Friday, February 29, 2008

Sum Sekel

The title of this blog comes from one of my favorite phrases in the Bible, found in Nehemiah 8:8:

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense [sum sekel], so that the people understood the reading.

This marvelous phrase says a mouthful, including at least two principles for this blog:

- Intepreting Scripture goes hand-in-hand with reading Scripture; reading and study should not be separated from each other.

- Translating Scripture has to be more than just an act of inserting lexical correspondences (an approach called "formal equivalance"); we look to the biblical languages to help "give the sense," not just to "give the words."


J. K. Gayle said...

Translating Scripture has to be more than just an act of inserting lexical correspondences

Wow! What a great statement. And a fantastic blog. Suzanne McCarthy's link from Better Bibles Blog sent me over here.

Your post here prompts a couple of questions. How did Jews translating their Scriptures into Greek (i.e., the Septuagint or LXX) do with Nehemiah 8:8? What do you think of their translation?

καὶ ἀνέγνωσαν ἐν βιβλίῳ νόμου τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἐδίδασκεν εσδρας καὶ διέστελλεν ἐν ἐπιστήμῃ κυρίου καὶ συνῆκεν ὁ λαὸς ἐν τῇ ἀναγνώσει

How have they done with the phrase "sum sekel" in particular? Have they added too many words? Do you think they've captured the sense?

(The LXX reference, of course, is 2 Esdras 18:8)

And then how about the Vulgate? Does Jerome (if he's really the translator) get it right in your opinion?

et legerunt in libro legis Dei distincte et adposite ad intellegendum et intellexerunt cum legeretur

How's the translation of "sum sekel" in the Vulgate?

Nathan said...

Great question! I hadn't thought to look at the LXX and Vulgate on this.

Wooden, for NETS (, translates the LXX here as "expanding on the knowledge of the Lord" ("... and Esdras was teaching and expanding on the knowledge of the Lord, and the people understood the reading.")

DRB ( gives the Vulgate ('et adposite ad intellegendum') as:

"... and plainly to be understood ..."

These may be defensible renderings, but neither does as much for me as "gave the sense" does.

Nathan said...

I just learned via John Hobbins' blog that there's a blog by a rabbi with the title Vesom Sechel. So maybe I should add the disclaimer that my blog:
- isn't affiliated with that one (which I say not to distance myself from Rabbi Joshua but to distance him from me -- he actually knows what he's talking about and I don't!)
- wasn't the first to use this title, though at the time I titled it I didn't know there was another one
- isn't award-winning, as his is
- is, despite the Hebrew title, about three biblical languages--Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek
- uses the transliterated base forms of Strong's H07760 and H07922; whereas Rabbi Joshua uses the inflected forms as they actually appear in Neh. 8:8, the significance of which I'll only appreciate when I get further in my study of Hebrew
- knows better than to disagree with anything John Hobbins says about Neh. 8:8, though apparently what I glean from the verse still works with his concluding translation

I hope this clears up any confusion or questions, and makes clear that I'm an amateur; John and Rabbi Joshua are pros.

Nathan said...

> knows better than to disagree with anything John Hobbins says about Neh. 8:8

(BTW, I didn't mean this as a contrast with Rabbi Joshua, who says something similar about JH's post--just an unrelated footnote about my blog)