The English versions differ on how to translate and interpret a section of Isaiah 11:4. The Hebrew text reads:
וְהִֽכָּה־אֶ֙רֶץ֙ בְּשֵׁ֣בֶט פִּ֔יו
The New Revised Standard Version translates Isaiah 11:4 as follows: “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth.”
The English Bible in Basic English translates Isaiah 11:4 as follows: “And the rod of his mouth will come down on the cruel.”
The New American Bible translates Isaiah 11:4 as follows: “He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.”
The reason for this difference among the translations cited above is because the word אֶרֶץ, “earth,” is taken by some scholars to be an error for עָרִיץ , “ruthless.” The Quram scroll of Isaiah reads אֶרֶץ, “land” and the Septuagint reads γῆς, “land.”
The reason some translations propose this correction is because the word אֶרֶץ (“land”) appears in parallelism with רָשָֽׁע (“wicked”) in Isaiah 11:4: “and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.” Thus, according to some scholars, the best parallel for the word “wicked” is the word “ruthless.” This correction has been suggested by Biblia Hebraica (BHK) and by Biblia Hebraica Sttugartentia (BHS) and it has been accepted by some scholars.
For instance, Otto Kaiser in his book Isaiah 1-12: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), p. 258 said that, in order to implement his verdict against the oppressor of the poor, one word from the king’s mouth “is enough to kill the evildoer.”
H. G. Mitchell, in his commentary Isaiah: A Study of Chapters I-XII (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1897), p. 245, wrote:
The text has אֶרֶץ , “the land,” which does not express the evident thought of the author. It is expressed by the word עָרִיץ , “the violent,” which, moreover, occurs several times as a synonym of the term godless (see Jer. xv. 21). It is safe, therefore, to conclude, that this was the original reading.
T. K. Cheyne, in his book The Prophecies of Isaiah (New York: Thomas Whittaker,1884), p. 76, said:
“The received reading gives the passage a different and rather less appropriate term. The ‘earth’ must be the hostile, heathen world, and the ‘ungodly’ a collective term for its rulers (comp. Ps. cxxv. 3, ‘the sceptre of ungodliness’), and the prophet will then allude to the judicial act of vengeance which, down to the time of John the Baptist, was regarded as chronologically the first function of the Messiah.”
However, even though the word “ruthless” would make a better parallelism to the word “wicked,” it is difficult to accept this proposed emendation when all the textual evidence seems to confirm the original reading.
The prophet is saying that in establishing justice on the earth, the righteous king will apply a just and impartial use of power in the defense of the weak against the earthly powers who oppress the poor and the defenseless.
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Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary