Nelson Study Bible Note Problems

Nelson Study Bible Note Problems

I’m not going to link to a specific edition on this, because there is no ISBN in the edition from which I’m working. It appears to be a match for this item on Amazon.com, and to be essentially the same notes as this item, though I cannot be absolutely certain. If you have a similar version, you can simply check your notes to see if they say the same thing as mine.

First, of course, I’m a bit prejudiced because I think the NKJV is one of the less useful translations. It is literal, but less readable than the ESV or the HCSB. I don’t call any of the major modern versions bad Bibles, but the NKJV is fairly low on my list.

What I want to comment on today, however, is the notes, part of Nelson’s Complete Study System. I used this Bible today for my lectionary reading. Each morning I read both the current week’s lectionary passages and the next week’s, thus giving me 14 opportunities to meditate on them. I use different Bible versions and also read the notes if I’m using an edition that has notes.

In my reading on Isaiah 42:1-9 today, I noticed this note in a “wordfocus” block:

. . .While ‘ebed can mean slave (Gen. 43:18), slavery in Israel was different than in most places in the ancient Middle East. Slavery was regulated by the Law of Moses, which prohibited indefinite slavery and required that slaves be freed on the Sabbath (seventh) year (Ex. 21:2)–and the Year of Jubilee–the fiftieth year (Lev. 25:25-28). . . .

Now there is certainly value in pointing out the slavery laws in Israel, and comparing them to those in the ancient near east. Notice, however, that if one reads on in Leviticus 25, there is something that is not mentioned in this little note, and it is significant.

44But as for your male slave or your female slave who are yours, from among the nations who are around you you may acquire both male slave and female slave. 45And also from among those who are [foreigners] living in your land and from those who are sojourning among you you may acquire them and from their clan that is with them which they bring forth in your land, and they will be your possession, 46and you may leave them to your sons after you to possess; they may enslave them permanently. Only with your brethren, the children of Israel, each person must not make his brother labor harshly.

The problem here is that the note implies that somehow Israel’s form of slavery was entirely benign, without mentioning the exception to the rule. Anyone from the nations around or from foreigners who were in their land could be bought and possessed permanently.

This is important because there are two ways of handling slavery passages in the Bible. The first is to try to deny the similarity between the slavery practices in the Bible and that in other countries or in more recent times, such as slavery in the United States. The second is to view the rules of slavery as a cultural accommodation, i.e. slavery was not good, but was not yet forbidden.

I take the second approach. My point about this note is that that the editors of these notes presumably take the opposite one, but that they gloss over a substantial element of the Israelite rules for slavery. This is one of the ways in which study notes can be deceptive, even unintentionally.

The second note comes on Psalm 40:1, in which it discusses the words translated “waited patiently” in the NKJV:

The Hebrew translated I waited patiently is literally “waiting I waited.” The emphasis of this phrase is not really on patience but on the fact that David waited solely on the Lord. . . .

I have to wonder where they got this interpretation. The phrase “waiting I waited” is simply not good English. It is formally equivalent to the Hebrew, but this is one of those cases where the literal translation does not suggest the right set of options to English ears. It is a Hebrew idiom of intensification. I WAITED! Now you may think of a few options, such as the intensity of the expectation, or the length of the wait, but the verbal structure itself does not specify who is waited on, or anything about how this person is the sole person on whom the Psalmist waits.

The context suggests that YHWH was the sole one in whom the Psalmist placed his hope, but the verb form suggests only the intensity of the experience. For modern American English, I don’t even like the word “waited” here, though the REB and the NRSV both use “waited patiently.” I would prefer the JPS Tanakh’s “I put my hope in the LORD.” They lose the intensification, but I think they catch the essence of the verb more clearly.

What I would hope to show from these examples is the danger of depending on notes, along with the value of looking at more than one translation. Looking at more than one set of notes is also a valuable hedge against incomplete or misleading notes.

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