The meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain…

Posted: 9th February 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

In a twisted sort of way, one of my favorite Bible text annotations is the footnote that says, “Hb. obscure” or “The meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.” Invariably this prompts a massive emptying of my bookshelf as I consult each Bible translation in turn, looking to see how they’ve handled this hard nugget of text. It’s fascinating to see how different translation teams come up with different solutions, based on either different textual sources or different interpretations of the contextual scripture.

dew.jpgI came across such an annotation this morning in my reading of Psalm 110:3b, where the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) reads:

In holy splendor, from the womb of the dawn,
the dew of Your youth belongs to You.

I was particularly struck by the HCSB’s rendering of the striking imagery of “the womb of dawn”, but especially the alliterative connection between lines: “the womb of the dawn / the dew of Your youth”. It’s this turn of phrase, this type of poetical phrasing that makes an English translation outstanding and beautiful.

Both images can be understood. The “womb of the dawn” referring the start of the day, “the dew of Your youth” is the freshness of life. Dew comes at the start of each day, the womb of dawn. Freshness, strength and vigor come in the youth of life. God is assuring the poet that on the day of battle (Ps. 110:3a), he will have the vigor and freshness of his youth to sustain him and his efforts.

Because the annotation suggested this phrase was uncertain, I consulted several other translations:

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

From the womb of the morning,
like dew, your youth will come to you.

English Standard Version (ESV):

from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours.

Today’s New International Version (TNIV):

Arrayed in holy splendor,
your young men will come to you
like dew from the morning’s womb.

New Living Translation (NLT):

You are arrayed in holy garments,
and your strength will be renewed each day like the morning dew.

Revised English Bible (REB):

Arrayed in holy garments, a child of the dawn,
you have the dew of your youth.

King James’ Version (KJV):

in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning:
thou hast the dew of thy youth.

JPS Tanakh Translation:

In majestic holiness, from the womb,
from the dawn, yours was the dew of youth.

Sadly, almost every other translation uses “morning” instead of “dawn” (the REB and Tanakh excepted). Now, “morning” is almost certainly a valid word choice, but doesn’t “the womb of dawn” just have an extra bit of elegance? I think so.

Morning is a generic term that can mean anything before noon. Dawn is specific, the hours just before full daylight, when dew glistens and the sun’s rays begin spreading across the sky in glorious colors. The womb of dawn is the unfolding of the day, the flowers that open and spread their petals to grasp the sun and the freshening dew.

Just this specific word choice adds semantic strength to the translation. Where the HCSB shines even over the REB and Tanakh is its syntactic word flow, the alliteration, the poetical repetition.

To be fair, the REB achieves a bit of this with its “child of dawn / […] dew of your youth” rendering — if the REB had phrased it “… a child of the dawn / the dew of your youth is yours”, then it would be similar, though I still prefer the HCSB’s word choices of the uncertain Hebrew.

  1. Very interesting, ElShaddai! Thanks for the rundown of translations, which was particularly enlightening.

    I suppose that I haven’t paid much attention to this particular verse in contemporary translations from the Hebrew text because it is significantly different in the Septuagint (which as you know is the canonical text of my Church): “With thee is dominion in the day of thy power, in the midst of the splendour of thy saints; from the womb, before the Morning-star, have I begotten thee.” This is most often heard at Christmastime, since patristic and liturgical exegesis reads this Messianically.

  2. Andrew says:

    Excellent post. Generally speaking, how does the HCSB compare to other Bibles in terms of “literary” quality? Is this just a particular line that they translated particularly nicely, or do they consistently strive for this sort of thing?

  3. Ron says:

    ElShaddai,

    Thanks for your enthusiasm and love of the HCSB! I’ve read several translations in the past 3 to 4 years and the HCSB is my favorite as well! It is the translation that just ‘speaks’ to me when I read it. As I have said previously, I am not skilled in original languages, but I love the accuracy and the beauty of it.

    Ron

  4. Will says:

    ElShaddai, once again you’ve nailed one of the many reasons I love the CSB. When Tim Challies wrote his recent article on the beauty of the language of the ESV, I was shocked! I thought that there was no way he could possibly have read the CSB and come to the conclusion that the ESV’s awkward word and syntax choices were anything close to the CSB’s.

