A Brief Word About the Translation
I have always wanted to produce my own translations of and notes on the Biblical text. I love the original languages of scripture and I love talking about the original languages of scripture. I also love critiquing Bible translations. This is a fun thing to do generally, but it becomes significantly less fun when I am now producing my own translation and publishing it for all to see. And thus opening myself up to potential criticisms of the same character that I have given. “Judge not that you be not judged” comes now to my mind. But I have produced this translation as an effort in my own study for my sermon series on the 10 commandments (as I have often done for other things I have preached though I have not published them publicly like this until now). I decided I would open myself to criticism and publish my translation with the accompanying notes in hopes that they might be of benefit to someone somewhere, but especially to the members of my own congregation at the present moment, the Bastrop Church of Christ. May it be a blessing especially to them, but also to any others who might find their way to this post. Welcome all. To God be the Story!
I make a few notes of the general style and tone of the translation before I present the translation itself. First, this is my own original work. If I am substantially indebted to a previous translation I have striven to make mention of that in the notations.1In addition to the standard committee translations I referred to Alter’s and Goldingay’s translations of the Hebrew Bible. I also acknowledge fully that I am by no means the most qualified to do this kind of work. My only real credential is a year or so of Biblical Hebrew classes in seminary and a love for the language. That being said, I am open to honest, helpful, constructive criticism from more qualified individuals than myself. Second, though the translation is intended for a general audience the notes are noticeably more scholastic in nature. This is purposeful on my part. I wanted the notes to justify and explain the translation choices I made to those who might themselves be engaging with the original languages. In a similar vein, I also hoped that the notes may help to bring out some of the original flavor of the text in the Hebrew that is inevitably lost in translation. Third, in order to make the translation more readable and less confusing I have not retained the verse numbering system usually deployed in Bible translation. On a purely pragmatic level I left them out because they clashed with the numbered footnotes. On a more preferential level I left them out because I have always been frustrated by their intrusion into Bible reading in my own private devotions. In my opinion they often do more harm than good when we are reading the text of the Bible. Their only real purpose is for referencing, but even this is troublesome if we reference a verse in isolation from its broader context. Fourth, though I have not retained the conventional numbering of verses, I have tried to pay special attention to the use of titles and structuring of the translation because I think this is in fact a part of the effort of translation. The method and mode of depicting the text are inseparable from the message of the text. I have sought also, then, to make explanations of these structural efforts in the notations. Fifth and finally, I will be releasing this translation in parts to correspond to my sermon series. As I preach each of the words/commands I will post the corresponding passage from the text on the Friday before I preach on that word/command on Sunday.
The 10 Words2Though these special words are often referred to as the “10 Commandments” they are neither numbered nor called commandments in the text itself. They are only ever called “words” (Hebrew haddᵉḇārim) in Exodus 20. They are called “10 words” elsewhere in scripture (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4) though modern translations sadly distort this by translating it as “10 commandments” and including a footnote explaining that the Hebrew does not actually say “commandments,” but “words.” I have decided to title this translation of Exodus 20:1-17 as “the 10 words” though the text here does not indicate 10 nor number them as such because though it does not explicitly state it here it is assumed that this is in fact the original scriptural location of those 10 words. Scholars tend to use the term “Decalogue” instead which just means “10 words.”
And God spoke all these words,3The organization of the 10 words is debated amongst various religious groups. Catholics/Lutherans, Protestants, and Jews all number the words slightly differently. This translation organizes the words according to the typical protestant understanding. For a breakdown of the various views see my blog post “The 12 Commandments.“
“I am Yahweh4Most English translations use “LORD” (all capital letters) to represent the divine name. This is based on Jewish tradition of avoiding the pronunciation of the divine name. The Hebrew construction is not certain, but the best reconstruction of the pronunciation is Yahweh. This translation will follow that assumption. The benefits of doing so are many, but the most important immediate benefit for this translation is a better appreciation of the fact that this is God’s name and not a title. Hence phrases like “the LORD your God” make more sense and sound less redundant. your God who brought you from the land of Mizraim5In other words “Egypt.” The Hebrew here is transliterated to preserve some of the original flavor. Ancient Jews would not have known a term like “Egypt.”, from the house of slaves.6The structure here intends to show that this first part is a prologue of sorts to the ten words. This is in keeping with protestant tradition for the numbering of the words. Jewish tradition would take this sentence to be the actual first word. Catholic and Lutheran tradition would take this to be part of the first word in conjunction with the following two sentences. For more on the different numbering of the words see my blog post “The 12 Commandments.”
