Preaching is not easy. Preaching from the Old Testament is very difficult. The reason many pastors do not preach often from the Old Testament is because they are not familiar with the society and culture of the people who populate the pages of the Bible. Many pastors also are not familiar with the original languages of the biblical text. The art of preaching requires from the preacher a meticulous study of the biblical text.
Since many pastors do not know Hebrew, they depend on an English translation to provide in their language what the original writers were trying to communicate in theirs. And here is where the problems begin. At times, an idea in the biblical text cannot be easily transferred into English. Thus, the reader may not understand all the nuances of a text as the original writer intended.
The worse case scenario is when translators of the biblical text mistranslate the text or fail to convey the correct meaning of the biblical text in their translations. In this case, the pastor who depends on one English translation may fail to understand the real message the original writer was trying to convey to his audience.
I was confronted with this problem again when I was preparing a sermon on Hosea to preach to my congregation a few Sundays ago. Most people in my congregation use the NIV. Since we have many people whose first language is not English, the NIV was chosen to be used in church because the language used in the translation is easy to understand.
The problem with the NIV is that it is not consistent in translating words from Hebrew to English. Most people in the pew will never notice the problems in the NIV because they use only one translation. Most pastors will not notice the problem either unless they read the biblical text in several different translations and compare them or if they use an interlinear Hebrew-English to look at how Hebrew words are used in the translation of the text.
The following is one example taken from the book of Hosea. I will use the NIV first, and then compare the NIV translation with three other translations.
Hosea 4:1 (NIV): “Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: ‘There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.’”
Here the NIV translates the Hebrew words da‘at elohim as “acknowledgment of God.” The Hebrew word da‘at means “knowledge.” The expression da‘at elohim is an expression used to describe the special relationship between God and Israel that comes out of the covenant relationship. When Hosea said that Israel did not have knowledge of God, the prophet was declaring that Israel had failed to abide by the demands of their covenantal relationship with God.
In English, the word use by the NIV, “acknowledgment,” means “to admit the truth or fact of,” and “a formal declaration of an act.” The NIV translation seems to imply that Israel was declaring that there was no God in the land. The NIV translation is confusing because it does not clearly convey the intent of the original writer.
Both the NRSV and the ESV have “knowledge of God.” Only the NIV and TNIV have “acknowledgment.”
In Hosea 4:6, the NIV reads: “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests.” Here the NIV translates the same word, da‘at, as “knowledge.” This translation is correct, because what the people lacked and what the people rejected was “knowledge,” not “acknowledgment.”
The NRSV and the ESV translate the word da‘at here as “knowledge” and so does the TNIV. However, both the NIV and the TNIV translated da‘at as “acknowledge” in Hosea 6:6 and as “approval” in Hosea 8:4.
This inconsistency of the NIV is troublesome because the average reader may not understand the usage of the same Hebrew words with different meanings in English. The average reader is certain to miss the emphasis the prophet was trying to convey by his use of da‘at and thus, they fail to grasp the magnitude of the sins of Israel.
Tomorrow I will show another example from Hosea of the inconsistency of the NIV in translating the biblical text.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Read Part 1 and Part 2: