Arguing from the English Translation?

Is there a translation anywhere that says what George wants it to say? You seem heavy on methodological criticisms and light on actual arguments. Do you have a position on the meaning of the verses in question, or are you just throwing rocks?

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In a sense that’s correct. They are all bad. No translation is a substitute for the original language. They are good enough for some things, but bad for arguments like this.

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I do, but this thread has enough amateur interpretations as it stands. I’m not going to be the next guy who confidently comes in claiming that my interpretation is the “only reasonable one based on the text itself” because I know the limits of my own expertise. I know how hard it is to get a PhD and expertise in something. I’m not going to fall into the trap that my decade of experience in atomic physics somehow gives me expertise in interpreting the Hebrew Bible. Instead I’m going to leave it to the experts and hold my own interpretation tentatively.

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If all translations are bad for arguments like this, then they’re bloody useless, because this is quite a straightforward statement that always gets translated in the same way (as far as I know). If you can’t rely on that, how can you rely on anything? If you don’t know ancient Hebrew, you have no idea what Genesis says. And I’m thinking that you aren’t a Hebrew scholar.

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Nobody has made any such claim. You have a tendency to attack strawmen. But aren’t the translators experts? Why shouldn’t we leave it to them?

As I said, it’s not that simple. If translators are “experts” and it works as you seem to imply, then there should be broad agreement among all translations and we wouldn’t even need multiple Bible translations in the first place. So why the multitude of versions? Why the constant debates?

The issues with translation are obvious with anybody who has fluency in two very different languages. (I’d be curious to know whether you are multilingual yourself.) As someone who is fluent in Indonesian and English, I’m well aware that there are many words, phrases, idioms, and expressions that cannot be fully translated into English, and can at most be roughly approximated. Even some seemingly readily translated words may have slightly different connotations than its counterpart in its source language. This is not such a problem when we’re just translating a mundane newspaper report. But it’s different if we’re translating a work with heavy philosophical, religious, and literary qualities. Here we have a passage from an ancient culture’s most sacred text, narrating events which form its most foundational myths.

Secondly, we have another layer to the problem that we’re translating from a language (biblical Hebrew) that nobody uses in the same way anymore. Nobody is 100% sure what a certain biblical word means or corresponds to in English. So how is a Biblical Hebrew dictionary made? The answer is context. Scholars take note of all the occurrences of a Hebrew word (or related words, including possibly its cognates in other ancient Semitic languages) in ancient texts and try to decipher its semantic range. Less easily understood words are illuminated by more easily understood words, which in turn might illuminate the latter - a never-ending iterative process.

Most words have no single meaning - there is always a range of acceptable interpretations, due to both uncertainty (we have limited sources) as well as actual variations in the way people used those words. Oftentimes a single English word or phrase isn’t adequate to express this range of interpretation. However, as a translator you are forced to pick a particular interpretation which 1) conforms to the intended translation philosophy of the Bible version you’re working on (dynamic, formal, paraphrase, etc.) 2) conforms to the stylistic preferences of the translation, which may have its own quirks, and 3) still doesn’t stray too far from your own preferred interpretation. Because at the end of the day laypeople who are reading primarily for personal and devotional reasons don’t want to have to deal with this uncertainty.

This hopefully illustrates how only analyzing the Bible in translation is inadequate to resolve arguments about tricky passages with a rich diversity of interpretive history. This is why more specialized scholarly papers and books are published regarding the proper translations of certain Hebrew or Greek words and all professional biblical scholars work with the text in the original languages. To make scholarly claims about a biblical passage without referencing the original language is like criticizing a physical theory based on a popular presentation without knowing the mathematics. (Which is exactly what many creationists do.)

I’m not a Hebrew scholar either, and I’m well aware of my own limitations. But as we like to say, there’s a difference between someone who knows that they don’t know, and someone who doesn’t know that they don’t know. And I know enough to sense that the arguments in this thread are not high quality, because the methodology is all wrong.

In this thread, we see Faizal initially analyzing the KJV and claiming that “I don’t really see any other reasonable interpretation of the bare facts of the story.” And then later, when George is not convinced, he quotes the NIV, which happens to better support his preferred interpretation. This is of course not the proper way to interpret the Bible. Even a first year seminary student (or a reasonably experienced church layman) with limited Hebrew knowledge would know to read the passage in multiple reputable English translations first and then try to triangulate the meaning by comparing them (while being aware of their different translation philosophies), instead of settling down on a preferred interpretation and seeking out translations which happen to support it.

