Book Reviews

Book Review: The First Testament (John Goldingay)

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OT John Goldingay has written a new translation on the Old Testament, what he calls the First Testament. His translation style is closer to word-by-word rather than sentence-by-sentence. If something is vague or unclear, it’s because Goldingay has followed the Hebrew text. He avoids traditional English words such as salvation, holiness, covenant, eternity, justice, and righteousness because he thinks these words don’t correspond well with their Hebrew counterparts. Some names are transliterated, others are translated (more comment on that below). He tries to use the same Hebrew word to translate any one Hebrew word. This way, for example, you can see how the word “serve” shows up throughout Exodus without that Hebrew word being obscured by a different English word.

Below I give examples of Goldingay’s translations.

Genesis

1:7: ‘Expanse’ or ‘firmament’ becomes ‘dome.’

3:24: the cherubim become ‘sphinxes.’

A few names that are transliterated:

  • Cain = ‘Qayin’
  • Isaac = ‘Izshaq’
  • Abel = ‘Hebel’

4:5: God’s acceptance of Hebel’s offering “really enraged Qayin and he went into a huff.”

There is not a mistake in Genesis 4:18: At first you read ‘Mehuya’el,’ but then ‘Mehiya’el.’ This is what is written in Hebrew, and Goldingay has transliterated it accordingly. 

Noah’s ark = ‘chest.’

The flood = ‘deluge.’

9:9: the noahic covenant = ‘pact.’

In some ways more literal (word for word). In Genesis 1:3, instead of ‘Let there be light,’ God simply said, “Light.” I’m not sure why he doesn’t leave it the way it is since יְהִ֣י (the jussive form of היה) comes before ‘light’ (אוֹר). “Let there be light” wouldn’t be wrong.

In other ways his translation is still dynamic (thought for thought). In Genesis 9:2, the animals don’t ‘fear’ man, they have ’reverence’ for man. (See Job 41:25 for the only other occurrence of this word, which seems to imply fear more than reverence.)

Sometimes Goldingay translates names (Nod = ‘Drifting’). Other times he gives the Hebrew of someone’s name and/or how it puns on a nearby word. In Genesis 9, Japhet is written as ‘Yephet’. Goldingay translates 9:17 as, “May God extend [yapht] Yephet and may he dwell in Shem’s tents” showing the pun on Japhet’s name.

In some verses he translates one name but not another. In Genesis 12:8 he shows that ‘Ha’ay’ (=Ai) means ‘The Ruin,’ but not that ‘Bet-el’ (=Bethel) means ‘House of God’ (though he may explain this later on. Still, he normal gives the translation on the first occurrence).  

Goldingay’s section headings are pretty interesting, with some humorously getting the point of the passage across. For example, Goldingay titles the section on Babylon in Genesis 11 “Babel becomes Babble-on.”

Some phrases are odd, and that’s probably because they remind me Hawaiian Pidgin translation of the NT, Da Jesus Book. In Genesis 12.1–3, God will make Abraham to be a ‘big nation’ (instead of a great nation).

In Numbers 14.18, Yahweh is not steadfast in love but ‘big in commitment’ (see also Num 14.12). The translation is fine, but why not leave ‘great’ as it was.

As I said above, Goldingay doesn’t use certain words like “righteousness” because he thinks these words don’t correspond well with their Hebrew counterparts. What does he use instead of “righteous”?  He uses “Faithful.” But that has a different connotation to it. A righteous person is faithful, but a faithful person isn’t necessarily righteous. This shows up in Genesis 18:25a: “Far be it from you to do a thing like this, putting to death the faithful with the faithless, so the faithful and the faithless are the same.”

Genesis 18:25b is just clunky, “Isn’t the one who exercises authority over the entire earth to exercise authority.”

Numbers

Here I’ll compare the ESV translations with Goldingay’s.

11:1 ESV: ‘And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord’

11:1 JG: ’veritable complainers in Yahweh’s ears

12:10 ESV: ‘Miriam was leprous, like snow.’

12:10 JG: Miriam’s leprousy is described as being ‘scaly, like snow.’

14:28 ESV: “Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you:”

14:28 JG: I think Goldingay is too literal here. This line doesn’t make enough sense to even be helpful. But I think that might be the point. He is very literal, it is as if you are reading the Hebrew (but in English). 

14:44 ESV: ‘the ark of the covenant.’

14:44 JG: the ark of the covenant is translated as a ‘pact chest’ (see above about Noah’s ark and the noahic covenant).

Joshua

1:8: Joshua is to “murmur” the Lord’s ‘instructive document’ (his law) day and night.

