Sunday, December 19, 2010

Proverbs 10:29 and the Way of Yahweh

In the New American Standard Bible (1995), Proverbs 10:29 reads:

The way of the LORD is a stronghold to the upright, But ruin to the workers of iniquity.
This verse struck me as odd. Why would Yahweh's way be ruin to anybody? So I decided to investigate.

The phrase "way of Yahweh" occurs seven times in the OT, five of which are conceptually parallel Proverbs 10:29 (Gen. 18:19; Jdg. 2:22; 2 Kgs 21:22, Jer. 5:4, 5). God “knows” Abraham so that he will command his children to “keep the way of Yahweh” by doing righteousness and justice (Gen. 18:19). This set of collocations—the way of Yahweh is kept by doing righteousness—shows up in Judges 2:22, where the Lord tells Israel he will leave Canaanites in the land in order to test them to see whether they will keep the way of Yahweh as their father’s did. The clear implication is that keeping the way of Yahweh involves doing what is right and good in His eyes.

Amon, son of Manasseh, unmoved by his Father’s late-in-life repentance, “forsook Yahweh, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of Yahweh” (2 Kings 21:22). Here failure to walk in the way of Yahweh is the consequence of forsaking Yahweh. One cannot cleave to Yahweh and not walk in His way. The previous two verses fill out the “way” Amon walked: he did evil in Yahweh’s sight, walked in all the way Manasseh had walked, and served the idols his father had served.

In Jeremiah 5:4, 5, the prophet seeks for those who “know the way of Yahweh, the mishpat of God.” The way of Yahweh appears to be appositionally modified by the phrase mishpat of God. Keil & Delitzsch comment on Jeremiah 5:4-5, “They know not the way of Jahveh, i.e., the way, the manner of life, prescribed to men by God in His word; (cf. 2 Kgs 21:22; Psa 25:9). The judgment of their God, i.e., that which God demanded as right and lawful (2 Kgs 17:26)."

This background illumines Proverbs 10:29 and helped me know how to interpret its cryptic lines. A paraphrase of the passage would read, “The upright—those who do what is right and good in Yahweh’s sight—find that Yahweh provides them protection because they know, keep, and walk in His way; the wicked—those who do what is wrong and evil in Yahweh’s sight—find that their way leads them to destruction; they have no protection from Yahweh."

I think the NASB mistranslates the second half of this verse by not supplying a linking verb. It should read, “but destruction [is / shall be] to the workers of iniquity.” As it stands, the NASB’s rendering implies that the way of Yahweh is destruction to the workers of iniquity. This rendering depends on understanding Yahweh as a subjective genitive, and ignores the phrase’s predominant usage throughout the OT--as a shorthand for the lifestyle Yahweh desires and requires from His followers.

Those who choose not to walk in His ways (the wicked) will be destroyed. On the other hand, those who live the way Yahweh prescribes find Yahweh is indeed their stronghold.


Anonymous said...

Philip --
Just reading your blog as I have from time to time. I must say I appreciate your careful approach to the study of scripture, as well as your high level of skill with the tools of the exegete.

Questions about the point you are making --
1. In light of the fact that several other translations (ESV, NAS,NIV,NRSV, etc.) seem to follow the NASB in its translation of the verse -- does this not give you at least some pause in asserting that they have mistranslated the verse?
2. Are you not also treating the Way "of the Lord" as a subjective genitive? It is the "way" He has prescribed, laid down, desired? When I look at the last paragraph you wrote on this post, I see that you have used "The way of the Lord" (or its close equivalent) in each sentence. It leads me to appeal to the structure of the LXX and the Hebrew -- could it be rendered this way--)free rendering) -- "The way of the Lord: a fortress to the righteous, but destruction to those who do evil." --
This would give the sense that God's way is a Source of life for those who observe it, but an occasion of death for those who don't. (remarkably similar, IMO to your final paragraph). I guess my point is that I gain the same sense of the verse when I read your suggested rendering as when I read the other translations.
3. As an exegete, how comfortable do you feel in rendering the "predominant usage" of a phrase used 7 times, only 2 of which you mention are used prior to Proverbs? Seems to me that the small amount of data would rather lead us that we cannot be too confident in our conclusions one way or another.
4. While the phrase "way of the Lord" occurs few times, can'tt we also include with it other phrases, such as the "way of the righteous" to inform an overall concept that God's way (i.e. the way He desires, decrees, and the way that the righteous live), is a certain life to be lived, that issues in Life, safety, etc., -- and that to neglect it will issue in death, destruction, etc.?

In conclusion, I would like to thank you for your work in producing the Reader's Hebrew Bible. It is a constant blessing to me, as most of my reading of the Bible is in the original languages -- and you have made that possible for me in the OT.
James D. Brown, HSBC, 1977)

Philip Brown said...

Hi, James,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Thanks also for your encouraging word about the use of the Reader's Hebrew Bible. I'm delighted you find it useful.

Regarding your comments:
First of all, I appreciate your excellent questions, their spirit, and the opportunity you provide me to revisit my thinking in community.

We're clearly in the same conceptual ball park, and I'm hard pressed to see any sizable difference in our applications.

Second, your methodological and epistemological questions are helpful. Let me address them first:

Predominant usage: My approach is to weigh frequency of occurrence, grammatical & syntactical ambiguity, conceptual clarity, and theological trajectory/consistency when seeking to establish the sense of a word, phrase, or quote.

Frequency of occurrence: more is better, but this is less important to me than the next criterion.

Syntactical ambiguity: The X of Y genitive construction is notoriously ambiguous, so I sought to pay careful attention to its use elsewhere, noting that it is consistently the direct object of verbs (walk, keep, know) with human subjects (Gen. 18:19; Judg. 2:22; 2 Kgs 21:22; Jer. 5:4, 5) and in all cases refers to a pattern of behavior that is in harmony with Yahweh's will, and not to a pattern of Yahweh's behavior.

[I would back transform it to the kernel: the behavioral path established by Yahweh; not the path which Yahweh treads. I.e., I'm take it as a source genitive and not a subjective genitive. Since all subjective genitives are a subset of source genitives (subjects are the source of their actions), it is conceptually possible to take it as a subjective genitive, but the natural verb in the underlying kernel in that case would be darak "to tread, walk." I'm not seeing it as Yahweh treading or walking, but as Yahweh establishing through revelation the parameters of the behavior he desires]

The syntactical clarity of its uses elsewhere leads to conceptual clarity. The further clarifying prepositional/infinitival phrase in Gen. 18:19 "by doing righteousness and justice" also supported my understanding that the phrase 'way of Yahweh' is not a subjective genitive there but a genitive of source. The focus on human behavior as being in or not in 'the way of Yahweh' in the other passages offered no detour from this line of thinking.

Both in terms of preceding usage (Gen and Judg) and following usage (2 Kgs; Jer) there is a consistent theological trajectory=people do or do not obey/follow the way Yahweh has established. The consistency of the theological use of the term makes, IMO, it more probable that a syntactically ambiguous usage like Prov. 10:29 should be taken as a point along the same trajectory, rather than a divergent point with a divergent sense. In other words, when the immediate context provides no clear or likely indicators of meaning, I allow the consistent usage elsewhere to govern the likely reading (unclear interpreted by clear).

Perhaps 'mistranslated' sounded condemning or that I thought the NASB culpably errant. I didn't intend either. My intent was to communicate my conclusion that I thought the text is better translated as I suggested: "destruction [is/shall be] to the wicked," rather than that the way of Yahweh is destruction to the wicked.