In my post yesterday, I pointed out the inconsistency of the NIV in translating the word da‘at elohim in the book of the prophet Hosea. In that post I mentioned the problems preachers have when using the NIV in trying to arrive at a proper understanding of the biblical text.
Today I want to study another inconsistency found in the NIV that, to me at least, obfuscates the original meaning of the biblical text and sends a confusing message to a reader who cannot read the biblical text in its original language.
Again, in my comparison, I will use three other translations. I will compare the NIV with the NRSV, the ESV, and the TNIV. I could have used other translations, but my focus is on the NIV.
I use the NIV as the model for comparison since many people in my congregation have chosen to use the NIV because of the simplified language it uses to convey the biblical message. To readers whose first language is not English, the NIV is easy to understand. However, because of the inconsistency of the NIV, at times, the message the NIV presents is not as clear as it should be.
Another example of inconsistency in the NIV’s translation of Hosea is found in the use of the word hesed. The following is a translation of hesed in Hosea 4:1:
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.’”
In this verse, the NIV translates the word hesed as love. The word hesed is difficult to translate in English because the word has a wealth of meanings in Hebrew. The correct understanding of hesed is attained only in a study of the context of where the word is used. However, as H. J. Zobel has shown in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 5:47, “the one who receives an act of hesed responds with a similar act of hesed, or at least that the one who demonstrates hesed is justified in expecting an equivalent act in return.”
In a study of the word hesed in Isaiah, “Rereading Isaiah 40:6,” I wrote:
The word hesed is related to the covenant God established with Israel at Sinai. The word hesed refers to the commitment that binds two parties to a relationship.
In his book, The Word Hesed in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), Gordon Clark says that hesed is an “action performed, in the context of a deep and enduring commitment between two persons or parties” (p. 267). Since faithfulness to a relationship is a character of God, God also expects his people to be as committed to the relationship as he is.
When the word is applied to God, it refers to his faithfulness to the relationship. Thus, the word is best translated “faithfulness,” “unfailing love,” “loyalty.” When the word is applied to human beings, it refers to the loyalty and commitment that people should bring to that relationship. In this case, a good translation of hesed should be “commitment,” “loyalty.” A strong relationship is built on commitment. Israel should be as loyal and committed to the covenant as God was.
In Hosea 4:1, the NRSV translates hesed as “loyalty;” the ESV as “steadfast love,” and the TNIV as “love.” Love or steadfast love is a good translation, but “loyalty” is a better translation.
On the other hand, the NIV translates the same word, hesed, as “mercy” in Hosea 6:6:
Hosea 6:6 (NIV): “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
In this verse the translations differ:
NRSV: “For I desire steadfast love.”
ESV: “For I desire steadfast love.”
TNIV: “For I desire mercy.”
In my opinion, the HCSB has a better translation: “For I desire loyalty.”
The word “mercy” does not convey in English what the biblical author was trying to communicate to his audience. In English, the word “mercy” means a compassionate treatment of a person, to be kind or forgiving to someone.
This is not what the biblical writer was trying to convey to his readers. If the NIV had been consistent and used “love” here as it used it in 4:1, the message would be the same. However, the inconsistency of the NIV leaves the reader at a loss because they will believe that what the Lord requires from his people is that they be compassionate to fellow Israelites when in reality God was requiring the people’s loyalty to the relationship established by the covenant.
In Hosea 12:6 the NIV translates hesed as “love” and in Hosea 10:12, the NIV translates hesed as “unfailing love.” At least “unfailing love” in the NIV is better than “kindness” in the ASV, “piety” in the NAB, and “goodness” in the TNK.
There are several lessons to be learned here for pastors who do not know Hebrew. The first lesson is: consult more than one translation when studying the biblical text. Check several translations and compare how the biblical text is translated. Second, consult good exegetical commentaries. Since translations differ, commentaries will also differ. A good exegetical commentary will provide a brief study to the meaning of important theological words in the text.
The third and final lesson is that it is never too late to study biblical languages. No one needs to be a scholar in Hebrew or Greek, but a basic knowledge of the language will help pastors know how to consult an interlinear translation of the biblical text or check the meaning of specific words in a Hebrew or Greek lexicon.
When it comes to biblical translations, the saying remains true: “trust, but verify.”
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Read Part 1 and Part 2: