Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Joseph Smith Translation Ezekiel 20:30


The Prophet Joseph Smith changed but ten verses in the Book of Ezekiel. None of the changes, except that made to the very last verse in the book, touch upon any of Ezekiel's better known or more challenging places. For instance, Why would the Prophet skip the enigmatic visions of the opening chapters to bother with Ezekiel 20:30? And why that particular verse in Chapter 20, and no other?

The change is a small one--he shifts the interrogative mode to the indicative in the first two opening clauses of the sentence--and the preponderance of Bible translations do not support it. No matter. Joseph Smith finds himself in the best of company: St. Jerome (and thus Wycliffe), Luther, and the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh.

We start with the Authorized Version and then consider the Joseph Smith Translation:

30 Wherefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord God; Are ye polluted after the manner of your fathers? and commit ye whoredom after their abominations?

31 For when ye offer your gifts, when ye make your sons to pass through the fire, ye pollute yourselves with all your idols, even unto this day: and shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, saith the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you.

Joseph Smith recasts the two opening rhetorical questions as flat indictments:

Ye are polluted after the manner of your fathers and ye commit whoredom after their abominations.

Faulring, Jackson, Matthews (eds), Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts (2004)

The change startles because it suggests an error in the original Hebrew. But several other translators, and let's now add Breuer, Zitterli, and Greenberg to the company, sensitive to the nuances of grammar and of rhetoric, translate in the same way that Brother Joseph does--and no emendation of the Hebrew.

The question that lies at the heart of the complicated sentence is "And will I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel?" All prior clauses, says Rabbi Solomon Fisch, become antecedents going before judgment: "This verse and the first half of the next verse are antecedents to the clause shall I then be inquired of by you?" (S. Fisch, Soncino Bible: Ezekiel, 127). We recall how the elders of the people approached Ezekiel and requested an oracle. The delegation approaches Ezekiel because they know he's the real thing; Israel enjoys the prophetic gifts--and they know it. Yet their hearts simultaneously burst with the plea: Why can't we be just like everyone else (see v. 33)? Israel wants Jerusalem and Idumea all in one breath, and the Divine rebuke of such duplicity is a rhetorical marvel that cuts to the heart.

Rhetorical marvel? There are places in the Hebrew Bible, Gesenius' Grammar tell us, "in which the use of the interrogative is altogether different from our idiom, since it serves merely to express the conviction that the contents of the statement are well known to the hearer, and are unconditionally admitted by him" (Gesenius, Kautzsch, Cowley, Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, 473). Such usage therefore supplies us with a rhetoric well suited to Divine decree or decisions at law. Gesenius illustrates the principle with a few one liners. To get to the root of the matter in Ezekiel 20:30-31, we must dig deeper. 

"A widespread phenomenon in Biblical Hebrew," says Christian Stadel, "is the use of an interrogative clause for the expression of an assertion. Such interrogatives are commonly known as 'rhetorical questions'" (Christian Stadel, "Interrogative: Biblical Hebrew," in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics 2:306-316; 309). Rhetorical questions here labels a technical term Hebraists use to describe a very particular kind of declarative idiom. As is the case with other non-pronominal interrogatives, rhetorical questions begin with a "sentence-initial particle," the clitic-h

Such a rhetorical device, especially in a sentence consisting of two or more clauses, serves "to express a premise or a conclusion in a logical argument. When expressing a premise, the rhetorical question establishes a consensus, or common ground between the speaker and addressee, which is then used to advance the argument;" rhetorical questions thus "have a strengthening function, expressing the implied assertion in a more forceful way then a simple declarative would have done," ibid., 310. 

Usage suggests a clitic-h preceding each rhetorical question in the succession of clauses (or independent sentences). In Ezekiel 20:30-31 only the first clause shows the particle: hbdrk (ha + prep. b "in" + derek "way"). Had Ezekiel intended a series of independent rhetorical questions, he likely would have put the particle at the head of each of them. And would not such stand-alone questions--each to be paused over, as it enters the stage in logical and brilliant arrangement--have made for a stronger declaration? Surely so--yet perhaps not: in Ezekiel 20:30-31 the antecedents fly swiftly on to the final judgment that rings down the curtain on the play.

As we now consider the following translations of Ezekiel 20:30-31, the question to ask is: Which, if any of them, best captures the complicated sentence structure and its sweeping rhetorical force?

It might be best to start with a plain reading (my own), along with simple notes about semantics and grammar:

Therefore say to House of Israel: 

So says my Lord Jehovah--

Ha-in the way of your fathers you make yourselves tameh;
after their shiqqutzim you play the faithless wife;
and in lifting your gifts (to heaven, at the altar),
in making your sons to pass through in the fire, 
you make yourselves tameh in dedicated service to all your ridiculous idols until today:

And I shall be sought of by you for an oracle, House of Israel?

