Saturday, June 20, 2015

Joseph Smith Translation Ezekiel 19:10: The Living Prophet Renews Scripture

The Prophet Joseph Smith changed many verses in Isaiah and Jeremiah; Ezekiel received a light touch. He pronounces Ezekiel's first 13 chapters "all correct." Starting with Chapter 14, he, here and there, updates the usage (sith becomes since; that that becomes that which; turn yourselves and live ye is now turn ye and live); he even attends to what appears to be a typo in his Bible (Arvan should be Arvad). (JST Ezekiel 35:6; 36:36; 18:32; 27:11)

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

Of the ten changes to Ezekiel, only six stand out as being, in any way, substantial. By substantial, I mean a change in the English of such a nature that we can ask a) whether the received Hebrew text may be in error or incomplete or b) whether the meaning of the Hebrew text has been long misunderstood and, perforce, also lost in translation. Because changes in Ezekiel 23:17, 22, and 28 apparently serve to iron out such a misunderstanding of a presumably correct underlying Hebrew idiom and text, we are left with but five small changes to a book of 48 chapters. Of these, then, a mere four require a reexamination of the Masoretic text. Yet while one of the four suggests that a rhetorical question should be recast in the indicative: Ye are . . . and ye commit (20:30), the shift does not require adjustment in the original Hebrew. Indeed some translators, sensitive to the complicated sentence structure and the intent of the Hebrew, also recast the "question" as accusation. Because these few make for good company: St. Jerome, Luther, Wycliffe, and the JPS Tanakh, Ezekiel 20:30 is a bull's-eye for Joseph Smith. Three remain.

So what prompted the prophetic mind to zoom in on a particular verse?


Consider Ezekiel 19:10, where a very strange phrase is crossed out:

Thy mother is like a vine in thy blood, planted by the waters: she was fruitful and full of branches by reason of many waters.

Like a vine in thy blood--that's about as faithful to the Hebrew as it's possible to get, and just about as odd an idiom as can be.

Entire chapters of Ezekiel jar modern sensibilities and baffle understanding, so why this verse? Was Joseph Smith merely searching, now and again, for a bit of clarity in a scroll of obscurity?

We picture Joseph and his associates reading Ezekiel aloud chapter by chapter, marking changes along the way. Did he read aloud the first fourteen chapters and then state "all correct?" Or did he so pronounce, without the need of reading? We can imagine the furrowing of the brow when 19:10 was read, but, if we study changes elsewhere made in the Biblical text, there were several choices available to him. He might choose to ignore the strange reading, add to the text so as to clarify meaning, rearrange words or even sentences in a meaningful way, or consider the marginal notes found in his own Bible. The Prophet solves the difficulty by simply deleting the phrase--a single word in Hebrew: bdmk--"in thy blood." Was he so prompted? Latter-day Saints believe he translated under the spirit of inspiration.

The Joseph Smith Translation of Ezekiel 19:10 accordingly reads:

The mother is like a vine planted by the waters: she was fruitful and full of branches by reason of many waters.

Who is to say the change is insignificant? According to Professor Zimmerli, the prophecy embraces the destiny of the "entire Davidic royal house" of whom the "mother" is symbolic (Walther Zimmerli, A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. Chapters 1-24, 397).


We start where all students must, with text critical editions of the Hebrew Bible, e.g., the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) and the Hebrew University Bible.

Two Hebrew manuscripts show, not bdmk (in your blood), but krmk (in your kerem, an orchard or vineyard). To understand the underlying scribal tradition for these manuscripts, we must recall how b/k and d/r make up two pair of consonantal confusables. A little adjustment to the bifocals, and you could see "like a vine in your kerem"--just where a vine ought to be.

These textual apparatus now take up the Greek Septuagint, the ancient translation of the Bible into Greek.

The Septuagint, however, yields no orchard but a single vine and a single tree: hos ampelos kai hos anthos en hroa (like a vine and like a flower on a pomegranate tree). Did an "original" Hebrew be-rimmon prompt the Greek translation of en hroaon a pomegranate? (See notes in Hebrew University Bible: Ezekiel.) Or might the notionality of blood have been confused with the redness of the pomegranate flower?

The BHS further suggests the possible emendation bakerem (in the vineyard). What about "your"?

We turn now to the Great Rabbinic Bible, Rashi's commentary on Ezekiel, and other commentators. The popular Soncino Bible, for instance, follows the rabbinic interpretation:

Thy mother was like a vine, in thy likeness, planted by the waters
Rabbi Solomon Fisch, Ezekiel.

Why "in thy likeness"? Because the Hebrew verb damah (to be like, resemble; n., dimyon, dmy, likeness) much resembles dam (blood). Yet "in thy likeness" but poorly echoes the Hebrew construction and nuance. Rav Joseph Breuer tells us the particular verbal form represented by bdmk is a qal infinitive (a verbal noun), dmyt, with preposition, be. He translates: "But your mother was (also) like a vine--you were like (it)" (Breuer, The Book of Yechezkel, 159).

And how can a vine be in thy likeness, when thy mother is also like that vine? It's a matter of likeness, of riddling, of bloodline--and of Hebrew poetry packing it in.

Jacob 5, quoting an ancient Hebrew prophet, evinces comparably dense doubling: "I will liken thee, O house of Israel, like unto a tame olive-tree, which a man took and nourished in his vineyard" (5:3; cf. Doctrine and Covenants 88:61: "Therefore, unto this parable I will liken all these kingdoms"). It's all here: to liken thee like unto; the tame olive-tree ("in thy quietness" for "in thy blood," Heb. dami, quiet, rest); took and nourished (Eichrodt: "transplanted by the water").

Yet Rabbi Fisch also notes that "in thy blood" suggests in "thy natural vigour," the vigor of both vine and bloodline; as far as that goes, bkrm would place the vine in its "natural setting." Marginal notes in Brother Joseph's own Bible prompted: "or, in thy quietness, or, in thy likeness." And divines of the day held to the reading "in thy blood" or "in thy quietness" and interpreted accordingly, creatively, and variously (cf. the examples found in the online Bible Hub, including KJV Translator's Notes).

Addressing "the puzzle of bdmk," Moshe Greenberg concludes: "The word remains a crux," (Ezekiel 1-20, The Anchor Bible, v. 22, 1983), 353.

Walther Eichrodt, as does BHS, prefers emending the text to bkrm, which could signify either bakerem or bekerem (in the vineyard or in a vineyard):

"Your mother was like a vine [in a vineyard], transplanted by the water."

Eichrodt yet concludes of bkrm: "A completely uncertain emendation of the unintelligible 'in your blood,' in the text," Ezekiel: A Commentary, 250 note J.

The toy parade of the scholars marches true to form:

"The reading of MS ken 356 krmk, which is graphically close, creates difficulties due to its suffix. Toy, Holscher, Hesekiel, Bertholet, Fohrer would read kbrm [how richly ironic: a typo in Zimmerli for bkrm!], whilst Cornill, Ehrlich, Randglossen, following MS ken 399, 421, would simply delete bkrm," Walther Zimmerli, A Commentary on Ezekiel, 397.

I poke fun at the scholars, but their words and their ways remain

Things beyond my ken. Before we can get in step with Cornill, Ehrlich, Fohrer, Toy, we're going to have to track down ken 356, 399, 421, we're going to have to tilt at Kennicott's Vetus Testamentum Hebraicum cum Variis Lectionibus. . . How easy it would be at this juncture to shrug shoulders and to say: We have Joseph Smith's translation of the verse, why bother with the manuscripts?

Zimmerli never yields the game. His own tentative conclusion? "Masoretic 'in thy blood' is certainly not original." "Already Rashi and Kimhi favor a derivation from dmh [to be like], which is probable," but only after further adjustments: "Should we then read a participle ndmh or a perfect ndmth, which has been written incorrectly as in [Ezekiel] 27:32?" (Zimmerli, 390).

Without Zimmerli's "probable," "unintelligible" and "certainly not original" would remain the latest words on the "puzzle of bdmk." After Zimmerli's emendations we arrive at: "Thy mother is like a vine ndmh planted by the waters," which signifies "Thy mother like a vine (who) is likened (being made like unto, comparable) planted by the waters." I marvel at the poetic complexity of the thing--but how to translate into plain English? Zimmerli's adoption and adaptation of the rabbinic reading only brings us back to Joseph Smith:

Thy mother is likened to a vine planted by the waters,

or simply,

Thy mother is like a vine planted by the waters.

I will liken thee, O house of Israel, like unto a tame olive tree.

Given such a baffling word in an otherwise clear text, and chary of erudition, some modern translators simply ignore bdmk. Scribes might have lost sight of some infinitive or participle attached to the mother-vine long ago; yet we lose nothing in our understanding of the poem thereby.


Some lessons may be drawn from such prophetic correction--or cancellation. (And I'm speaking solely for myself, and to myself, here.)

We learn a vital lesson about prophetic authority and guidance: the living prophet, who holds the keys of the kingdom, can change scripture. He can add, expand, delete, and interpret as a living oracle, a living fountain of Scripture. The Prophet may even authoritatively modify, as did Joseph Smith, his own translations and revelations. Consider the versions of the visions of Moses and of Enoch in Old Testament Manuscript One and compare these to what appears, some months later, in Old Testament Manuscript Two. The reader of the Pearl of Great Price, which follows OT 1, will be startled to see familiar, even beloved, words and phrases crossed out and recast. Startled is not strong enough a word, it shocks.

How could the Prophet do such a thing to this or that poetic expression? But he can and he does--and we're here to learn. Here is new scripture, if you will. I had never seen these changes before 2015 or thereabouts (I had noticed, yes, but just couldn't handle them a year or so ago. . .)

Just so, Brother Joseph's contemporaries responded startled, shocked, thrilled, scandalized--you name it--to what they saw in 1830 and thereafter. Imagine the shock of the Creation account in the Book of Moses (1831); an even greater jolt comes with Abraham's take on Creation, or rather, "Organization" (1842).

The living prophet, who struggles to make truth "plain and pure, and most precious and easy to the understanding of all men," not only restores "many plain and precious parts" of scripture (1 Nephi 14:23; 1 Nephi 12:34), he also takes away the unplain and the unprecious--even down to the detail. The deletions require as much inspired attention as do the expansions or the changed word. Each new day breathes new light into a living prophet of God. Will we keep up?

The change in Ezekiel 19:10 prompts a few final insights.

Who is to say the wee change is insignificant? The mother, after all, represents "the entire Davidic royal house." The promised "taking away of [our] stumbling-blocks" of scriptural error, enables us to consider the allegory anew (1 Nephi 14:1).

After passing through the Prophet's hands, new life is breathed into an ancient prophecy, and we receive a pressing invitation: "when [Ezekiel's] record I unfold, all things appear divinely new." Any attention paid by the prophets of our day to Ezekiel, including and especially the focus on Ezekiel 37 and the Book of Mormon, urges us to "Come, let us anew our journey pursue" through this ancient book of prophecy.


There are Hebraists a-plenty among the Latter-day Saints, and doubtless many have mulled over the text history of Ezekiel 19:10 in light of Brother Joseph's changes to the text. At the same time, it's fascinating how such wee changes in the JST never figure in articles or books. Many Latter-day Saints cut our teeth on Joseph Smith's "New Translation" of the Bible (Herald Publishing, 1970), which sets everything in parallel columns. Ezekiel 19:10 is nowhere to be seen in either that volume nor in the official LDS Bible. The latter notes that "in your blood" should be understood, in light of the Hebrew, as "in your likeness." This is to rely on the KJV Translator's Notes: "or, in thy quietness, or, in thy likeness" (see Bible Hub online) or on Rashi. The recent publication of all the manuscripts of the Joseph Smith Translation heralds a new day. 

Copyrighted by Val H. Sederholm, June 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.