Monday, January 17, 2005

Translating Ebenezer

One of the loveliest hymns to come out of the First Great Awakening is "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (1758), by Robert Robinson. It contains the lines
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
here by thy great help I've come
When I was growing up in the Southern Baptist church, we always sang it as
Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
Hither by thy help I've come.
I don't know which words are original. The lines always puzzled me, but that's all right. Not every thing said in church has to be comprehensible to a child; in fact, many things said in church should be beyond the grasp of a child.

Later on, when I learned more about the Bible, I realized that Robinson was referring to the story of Israel's victory in I Sam. 7:12: "Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Eben-ezer, saying, Hitherto hath the LORD helped us." In the biblical/Israelite context, "Eben-ezer" (Hebrew אבן העזר, eben ha-ezer, "stone of help") is a victory stele; in the context of Robinson's verse, "Eben-ezer" is the poem itself, which commemorates God's grace.

However, the reference is now apparently deemed too obscure for today's congregations. The line "here I raise mine Ebenezer" is variously changed to:
Here I find my greatest treasure

Here I pause in my sojourning

This my glad commemoration
Only the last preserves an echo of Robinson's original meaning. It's too bad that biblical literacy has declined to the point that a scriptural metaphor is written out of the hymnbooks.

It's also interesting to check back and see how the ancient versions dealt with Hebrew eben ha-ezer.
  • The Septuagint both transliterates Αβενεζερ and translates it λίθος τοῦ βοηθοῦ, "stone of the helper."
  • Jerome just translates as lapis adiutorii, "stone of help" ("stone of the helper" would presumably have been lapis adiutoris).
  • The Targum translates as does the Septuagint אַבַן סָעְדָא, aban sa'ada "stone of the helper," vocalized as a participle. The Aramaic Bible volume by Harrington & Saldarini, by the way, mistranslates the targum as "stone of help."
  • The Peshitta translates as kepha d'udrana, "stone of help."

BIBLIOGRAPHY: The full text of the hymn as well as a MIDI file of the tune most often used with it ("Nettleton," by John Wyeth) can be found here and here. D. J. Harrington and A. J. Saldarini, Targum Jonathan of the Former Prophets (Aramaic Bible vol. 10; Wilmington, 1987) must be used with great caution; it contains many inaccuracies.

UPDATE: The connection of this post with Martin Luther King Day is so subtle, I have been advised to make it explicit. MLK began his ministry at his father's church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ralph Luker writes:
As we look to the new millennium, King would wish for us an Ebenezer, a stone of help, a "beloved community." There, rather than exploiting each other, modest folk make modest sacrifices to help each other along the way, like the cleaning lady who gave her mite during the Depression to save the church from foreclosure or those who walked rather than ride a segregated bus in service to the common good. "Here I raise mine Ebenezer," I can hear them sing:

Hither by thy help I've come;
And I hope, by thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Read the whole thing.

UPDATE (1/18): I've continued to look at this verse and there's even more of interest in it than I at first thought.

First of all, I notice that the Old Latin, as quoted in Augustine, City of God, reads with the Septuagint (and Targum) "stone of the helper":
Assumpsit lapidem unum et statuit illum inter Massephat novam et veterem, et vocavit nomen eius Abennezer, quod est latine Lapis adiutoris, et dixit: Usque hoc adiuvit nos Dominus.... Lapis ille adiutoris medietas est Salvatoris.

He took one stone and set it up between the old and new Massephat [Mizpeh], and called its name Ebenezer, which means "the stone of the helper," and said, "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us." ... That stone of the helper is the mediation of the Saviour.

Second, the OL Massephat novam et veterem, "old and new Massephat," is based on the LXX ἀνὰ μέσον Μασσηφαθ καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον τῆς παλαιᾶς, "between Massephat and the old [city?]." This implies that the Greek translator, instead of השׁן, "ha-Shen," had something like ישׁנה, "Jeshanah" (which looks like the word for "old"), and that is in fact what the NRSV has: "between Mizpah and Jeshanah."

