Translating the Bible: The Problem of Ambiguity in the Text

Bible Translations

Whenever writers are writing a sentence or a paragraph, they are prone to introduce ambiguities into what they are trying to communicate to their readers. Textual ambiguity “is the presence of two or more possible meanings within a single sentence or sequence of words.”

Take for instance, this sentence: “The preacher said on Wednesday he would preach a sermon on David.”

This sentence has two possible meanings. It means either that on Wednesday the pastor told his congregation that he would preach a sermon on David or that the sermon on David would be preached on Wednesday.

Ambiguities in a sentence lead to misunderstanding, affecting the reader’s understanding of what the writer is trying to communicate to his readers. One good example of ambiguity in the biblical text is found in Psalm 17:14.

When reading Psalm 17:14, the reader has to decide whether the ones who receive God’s blessings are the wicked or the righteous. Since any explanation of this passage requires discussion and exegesis of the Hebrew text and an evaluation of how the translations have approached the text, this post tries to make sense of the words of the psalmist.

In order to understand the meaning and the message of the text, I will cite the original Hebrew and how different versions translated the verse.

The Hebrew text reads:

מִמְתִים יָדְךָ יְהוָה מִמְתִים מֵחֶלֶד חֶלְקָם בַּחַיִּים (וּצְפִינְךָ) [וּצְפוּנְךָ] תְּמַלֵּא בִטְנָם יִשְׂבְּעוּ בָנִים וְהִנִּיחוּ יִתְרָם לְעוֹלְלֵיהֶם

Here is how some of the English Bibles have translated the text:

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSV): “With Your hand, LORD, save me from men, from men of the world, whose portion is in this life: You fill their bellies with what You have in store, their sons are satisfied, and they leave their surplus to their children.”

English Standard Version (ESV): “from men by your hand, O LORD, from men of the world whose portion is in this life. You fill their womb with treasure; they are satisfied with children, and they leave their abundance to their infants.”

God’s Word to the Nations (GWN): “With your power rescue me from mortals, O LORD, from mortals who enjoy their inheritance only in this life. You fill their bellies with your treasure. Their children are satisfied with it, and they leave what remains to their children.”

King James Version (KJV): “From men which are thy hand, O LORD, from men of the world, which have their portion in this life, and whose belly thou fillest with thy hid treasure: they are full of children, and leave the rest of their substance to their babes.”

The Septuagint (LXX): “because of the enemies of thine hand: O Lord, destroy them from the earth; scatter them in their life, though their belly has been filled with thy hidden treasures: they have been satisfied with uncleanness, and have left the remnant of their possessions to their babes.”

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): “from mortals– by your hand, O LORD– from mortals whose portion in life is in this world. May their bellies be filled with what you have stored up for them; may their children have more than enough; may they leave something over to their little ones.”

New International Version (NIV): “O LORD, by your hand save me from such men, from men of this world whose reward is in this life. You still the hunger of those you cherish; their sons have plenty, and they store up wealth for their children.”

Jewish Publication Society (Tanak): “from men, O LORD, with Your hand, from men whose share in life is fleeting. But as to Your treasured ones, fill their bellies. Their sons too shall be satisfied, and have something to leave over for their young.”

It is clear from these different translations of verse 14 that scholars differ in their understanding of what the psalmist was trying to communicate to his readers. There are two important issues of interpretation that make the proper translation of verse 14 difficult.

First, in order to solve the double occurrence of the expression “from men” in the verse, many scholars have decided to emend the text. For instance, Hans-Joachim Kraus (p. 244) translates v. 14 as follows: “May a cruel death at your hand, O Yahweh, a cruel death put an end to their portion in life.”

Michael Dahood (p. 93) translates the verse as follows: “Slay them with your hand, O Yahweh, slay them from the earth, Make them perish from among the living.”

I do not think it is necessary to emend the text to gain the proper meaning of the text. If one takes v. 14 as a continuation of the argument advanced in v. 13, the text makes sense without radical emendation:

13 Arise, O LORD! confront them, overthrow them! Deliver my life from the wicked by your sword, 14 [deliver me] from men by your hand, O LORD, from men whose portion in life is of the world.

