The First Testament: A New Translation

Written by John Goldingay Reviewed By Miles V. Van Pelt

The translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Old Testament is a tradition that reaches back over two thousand years. In the two centuries that led up to the birth of Christ, the Old Testament was being translated and retranslated into Greek as more and more of God’s people were speaking Greek. The translation of the Old Testament into English has been a work in progress for approximately 600 years, beginning with men like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and Miles Coverdale, once again providing first-hand access to God’s word for those people who could not read Hebrew. Goldingay’s translation of the Old or “First” Testament continues this tradition, with his conviction that the Old Testament is “hugely significant for Christian faith” (p. vii). This translation is an adaptation of Goldingay’s translation work in a series of commentaries entitled The Old Testament for Everyone (Westminster John Know Press).

The book that includes this translation is over 900 pages in length, with a preface (pp. vii–ix), a brief introduction to the Old Testament (pp. xi–xiv), maps (pp. xv–xvii), single-page introductions before the translation of each individual book, and a helpful glossary located at the back of the volume. The layout and design are well done. There are no footnotes, but there are interpretive headings that appear throughout the translation and occasional maps where that information is significant for understanding the narrative.

In terms of audience, Goldingay “had in mind people who are familiar with some standard translations but might appreciate something a bit different” (p. vii, emphasis mine). When evaluating the translation of any ancient text, it is important to understand both the limits of a translated work and the principles guiding the translation itself. Every translation work, but especially translations of ancient texts into modern languages, will inevitably lose something in the translation process. When translating something like the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, it is not simply a matter of translating words from Hebrew to English. It also includes decisions regarding grammar and syntax, culture and worldview, all coming through the translator’s own system of grammar, syntax, culture, and worldview. This is why every translation will represent, at least at some level, the translator’s interpretation of that text. In other words, all translations are also interpretations, but especially those of a single translator. Goldingay wisely understands these limitations and expresses it well. “All translations are more or less accurate, but producing a faithful equivalent of any piece of writing in another language is an impossible undertaking; all approaches involve compromise. Translations thus have varying strengths and weaknesses according to the way they choose to prioritize the principles of translation” (p. vii, emphasis mine). Because of this, we will first consider the principles of translation employed by Goldingay. Then, we will review a sample of his translation work from Genesis 1–3 in light of those principles.

1. Principles of Translation

In the preface (pp. vii-ix), Goldingay identifies nine basic principles that guided his translation work. We will summarize and assess each in turn.

(1) As much as possible, this translation strives to translate word-for-word rather than sentence-for-sentence, at least to the degree that it is possible when translating Hebrew into English. There are at least three important consequences related to this approach. First, the English translation might feel a bit awkward at times, in order to better preserve or display the look and feel of the original Hebrew. Second, the word-for-word principle makes it better suited for study and careful reading than for public reading. Third, gender specific language is preserved when the Hebrew text uses gender specific language. This first principle makes perfect sense in light of the fact that Goldingay desires to provide something “a bit different” to people already familiar with the Bible.

(2) The second stated principle of translation is to work with the “traditional Hebrew text rather than emending it” (p. vii). This is a commendable principle. Emendation of a text constitutes a further step in the interpretation of that text. In this translation, Goldingay lets the Hebrew text stand as it appears and works hard to make sense of that text, even if it remains slightly enigmatic in the final translation.

(3) This translation uses everyday English, employs contractions (e.g., “I’ll” for “I will”), and avoids traditional or standard English translations for words like “salvation, holiness, eternity, covenant, justice and righteousness, where these translations don’t correspond well to the Hebrew words and/or where the English words are misleading when used to translate Hebrew words that have different connotations” (p. viii). For example, in Genesis 9:9, the “covenant” (ESV/NIV) with Noah is rendered with the English word “pact.” In Genesis 15:6, the “righteousness” credited to Abraham for his faith is rendered by Goldingay as “faithfulness.” The use of everyday English and a relaxed style makes this translation approachable. The avoidance of traditional English translations for certain high profile words corresponds with the goal to provide something different for readers. These alternate translations represent the interpretive choice of the translator, and so readers will want to consider carefully the choices made and the theological implications of those choices.

