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Hebrew Corner 4: "take"
by John H. Walton

Categories Guest Posts Hebrew and You

In previous postings we have talked about words that occur relatively infrequently and how difficult it can be in such cases to detect a precise nuance. It is interesting that the same problem can occur with very common words as they divide into a variety of different usages. Often in language, the more common a word is, the more frequently idiomatic or special uses develop for the word dividing its meaning into categories. The translator then has to determine which meaning for a word was intended by the author.

Consider for a moment the very common Hebrew verb, lq̣h, “to take or receive”. This would seem straightforward enough, but can give translators all sorts of difficulty. One example (which I am not going to deal with here) is in Prov. 11:30, translated in the NIV, “he who wins souls is wise.” The verb translated “wins” is the verb “lq̣h. Problematically, when this verb takes this object (“soul” = Hebrew nephesh) elsewhere, it usually means “to take a life”, i.e., to kill someone (cf. 1 Sam 24:11 [Heb. 12] and many others). In such cases a verb may have specialized meaning when it is packaged with a particular subject or object.

Another example with this verb is that when it is used with “wives/women” it refers to legitimate marriage rather than to a violent act. This impacts the usage and interpretation in Genesis 6:2.

The use of this verb that I want to focus on today is found in Psalm 49:15 [Heb. 16] and Psalm 73:24.

In both of these verses the Psalmist expresses his confidence that “He [the Lord] will take me.” Translators have struggled with rendering these verses because in English we need further information to clarify the meaning—take me where? This creates a difficulty for translators because they have to try to be faithful to the original text yet at the same time present an English text that makes sense. NIV has resolved them in ways that point toward an afterlife interpretation. Psalm 49:15 is rendered “He will surely take me to himself” (the last two words are interpretive and do not occur in Hebrew). Psalm 73:24 is rendered “Afterward you will take me into glory” (“into” is not in the Hebrew text, and “glory” [Heb. kavod] is never used to refer to heaven in the Old Testament).

It is not my intention to criticize my colleagues who translated this text—every translator has to make interpretive decisions, and there are inevitably differences of opinion when it comes to interpretation. In this case I am persuaded by other usage in Psalms of the same phrase where the meaning is clear. I refer to Psalm 18:16 where it is clear that this sort of usage of this verb refers to God rescuing the Psalmist from his enemies—a constant subject of discussion in Psalms.

Such usage suggests that Psalm 49:15 ought to be interpreted to understand the Psalmist’s confidence that God will rescue him from death, rather than take him to heaven. The previous line speaks of redeeming his life from the grave—that also indicates saving the Psalmist from death.

Psalm 73:24 ought also be rendered that God will “take” the Psalmist, that is “rescue him”. The word “glory” in this case would not be a synonym for heaven (which it never is), but an adverb—God will rescue him “honorably.” In the ancient world suffering or defeat brought shame on the person because it indicated that they were out of favor with deity. Deliverance then brought honor to a person.

The importance of this word study is that it gives us a very different understanding of these two Psalms. The Psalmist is not anticipating being taken to heaven—he is anticipating being delivered from death.

John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).

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