A reader asked me to explain Isaiah 9:3 (Hebrew 9:2). The reason for his question is because the versions differ when translating this verse into English. Below are two translations of Isaiah 9:3:
King James Version:
“Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.”
The Jewish Publication Society:
“Thou hast multiplied the nation, Thou hast increased their joy; they joy before Thee according to the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.”
I have used bold letters in quoting the text to emphasize the section of verse 3 where the versions differ. As can be seen above, one version (the KJV) is negative, “and not increased the joy,” while the other version (the JPS) is positive, “Thou hast increased their joy.” The question is: why the difference?
The answer to this question and the explanation as to why the two versions differ in their translation of the text is found in the Hebrew Bible and in the notes provided by the Masoretes. Let me begin by identifying the Masoretes.
The Masoretes were Jewish scribes who copied the ancient Hebrew manuscripts. They added the vowels to the consonantal text, marked doubtful passages, and divided the text into sections for liturgical use. One of the greatest contributions of the Masoretes was the marginal notes they added to the manuscripts. These notes provided alternative readings of the texts which they believed represented a more correct reading than those found in the manuscripts.
These notes are called the Ketiv/Qere. The Ketiv, “that which is written,” is the form of the word which appears in the Hebrew Bible. The Qere, “that which is to be read,” is the correction made by the scribes, which in their opinion represents an ancient and better reading.
One of those proposed emendations is found in Isaiah 9:3 and the issue here is a homophone. Homophones are words that when read, they are pronounced alike but have different meaning or are spelled differently. One good example of homophones in English is found in the words “to,” “too,” and “two.”
The homophone in Hebrew is לא and לו. The two words sound alike when they are pronounced in Hebrew, but they have different meanings. The first word לא, lo’, means “not,” and the second word לו, lô, means “to him,” “his.”
The Hebrew text of Isaiah 9:3 reads as follows:
The King James translates the text as: Thou hast not increased the joy. This is the Ketiv or what is written in the text. However, the Masoretes said that this is not the best and original reading. Thus, they put a note in the margin of the text and said that instead of reading לא, lo’, the text should read לו, lô, “Thou hast increased their joy.” This is the Qere, what should be read.
Now, when it came time to translate Isaiah 9:3 into English, of all the modern versions, only the King James Version adopted the Ketiv reading, the reading of the Hebrew text. All the other versions, including the New King James Version followed the Qere, or the reading proposed by the Masoretes.
A closer look at the context of the passage demonstrates that “Thou hast increased their joy” is the better reading. According to the text, the Lord enlarged the nation and increased their joy. In addition, the people rejoice before the Lord in the same way they rejoice at harvest time and when they divide spoils.
It is unfortunate that the King James did not follow the Qere in translating Isaiah 9:3 since the negative translation adopted by the King James contradicts the message the prophet is trying to convey to his audience. The mood of joy and celebration that will be demonstrated by the people affirms that the Qere reading, “Thou hast increased their joy,” is the correct reading of Isaiah 9:3.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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