Monday, January 10, 2005

William Safire on Job 13:15

William Safire is always worth a read, no matter what his opinions are. And today is no different; he takes up the question of the tsunamis and theodicy, a topic already dealt with, glancingly, on "Ralph."

I'll let you read the whole thing for yourself; but he does say one thing that needs correction:
Job's famous expression of meek acceptance in the 1611 King James Version - "though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" - was a blatant misreading by nervous translators. Modern scholarship offers a much different translation: "He may slay me, I'll not quaver."
The reference is to Job 13:15, which reads in the Masoretic text: הן יקטלני לא איחל, which looks like it should mean "behold, he will slay me, I have no hope"--which is pretty much what most of the modern translations say, in their various ways (e.g., the NRSV, JPS, etc.). So was Safire right, was it the King James translators who couldn't face up to the reality of the text?

Actually there is a Ketiv/Qere alternation in this verse: the Ketiv, the written text, does read as I described it above; but the Qere, the text as read, has לו ("to him") for לא ("no, not") so that the sentence reads, הן יקטלני לו איחל, "behold (or if) he kills me, I will hope in him." Now: who was it who lost their nerve? Was it the Masoretes? The apparatus in BHS reads "mlt Mss Vrs ut Q" = "many manuscripts and versions read as the Qere" – including the Vulgate, Targum, and Peshitta. This suggests that the reading may have been ancient.

The modern consensus seems to be to reject the Qere and accept the Ketiv; only the NIV among modern versions reads with the Qere. But maybe the more popular choice reflects the prevailing mood, which is more questioning. Can one really say that this choice between ancient alternatives is the product of "modern scholarship" – or modern sensibilities? In any case, the KJV translators are innocent.

One final question: Where does Safire get "quaver" for the verb יחל?!

UPDATE: Bruce Zuckerman e-mails that the source of Safire's translation is Marvin Pope's rendering in the Anchor Bible commentary series. Bruce says, "At least we know what Job text Safire reaches for first!" I presume that Pope (who does not explain his rendering in my edition of the commentary) emended the text on the basis of the root חיל, "to writhe, tremble, shake."

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