Live I--statement of my Lord Jehovah--
if I shall be sought of by you for an oracle!

The initial interrogative marker is the sole such marker in the sentence; the final question is only implied. And note how the third and fourth clauses show the preposition be (in, in acting), not ke (when, as). To "be sought of by you" (with preposition le, for) signifies to be sought of for a revelation. Tameh signifies to "become (cultically) unclean: it is for the once faithful bride to play the prostitute by following after the detestable (cultic) practices and silly idols of Canaan (William L. Holliday, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament). 

What it all means is beyond us, though the lexicographers' insistence on cultic pollution can miss the point: by adopting cultic practices, Israel perforce adopts all cultural practices as well. The first thus nicely serves as metaphor for the second. One wonders whether the verb for crossing ('br), in "passing through the fire," is intended to stir the memory of another crossing, the ancestral crossing which qualified Abraham an 'ever (Hebrew)? By causing their own sons to cross through fire--whatever that meant literally or symbolically to Ezekiel--do these faithless sons of Abraham reverse the pilgrimage of Father Abraham and unmake his sons Hebrews? Do Ezekiel's auditors maintain, or do they break, the generational chain of covenant?

As Ezekiel's contemporary, Nephi, says, "the manner of prophesying among the Jews" can be "hard to understand" without careful instruction. It is enough to know, he says with a shudder, that "their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations" (2 Nephi 25: 1-2). Given that works and doings signal technical terminology for cultic activity, Nephi's careful choice of words show how tellingly cultic works and doings reflect the general societal and cultural darkness.

The Soncino Bible: Ezekiel (Rabbi Solomon Fisch)

Wherefore say unto the house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord God:
When ye pollute yourselves after the manner of your fathers, and go astray after their abomination, and when, in offering your gifts, in making your son to pass through the fire, ye pollute yourselves with all your idols, unto this day; shall I then be inquired of by you?

JPS Tanakh 1917 (see Bible

Wherefore say unto the house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord GOD: When ye pollute yourselves after the manner of your fathers, and go after their abominations, and when, in offering your gifts, in making your sons to pass through the fire, ye pollute yourselves with all your idols, unto this day; shall I then be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I will not be inquired of by you;"

Rav Dr. Joseph Breuer, The Book of Yechezkel, 172 

Rav Dr. Joseph Breuer likewise translates the rhetorical questions in the opening clauses as positive indictments, though also he nods to the interrogative particle, ha, which opens the sentence:

Therefore say to the House of Israel: Thus has my Lord spoken, God, Who envelops His loving kindness in justice: What? You defile yourselves upon the path your fathers trod, and you are faithless in that you seek after their horrors; And by lifting up your offerings, leading your children through the fire, defiling yourselves through your idolatries to this day--and I should let Myself be sought of you, house of Israel?"

Rav Breuer, as truthful translator, does well to remind us how God, though everlastingly loving, cannot "rob justice": "God, Who envelops His loving kindness in justice" (see Alma 42:25: "What, can ye suppose that mercy can rob justice?")

The Douay-Rheims translation (as does Wycliffe) attests the Vulgate of St. Jerome:

Wherefore say to the house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord God: Verily [certe], you are defiled in the way of your fathers, and you commit fornication with their abominations. And you defile yourselves with all your idols unto this day, in the offering of your gifts, when you make your children pass through the fire: and shall I answer you, O house of Israel? As I live, saith the Lord God, I will not answer you.

Moshe Greenberg, The Anchor Bible: Ezekiel, 362

Say, then, to the house of Israel: Thus said Lord YHWH: You defile yourselves in the manner of your fathers, you go whoring after their loathsome things; you defile yourselves by the offer of your gifts and by delivering up your sons to the fire--your idolatries of all sorts--to this day; shall I then respond to your inquiry, house of Israel? By my life, declared Lord YHWH, I will not respond to your inquiry!

Walther Zimmerli, Ezekiel. A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Chapters 1-24, I: 402

Thus has [the Lord] Yahweh said: You are making yourselves unclean with the behavior of your fathers. In following their abominations you are committing their immorality. And in offering your gifts [in making your sons pass through the fire] you are making yourselves unclean for all your idols right up to the present day. Shall I then let myself be questioned by you, house of Israel? As I live, says [the Lord] Yahweh, I will not let myself be questioned by you."

Of these, I favor the translations of Rav Joseph Breuer and the JPS Tanakh. The JPS Tanakh insists on an artificial and impeding when-then construction for the sentence, with non-finite when clauses, but the translation yet delivers a powerful rhetorical punch. (We can now see how turning opening clauses into interrogatives, breaking one sentence into several, would slow things to an unbearable pace.) Rav Breuer may add poetic refrains to the text and drop the familiar English technical ritual expression to inquire of in favor of a literal reading of the Hebrew drsh (seek); he nevertheless conveys--and clearly--in a single sweeping sentence, something of the rough, near staccato oracular idiom of a desert tribe. And are these various readings not rhetorically superior to the clumsy literalism, if that, of the Authorized Version?