(4) For poetry, this translation lays out the poetic lines (by subordination with indentation) in the way that Goldingay thinks the poetry works. This is a fine convention as long as readers understand that poetic lineation is a form of interpretation, and there may be more than one way to arrange or group poetic lines. Additionally, some of the poetry in the Hebrew Old Testament is already displayed in lines of text, and so it would be helpful to know when translations depart from the layout in the Hebrew manuscripts.

(5) This translation “tries to use the same English word to translate any one Hebrew word, so that one can see points of connection between texts” (p. viii). For example, there is a verb in Hebrew (עבד) that can mean “to work,” “to serve,” or “to worship” depending on the context in which it appears. We might “work the ground” or “serve the king” or “worship God.” The precise translation of the verb depends on the nature of the verb’s object. We don’t want to “worship the ground!” The convention employed in this translation allows readers to track key words and themes that may be missed in more nuanced translations. The risk, however, is that the translation might feel a bit awkward or overly repetitive. The authors of the Hebrew Old Testament understood that their words had a range of meaning and used them with that range in mind. In this translation, readers will see the word, but they will need to work to understand the range of meaning in each particular context.

(6) In this translation, the personal name of God is rendered as “Yahweh” rather than replacing it with the titles “the Lord” or “God.” This decision has a major impact on the translation, since God’s personal name is the most frequently occurring name in the Old Testament, appearing 6,828 times! By way of comparison, the name “Israel” is a distant second with only 2,507 occurrences. This rendering of the divine name better highlights the personal connection its use was originally intended to signify. In Exodus 3, we are instructed that God’s name comes in the context of the promise of his presence, “I will be with you.” In fact, his name is derived from that very expression. As such, the use of God’s personal name in this translation does what it was intended to do. It provokes a more personal, intimate connection with the one who has revealed himself to us in the Old Testament.

(7) In this translation, certain proper names are followed by bracketed translations when their meaning may have been significant to the original audience. For example, the name Noah is followed by the bracketed rendering [‘Settling Down’], and the name Adam is followed by [‘Human Being’]. Additionally, when there is a play on words in the Hebrew text that does not come across into English, this translation identifies them with brackets, “This one will be called Woman [ishah], because from a man [ish] this one was taken” (Gen 2:23). This is certainly an interesting and helpful convention for readers, especially for those who would use this translation as a study tool in conjunction with one or more of the other standard translations.

(8) This translation has endeavored to use more precise transliterations for Hebrew names. Goldingay has observed that the translation of the Old Testament into Greek and then into Latin left us with spellings like Moses for מֹשֶׁה, Jerusalem for יְרוּשָׁלִַם, or Isaiah for יְשַׁעְיָהוּ. The goal of this convention is to allow readers to more closely approximate the original pronunciation of these names. In order to avoid any potential confusion, he sometimes adds the more familiar English translation in brackets, as in “Misrayim [Egypt]” or “Ya’aqob [Jacob].” Again, this convention will appeal to readers who would use this translation as a study tool in conjunction with one or more of the other standard translations.

(9) Finally, and related to the previous point, this translation preserves the variety of spelling differences that appear with some proper names, such as those for Hezekiah, whose name appears in three different forms: Hizqiyyahu, Hizqiyyah, and Yehizqiyyahu. This is similar to our modern day renderings for certain names in English such as Daniel, Dan, and Danny. In order to avoid any potential confusion, the standard English name is regularly supplied in brackets following the transliterated rendering.

2. Evaluating the Translation of Genesis 1–3

Having described and explained the principles of translation employed by Goldingay in his translation of the Old Testament, it will be helpful to selectively survey a small, but well-known portion of Scripture.

Genesis 1:1–2

At the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, when the earth was an empty void, with darkness over the face of the deep, and God’s breath sweeping over the face of the water.

