human waste, the expression "dig a hole" means little and sounds nothing like what the NABRE ends up with. But just read Deuteronomy 23:13-14:

"Outside the camp you shall have a place set aside where you shall go. You shall keep a trowel in your equipment and, when you go outside to relieve yourself, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement."

Thus "dig a hole" became the normal way to say "doing one's business" (which itself is indirect) even when the need to dig a literal hole no longer existed.

It's no wonder translators have had a hard time rendering Hebrew into other languages. Jews tend to say things by using seemingly unrelated terms, beating around the bush and expecting those hearing to get the meaning out of what we indirectly said to them.--Compare Jesus' words translated from Hebrew/Aramaic in Matthew 26:63-64 with his same reply paraphrased in Greek idiom at Mark 14:61-62.

Anonymous said...


Its very interesting how each translation approaches the Hebrew text.

But, why not choose the most direct and understandable English wording, Like the CEB:

27 At noon, Elijah began making fun of them. “Pray louder!” he said. “Baal must be a god. Maybe he’s day-dreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up.”

Gone to/using the toilet/bathroom, seems IMO to be best.

John Blake.

Eric Barczak said...

(from the crazy ideas department...)

Just a thought... maybe all the references should be pretty explicit? Sex and toilet humor seem to abound in our culture, so having it more explicit may just convince someone to give the good book a try. Seems to me that some areas of the OT are a bit soap opera-ish... maybe that could also get a few casual readers to give it a try?

CarlHernz said...

Tradition and a general mistrust of what some have thought was "too new and radical" has kept this verse from being rendered accurately until the late 20th century.

Some of the older translations were working with the best reading available, namely Hebrew with vowel points set by the Masoretes. As you know Biblical Hebrew uses no vowels, only consonants. It was the scribal tradition of the Masoretes, which came after the time of Christ, which developed and incorporated a vowel system, doing so by introducing a series of dots under letters to indicate how things should be pronounced.

The problem with this is that sometimes scribes didn't really know how to read some of the words. Let's say, using English, that they came across the word BLDG. On the basis of the best evidence and the context they might have added vowel points to make the word read BuiLDinG.

Years later, older manuscripts and similar non-Biblical references to the same event showed the word was actually to be vowel pointed as BulLDoG. The is a big difference between "building" and "bulldog," right? Ooops!

Yet as we are all too aware, people don't like their translations to change much, even in the face of empirical evidence. So it has taken a while for the original Sopherim reading (the scribal tradition prior to the Masoretes) to be re-adopted by the Bible-reading world.

Translations like the CEB are so new that the older Masoretic reading was never even introduced. But the RSV (including the CE 2nd Edition) is a product of a time when the previous vowel pointing was accepted in some quarters, while the more correct one was gaining acceptance. It's not wrong to use "gone aside", per se, and it actually has the same meaning in that somehow the original Sopherim reading was frequently transported with it via Judeo-Christian tradition. But the RSV reading was leaving open the Semitic idiom that also made the Masoretic reading of "meditating" a possibility (going off aside to meditate). Translators have a public to please and sometimes can't go as far as they believe they might need to, so some changes have to creep in over decades of revision.

The newer the translation, the more likely you will read a balance between scribal traditions.

And, like Eric suggested, translation committees are no longer limiting themselves to academic scholars. They often add laypersons who are native speakers to the projects, sometimes as readers, to help give a more precise edge to renditions that non-native scholars just don't possess. This creates a more readily "casual" or "vernacular" feel to translations and may explain why younger people prefer the NABRE, CEB or even the NRSV over older versions.

The change is little, I know. And it may mean that to some because it doesn't change the understanding of the context much, either way. But over the past half-century some 300 or more of these subtle changes have had to be introduced like this in the face of what was learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls and similar ancient texts. After that find no Bible translation or Bible reader could ever be the same again.

Theophrastus said...

Carl, I am reading your comments as being general remarks on the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The particular reading you are suggesting (reading שִׂיחַ as שִׁיחַ) was proposed by G. R. Driver in 1957, as the article by Rendsburg (linked in Tim's post) discusses (see p. 415, second full paragraph, of the Rendsburg article). It does not involve a change in vowelization but reading a sin as a shin.

Driver's re-reading is driven by context; he does not cite a tiqquene sopherim. I am not aware of a DSS/Qumran source for this verse; it is not among the fragments preserved in 5Q2 Kings or 6Q4 papKings.

However, the belief that this verse includes a euphemism for toilet functions dates back at least to medieval Jewish commentators: e.g., both Jonah ibn Janah (c. 1030) and Rashi (1040-1105) explicitly give this interpretation.

CarlHernz said...

You are correct, Theophrastus, in that I was just giving a very general explanation without going into detail.

I have been chastised in the past for speaking beyond generalities, as most people will tell me: "Give it to us in practical terms." So I shy away from doing any more than that at times, especially before anyone who might be an academic.

When working on a historical project some time back, not too few of them made it quite vocal, in no uncertain terms, that to hear such coming from a layperson like myself was ostentatious to the point of insulting, at least to them. Though I don't let that dictate every scenario today, I do tend to tread lightly in discussions.

But you are correct in your references, specifically in your citing Sephardic exegesis.