One may ask: Do you propose to show the inspiration of Joseph Smith, when you claim his translation has such substantial support?

I take that inspiration as a given. To range at will through the pages of scripture revealed through the Prophet Joseph is to see "all things appear divinely new." One need not be a partisan nor a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to see the "marvelous work and a wonder" that is the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the New Translation of the Holy Bible, and the Pearl of Great Price. Neither does the Divine Treasury of Restoration Scripture remain the exclusive property of Latter-day Saints--it belongs to you and it belongs to me, for it rightfully belongs to God.

Joseph Smith belongs to the world. Then let the world consider him, read him, write of him and ponder, debate, and sort out his revelations and translations and papers how and when and where it wishes. As for Latter-day Saints, we need to stop popping out of our seats anytime someone belonging to another faith or another community writes a thoughtful essay or book about Brother Joseph's prophetic and scriptural contribution. 

Joseph Smith deserves more of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ than a knee-jerk reaction. Nor need we tend him or his message, as if some fragile thing.

Sometimes we "pop" in wild-eyed naivete; other times we "pop" in haste to criticize or to discredit. We can promote truth, correct misinformation and obvious error, and even and ever defend the Prophet's good name, but we should also let others think, write, "call on the Lord, and ponder. . .in their hearts. . . for a little season." In other words, we can afford others the room to breathe and to discover the good news of the Restoration for themselves in their own way and in their own time. Such allowance to others, at least "for a little season," becomes another special way, among so many other marvelous ways, by which the divine promise comes to fruition: "I will hasten my work in its time" (Doctrine and Covenants 88: 71-73).


Speaking solely for myself, I wonder whether the best question to ask about JST Ezekiel 20:30 would be Why did the Prophet Joseph choose to turn our attention at all to Ezekiel Chapter 20? 

The subject of divine indictment is not a pleasant one. Haunting is the Lord's refusal by the mouth of Ezekiel to the hapless elders of the people: And will I be inquired of by you? Ezekiel 20, with its long and careful recital of covenants broken and opportunities lost, as generation succeeds generation throughout the entire course of Israel's history, makes up one of the most stunning moments in all scripture: 

Here we are, O Lord. 

No, I will not hear you. Look over the record of your past. The day of your probation has ended.

To avoid the tragic outcome of losing the privileges of revelation, and the nurturing daily guidance and comfort flowing therefrom, we should compare ourselves with the people whom Ezekiel served. In refusing to show His divine favor, the Lord indicts the people for polluting both themselves and even their hapless children. Did they not love their own children sufficiently to teach them the ways of righteousness, freedom, and happiness? "Such 'pollution,'" Rabbi Fisch teaches us, "creates a barrier between them and God which makes impossible the achievement of their desire, viz. enlightenment from Him on what the immediate future holds in store," 128. For instance, to "greatly pollute" God's sabbaths not only bars enlightenment, it even prevents the holy offering of the sign of the covenant, the bond of fellowship between God and His people. 

We might ask ourselves, turning the indictment back into a question: Are we polluting ourselves after the manner of the world? Is that the road (derekh) we walk? Do pollutions, idols, and abominations "create a barrier" between us and God? And how is it with the rising generation? Are their feet set on a proven course? or, bearing no moral compass to guide, do they pass through the fire of untested, untried, and strange roads--roads of anger, roads of hatred, roads of sloth and self-indulgence, branching tri-vial roads, roads of immorality? In fine, are we sufficiently clean and pure to inquire of the Lord, to offer up the sign of the covenant, that is, "offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day," or to hear the words of his living prophet, Thomas S. Monson? (See Doctrine and Covenants 59:9).

What Ezekiel was not permitted to say to his insincere inquirers, his oracular contemporary, Jacob, was commanded to reveal to a straying, though yet more righteous branch of Israel. His message (2 Nephi 9) might have once brought hope, enlightenment, and deliverance to the elders of Israel. It can still cleanse us today--making us "clean thereby."

Significantly, the closing talk of the last General Conference of the Church also refers to Ezekiel Chapter 20. Elder Russell M. Nelson cites Ezekiel's teaching of an eternal covenant between God and His people to hallow the Sabbath Day (20:12, 20). As we keep the Sabbath, we may "more fully keep" ourselves as well, including keeping ourselves and our families "unspotted from the [pollutions of] the world" (Doctrine and Covenants 59:9). God is, thankfully, not slow to hear our prayers. Here is counsel from a living apostle for you and for me ("The Sabbath is a Delight," Conference Report, April 2015). 

Ezekiel Chapter 20 suddenly takes on relevance and urgency.

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