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 (et) is missing before צָעִֽיר (tsair). 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”; not “great” (רַב) as the Hebrew verse actually says!)

It is, indeed, a great challenge to make a responsible translation decision when the Hebrew text has a built-in ambiguity. But could it be that translator’s practice of alerting us only to one choice obscures something that the original author intentionally left in the text? 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.
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  4. Dr. Eli,

    I noticed that you only discussed the process of translation; I think you should also mention the process and terminology of transliteration, and it's role in understanding ancient writings (beware: Greeks & Latins/Romans have a disingenuous history of using substitution in regards to Hebrew & Aramaic languages).
  5. I forgot to add: did you know that the letter 'J' was not added to the English language until the 16th century? Think about what this means for the name 'Jesus' up until then: what was the English name for Yeshua before the 16th century? Was it Lesous ('Hail Zeus')?
    • Actually the letter "J" existed before the 1600's but it only represented a consonantal "Y" sound (as German still does). By the 1700's, the English "J" made the sound that it does today. As for Jesus' name, the 1611 KJV has Iesus (as do Coverdale and Tyndale), the Geneva Bible has Iesvs, and the Wycliffe Bible (late 1300's) has Jhesu (pronounced Yhe-soo). The Greek has Iesous, trying to represent the Semitic name Yeshua (or in the Galilean dialect, Yeshu) plus a final masculine "s" for Greek grammatical purposes.

      + More answers (2)
  6. More recent scholarship by Dr. Robert Lindsey
    and others now indicates a Hebrew structure to
    the basic Greek New Testament (i.e., Hebrew syntax
    embedded within the Greek text). The scattered
    Aramaic words found in the New Testament are either
    loan words or are simply poorly transliterated
    Hebrew words and phrases rendered into Greek.”
    – Did Jesus speak Hebrew ?
    by John J. Parsons
    • It is not news that there is a Hebrew structure to the NT. The question is whether it was rather mechanically translated from a Hebrew original or whether Hebrew minded writers wrote in unconventional (non-classical) Greek.
  7. It is my position that no translation is perfect.
    The statement is a prophecy and there is nothing we have to do about it so there are no practical implications for us whether it be the "older" of the "greatest". It worked out as it worked out. The younger took the blessing of the older.
    • Sean, He tried to take the blessing. It did not succeed. In the end , Jacob got the blessing of Abraham which was always meant for him ( covenant rather than wealth meant for the firstborn) but Esau had more riches which came to him far more easily, apparently than to Jacob, who had to work a lot of years for his uncle! I think this is addressed in another article somewhere on this site . Also read Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name. Read the chapter on Wrestling with the Angel.
  8. word to word translation or transliteration? This problem exists even in the simplest literal product. When discussing about the Holly Books of Christianity and Judaism my opinion is that the best help is the knowledge of the original language of the text under study. But because in the texts we are considerig many subtle ideas may exist, a lot of study will also be needed. Speaking about myself almost each time iI read a text even in Greek modern or ancient ( I am Greek), I will discover a new idea which I hadnt noticed before. However this is not possible in a trnsliterated text.
  9. Your comment is awaiting moderation
    It is the biggest problem with any historical text and the main reason for my finally beginning to write a general ontology about natural law as the main representation of God's will before and after any books, institutions, scientists etc.

    As a writer to whom writing is as necessary as digesting, I after tens of thousands of pages know myself how fast we make really big mistakes without remarking it, finally telling the opposite of what we originally wanted to tell.

    So my first main question is: was there a special sign for the function of the negation (words like "no", "not", "non") in the original biblical language?

    Moreover I want to add something about the Christian churches, more precisely: about the struggle between the Catholic and the Orthodox one (remember the war of formerly Yugoslavia).

    Here we have one "Jesus died FOR our sins" in the liturgy (Catholic), there a Jesus died DUE TO our sins (Orthodox).

    If we compare it to money, the gap is much smaller: We give money for and due to a course.

    Isn't it interesting to get the difference when we are talking about guilt?

    Thank you very much for the inspiration and for the time you took to read through this comment.


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