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My Continuing War on Study Bibles

My Continuing War on Study Bibles

Well, maybe not a war. I don’t really hate Bibles with study notes, and even recommend their use for appropriate purposes. They’re great for giving you background information, pointing out connections, and so forth. When they tell you what the text says, they are not so great. At a minimum, use more than one, and use Bibles from different perspectives.

I’ve written a number of posts including one comparing introductions to the book of Luke. To get more, just put “study bible” (including the quotes) in the search box at the upper right.

In any case, my particular annoyance today is with the NLT Study Bible, and particular it’s coverage of the Proverbs 31 woman. The lectionary this week includes Proverbs 31:10-31. Now there are many ways of looking at this passage. On my lectionary notes blog, which I rarely update, I made a few comments on the passage.

The problem I have here is that the notes are simply flat. They make no mention of how anyone could have any other view of how the passage should be read. It begins: “Proverbs ends with a powerful poem celebrating the virtuous wife.”

It then mentions that this is an acrostic, a fine thing to note, but the question is just why did Hebrew poetry use acrostics. Was it to make the poem easier to remember? As someone who memorizes scripture from time to time, even in the original languages, I’m not certain that’s an adequate explanation. Perhaps we should start with the way in which thought structure is a core part of Hebrew poetry.

I know that a study Bible has limited space. The problem is that a reader goes from text to notes and decides that the notes must contain the true meaning of the text. They bypass the hard work of interpretation and they miss out on all the possibilities.

What would I want to see in such a note?

1) The note on the structure, with some additional options as to why this might be an acrostic

2) Some comment on why the editor chose to end his collection of proverbs with this particular passage

3) Explanation of some of the background, such as what went on at the city gate, and so forth.

I find this particular note lacking in all of this.

I do want to add that this shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of just the NLT Study Bible. Many others have similar problems. This is just the one I was reading this morning. Nonetheless, in contrast, I read the notes in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, which covers points 1 & 2 that I list above, resulting in what I would regard as a much more useful note. The Jewish Study Bible manages to cover all three.

Quote of the Day – on Genesis 15:6

Quote of the Day – on Genesis 15:6

… In the Tanakh, faith does not mean believing in spite of the evidence.  It means trusting profoundly in a person, in this case the personal God who has reiterated His promise.

(from The Jewish Study Bible: featuring The Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation, page 35.)

I think that’s an excellent statement of what faith is and is not, and might also tie the usage of faith between James 2:23 and Galatians 2:15ff as it relates to Paul’s use of Genesis 15:6 starting in Galatians 3:15.

Psalm 107 and Artificial Divisions

Psalm 107 and Artificial Divisions

I did the Old Testament/Psalms portion of my lectionary reading today from the Jewish Study Bible.  The notes draw attention to the difficulty in separating Psalm 107 into the next book.  The division between books 4 and 5 of the Psalms occurs between Psalm 106 and 107.  But these divisions are later than the text itself.

One should be aware that the Psalms are a collection, and that they are individually composed.  This makes their context within the book somewhat different in nature than the context of a particular chapter in another book.  For example, when I look at a chapter in Samuel-Kings, I look for it’s place in the overall scheme of the history presented.  In Isaiah or Jeremiah, while I realize that individual oracles were written at different times, I look for some sort of thematic arrangement.  The Pslams are a bit looser than that, or at least we are less certain of just why the collection was arranged.  Certainly, it is a collection of material by more than one author.

The Jewish Study Bible points out that Psalm 107 fits into the theme of Psalms 103-106, and indeed resembles them more than it does Psalm 108.  They also suggest moving the word “Hallelujah” from the end of Psalm 106 to the beginning of Psalm 107.  I would need to look at this further, but I am less impressed with that suggestion, even though I suggested that the Hallelujah at the end of Psalm 104 be moved to the beginning of Psalm 105 when I wrote on it in graduate school.

That change would result in an envelope of Hallelujah around Psalm 105 and again around Psalm 106, while Psalm 103 and Psalm 104 have an envelope of “Bless the LORD, O my soul.”  I think that single move I suggested back then works very well.

The thematic difference is more impressive, but I do see some thematic ties that point in both directions.  I’m not certain this division should actually be changed, though we should realize it’s later than the original collection, if “original collection” is even valid in reference to the Psalms.

I’m going to link to Bob McDonald at Bob’s Log,who has done much more work on the Psalms than I have (and that’s an understatement!), in the hopes that he will comment.

Translating Psalm 40:7-8

Translating Psalm 40:7-8

Aside from numbering problems, Psalm 40:7-8 appears to be quite straightforward on first reading in Hebrew (where it is verse 8-9). The numbering problems include chapter numbering (39 in the LXX), and verse numbering (8-9 in Hebrew, 7-8 in English). Of course, we all know that verse numbering is not inspired; it is often positively uninspiring.

The reason I wanted to bring it up, however, is to show how our approaches to interpretation might change what we see as a translation problem. Few of the English versions I consulted see any obscurity in this passage at all. The NRSV translates it thus:

7Then I said, “Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”

There is a footnote that tells us, “Meaning of Heb uncertain” but does not provide any alternatives or any discussion. A number of English versions, including the”>REB and the”>NLT mention no difficulty at all. The”>NASB provides the note “Or, prescribed for,” with is actually quite helpful. Yet in general if you read this book from the various English versions done mostly by Christian translators, you won’t get a sense that there is any translation issue here. Even the LXX translates it pretty much the same way.

This is one reason I enjoy reading both the New JPS translation and the notes in The Jewish Study Bible. First, they provided a clearly marked footnote on this, and then the notes provide a good explanation of the issue.

7Then I said,
b- “See, I will bring a scroll recounting what befell me.” -b
8To do what pleases You, my God, is my desire;
Your teaching is in my inmost parts.

Note b reads: “Meaning of Heb. uncertain.” The notes however tell us that the NJPS translation is interpreting this as “the psalmist’s hymn or a record of his experience.” Alternatives include the Torah (which fits with verse 9 in Hebrew very well), or the book of life, in which case the psalmist is thankful that his name is written there.

I think the problem here is not major issues such as whether there is some sort of Messianic prophecy or not. Rather, we’re used to hearing this more frequently from the quotation in Hebrews 10:5-7, which has its own variations. The quote begins with verse 6, for one thing, in which we have the word “body” (as in the best mss of the LXX) rather than “ears” as we have in the Hebrew (and some mss of the LXX). Nonetheless, in general the text doesn’t have to be specifically Messianic to be used by Jesus. At the same time its common use in quotation may blind us (or might I say blinded me?) to the alternative understandings.

The use in Hebrews 10 suggests that the writing is about the person speaking. Thus Jesus is saying that it is written of him in the Tanakh. Yet we have seen three alternatives. It might be something written by the speaker about himself. It could be the instructions of the Torah itself, connected to his expressed desire to do God’s will (v. 8), or even yet the book of life. I do see this last as the least likely in connection with the theme of the Psalm.

It is such little things that make me really enjoy reading both the NJPS translation and the notes in The Jewish Study Bible.