These first two verses represent a challenge for any translator. We will make three observations here. First, the rendering “At the beginning of God’s creating” constitutes Goldingay’s choice not to follow the traditional Hebrew text, but rather to follow an alternative rendering. A literal, more word-for-word translation (point 1 above) would be, “In a beginning, God created.” For some reason, translators and translations stumble all over what is basic Hebrew in Genesis 1:1. While the interpretation may be a challenge, the translation is really very simple.

Second, “empty void” represents a translation of two nouns joined by the Hebrew word for “and,” as in “formless and empty” (NIV) or “without form and void” (ESV). The translation of this Hebrew construction by an adjective followed by a noun is certainly legitimate. The difficulty is that the translation “empty void” misses the formlessness denoted by the first noun in the pairing, so a better translation would be something like “formless void.” The significance of capturing the formless and empty nature of the description in Hebrew helps us understand the nature of the days that follow. Days one through three address the “formless” problem, and days four through six address the “empty problem.”

Third, the rendering of “God’s breath” for the more traditional “Spirit of God” diminishes what might be considered an explicit reference to the role of the Spirit of God in creation. This translation highlights the fact that every translation is an interpretation. Additionally, this same word for “Spirit, breath” appears in Gen 3:8 where it is rendered “breezy time.” This seems to violate translation principle 5 above where the same English word should be used to translate any one Hebrew word in order to make important connections in the text. As such, according to this principle, the translation in Gen 3:8 should read “the breath of the day” or “the day’s breath.”

Genesis 1:5b

And there was evening and there was morning, day one.

The translation “day one” provides a better, more accurate translation of the Hebrew text than most modern translations, which render the text, “the first day” (cf. NIV, ESV, NET, and the older KJV). The labeling of the days of creation in Genesis 1 are as follows: day one, a second day, a third day, a fourth day, a fifth day, the sixth day, the seventh day. This numbering scheme is designed to highlight days six and seven, but most modern translation bleach out this distinction with a desire to highlight the absolute sequencing of the days. Goldingay’s translation provides the accurate rendering of the numbering scheme for each of the creation days. Like Genesis 1:1, the translation is not complicated. It is the interpretation that will provide readers with a challenge. With translations like this one, English Bible readers will have an accurate resource for the challenges of careful interpretation.

Genesis 1:26a

God said, “Let’s make human beings in our image.”

The word translated as “human beings” is the well-known Hebrew word אָדָם. This Hebrew word can be rendered as the proper name “Adam,” as a general designation for humanity or “human beings” as we have here, or simply as “man” with the nuance of male gender. This particular word appears twenty-six times in Genesis 1–3, and all three uses are signified. This makes translation a challenge, especially if you desire consistency in translation as stated in translation principle 5 above. In chapters 1 and 2, the rendering “human being” is the most common. Two times in 2:7, the translation is “human person” and in 2:25 we encounter the translation “the man.” In chapter 3, the most common translation shifts to “the man,” with the personal name “Adam” appearing in 3:17 and 3:21. It is an interesting exercise to compare translations and track the rendering of the personal name “Adam.” Each translation will differ to a greater or lesser degrees. This particular challenge demonstrates the difficulty of Bible translation and the fact that strict adherence to any one principle of translation is virtually impossible. Goldingay was correct when he stated in the preface, “All translations are more or less accurate, but producing a faithful equivalent of any piece of writing in another language is an impossible undertaking” (p. vii).

Genesis 2:4b

When Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens.

In Gen 2:4b, the personal name for God appears for the first time in the Old Testament. Goldingay has determined to translate God’s name as “Yahweh” instead of the more traditional rendering, “the Lord.” Some may object, but this is an excellent convention that highlights the personal, covenantal name of God.

We also observe that the translation “When” renders the Hebrew text appearing with the noun “day,” literally, “On the day Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens.” Goldingay’s translation is not uncommon (cf. NIV, NET), but it is likely not correct. The argument from Hebrew grammar we will set aside, simply to observe more practically that the noun “day” represents an important and key word in the narratives of Genesis 1–3 (cf. 2:17; 3:5, 8, 14, 17). Additionally, this same construction appears in Gen 2:17 and is rendered by Goldingay as “on the day you eat from it” (emphasis mine).

