Tom Pittman's WebLog

2012 August 11 -- Finding the Archer

The church I go to has a (somewhat relaxed) King James Only policy. That's one of the reasons I never applied for membership. It makes for occasional odd moments for church members reading their Bibles. This week I got an email from one of them who noticed a substantial discrepancy in Prov.26:10 between her KJV and the more modern translations:
The great God that formed all things both rewardeth the fool, and rewardeth transgressors. KJV

Like an archer who wounds at random is he who hires a fool or any passer-by. NIV

The differences in the back half of the verse are understandable. "Hire" is a form of reward, and "passer-by" could be related to trespassing (the Hebrew verb 'abar is used mostly for crossing over things like the Jordan river or passing through a territory, but also a dozen times it refers to violating a law or covenant).

The front half is harder to comprehend. It consists of three Hebrew words, "rab mecholel kol" the last of which generally means "all". That's the easy part. My analytical lexicon identifies the second word as an intensive participle of the root verb chul but is rather vague about that root, suggesting mostly "shake" which might be where the KJV translators got "formed" (as in "shake together"). Perhaps the modern translators see their mythical archer as shaking his bow in random directions.

Ah, the archer. The primary sense of rab is "many" or "multiply" and by extension sometimes "chief" or "expert". There are two verses in the Bible (Job 16:13, Jer.50:29) where this word is used in connection with qesheth which means only "bow" everywhere else (67 times). Both of these two verses are poetry, and the idea "expert [of] bow" is reasonably translated as "archer" in those two cases. From this tenuous connection, the modern translators convert the word "chief" or "many" into "archer" but their translation seems to have ignored the kol "all". Maybe they assume this archer is wounding everybody with his shaking.

We have a problem trying to understand poetry -- especially poetry in some other language long dead -- and Proverbs is poetry. Words change meaning, or take on extended senses. For example, in street English, the word "bad" means "very good," probably from being substituted for an obscene word which in context meant "excessively". So it's conceivable that rav could have taken on the meaning "archer" but absent better attestation, I'm inclined to doubt it.

Literally, the verse says:

Many/chief shaker of all, and pay [a] fool and pay over-steppers.
The Hebrew conjunction is rather broader than the English word "and" but I still think the KJV better fits the Hebrew as we know it.

It is said of Robert Browning concerning one of his poems, "When that passage was written, only God and Robert Browning understood it. Now, only God understands it." Poetry is like that. Some of Scripture may be like that.

Additional Thoughts

One of the people I mentioned this dialog to suggested to me the remarks in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT), of which I happen to have a copy. It mentioned two other verses in support of the "archer" translation (but not Job nor Jeremiah). In both TWOT texts, the verb could also reasonably be translated by the root sense of "multiplied", which makes sense as "shoot" only because what other reason can you have for accumulating a lot of arrows [Gen.49:23] or thunderbolts [Psa.18:14 = v.15 in Heb] than to shoot them?

It is curious that the Psa.18 verse also mentions arrows in the parallel line, but uses a different (and much more reasonable) word to say God is shooting them, namely 'shalach' which means "send" almost everywhere.

The Gen.49:23 verse is a little more difficult, where our verb is the middle of three things the "lords of arrows" are supposed to do to Joseph according to his father's blessing, the other two being to harass and to hate. I guess it's reasonable that these "lords of arrows" might actually shoot thir arrows at Joseph (and his descendants) as part of harassing him, but it seems curious to me that the direct object of our verb here is the suffix "him" (singular masculine = Joseph) and not the plural arrows. If they are shooting at Joseph, I would expect them to use the preposition 'el-' = "to" as Hebrew does everywhere else. Instead the grammar suggests that these bad guys are actually multiplying or building Joseph up -- this is after all a blessing! -- in the midst of their harassment. The next verse goes on to tell how strong Joseph's own bow is, like maybe these "lords of arrows" might have been teaching him as part of that hassle and multiplication. In context, "shoot" makes less sense in this verse than the translators seem to have thought.

It should be noted that both (or rather, all four) of the verses that get mentioned in support of translating 'rav' as "archer" are poetic. It seems to me that pushing a word to mean something so utterly different from its root sense on the basis of a metaphor occurring only in poetic texts (and always with another plausible, if less poetic, translation there more consistent with its root meaning) is more creative than linguistic. Literary creativity is good, but not necessarily while translating Scripture. IMHO.

Tom Pittman
2012 August 13


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