Saturday, March 27, 2010


When translating the Damascus Document for the Dead Sea Scrolls book I co-authored with MIke Wise and Martin Abegg, I took some pains not simply to translate mechanically the Hebrew words of the text, but to make explicit the nuances of certain enigmatic expressions that were important for a better understanding. One of these expressions is "Shoddy-Wall-Builders," which occurs four times in the Damascus Document (4:19; 8:12, 18; 19:31), and which is a rendition of Hebrew בוני החיץ.

Peter Flint and James VanderKam make generous use of our translation in their popular textbook The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2002). Nevertheless, in their discussion of Qumran history, they refer to this translation of mine as "curious," and they prefer to translate the phrase as "Builders of the Wall." I now want to make explicit the reasoning behind the choice of words I used, and suggest that it is not curious at all, but demanded by the context.

The persons designated as "builders of the wall" in the Document are portrayed as followers of a false teacher and a false law, and as such have earned the displeasure of God. But why are they called "builders of the wall"? It is agreed by all that the phrase is taken from Ezekiel 13:10: "Because, yes, because they have misled my people, saying, Peace, when there is no peace; and because, when one builds a wall (בנה חיץ), they smear whitewash on it." In the original context, the prophet is denouncing false prophets who give as a divine message something out of their own imaginations. Their message is false and unreliable.

The metaphor the prophet uses is of someone who builds a wall, which is then covered with white paint to hide its imperfections. For the metaphor to function properly, in fact, it is necessary that the wall be understood as one that is not solid or well-built. Otherwise, what would be wrong with whitewashing a wall? Note that the JPS translates this part of the verse as "daubing with plaster the flimsy wall which the people were building."

The word used for "wall" reinforces this interpretation. The word חיץ is not the ordinary Hebrew word for a city wall (חומה) or a building wall (קיר) or a fence (גדר). It only appears here in the Hebrew Bible, and in post-Biblical Hebrew, it seems to refer to a light temporary partition. Jastrow defines it as "a pile of loose and uneven material, a rough extemporised embankment, opp[osed] to earth-covered and finished." To build such a wall and then to paint it as if it were a dependable finished structure would be highly irresponsible.

The authors of the Damascus Document knew perfectly well the implications of the phrase. Their opponents were in every way comparable to the false prophets of Ezekiel's time; like them they built up an unreliable body of teaching – a "shoddy wall" – and like them they hid its imperfections (in 8:12 the same group is called "Whitewashers"). They were not "builders of the wall" – an expression that conveys little – but they were "Shoddy-Wall Builders."

BIBLIOGRAPHY: VanderKam, James C., and Peter W. Flint. The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity. San Francisco, Calif: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.

Wise, Michael Owen, Martin G. Abegg, and Edward M. Cook. The Dead Sea scrolls: a new translation. San Francisco: Harper, 1996, rev. ed. 2005.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

An interesting lesson in translation, Ed. On its face, your translation is in fact "curious" to anyone who knows BH but does not notice that (a) "chitz" is an unusual word and a bit odd in context; and (b) looks up "chitz" in a concordance or remembers the verse from Ezekiel.

It is unfortunate that you didn't or couldn't explain your translation in a footnote, so that your insight would have followed your translation into the common treasury of scholarship. If it puzzled scholars like Flint and VanderKam, it will puzzle almost everyone else.

Might a "chitz" not even be a "wall" at all, not even a flimsy one, but a mere divider or partition screen (cf. mechitzah), such that plastering it to give it the appearance of a wall would be ridiculous? To accommodate Jastrow's understanding, a ridge of loose rock or gravel could be heaped up as a "divider" or "separator" to mark a property boundary.

You made me think of another incidence of "tafel," which is better translated "plaster," but idiomatically corresponds to our "whitewash." I suspect that Ezekiel's image of a wall plastered to hide defects is alluded to in Job 6:6,הֲיֵאָכֵל תָּפֵל מִבְּלִי־מֶלַח אִם־יֶשׁ־טַעַם בְּרִיר חַלָּמוּת׃ translated (NRSV)"Can that which is tasteless [תפל] be eaten without salt, or is there any flavor in the juice of mallows?"

Job derisively insists that his interlocutors' theodicy is, in our idiom, "whitewash," to be "taken with a grain of salt," and that their juice of mallows (or dreams, punning on חלומות)is tasteless (or meaningless). Job would not complain if his simple need for meaning were met, "Does the wild ass bray over its grass, or the ox low over its fodder?" but playing on the tastelessness of plaster, he complains that he "can't swallow" their "whitewash."