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Standard vs Non-Standard: Isaiah 59:19b (Part 4)

March 17, 2016

As we saw in part one, the English translation of Isaiah 59:19b differs radically between the KJV and allied versions, and the large majority of other English versions. This is a translation issue, and not a text issue, as both camps are working from the same underlying Hebrew text. Here is a representative version from each of the two camps.

a. When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him. (KJV)

b. for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the LORD drives. (ESV)

As you can see, these are entirely different in meaning. Note in particular, in the second instance, the “he” who comes, is not an enemy but God. These are entirely different takes on what the verse means.

I’ll note in passing that what the Amplified Bible does here simply conflates these two completely incompatible readings, (a) and (b) as if they could be blended together. Frankly, this should give us some insight into the value or worth of the Amplified Bible.

When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will lift up a standard against him and put him to flight [for He will come like a rushing stream which the breath of the Lord drives]. (Amplified 1965)

I have to admit, now that I’ve written this, that there is a newer (2015) edition of the Amplified, and it now falls into the (b) camp, though for some reason it retains a reference to “the enemy”:

For He will come in like a narrow, rushing stream
Which the breath of the Lord drives [overwhelming the enemy]. (Amplified 2015)

Why the difference?

This matter comes down to two main interpretive questions: one syntactic, the other lexical. That is, one has to do with how a word fits into the sentence and interacts with the other words (syntax). The other has to do with identifying a particular word, what is the underlying verb and therefore what does it mean? (lexical)

Here is the verse in Hebrew with the two words highlighted, followed by an interlinear table. (NB: the Hebrew reads right to left, the table left to right)

heb txt highlighted

כִּי-יָבוֹא

כַנָּהָר

צָר

רוּחַ

יְהוָה

נֹסְסָה בוֹ

Ki-yabo’

Kan-nahar

Tsar

Ruah

YHWH

Nosesah bo

For will come

Like the river

?

Spirit

Yahweh

?

(1) The Syntactic Problem

To explain this issue, you need to understand what we might call a claustrophobic notion in Hebrew. In a number of contexts the idea of “narrow, closed in” correlates with “dangerous, adverse” while “wide, open” expresses the idea of safety.

The word in red above, tsar, is an adjective with a basic meaning of “narrow, tight.” It can mean this in a  literal sense. But there is a substantival use, as an abstract, for “distress, trouble, adversity,” or a concrete, for “enemy, adverary.”

So how does this word fit in the sentence and how does it interact with the other words. Two possiblities:

a. It is the subject of the verb yabo’ (“will come”), and therefore substantival. The KJV takes it this way, in the concrete sense of “enemy.” As far as I can see, there is no inherent objection to this, not in terms of position or order or accenting or spelling or any other textual detail I am aware of. Especially not in terms of context, because it occurs in the preceding verse (18) and unquestionably has this meaning (though in plural), as the parallelism shows (the red is the word tsarim, plural of tsar):

According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment. (Isaiah 59:18 ESV)

And elsewhere the word is used as “enemy” in a similar syntactic context:

The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation. (Lamentations 1:10 ESV)

b. It is an adjective modifying the noun nahar “stream, river.” This too is a perfectly reasonable suggestion. The following verse has this word in an entirely analogous situation. including the same accentuation and vowel pointing:

Then the angel of the LORD went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. (Numbers 22:26 ESV)

Now the various translations in the (b) camp do a bit more than render the adjective as “narrow.” They give further significance to the stream being tightly constricted, especially as the following clause is taken as the wind driving the flow of water.

  • “rushing” (ASV, CEB, ESV, GW, GNT, HCSB, NASB, NET, NIRV, RSV, TLV, Wyc)
  • “pent-up” (CJB, ISV,NIV, NRSV)
  • “violent” (D-RA, JUB)
  • “fast-flowing” (ERV. EXB, ICB, NCV, )
  • “raging” (NLT)
  • “torrential” (Voice)

So inherently, one construction appears just as plausible as the other. It is the second interpretive question, the lexical one, which will be key in deciding the matter.

(2) The Lexical Problem.

This has to do with the word nosesah, which is a verb. Camp (a) translates this “raise a standard,” i.e. a banner or flag. Camp (b) renders it something like “driven by.” They are looking at the same word, but they are not reading the same word.

This matter will require further explanation, but in brief, here is what each camp thinks:

a. There is a noun nes, which means “banner” or “standard.” We see it in the familiar “Jehovah-Nissi” i.e. “The LORD is my banner.” (Ex. 17:15) Now you may be wondering how nes becomes nissi. This is perfectly regular, nes(s)+i–>nissi (with vowel e reduced to i)…

But you see at least there is a second s hiding in the root form. This has led someone to posit a verb root NSS, back-formed from the noun for banner, to mean “raise a banner.”

This at least accounts for three of what’s known as radicals in the verb form: nosesah.

b. The other camp takes it back to the verb nus, which means “to flee, to hasten, to go swiftly.” This is where the idea “drives” comes from.

We will have to go into this in another post.

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