Exodus 22:1-4 in the NRSV

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Compare the following two translations:

1 "Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. 2 "If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; 3 but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed."Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution, but if they have nothing, they must be sold to pay for their theft. 4 If the stolen animal is found alive in their possession—whether ox or donkey or sheep—they must pay back double. [Exodus 22:1-4, TNIV]
1 When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft. 4 When the animal, whether ox or donkey or sheep, is found alive in the thief’s possession, the thief shall pay double. 2 If a thief is found breaking in, and is beaten to death, no bloodguilt is incurred; 3 but if it happens after sunrise, bloodguilt is incurred.[Exodus 22:1-4, NRSV]

Do you notice anything funny about the NRSV translation? They've transposed the order of the verses because verses 1 and 4 are about a similar subject matter, while verses 2 and 3 are about another subject matter. They've assumed that some copyist or editor was too stupid to notice that they'd moved the verses out of the original order and thus split up the original unit of verses 1 and 4. (Technically, they've also made what the NIV has as v.3b into part of v.1 as well, but it's more complicated to describe it if you factor that in.)

A more likely explanation for the only order we have in any Hebrew text (or any ancient translation) is that it's deliberately ordered the way it is as a chiasm, a common literary device in Hebrew literature. In this case, the chiastic structure is a simple ABA, with the A laws as bookends around the B law. Simple chiasms are common in this section of Exodus. Two of the more obvious examples include Exodus 21:12-14 and Exodus 21:15-17, both ABA structures. It seems, then, that the NRSV order is just a premature disordering of an already ordered text out of a complete lack of sensitivity to the kind of literary structure Hebrew literature regularly displays. It's an interesting example of cultural insensitivity leading to a sense of cultural superiority, i.e. the attitude a modern, western ordering would be superior.

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Mangling the Text from Theology for the Masses on January 24, 2007 12:10 PM

Jeremy, at ParableMan looks at the NRSV's reordering of verses in Exodus 22:1-4. His claim is that the translators intentionally adjusted the text to remedy what they thought were deficiencies in text itself as well as in the culture itself. Some h... Read More


Alternately, you could see this as an issue of formal vs. non-formal translation instead of seeing it as cultural superiority. In this case, it would be non-formal across verses, which would be a very unusual way to translate, but at least understandable if that is what they were trying to do.

Most English readers have no idea what a chiasm is as it isn't a form used in English. So it is conceivable that a translator might drop the Hebrew form of chaism and rearrange the elements so that the passage would have the same meaning in English, despite the new order. Keeping the verse numbers would show the alert reader that things have been reordered and would let those who are aware of chiastic structure that a chiasm is taking place.

Now this is probably not what is going on here since I don't recall the NRSV doing this kind of thing on a regular basis, but it is not impossible and I would be reluctant to call this outright cultural superiority without further proof.

The NRSV is supposed to be a more formal translation generally, though, except for the gender-inclusiveness.

I suspect they're just going with the scholars who think the text is just mangled from what it should originally have been. Several scholars do say this outright, including Daube and Durham, often with language that makes it sound as if they're blaming it on the primitiveness of the ancient Hebrews. When Sophia wakes up, I can give a quote of some of this language from Daube.

Here's a quote from David Daube, Studies in Biblical Law (cited in Doug Stuart's NAC on Exodus, p.501). He attributes the strange order to "laziness, undeveloped legal technique, writing on stone or the like, oral transmission of the law and regard for tradition". Stuart mentions that John Durham, whose WBC on Exodus is one of the top critical commentaries on the book today, as following Daube on this. I get the sense from how Stuart presents this that Durham agrees with what's expressed in that particular quotation. I returned the library's copy last week, so I can't check for myself at the moment.

As solid scholars as Brevard Childs and Umberto Cassuto defend the text as it stands. I have Childs, and he thinks the middle law was inserted into the outer frame, but he thinks it was done deliberately and very early.

I hadn't checked many translations on this, but for the record the RSV and NEB also do what the NRSV does, so it's not new with the RSV.

You should see the MASSIVE textual reorganization done by the NJB in I Kings 4 and 5. I don't know what the justification is for that one, but it makes it pretty much impossible to read alongside other versions.

Are you sure it's not based on textual differences between the MT and other texts, e.g. the LXX, Syriac, Vulgate, DSS? If so, then at least there would be evidence for a different order. The NRSV generally prefers the LXX to the MT (in the former prophets, anyway) when there are differences, and I wouldn't be surprised if the NJB does also. The early chapters of I Samuel are radically different from the MT, with lots of additions and subtractions and different orderings. Kings may be similar. I Kings 4-5 probably overlap a good deal with Chronicles, and the LXX of Samuel-Kings in certain places tends to be more like the MT of Chronicles than like the MT of Samuel-Kings. Maybe it's not that at all, but that's a possibility. I'll have to check it out when I get home.

What struck me about the Exodus 22 case is that it isn't based on any alternative textual reading but is just invented because of some view that this couldn't have been deliberately and intelligently ordered this way. It reminded me of Gordon Fee's view on I Corinthians 14.

Since the NRSV is following the RSV order in this, it's hardly fair to suggest that the NRSV translators made the decision to reorder the text.

I did some checking and found that the CEV and the Good News Bible use the same order as the RSV/NRSV. Since these two translations are independent of the RSV tradition, I suspect there is more to it than the alleged cultural attitudes of NRSV translators -- especially given that the NRSV keeps the chiastic structure in the other Exodus passages you list.