I think a different word besides ‘murmur’ would have served the reader better because in the ESV, ‘murmur’ is always used negatively (the Israelites murmur and rebel against God).

Judges

2:1:, The ‘angel of the Lord’ is referred to as ‘Yahweh’s envoy.’

1:31, 36: The names of some lands or areas are transliterated. In Judges 1.31, Sidon= ‘Tsidon.’ Other names are translated, such as the ascent of Akrabbim, referred to here as ‘Scorpion Ascent’ (1:36).

2:16–17: The judges are referred to as ‘people who exercise authority.’

Recommended?

If you want to get a taste of what it’s like to read Hebrew, this is a very interesting translation to pick up. I don’t know Hebrew well, but I had Hebrew I and II in seminary (my favorite classes). I find that I have to pay extra attention while I read because the wording is so strange. This is especially so when it comes to names. Characters such as Isaac, Hezekiah, Zedekiah, Isaiah, and others require me to slow down while I’m reading to remember who’s whom. (Honestly, I have a hard enough time keeping up with people in 2 Samuel in English!) I tend to think, Why don’t I just read this in Hebrew? (Oh, because it would take a long time.)

But reading Isaiah, or the Psalms, or Proverbs, or most of the prophets is very interesting. Goldingay doesn’t intend for his translation to overshadow any others. He admits there is no perfect translation. He wants people who don’t know Hebrew to get a taste of the Hebrew text. And in that I think he succeeds.

Lagniappe

  • Author: John Goldingay
  • Hardcover: 924 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 4, 2018)

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Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

5 comments

  1. Thanks for the word for word. I am fascinated by three close translations in almost as few months of each other. Alter, Goldingay, and my own. Alter makes no attempt at concordance. Goldingay does and it would be surious to run his translation through my algorithms and see where he has failed my rule of backwards mapping (unavoidable for some words), where he has used many synonyms for some stems (a necessity for homonyms), and where he has created artificial unique readings, the sort of thing that word-for-word thinking will use to make up truth where it is less than true.

    This is not really literal – I don’t know what literal means when I think about it. It is a close reading. Close readings take a long time. The ongoing background prayer is the benefit. We are often in too much of a hurry. Ancient foreignness is fascinating in its own right also.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bob. I should probably change what I wrote about it being “literal,” though I think he used that language himself. So many people use the term, but not everyone uses it in the same way. I would be interested to see his unique readings, I just can’t read through his translation and another translation everyday from Genesis to Malachi to see what they would be.

  2. You already pointed out one artificial almost unique reading (aka hapax) – the use of reverence. How did you know that there were only two occurrences of this word in his translation? I reserved ׳revere׳ for an Aramaic stem פלח. It distinguishes the language in the Aramaic sections from Hebrew.

    For the record, Job 41:25 and Gen 9:2 do not use the same Hebrew stem. You say “He tries to use the same Hebrew word to translate any one Hebrew word”. Judging from this small sample, I doubt that he has come close to 1:1 mapping. First it is impossible and second, it can’t be done without computational help. The human mind cannot handle the complexity. It forgets what it did. And editors will not respect it either.

    Gen 9:2 And the fear of you and dismay of you will be on every living thing of the earth. Here we have two words in the domain of fear, ירא and חתת. In contrast, Job 41:25 is, From his lifting up, gods are ‘in awe’. גור. Great description of a fire-breathing dragon. You an see we have three distinct stems and what looks like subjective translation.

    His use of the same English gloss reverence for two distinct Hebrew stems here seems unnecessary to me. I am sure from this initial taste that he will have done this sort of thing frequently. He is more likely to represent his own ideas in his translation unless he has algorithms reminding him of his arbitrary decisions.

    To be fair, he is a member of the guild and can arbitrate with far more depth in Hebrew and religion than I can – In experience, he is more like a lake and I a puddle. But I like my puddle. The lake is muddy and a lot of people have drowned in it. My puddle is very clear. I have puddling experience with Hebrew, but a lake of experience with pattern recognition. And I hate the vagueness of subjective judgment, even if it is well-meaning. I don’t know Goldingay, but he did stare daggers at me across a room at St Andrews in 2013 when I asked what was probably a rude question. (I forget the question now!)

    Did he use dome for רקע in Psalm 19 also? (v2 Hebrew), and what his hands make is evident from the expanse.)

    1. Hah! I don’t know if they’re the only two occurrences, I just happened to look them up. I hope I didn’t say they were the only two…

      hahahaha. I wish you could remember the question you asked him. I’ll check on Psalm 19 in a bit and get back to you.

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