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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — Who Turned Whom? Isa 1:4

Categories Hebrew and You

Isaiah 1:2–31 is in the form of a lawsuit. After the initial call for witnesses to the suit in v. 2a, vv. 2b–4 are the initial indictment by the Lord, the plaintiff, against Israel, the defendant. After an initial cry of despair, v. 4 levels seven charges against Israel. The first four are simply exclamations without verbs; the last three are actual descriptions of the actions (verbs). The versions are basically in agreement on how to translate, but there is a subtle difference in the seventh item that is worthy of our attention. Here is Isa 1:4 in the NIV with the reference numbers I will use here:

4a        Woe
4b        to the sinful nation,
4c        a people whose guilt is great,
4d        a brood of evildoers,
4e        children given to corruption!
4f         They have forsaken the Lord;
4g        they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
4h        and turned their backs on him.

Here is a table comparing the seventh item in three versions: NIV, ESV, and KJV. The NIV may stand as a representative for NIV84, NASB95, NLT. The ESV represents also the NRSV. The KJV fits into the category of the ESV, but it is semantically different. 

Isa 1:4h in NIV, ESV, and KJV

(Can't see the table? Click here)

We will focus on the NIV type of translation and the ESV type: what’s the difference and which translation is better? Finding an answer is a little tricky, but instructive. Let’s get started.


Voice is the relationship of the grammatical Subject to the action. The two main types of voice are active and passive. For the active voice verb, the Subject is the agent (doer) of the action; for the passive voice verb, the Subject is the patient (receiver) of the action. Sometimes, however, the agent acts on or for itself. This relationship is commonly referred to by grammarians as the reflexive (for singular subjects) or reciprocal (for plural subjects). Greek grammarians use the term “middle” voice.

In looking at the three versions of Isa 1:4h, the NIV class renders the verb as active. The ESV/KJV “are estranged”/“are gone away” might be understood as passive or a stative. The significant difference is that a passive would imply an agent other than the grammatical Subject. Even taking ESV as a stative, an English reader might infer an outside agent. Were they estranged by the Lord? If so, then perhaps v. 4h is the consequence of the six previous expressions. If the verb is active or reflexive, v. 4h is another action of Israel and part of the indictment. Which is it?

Studying the Hebrew word is the first step to answer the question.

Studying Hebrew Verbs: Each Stem a Separate Word

As most readers of a column like this are aware, most Hebrew words are formed from three-letter roots. Verbs are formed according to patterns known as Stems. The main ones are Qal, Nifal, Piel/Pual, Hifil/Hofal, and Hitpael. We will count these as five, instead of seven. The Pual (passive of the Piel) and Hofal (passive of the Hifil) are used solely to mark passive.

Between the five Stems meaning also changes. Though there are general trends in terms of the meaning of verbs associated with the stems, often these meanings are not predictable. So, when seeking to determine the meaning of a verb, it is best to treat each of the five stems as a separate word. Since the word in Isa 1:4h is Nifal, that is where we start.

The Root זור in the Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Qal verbs fall into two categories. Most verbs are fientive (or dynamic), describing an activity, e.g., “to run,” “to eat.” Other verbs are stative, describing a state of being, e.g., כָּבֵד, “he was heavy.” The Nifal often serves as the passive for the Qal, but not always.

The verb translated “turned” by the NIV is the Nifal form of the root זור (zwr). The adjective from this root is common (69 times) and means “stranger, alien, someone living in a foreign land.” Unfortunately the verb appears only six times: three times in the Qal (Job 19:13; Ps 58:3; Ps 78:30), twice in the Nifal (Isa 1:4; Ezek 14:5), and once in the Hofal (Ps 69:8). The meaning of the adjective is why it is tempting to translate the verb as “to be estranged.”

In Ezek 14:5, as in Isa 1:4, the ESV translates as a passive (“are … estranged from me through their idols”) and the NIV (“have deserted me for their idols”) as an active. Either notion fits the context of both passages, but the two examples do not give us clear contexts. “Estranged” is tempting, because of the cognate adjective זָר (zār). However, with the adverb אָחֹור, the meaning “turn” seems better. (Incidentally, the ESV insertion of “utterly” is probably representing the Hebrew אָחֹור.)

So, though not ideal, we must move to the other stems. The question in particular is whether the Qal has a meaning distinguishable from the Nifal. In all three cases, the same distinction exists among the English versions: the NIV translates it as an active and the ESV renders as a passive. Perhaps the Qal might be taken as a stative, “to be turned, estranged,” and the Nifal has the middle meaning “to turn.” But the bottom line is that none of these texts gives a clear answer.

What is left? We turn to ancient versions.

Ancient Versions: The Targums

Unfortunately, the LXX does not translate Isa 1:4h. The Targum does, however. The word targum is Aramaic and means “translation.” It refers specifically to the Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible. This gives us an opportunity to have some fun with a targum.

Targum Jonathan to the Prophets (Tg. Neb.) was written in Palestine in the early 4th century AD and was later modified in Babylon, and in the Talmud is cited as the authoritative Targum there (see Ellis Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism, 70–71, and Paul D. Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, 174–5). It often expanded on the Hebrew text virtually resulting in a commentary. Below I give Isa 1:4 in Tg. Neb. and the Hebrew Bible (Masoretic Text, MT) and translations of each.

Isa 1:4 in the MT and in the Targum Jonathan to the Prophets


(Can't see the table? Click here)

As you can see, Tg. Neb. expands on each word. For example, in 4b, the first Hebrew word, גּוֹי (gôy), “nation,” is expanded as “they were called ‘a holy people.’” The second word, חֹטֵא (ḥōṭēʾ), “sinning,” is glossed as “and they sinned.” For the last three, Tg. Neb. also expands. In v. 4h, the Hebrew Nifal נָזֹרוּ is rendered by the Aramaic Ithpeal אִסתְחַרוּ (ʾisteḥarû). Jastrow (Dictionary of the Targumim; I realize I am taking a shortcut here, rather than looking at occurrences of this verb form in other Aramaic texts) glosses the passive as “be carried around” and a middle as “turn around.” The second, a “middle,” makes more sense, since no carrying is in view. Furthermore Tg. Neb. seems to take all these as indictments of the actions of Israel.

Who Turned Whom?

Though the ESV is possible, I am leaning towards the NIV here. Isaiah 1:4h seems most likely to be another indictment parallel to the previous expressions, rather than a statement of consequence. It was Israel who turned their backs to the Lord. In doing this they showed great disrespect. May God’s people show him the honor and respect he is due.


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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