Third, I find that two major reference works have made mistakes about this verse. First of all, HALOT (the new Koehler Baumgartner) refers (s.v. שׁן II) to the Peshitta reading for the place name as bet yashan, which implies an original "Jeshanah," with the LXX and OL. Their inference is correct, but they misstate the evidence: the consonants byt in the Peshitta are not part of the place name but are the Syriac word "between." The text reads beit Mispya le-beit y-sh-n, "between Mizpeh and between Y-sh-n." (The BHS apparatus gets this right.)

Also, in the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on "Jeshanah," we read that I Sam 7:12 should "read 'Jeshanah' on the basis of the Targum, which has y-sh-n." As we have seen, it is the Peshitta that supports that reading, not the Targum, which reads with the Masoretic text.

One of my professors at Fuller, W. S. LaSor, used to tell us all the time: "Anyone can make a mistake, even major scholars. If it's important, check it for yourself." Guess he was right.


Tim Bulkeley said...

Fascinating where you can get to when starting from one line of an old favourite hymn! This was really interesting. (BTW in Wales, and England but less so, many Baptist Churches are called "Ebenezer Baptist Church" rather than the more usual naming after a location "Cemetry Road Baptist Church" or a locality "Stow-on-the-Wold Baptist Church". I do not know why, but the dates of foundation for the ones I was most familiar with would be in the century following the writing of the hymn, with matbe a few before that...

EMC said...

That's quite interesting; the study of church naming conventions might uncover a lot of fascinating connections. Has it been done?

Glad you enjoyed the post.

Rebecca Stark said...

Very interesting.

I wonder if you'd consider entering this article in this week's Christian Carnival? The dead line is this evening, but if you think you'd like to, here's the info:

The next Christian Carnival will be hosted at Sidesspot, and submissions are now open. 
First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are political (or otherwise) in nature from a Christian point of view. If you are looking for posting ideas, you might want to consider that the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision is January 22. Another topic might be to consider how Christians of different denominations can put into practice Christ's admonition that we love one another--what does this mean in real life, what impact could it have on nonbelievers if we did this? How Christians can help foster a sense of community in their neighborhoods is another topic.
Second, please send only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival. Then, email me at the following address (and please put "Christian Carnival Entry" in your subject line):

Provide the following:

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Deadline is 10 p.m. Central, Tuesday, January 18

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Jeremy Pierce said...

It's a scriptural metaphor, but it's one that relies on knowing the Hebrew word. Simply knowing the passage isn't sufficient.

Cheryl said...

You can find all 5 verses of the original poem on wikipedia at:

Anonymous said...

Well, I think the real problem (and yes, not knowing that "Ebenezer" translates to "Stone of Help" is part of the difficulty) is, as noted by the author, that we don't remember the Biblical account of the LORD's battle against the Philistines under Samuel (I Samuel 7).

I mean, who thinks of Samuel as a general or warrior? He's first a sweet & beloved only child, given to the LORD by his redeemed mother, and then a prophet, a preacher, and/or a traveling evangelist in our minds. Spiritual power, sure; physical prowess? We don't attribute this to Samuel.

I think in light of this passage, and also the account of Samuel in I Sam. 15, (in his old age, no less):

32 Then Samuel said, "Bring me Agag king of the Amalekites."
Agag came to him confidently, thinking, "Surely the bitterness of death is past."

33 But Samuel said,
"As your sword has made women childless,
so will your mother be childless among women."
And Samuel put Agag to death before the LORD at Gilgal.

--- we fail to see Samuel as a warrior, a king figure, a real man --- as exemplified by the LORD Himself, not only as God the Father, but also as Jesus Himself showed Himself a man. He picked up a sword and killed the mightiest warrior of Amalek. If we thought of Samuel in this way, then we might tend to remember the story of the victory under Samuel in chapter 7, and the raising of the Ebenezer stone might well be remembered by a larger number of contemporary believers.

Or so we could hope. At any rate, I love the text of the old hymn, although I object to the weak treatment it generally gets when performed at a "old school" church and would prefer not to hear it done badly. Of course, that's just a preference; our LORD doesn't need a great performance to meet us in worship, as I was reminded this morning in a church service that was decidedly "old school", not well played, drug to death, etc. But He is still God....