Why would translators keep the order in one passage and change it in another if they truly believed the Bible should be reordered to fit today's cultural presuppositions?

Bruce, I acknowledged in my January 23, 2007 6:58 PM comment that the RSV and NEB had this also and thus that it's not new with the NRSV. But if Daube was pushing his cultural insensitivity in 1947, then we already know that it's not new even with the RSV. My question is why these translations follow Daube's conclusions that his own words show derive from cultural insensitivity.

I could understand the CEV and GNT doing this for the reasons Wink suggests, although I could just as easily see them doing it for Daube and Durham's reasons. If it's for Wink's reasons, then I don't necessarily disagree with their aims, even if I think their methods are a bad way to do so. But the NRSV and RSV are both supposed to be much closer to the text to allow for this sort of thing if it's from Wink's motivation rather than from Daube's.

As for your last question, I think it's just that the subject matter in the middle pieces of the other chiasms in this section aren't as different from the end pieces as the one in this case.

Let me preface this comment by saying that I may very well be wrong about this. But I'm allergic to conspiracy theories, and the notion that several independent translators have all decided to rearrange these verses for no reason other than that they think the Bible writers were stupid -- especially when it is a single passage not a pattern, and the same passage in each translation -- sounds like a conspiracy theory to me. My gut tells me that there must be more to it than that.

I suspect the translators had their reasons for rearranging these verses, reasons other than haughtiness. I don't have the resources available to research this right now, but I will try to investigate it further.

Well, I trust Doug Stuart (in his Exodus commentary) in his reporting of Daube's quotation and his indication that Durham had the same reasons. This doesn't prove that the RSV and NRSV translators had the same motivations, but I think that's the simplest explanation given their general translation philosophy.

It's not as if this kind of thing is new to biblical studies. All sorts of attributions of stupidity occur in standard source criticism, for instance. It's fairly common to see someone saying that two tendencies put together in one passage much be from different authors and somehow spliced together artificially. The idea is that no author would be so stupid as to have a nuanced theological perspective that includes both of the tendencies. The problem is that avoiding charging one author with stupidity (by appealing to more than one author) means you're now calling the editor stupid for putting the two things together. Isn't it more reasonable to try to make sense of the text as it is, since you have to do that anyway to figure out why the editor thought it should be the way it is?

So I don't think this is a conspiracy theory. I think it's an observation of what 19th and 20th century scholars have been like in a way that 21st century scholars are beginning to overcome by focusing on the final form of the text and my noticing literary elements that scholars had been ignoring. Since I'm confident enough that it occurs, it's not surprising me to see it in one more place. It's not as if I think these people are conspiring together to do something as a group without anyone else knowing about it. It's just a feature of human nature that I think serves as a common explanation to a variety of phenomena.

The suggestion that "several independent translators" made the same decision cannot be a "conspiracy theory", because "independent" implies that they did not conspire, but made the same decision independently.

However, I think it is naive to suggest that GNT and CEV are completely "independent of the RSV tradition". It is almost certain that the GNT (originally TEV or GNB) translators consulted RSV; they probably used it as one of the base texts for their translation. After all, in practice very few translators really translate the Old Testament purely from the Hebrew, and RSV was the standard English translation in the 1970's when the GNT Old Testament was being prepared. Similarly the CEV translators probably consulted GNT as well as RSV and perhaps NRSV; and NRSV is explicitly a revision of RSV. So this particular reordering was almost certainly copied from RSV into the other versions. Thus they are not really independent.

Does this mean that I am alleging a conspiracy theory? Certainly not. A conspiracy would imply that translators of different versions got together to agree on this matter. Since GNT was translated after RSV was published and NRSV and CEV were translated after GNT was published, the only possibility for such a conspiracy is between NRSV and CEV. Possibly the translators of these two very different versions did consult together on some such matters. But it is hardly a conspiracy to worry about if they agreed that on this point they would both copy the versions which they were anyway to some extent revising.

So, blame the RSV translators if you like, but don't suggest that they were conspiring with anyone else.

I think the right way to think about this is that the RSV translators were almost certainly aware of Daube's argument, found it convincing, and translated accordingly. The GNT and CEV translators came along and translated the same way, either because of awareness of Daube's arguments or because they saw the RSV and thought through for themselves why someone might order the verses that way. If the line of reasoning is the same as Daube's, then I very much think it's wrongful reasoning, and I think it involves assumptions that denigrate ancient Hebrew society in several ways. Saying such a thing certainly does not amount to putting forth a conspiracy theory for all the reasons now mentioned.

One thing I think I should also say in response to Bruce's last comment is that I haven't been saying that these people were explicitly thinking of anyone as stupid. No, what I'm saying is that their view of the ancient Hebrew literary tradition amounts to treating them as if they were stupid when they in fact had a rich literary phenomenon going on. It amounts to treating authors or editors as if they are stupid enough to do things reasonable people would not do, but it does not explicitly think of those people as stupid. It's about the implications and assumptions of the theory, not the explicit view of those holding it. As I think about it now, something like that could hardly be a conspiracy theory. You can't form a conspiracy about hidden assumptions that you're probably not even aware of.

Thank you for that clarification. I couldn't understand how you could assert that four separate sets of Bible translators all believed that the Bible writers were stupid. If that was their explicit belief, I would expect them to have chosen some other career.

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