Next, we have this argument based on purely the English language, which is frankly rather embarrassing:

The more proper question here would perhaps be: if the author meant to indicate “lest he continue”, is there actually another Hebrew word corresponding to “continue” that we would expect him to put in there? Or is the Hebrew expression as it is ambiguous enough to accommodate both Faizal’s and George’s translations? What happens if we consider the surrounding context? What happens if we consider other instances in the Hebrew Bible with similar sentence structure and tense as in this verse? These are questions which cannot be simply answered by reading Genesis in the KJV.

Even just taking Gen. 3:23 by itself, there’s a lot of questions here that can’t easily be gleaned by reading the English text. For example what does “us” refer to? Isn’t God just one entity (Deut. 6:4)? Is this some sort of “royal we”, does it actually refer to multiple gods, angels, or what? And before you accuse me of “not being faithful to the text” by bringing in other texts, as I said above, none of these texts were meant to be read in isolation from other relevant texts. Even the very fact that Genesis 2-3 is part of Genesis which is in turn part of the Pentateuch which is in turn part of the Hebrew Bible was the result of a centuries-long series of deliberate editorial and authorial decisions.

How would the original audience of Genesis have understood the “tree of life”? How would Second Temple Jews have understood it? Are there references to it in other texts, including extra-biblical ones? (Hint: there are actually some other references to it even in the Hebrew Bible itself, not to mention the NT.) How do we know from this verse (as Faizal argues) that eating from the tree of life once instantly gives you permanent eternal life? Would the Hebrew text be different if the author intended to say that one needed to eat continuously from it? Same sort of questions for the phrase “good and evil”.

Conclusion: translators are indeed experts, but you’re not really “listening” to them if you’re only reading the Bible in a single translation. “Listen” to them by reading professional commentaries on the passage, reading and comparing multiple translations and doing a proper literary analysis in context before settling on an interpretation.

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As well as one from 1978 that even more explicitly confirms my understanding. But why quibble about details?

Except both translations are saying the same thing.

My hypothesis is that the reading I am suggesting here is the one that would be arrived at by someone not encumbered by Christian theology that arose centuries after the story was written.

How does the fact that Christian theologians came up with a different interpretation refute that hypothesis?

Indeed I am not. I just chose the most popular translation (ironically enough to avoid accusations of cherry-picking) , which is also the one that I most enjoy reading. I could have chosen any other.

Here’s the English Standard Version:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

American Standard Version:

22 And Jehovah God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever— 23 therefore Jehovah God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden the Cherubim, and the flame of a sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Good News Version:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Now these human beings have become like one of us and have knowledge of what is good and what is bad.[f] They must not be allowed to take fruit from the tree that gives life, eat it, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God sent them out of the Garden of Eden and made them cultivate the soil from which they had been formed. 24 Then at the east side of the garden he put living creatures[g] and a flaming sword which turned in all directions. This was to keep anyone from coming near the tree that gives life.

21st Century KJV:

22 And the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become as one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live for ever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden cherubims and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Living Bible:

22 Then the Lord said, “Now that the man has become as we are, knowing good from bad, what if he eats the fruit of the Tree of Life and lives forever?” 23 So the Lord God banished him forever from the Garden of Eden, and sent him out to farm the ground from which he had been taken. 24 Thus God expelled him, and placed mighty angels at the east of the Garden of Eden, with a flaming sword to guard the entrance to the Tree of Life.

International Children’s Bible:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Look, the man has become like one of us. He knows good and evil. And now we must keep him from eating some of the fruit from the tree of life. If he does, he will live forever.” 23 So the Lord God forced the man out of the garden of Eden. He had to work the ground he was taken from. 24 God forced the man out of the garden. Then God put angels on the east side of the garden. He also put a sword of fire there. It flashed around in every direction. This kept people from getting to the tree of life.

Shall I go on?

It is becoming apparent that, if we continue the analogy to a scientific hypothesis, the relevant concept here is “consilience between multiple lines of evidence.”

Good questions. Maybe someone has an answer. Until someone does, we are stuck with the fact that every translation, as far as I can, from over 400 years has arrived at the same meaning. Is it more likely that they all got it wrong, than that this is exactly what the words in the original Hebrew say? I doubt it.

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I don’t think this is at all a good response for two reasons. First is that one wonders why God would have dictated, or otherwise “inspired” a book that can only be properly understood by somehow obtaining knowledge of a different and dead language, and the sociological and cultural contexts in which it was written.

The second is that even if we really could reliably reconstruct such knowledge, we still have no idea whether the original authors took any of that context or intention with them into writing some specific passage.

The more you insist on the relevance of these contextual and linguistic nuances, the more merely human does the document and it’s message become.

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There does not appear to be disagreement among translations on the verses we’re talking about here. Let’s focus a bit. All your points about translation may be correct in general, but this is about a particular passage.

That isn’t true. He merely quoted the NIV as a second example of the same thing.

