For Teaching, Reproof, Corrections, and Training in Righteousness, Issue 91

July 21, 2016 by Presbyterian Foundation

Ezekiel was surrounded by the ‘likeness' of the glory of the LORD, and he heard ‘someone' speaking: “eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 1:28, 3:1). Each week, pastors continue to eat what is offered to them, and continue to speak to the community of faith. From time to time, the Presbyterian Foundation will offer brief studies of Scripture that may be useful to pastors in teaching and preaching God's word.

Bible translation requires expertise that exceeds the capability of most pastors. Because our knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is rudimentary, our default position is to rely on translations. We generally use the one we like the best, and our liking has little to do with a reasoned judgment on the “accuracy” of our preferred version. But there are times when we may wonder about an English translation, and wish that our knowledge of the original languages was more developed.

I have long puzzled over a well-known and much-loved passage from the opening chapter of Isaiah. In the midst of God's scathing judgment directed at Judah and its spiritual and national center, Jerusalem, we are presented with beautiful, comforting words of grace:

             though your sins are like scarlet,
            they shall be white as snow;
            though they are red like crimson,
            they shall become like wool.
Everything that comes before and everything that comes after is judgment. Why are these words of grace inserted in the midst of divine condemnation of the nation's faithlessness and injustice? Renowned Old Testament scholar R.B.Y. Scott suggests that English translations simply follow a mistaken translation in the King James Bible. He proposes a more accurate translation:
             though your sins are like scarlet,
            you would make them as white as snow;
            though they are red like crimson,
            you would pass them off as wool.
Scott's proposal surely makes sense in the context of Isaiah's prophecy. Rather than seemingly out of place forgiveness, we find that one charge in the Lord's indictment is the hypocrisy of the people who pretend that their vices are actually virtues. “Come now, let us reason together” is once again a prelude to God's testimony concerning the nation's sin.

Is Scott right? I don't know. I don't have the knowledge of Hebrew that would enable me to make a reasoned determination. What I do know is that Scott's translation is an all-too-accurate description of the human capacity for self-deception. I also know that the standard translation is an accurate portrayal of God's grace. I know as well that one without the other will either ignore sin or cheapen grace. But that is a theological judgment, not a translation choice.

 Featured Video: Cairo Seminary
The Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo has been educating Christian pastors and leaders in the region for 150 years. Learn more about this Presbyterian mission partner and their life-risking service to the people of the Middle East.

Cairo Seminary from Presbyterian Foundation on Vimeo.