Translating the Bible: Dealing with the Tiqqune Sopherim

Bible Translations

In their book, People of the Covenant, Flanders, Crapps, and Smith describe the work of the scribes who preserved the text of the Hebrew Bible. They wrote,

“The Jewish scholars who copied and safeguarded the manuscripts were called Sopherim (“men of the book”) and Masoretes (“men of the Masora”). The Sopherim . . . copied manuscripts, marked doubtful passages, added marginal notes giving alternate readings that they thought were more correct than those in the body of the text. . . . The Masoretes . . . collected and catalogued errors found in the text, noted every unique form, and counted the letters of the individual books.”

The basic work of the Sopherim was to copy and preserve the transmission of the consonantal text. The scribes were committed to the integrity and preservation of the consonantal text. However, in the transmission and preservation of the text, the scribes introduced some conjectures, explanatory notes, and even some corrections of their own.

The corrections that the scribes made in the Biblical text are called Tiqqune Sopherim, the “emendation of the scribes.” According to Masoretic tradition, there are eighteen passages in the Hebrew Bible that were emended by the scribes for theological reasons. These changes were made by the scribes early in the transmission of the text to remove irreverent expressions concerning God.

Today’s post deals with one of these tiqqune sopherim. This scribal emendation is found in Habakkuk 1:12. Before I discuss how the emendation affects the understanding of Habakkuk’s prayer, let us see how four versions translate Habakkuk 1:12:

King James Version (KJV):

“Art thou not from everlasting, O LORD my God, mine Holy One? we shall not die.”

New International Version (NIV):

“O LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, we will not die.”

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

“Are you not from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One? You shall not die.”

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB):

“Are You not from eternity, Yahweh my God? My Holy One, You will not die.”

As can be seen from the translations above, the KJV and the NIV translate Habakkuk 1:12 “we shall not die.” The NRSV and the HCSB translate “You shall not die.”

The difference between the “you” and the “we” in these translations is found in the emendation that scribes made in the Hebrew text for theological reasons. In order to understand the emendation, it is necessary to summarize Habakkuk’s dialogue with God.

In Habakkuk 1:1–2:5, there are two dialogues between the prophet and God. The first dialogue is Habakkuk 1:1–11 and the second is Habakkuk 1:12–2:4. In both dialogues, Habakkuk is complaining about the horrible political and religious situation in Judah.

He begins his first dialogue in unequivocal terms: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2). God responds in 1:5–11 by saying that he is bringing the Babylonians as his instrument of justice.

Habakkuk did not like God’s reply. In his second prayer, Habakkuk’s words to God do not show respect and reverence. Rather, the expression “Are you not” (Hebrew: halô’) has the force of a rebuke. The prophet, in other words, is rebuking God for sending the Babylonians, a wicked people, to “swallow those more righteous than they” (Habakkuk 1:13).

In his prayer to God, Habakkuk calls God holy and eternal, but this altercation with God reveals the prophet’s anguish at the situation. This is the reason why “we shall not die” is out of place in the dialogue between the prophet and God. The prophet is affirming one of the characters of God, that God is immortal, “You shall not die” and not the immortality of human beings, “we shall not die.”

A reading of the Masorah (the textual notes preserved by the Masoretes) shows that the Masoretes were unanimous in their opinion that “You shall not die” (Hebrew lō’ tāmût) is the original reading, rather than the “we shall not die” (Hebrew: lō’ nāmût) of the Masoretic text (MT).

It is difficult to understand why the scribes emended the text. Reverence for the nature of God as an eternal God may be one of the reasons for the change, since the mention of God dying, even when the intent was to deny it, was offensive to some of the scribes.

Another reason for the change may be that in the mind of the scribes, just to say that God does not die might raise doubts in the mind of the reader that it might not be true. However, the reading “we shall not die” is not a better reading since it may convey the idea of human immortality.

Francis I. Andersen, is his book, Habakkuk: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 178, has an interesting suggestion to preserve the MT reading. He suggests that nāmût is a Niphal participle of mwt (“to die”) with middle meaning. As such, he suggests that the translation should be “the one who does not die.” However, the major problem with his suggestion is that no such form of the verb appears in the Hebrew Bible.

I believe that Habakkuk 1:12 is a genuine tiqqun sopherim, a genuine emendation of the scribes. The reason for the emendation is that the scribes found the original words disrespectful of God. Even though the scribes had a high respect for preserving the text, their reverence for God trumped their reverence for the text. It was for this reason that they changed the text.

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


Andersen Francis I. Habakkuk: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Flanders, Henry J., Robert W. Crapps, and David A. Smith, People of the Covenant. 4th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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