If it is, why hasn’t anyone translated it that way?

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Because translators don’t randomly sample the space of possible translations. If the Hebrew for “lest he take and eat” is ambiguous between that and “lest he continue to take and eat”, without a clear grammatical indication it makes sense to choose the less marked form.

The fact is, even the English is more ambiguous than @Faizal_Ali is suggesting. His assertion,

just isn’t grammatically required. Such aspectual markers would make it less ambiguous, but “I ate cereal for breakfast” can be a valid alternative to “I used to eat cereal for breakfast”, with the habitual aspect left implicit from the context of the utterance, rather than explicitly marked.

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I don’t agree. The translator should choose the form that most fits what the translator thinks is the intended meaning, whether it’s more or less marked. And if we examine the context, there is clearly urgency in the situation, more than would be expected if the expulsion could happen any time with no effective difference. The translation isn’t ambiguous at all, and the uniformity of translation suggests that the Hebrew isn’t either, in context.

So what is your non-expert opinion on the reading of the verse? Are you willing to say?

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That’s not how it works. There’s a difference between dynamic and formal equivalence translation philosophies, and that limits how much the translator is allowed to inject his preferred interpretation in to the translated text. Given that you don’t seem to be aware of the issues involved in Bible translation, your personal disagreement about how translators operate is not convincing.

Given how biblical Hebrew has only two main tenses, I’m not sure the situation is as simple as you make it out to be. Furthermore, as @structureoftruth demonstrated, even in English the situation isn’t non-ambiguous.

Sorry @Rumraket, but this reply just evinces a misunderstanding of how Christians understand the perspicuity and inspiration of Scripture. It’s just not how we approach debates like these.

@dga471, to be fair, Christians certainly don’t all agree on this sort of thing, i.e. the “plain reading” threads. However, your point is a good one and there is a lot of Christians that have a more nuanced view of inspiration.

@Faizal_Ali, do you think non-Christian readers (Jewish and Muslim) have interpreted Genesis 2:17 as a lie? Are there any other possibilities in your mind (assuming God is really out there) to interpret that passage besides a lie? Could it be that God changed his mind between 2:17 and 3:23? Maybe God had mercy on them and instead of an immediate “capital punishment” he instead exiled them. Is that a valid reading?

You also read this passage as saying:

That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because the distinction between God and humans is pretty stark. When was the last time any of us created an entire universe ex nihilo ? Sure, maybe he didn’t want them to become immortal (that’s something @swamidass talks about in GAE), but that’s quite a bit different than what you describe. Are you just trying to make God sound like an overly sensitive and insecure jerk?

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I see. Well, we keep waiting for you to avail us of your expertise in this area and provide a translation that is closer to what you insist is the correct one. But nothing seems to be forthcoming.

Anyone can look for themselves on the Bible Gateway website, which provides about 60 different translations:

The only one I could find that seemed to favour your interpretation was the Amplified Version:

22 And the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), knowing [how to distinguish between] good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take from the tree of life as well, and eat [its fruit], and live [in this fallen, sinful condition] forever”

So the way things seem to work here is that whatever “condition” one is in when one eats from the Tree of Life is how one will remain. Adam and Even could then have been eating from it all along in their sinless state, but now God has to stop them from eating the fruit so they don’t stay “frozen” in a sinful state. OK, except, that’s what ends up happening, anyway, until Jesus comes along to provide redemption. Does this mean if they had eaten from the Tree of Life after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Jesus sacrifice would not have worked? So confusing.

In any event, though I am no Hebrew scholar, I am a bit skeptical that the original text made reference to “Father, Son, Holy Spirit”. Could this particular translation be just a bit tainted by Christian theological presuppositions?

On the other end of the spectrum is this translation called “The Message”, which leave little from for doubt, though I make no claims that this is a definitive translation:

22 God said, “The Man has become like one of us, capable of knowing everything, ranging from good to evil. What if he now should reach out and take fruit from the Tree-of-Life and eat, and live forever? Never—this cannot happen!”

How Christians understand Scripture is irrelevant to this discussion. I am interested in how someone would read this text with no religious preconceptions whatsoever.

No, but they are hardly neutral, either. They tend to believe God would never lie.

Such interpretations would depart wildly from the text.

Not me, but whoever wrote this story. There are lots of stories in which gods come across like jerks. Actually, this would hardly be the most jerkish thing the Old Testament god is described as doing.

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I’ve repeatedly stated that I don’t have expertise, which is why I will try to refrain from creating more confusion by putting in more bad arguments. One important thing I learned in graduate school is that sometimes it’s better to be silent when you don’t know something rather than open your mouth and remove all doubt.