You shall not have any other gods7Strictly speaking, the early Israelites were not monotheists, but either henotheists or monolatrous. Henotheism is the belief in and worship of One god as one’s or one’s nation’s own without the denial that others can worship a different god or gods. Monolatry is the recognition of the existence of many gods, but the consistent and ardent worship of only one. This is indicated in the Hebrew where the particle [ꜥal] is here translated as “above.” That is, though the Israelites may believe in the existence of more gods than just Yahweh they are not to conceive of any of those other gods as being higher on the divine food chain nor having more power than Yahweh. One could argue then that despite the Catholic and Jewish numbering of the words that this is distinctly the first word in separation from the prohibition against bowing before idols because it is prohibiting certain conceptions of Yahweh. The next word then would be the prohibition against bowing before idols because it takes the logical next step building on the first commandment and prohibits certain actions of worship apart from Yahweh. above me.8Robert Alter mentions in a footnote for his translation of the Hebrew Bible that the literal meaning of this Hebrew phrase [ꜥal-pānāya] is more like “upon my face” than “beside/above me.” He notes that Abraham ibn Ezra observes that this same Hebrew idiom is used in Genesis 11:28 where it says “Haran dies in the lifetime of [ꜥal-pᵉnē] Terah his father.” Thus as Alter notes based on Abraham ibn Ezra’s observation the sense is that God’s lifetime is eternal and thus to have any other gods alongside of him is to infringe on his space and lifetime obtrusively. In other words, Yahweh is (“I will be who I will be” – Ex. 3:14) and therefore there is no place that any so-called god could exist that would not be in Yahweh’s presence and thus an insult to his person.
You shall not make for yourselves an idol; not in the form of anything that is in the heavens9The Hebrew [baššāmayim] is plural as it often is when describing the “heavens.” This is perhaps in part due to the so-called plural of complexity which posits that the heavens are by nature a complex reality and thus would be too constricted by being called simply “heaven” (singular). above, nor of anything in the land below, nor of anything in the waters below the land. You shall not bow down to them nor shall you work for them because I am Yahweh your God – a jealous god – counting a sin of those who hate me, of fathers against sons against thirds against fourths. And making10In usual translation this verb is translated as something like “show,” but the Hebrew root [ꜥśh] is the same as the word used above to describe “making” idols. There is a fundamental choice here then: we can make for ourselves idols or we can be the recipients of a profound loving which God makes upon us. The imagery is unmistakably sexual in overtone. profound love11The Hebrew [ḥeseḏ] is notorious for escaping a precise translation equivalent into English. Various proposals have been made (lovingkindness, steadfast love, loyal love, covenantal love, et al), but I chose to go for a more idiomatic translation in order to pair with the verb “make” so that the implication is still overtly sexual. In other words to keep the idea of “making love” intact with innuendo, but adding the adjective “profound” as a descriptor to indicate some of the extravagant flavor of this particular kind of love. to those who love me and tend12The only other occurrence of this verb in the Torah prior to this passage is in Genesis 2:15 where the adam is placed in the garden to till it and to tend it. Apparently, one tends to the commands of Yahweh as one would tend to a garden. This metaphor is fundamentally one of the natural and horticultural realm. This is connection is often lost in translations, but I have attempted to preserve somewhat of a connection to this Genesis passage by my translation. my commandments to the thousandth.