    Andrew, my own opinion of the CSB’s literary quality is that it far surpasses any other translation I have ever read. There are some strange choices here and there, but overall, they have done a marvelous job reflecting the beauty of many of the poetic sections of Scripture.

  5. tc says:

    Elshaddi,

    The CSB is the winner here on a rather obscure text. The NIV is quite familiar with

    “Arrayed in holy majesty,
    from the womb of the dawn
    you will receive the dew of your youth” (Ps 110:3b)

    I couldn’t help noticing that the TNIV has adopted the footnote of the NIV in the text.

  6. tc says:

    Will,

    I’m Reformed, the blinded bias of ESV lovers, I really cannot understand. It seems like Reformed guys are going out there way to support this version while overlooking its weaknesses.

    Though I would recommend the ESV over the NASB, I still prefer the NIV/TNIV, HCSB and the NET.

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    Interesting that you respond in this way to this footnote! I must say I find it extremely unhelpful, and I think most readers share that opinion. It’s like the translators abdicating responsibility.

  8. @Peter: Thanks for the response. Given that the HCSB, TNIV, ESV and Tanakh translations all include a “Hebrew is uncertain” footnote in this verse, your condemnation is broad. The NRSV helpfully cited the alternate text that “tc” mentioned, while the NLT and REB had no footnote. I had only an electronic KJV, so I’m not sure what they’ve noted, if anything.

    @Esteban: thank you for posting the Septuagint translation. That’s a fascinating difference between the two.

    @Andrew: I generally prefer the REB for “literary quality”, but the HCSB has some nice turns of phrase as well. Ironically, in my opinion, they’ve got a bit of a poetic clunker in the first half of this verse (110:3a):

    Your people will volunteer on Your day of battle.

  9. Nathan says:

    Very interesting comments. I thought I’d add two more translations:

    New English Translation of Septuagint (NETS):

    “With you is* rule on a day of your power among the splendors of the holy ones.
    From the womb, before Morning-star, I brought you forth.

    *or be”

    New Jerusalem Bible:

    “Royal* dignity has been yours from the day of your birth,
    sacred honour from the womb, from the dawn of your youth.

    *Conjectural translation of a textually corrupt and obscure v.”

  10. Thanks, Nathan. I really like the twin parallelisms of the New Jerusalem’s translation, between “royal dignity / sacred honor” and “day of your birth / dawn of your youth”. That’s well done!

  11. Nathan says:

    The NJB is one of my favorite translations for the OT. I much prefer it’s use of Yahweh for the sacred name to the more generic sounding the LORD that is in common use. Also, it reads fairly comfortably and compares closely to the NIV as best I can tell. However it does sometimes read more smoothly, or poetically. I also appreciate that it has the extra books from the RC canon.

    One last thing… Is it me or do you think perhaps the NJB translation sort of reconciles the opposing meanings of the hebrew and greek for this passage? It seems to use the vocabulary of the hebrew, but the meaning could be taken as messianic perhaps. I showed your blog entry to my pastor and that was our observation after discussing your post and the comments.

  12. I used to have a leather NJB and loved the OT for many of the same reasons; I wasn’t so sure about the NT. I should find a text-only hardback for my shelf. I’m looking forward to the increased used of “Yahweh” in the CSB update next year too!

    I haven’t had a chance to really look at the variants yet, but your hypothesis makes some sense.

  13. Nathan says:

    To be honest I’ve only spent a few hours reading the NT so I can’t really comment there. Most of my reading has been limited to the Psalms, pentateuch, and comparisons of specific passages with my other versions. If you want a nice text-only hardback I’d recommend the one which I purchased. It’s a smallish 8x6x1.5 inches and a great reference for me. Only $15 new on Amazon, it’s ISBN is 0385493207.

  14. Of course, the one translation I failed to note has an interesting approach as well:

    Psalm 110:3 (New English Bible) — “At birth you were endowed with princely gifts and resplendent in holiness. / You have shone with the dew of youth since your mother bore you.”

    Here the poetic structure is ABBA. I like how it retains “the dew of youth” as a metaphor, though “the womb of dawn” has been translated into more direct birth language.