These are all strawmen arguments, since no self-respecting Bible scholar would choose The Message, The Amplified Bible, The Good News Version, or International Children’s Bible to make any sort of point about the proper exegesis of the Hebrew text. They’re devotional translations (each with their supporters and detractors) and so have little value for scholarly study.

That being said, the fact that the Amplified Version may be used to support a different interpretation is unsurprising, since it was meant to reflect the ambiguity and uncertainty of the translation process (which is why you have a bunch of brackets with additional clarifying words added by the translators, to help laypeople who don’t know much about Hebrew). But it’s also been harshly criticized for precisely that reason - because it gives a sense of false security that you can know everything about the Hebrew text without actually studying the original. As far as I know few seminaries and schools recommend using the AV for exegesis.

Why would that be a more legitimate or preferred reading rather than others, given that the text wasn’t meant to be read by such a person in the first place?

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OK, so then:

is more like “unencumbered by any belief system that privileges Genesis above ancient near eastern mythology”? It’s not a huge leap, but I just wanted to be clear if it was Christian theology in particular that you were taking issue with, seems not.

I’m afraid I don’t see it. How would God changing his mind from immediate death to exile-followed-by-death depart wildly from the text? Doesn’t it fit quite well? A lie is an intentional deception, it’s pretty hard to prove that from this text. I have a much harder time seeing that from this text than God changing his mind about the timeline of the consequence (going easy on them, you might say). If God was threatened or afraid that Adam & Eve would challenge his “special status”, why wouldn’t he just zap them where they stood? It doesn’t make sense for God to be afraid of them and then not do what 2:17 says (immediate death), does it?

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@Faizal_Ali

The early Genesis chapters talk about the children of Adam and Eve. And there is the section that says Cain had a son.

Did he mate with a close cousin? Or were the other families not mentioned? Which interpretation does the Bible favor?

Returning to the question of Adam’s immortality: how do we know whether the Fountain of Youth must be drunk from continually? … or whether it only requires one cupful?

It’s a metaphysical question… with no answers.

The Hebrew language is often under-determined (i.e., there may be several viable options for interpretation)–especially in an under-determined text like Gen 2-3–and, as noted by others, translations are limited (e.g., philosophy of translation, variance in semantic and syntactic ranges between original and target languages, interpretation of the translator). Relevant here is the difference between Hebrew and English concerning verbs. English is heavy on verb tense (past, present, future), while aspect (i.e., how the action is being viewed, especially in relation to other actions) is usually noted by additional endings (e.g., -ing for gerunds) or additional words (e.g., has been running, had eaten). In Hebrew, however, while tense is not absent, aspect is more dominant, and tense often has to be inferred. Thus, an imperfective verb–like the chain of imperfective verbs at the end of Gen 3:22 (it’s actually more complicated than this, but I’ll try to keep it simple)–could be understood in various ways (e.g., eat ever, eat from now on, eat continually or intermittently, etc.).

I think we need to separate two issues (answers to which must bring in multiple factors): (1) Did A+E eat from the tree before this moment?; and (2) What is being prevented in the future by removing access to the tree?

On #1, I don’t think it’s clear (nor does it matter!). On one hand, the tree of life was one of the multiple options, so one might assume they had eaten from it (but, then again, we don’t know how long they were in the garden). On the other hand, nothing says they had (and Gen 3:22 could certainly be taken to mean they hadn’t). But does it matter? I suppose it would matter if eating once from the tree resulted in irreversible immortality. But nothing in the text demands this (certainly not the verbs in Gen 3:22). [BTW, the rabbis had a field day wrestling with all of this!]

On #2, it seems clear the exile from the garden was to keep sinful A+E from living in a perpetual state of sinfulness. But what would’ve granted them this sustained state (i.e., immortality)? One could point to the tree itself (having some sort of magic powers)…then one might ask why God just didn’t remove the tree. Or, in concert with the rest of Scripture (IMO), “life” is granted to those in the presence of God. This would allow the tree of life as a means to stay in God’s presence. Having been created mortal, loss of access to the means to stay in God’s presence resulted in A+E to suffer their natural mortal state. (Thus, the idea of continually needing to eat of the tree would’ve been necessary.)

Of course, there are larger issues at play, such as genre. That is, while the narrative is about trees and a talking, sinning snake and a strolling God (and other “gods” with the “us”), we still need to ask the larger interpretive questions about authorical intent with these references and symbols. But that’s beyond the discussion here.

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Um, no, that is not clear at all. In fact, it is quite clear that had nothing to do with it.

This all comes from the Judeo-Christian invention of a totally good god. Most cultures did not, and do not, have such a thing. If you just keep an open mind on whether god is hero, villain, or neither in the story, then the plot is clear.

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