“Exodus”: Whose Is It?

I am now ready to say something about the first Exodus. And what I mean by Exodus is the Exodus of the Septuagint. Accurately, that particular Exodus is the name, the title name, of what is the second book of the Pentateuch. Precisely, the Pentateuch is the name, the title name, for the five books of Moses. Meticulously, the set of five books is written, is finished, is bound, and is placed in or beside the ark of the covenant for careful carrying and reading and re-reading. Exactly, for readers whose eyes move right to left across the horizontal line of a page, one line of confirmation is the following:

ויהי ׀ ככלות משה לכתב את־דברי התורה־הזאת על־ספר עד תמם׃

That’s quite a lead in to what I want to say. What I’m trying to get at with you is agreement, agreement specifically on accuracy of a text and then accuracy of its translation. We want to know, accurately, what the line of Hebrew letters (as above, without spokenness, without vowels) means. If we can’t get that right, if we can’t know what the letters mean, then how can we keep talking about Exodus, as a translation of more than Hebrew letters — Exodus as a book but not just any book — Exodus as the second of five finished books — Exodus as the translation of that second of the five books?

Would you agree with me that most of us really are not concerned with whose translation the Book of Exodus is? If you are not a Jew, then might whomever it was who translated the Hebrew Torah be of any consequence to the accurate fact that there is now an extant text of Greek called “Exodus“? If you are Jewish, then who cares really who these people, the translators, were? If we talk about the people, as translators, then we might get side tracked from our interest in translation. That is for some the public interest in “better Bibles.” If we talk about the people, as translators, then we might get distracted from far more objective concerns such as linguistics (not theology), communication (not wordplay), natural language for common readers (not difficult rhetoric), and accuracy (i.e., “the most important measure of a successful translation project”).

Well, then. Let’s get to the facts (and not concern ourselves with whose accuracy we’re dealing with when considering the first Exodus).

The Greek phrase “ἔξ·οδος” occurs some 70 times in the texts of the Septuagint (and that includes the various manuscripts and versions of books that count by anyone’s counting). It shows up in the Pentateuch. It shows up beyond the Pentateuch. It is inflected a dozen ways. It corresponds to various Hebrew phrases. It corresponds (beyond the Hebrew) in accurate reference to the following (and we’re using English glosses here):

  • exits (i.e., exit doors of rooms)
  • streets, pathways
  • a spring of water
  • the path of the rising sun in the sky
  • the movement of the Divine in the Heavens
  • goings or departures (especially repeated ones as in “going and coming”)
  • the direction of groanings (and the path back for curses)
  • human death
  • human life beginning (as a baby comes out of its mother’s womb)
  • “The Ode of Moses in the Exodus” (a title given to various songs attributed to Moses, about the Exodus)
  • the Exodus of the “sons of Israel” and the “house of Jacob” from a very specific place (i.e., “Egypt”) from a very specific time (i.e., even the month is marked) from a very specific people group speaking a very specific and very different way.

In another post, I hope to come back to the ways that the Greek phrase exodus was used before this first bible translation that we call the Septuagint (or, “the LXX”). If we look closely, we might begin agreeing with another text: “The time came when one rabbi compared ‘the accursed day when the seventy elders wrote the Law in Greek for the king’ , to the day on which Israel made the golden calf (Tractate Sopherim 1.8).” If we look carefully, we could start asking whether the LXX follows more what Eugene Nida promotes for Christian Bible translators (i.e., “dynamic equivalence”) or more what Nida tended to oppose (i.e., “formal equivalence”). What are we to do with all the mismatches, these inaccuracies for this first translation of this second book we call “Exodus”?

But before we end this post, I want to ask again, Whose accuracy are we talking about here?

Here’s a very interesting translation that begs us to reconsider the people, the translators. It is Psalm 114:1 as translated into Greek from the Hebrew the first time, one of the first translations of “Exodus” ever.

