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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — From Where Did God Bring Out the Israelites (Exod 20:2)?

Categories Hebrew and You


When studying the Bible, it is always useful to compare versions. Some differences, though, do not make immediate sense to readers. Two excellent and popular translations are the NASB (1995) and the NIV (2011). In Exod 20:2, there are a couple of differences that might get the attention of a careful reader. Let’s identify them and see how Hebrew can help us understand the versions better and deepen our understanding of the Bible text.

First, compare the versions with the Hebrew (MT = Masoretic Text). The differences are in bolded font in the English and the relevant Hebrew words are in enlarged font.

Hebrew and You with Lee Fields

Translation Differences

The chart with aligned texts makes clear two differences between the translations: (1) the NASB reads “the land of Egypt” while the NIV does not have any equivalent for that phrase, and (2) where the NASB reads “house of slavery,” the NIV reads “land of slavery.”

First, there is a Hebrew word, אֶרֶץ (ʾereṣ), rendered “the land of” by the NASB that is not translated by the NIV. There is no significant difference in meaning between “the land of Egypt” and simply “Egypt.” I suspect that the reason the NIV translators did not include it is because of the rendering in the next phrase, which has “the land of slavery.” Perhaps they thought the redundancy of the expression was poor sounding English or else even confusing the meaning. In any case, the next translation difference is more significant.

Second, what is the explanation for “house of” versus “land of” in the last phrase? Was this a specific building that housed slaves? Or does it refer to a bigger place, perhaps the whole of Egypt? The dictionary form of the Hebrew word is בַּיִת (bayit). In the text the form is בֵּית (bêt), meaning “house of” (on the construct state see the March 2014 post). Not counting its use in proper nouns such as Bethel, this very common word occurs 2031 times in the OT according to Logos Bible Software (exact counts differ because of variations in counting methods); of these 1485 occur in this construct form. As mentioned in an earlier post (January 2015), every word has a range of meaning. Consequently, a word that occurs as often as בַּיִת is naturally translated in many different ways. Let’s just look at the top five for each of these two versions:

Fields 0715.2

Range of Meaning

This quick survey only begins to indicate the range of meanings. It is often helpful to classify the meanings into two large categories: literal/concrete and metaphorical/abstract; after that one can identify subcategories, especially under that metaphorical/abstract category.

For a word used this many times, using a lexicon or computer program is very helpful. Logos Bible Software has a Bible-Sense Lexicon. Instead of sorting meanings by translation, it classifies by meaning. For example, instead of lumping together “house of the Rechebites,” “house of the Lord” and “the king’s house” because of the common translation “house,” they are separated into the categories of temple, clan, and palace. This is the same process Bible students use to perform word studies and comparing to the results of professionals is valuable. Students still need to do their own work, however, because general works may not be answering the question the student seeks to answer.

By far the most common use of the construct form בֵּית is to refer to a physical place or building, such as a person’s house or the temple of a deity. However, there are several metaphorical/abstract meanings as well. It can refer to a household or family (all the people living in a house, e.g., Gen 7:1), or to a people group (e.g., “the house of Israel” or “the house of Levi”).

If we render the phrase בֵּית עֲבָדִים literally (or formally), “house of slaves,” it would be misleading. The second word, עֲבָדִים, is the plural form for the noun meaning “servant, slave.” The plural, however, is not the numeric plural, “slaves,” but the abstract plural, “slavery.” This suggests that the word house of should not be understood literally, but metaphorically. What might the metaphorical expression “house of” mean here? It seems to mean “condition, status.” The idea is a group connected by some common feature. So it is similar to “house of Israel,” a group connected by their relationship to Israel. For “house of slavery” would be “slave-status,” a group connected by the status of slavery. This is in agreement with the Logos Bible-Sense Lexicon category “life-state.”

Other possible examples of this meaning of “house” are “house of feasting … and house of mourning” (Eccl 7:2) perhaps meaning not a place, but an emotional state of being. In Jer 16:5 “house of mourning” is parallel to the action of mourning with people (on the other hand in Jer 16:8, “house of feasting” is followed by “to sit with them, to eat and drink,” so the expression might mean “a house where a feast is taking place”). In such cases in English, we might choose not to render the word בֵּית.

So, how do we understand the NIV translation? Did the translators render בֵּית as “land” instead of “house”? Maybe, but perhaps not. They may have understood “house of” in the sense of state of being and chosen not to translate בֵּית and they added “land of” as a reference back to the place Egypt in the previous phrase. The expression “house of” should not be understood as a particular building or location. It indicates the state of being in which the Israelites used to live in Egypt.

Three Lessons

(1) The differences between versions helps draw our attention to matters we might miss.

(2) Knowledge of Hebrew helps us to understand the versions better and to appreciate the translators’ carefulness.

(3) Studying the Hebrew increases the depth of our understanding of the text.

Devotional Thought

Please allow me to leap from “house of slavery” to a devotional thought: it is still true that the God that brought Israel out of slavery has also brought believers in Christ out of slavery. All humans are in slavery to one of two things: to sin or to obedience to God (Rom 6:15–23; 8:2). Thanks to God our new “slavery” is freedom from sin and into fellowship with our God forever.

(Image:"David Roberts-IsraelitesLeavingEgypt 1828" by David Roberts - Usenet. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)


lee-fieldsLee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.

Learn more about Lee’s innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.

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