Thus the psalmist is asking the Lord himself to deliver him from the power of the wicked. The expression “deliver me” in v. 13 should also be understood at the beginning of v. 14.

Another possibility is to take the duplicate occurrence of the expression “from men” in its consonantal form and repoint the two words as a Hiphil Participle from מות (kill). This alternative follows the translation present in the Septuagint. This is the view taken by Dahood (see above) and Craigie (p. 160):

“Kill them by your hand O Lord, Kill them from the world.”

Both options make good sense in the context of the whole psalm. I prefer to retain the reading of the Hebrew Bible without repointing the text.

The second issue that complicates the translation of verse 14 is whose belly is being filled by God. The decision of whose belly is being filled depends on whether the translation follows the Kethib or the Qere.

Translators that adopt the Kethib understand that the belly that is filled is the belly of the wicked:

“May their belly be filled with what thou hast stored up for them” (NRSV).

Translators who adopt the Qere, understand that the belly that is filled is the belly of the righteous:

“But as to Your treasured ones, fill their bellies” (TNK).

God’s people are called “Your treasured ones” (וּצְפוּנְךָ), thus the translation that sees God blessing the righteous may be a better understanding of the text. Thus, Psalm 17:13–14 should be translated as follows:

13 Arise, O LORD! confront them, overthrow them! Deliver my life from the wicked by your sword, 14 [deliver me] from men by your hand, O LORD, from men whose portion in life is of the world. As for your treasured ones, you will fill their belly. Their children will have more than enough.

Psalm 17 is the prayer of an individual aware of his righteousness before God who was being oppressed and persecuted by wicked people. This individual approached God in prayer and asked to be vindicated. The psalmist asked for protection against wicked people whose reward is in this world. In his declaration of praise, the psalmist recognized that God blesses the righteous and provides for their children.

For other studies on translating the Bible, see my post, Studies on Translation Problems in the Old Testament.


Peter C. Craigie. Psalms 1–50. Waco: Word Books, 1983.

Dahood, Micahel. Psalms 1–50. New York: Doubleday, 1965.

Kraus, Hans-Joachim . Psalms 1–59: A Continental Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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3 Responses to Translating the Bible: The Problem of Ambiguity in the Text

  1. bobmacdonald says:

    Ah Claude – there are so many issues with translation I just dove in and swam with the sharks for the last 16 years. This psalm is one I last changed 864 days ago, verse 14 in fact. I began working on the psalm much earlier than that. My first draft was Nov 21, 2008. On these two verses, I have tended to see more apposition than construct. I find that translators smooth things out too much, insisting on readability. The music suggests a more intense desire than smooth words will put across.

    My current version is this for verses 13-15. I think we must include 15 to see what the poet is contrasting.
    13. Arise Yahweh, confront to its face. Make it bow down.
    Secure me from the wicked, your sword,
    14. from men, your hand, Yahweh, from men, from transience, their share in their lives, whose bellies you fill with your treasure.
    Let them be satisfied with children,
    and leave their surplus to their progeny.
    15. I in righteousness will gaze on your face.
    I will be satisfied to awaken in your similitude.

    Verses 13 and 15 are both in two parts, separate by the mid-verse atnach. Verse 14 is a tri-colon with a long first part ending with ole-veyored, then a pair of cola with the mid-verse rest on children. I think it is very important to hear the music. I had no experience with it in 2008, but the last dozen years I have concentrated on it – and not just for the psalms. The link to Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura’s original deciphering of this section is here. A more readable score of the psalm is here. I hope the links work.


    • Bob,

      Thank you for reading and commenting on my post. Translating the Hebrew text into English is never easy. Most people do not understand the struggles translators having in communicating to English readers what the biblical writers tried to communicate to their readers.

      You have a greater challenge in trying to put the biblical text to music. And the problems of this text makes it more difficult to express it in music.

      Have you worked with Exodus 34:6-7? I am writing an article on that passage and would be interested to know what you have done with that text.

      Claude Mariottini


  2. bobmacdonald says:

    I have put a further note on my blog after developing the music for this section. It is dramatic and urgent in its sense and then calms in verse 15.


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