First, here’s our King James’ version:

When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language;

Now, there’s their Hebrew:

בצאת ישראל ממצרים בית יעקב מעם לעז׃

Finally, here is their Hellene (at least in some variant manuscripts for some variant version of the Psalms 114:1, or 113:1):

αλληλουια ἐν
ἐξ όδῳ
ἐξ Αἰγύπτου
οἴκου Ιακωβ
ἐκ λαοῦ βαρβάρου

When the translated verse mentions the people out from which Israel and the House of Jacob come, there’s a very interesting choice of words for those people which gets at how they speak. It is the Greek word, Barbarian, or βάρβαρος. It is not a common phrase in the LXX at all. It is not just an “accurate” translation of the lonely Hebrew phrase: לָעַז. We might then hear the mocking stammering in the new Song sung in Greek. We might see and overhear this translator’s choice as a very personal sort of word choice here.

The choice was made to translate in Egypt. People translating made this choice among other people whose ancestors are called (by this choice of words) “barbarians” with all the ugly, civilized-Greek meanings of that word. How’s that for accuracy?

What we, as people, might be interested in here is how translation is very personal. We can pretend objectivity. But even that’s a personal choice. We want, don’t we, for the linguistics to overcome somebody else’s subjective theologies when it comes to a Bible translation.

When it comes to the Exodus, however, we come face to face with the possibilities that scholars such as Naomi Seidman and Sylvie Honigman bring us to. Seidman suggests that Jewish translation, in which Jews are minorities among dominant and often anti-Semitic peoples, is “accurate” in a much different way than, say, Eugene Nida’s accuracy pushes for. Honigman opens up the possibility that the people translating their own scriptures for outsiders in Egypt may be following a paradigm that doesn’t look very civilized at all. (See Seidman’s book Faithful Renderings: Jewish and Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation; and Honigman’s book The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria: A Study in the Narrative of the ‘Letter of Aristeas’).

So what? Well, the “so what” for us might be that we could more often ask “Whose accuracy?” We might more often let language be personal. We may allow the Bible to be personal, and differently personal, when we read it. We can translate as outsiders. Or else, what if we, with respect to the text of the Hebraic phrase ἔξ·οδος, were more like its barbarians?

In the next post, I’ll try to say more how Aristotle used this phrase. This is a bit important, I think, since Aristotle made ἔξ·οδος also a very technical phrase. He was very opposed to barbarous language. He was after being accurate in the strictest sense. (So again when Bible translators today strive for accuracy, won’t we do best to ask Whose accuracy?)


2 responses to ““Exodus”: Whose Is It?

  1. Don’t you think you gave up the game when you used the name (pun intended) Exodus instead of Shmos?

    Even if one reads the Greek name instead of the Hebrew, isn’t the reaction completely different for those people who are in galus — in exile — rather than those who have accepted the Great Commission and affiliated themselves with all the peoples of the Earth? One group is on the outside, waiting for their messiah, and the other is in the inside, already living in the Kingdom. The former reads their own contemporary story in The Book of Exile and wonders when the forty years will finally come to an end; the latter reads the story of their predecessors. Doesn’t this identification control everything else one says about The Book of Exile?

    • Thanks for asking! The game only just begins when we use and resort to translation. As Edith Grossman puts it, “Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight. The alternative is unthinkable.”

      And doesn’t Naomi Seidman’s reading of the Talmud’s account of LXX point to something chronically and fundamentally missed by Christians (i.e., “those who have accepted the Great Commission and affiliated themselves with all the peoples of the Earth”)? She emphasizes that the “Talmud does present an extraordinary Jewish counternarrative to the [Christian] patristic Septuagint legends” and that this Jewish counter-interpretation sees that “the Septuagint, as an imperfect translation, is also a perfect mistranslation.”

      I’m exploring here the possibility of intentional mis-directing. In Egypt, under yet another new empire of exile, where “Exodus” (not the sacred “Shmos”) has all these Greeky meanings, the whole translation effort becomes an inside joke. I was being serious above when pointing out “Barbarians” for the translation wordchoice. It’s a slap in the (civilized Greek political imperial Republican) face.

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