Genesis 2:7a

Yahweh God shaped a human person [adam] with earth from the ground [adamah].

In this translation, the bracketed transliterations of the Hebrew text, adam and adamah, illustrate the play on words and the close connection between the words translated “human person” and “ground.” This is a helpful convention that allows reader to see significant connections in the Hebrew text that are necessarily lost in translation.

Genesis 2:8

Yahweh God planted a garden in Eden [‘Lavishness’], in the east, and put there the human being he had shaped.

In this translation, the name of the garden, Eden, is followed by the bracketed translation [‘Lavishness’]. This is a helpful convention, but one that involves a measure of interpretation. In addition to “lavishness,” other possible meanings include “bliss” or “happiness” or “pleasure” or “delight.” The choice of any one translation represents the choice or interpretation of the translator, and it is important that readers understand this necessary but interpretative feature of translation technique.

Genesis 2:24

That’s why a man abandons his father and his mother and attaches himself to his woman and they become one flesh.

In this translation, the rendering “abandons” in English can imply a more negative nuance than that which is intended by the Hebrew text. In English, “abandonment” implies something that should not be done. However, the Hebrew text is stating something positive, something that should be done. The more common translation “leaves” is perhaps the better choice in this context.

Additionally, the rendering “his woman” is certainly a possibility, but the clear intention of the text is “wife.” It is interesting to note that Hebrew uses the same word for both “woman” and “wife,” and the translation “woman” may sound a bit harsh as a modern English idiom.

Genesis 2:25 and Genesis 3:1

There is a significant play on words in the last verse of Genesis 2 and the first verse of Genesis 3 with the renderings “naked” in Gen 2:25 and “shrewdest” in Gen 3:1. In light of translation principle 7 described above, we would have expected a bracketed transliterations after each translation: [arummim] in Gen 2:25 and [arum] in Gen 3:1. It is perhaps impossible to identify every word play that appears in the Hebrew text, but this one is noteworthy and is commonly characterized as important by most commentators.

Genesis 3:8a

They heard the sound of Yahweh God walking about in the garden in the breezy time of the day.

The disobedience of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:6 precipitates the arrival of Yahweh God in judgment in 3:8. The characterization of God’s arrival in the “breezy time of the day” represents Goldingay’s rendering of the more traditional “cool of the day” found in translations like the NIV, ESV, NASB, and KJV (NET is identical to Goldingay). There are two difficulties with this translation. First, the rendering “breezy time” for the Hebrew word רוּחַ (Spirit, breath, wind) in 3:8 does not correspond to the translation of this same word in 1:2, where God’s “breath” or רוּחַ appears over the waters. Secondly, more recent scholarship has identified the possible meaning of the construction in 3:8 as a fearful manifestation of God’s (theophanic) presence in judgment, best rendered as something like “Spirit/wind of the day/storm,” another play on words (cf. Jeffrey J. Niehaus, God at Sinai: Covenant and Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995], 155–59; HALOT 2:401, s.v. יוֹםII(. God has not come to stroll among the fruit trees in the garden, but to render judgment for sin.

Genesis 3:24a

So Yahweh God drove the man out and made the sphinxes dwell east of Eden Garden.

The rendering “sphinxes” for “Cherubim,” which is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew word כְּרֻבִים, is a bit puzzling. I could not find any references to the identification of sphinxes with cherubim in any of the standard resources, nor was this translation explained in Goldingay’s commentary on Genesis. In fact, the commentary uses the more standard rendering “cherubim.” Translation like this, and others that are completely “off the grid,” would benefit from a brief, bracketed explanation.

3. Conclusion

The translation of the whole Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic into English is a tremendous accomplishment, a labor of love for the church, extending back in history for over half a millennium. As Goldingay notes in his preface, there is no such thing as a perfect translation, and we have also emphasized that all translations are necessarily interpretations. With this in mind, we commend Goldingay’s translation of the “First Testament” to readers for their use in careful study and comparison with other standard Bible translations.

Miles V. Van Pelt

Miles V. Van Pelt
Reformed Theological Seminary
Jackson, Mississippi, USA

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