Our Bibles obscure the fact that some Hebrew original wording is difficult to translate with certainty. We, the readers, are left unaware that often faithful and hardworking translators are forced to make a decision from several available options present in the original text.

Here is just one example of the kind of challenge that translators often face. We read in Gen. 25:23:

Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”

When translated literally we read: “Two peoples are in your stomach”- שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ.Two peoples will separate from you” -וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ. “One people over another will exercise strength -וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ. But it is the last portion of this verse that introduces a considerable ambiguity -וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר. Traditional translations render it as “the older will serve the younger”.

If the phrase is to be translated as “the older will serve the younger” than the word את is missing before צָעִֽיר. Without את  it is not clear if the younger will serve the older or as liturgical Jewish singing practice implies the other way around!

(Moreover, the opposite of “young” צָעִֽיר is “old” and but not “great” (רַב) as the Hebrew verse actually says!)

It is indeed a great challenge to make a responsible translation decision when the text in Hebrew clearly has a built-in ambiguity. But could it be that translator’s practice of alerting us only to one choice obscures something that was intentionally left in the text by its author? Probably so.



  1. Shalom Dr Eli Lizorkin . Que o Eterno continue abençoando a sua vida, seus estudos são edificantes! Paz sobre Israel .

  2. This was challenging indeed. I wanted the correct intrepretation but managed to find my mistake instead. I do not separate Jacob and Israel when I read because they are the same person to me. Therefore, I did not separate election (before the twins were born) from promise (your name shall be called Israel). The famous “not by works” line is about election. I have a lot to rethink.

  3. This is especially difficult when dealing with puns in Hebrew. Job 13:15 has the famous pun as KJV renders it “Yea, though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” Where the word “Lo” ״לו״ is translated “in Him.” But it is an aural pun and as the Masorah tells us it can also be read as “Lo” “לא” meaning no/not where the alternative translation is “Even if He kills me, I have no hope!” It is supposed to be ambiguous, but how do you translate this without a comment on the sound of “Lo”? This is central to the story of Job, and the argument between God and Satan over Job’s righteousness, and happens as many as five times through out the book with other puns. I “hope” and “trust” this is understandable!

    • I got it (I doubt all others did), but you are of course right this kind of examples highlight how complicated translation decisions can be.


Please enter your name here
Words left: 50
Please enter your comment!