Translating the Bible: Dealing with the ketiv/qere

Bible Translations

Psalm 100 is one of those great psalms of the Bible.  The psalm is a song of thanksgiving, calling all people to praise the Lord as the creator. All nations are invited to serve the Lord because of his goodness and faithfulness.

The doctrine of creation in the Old Testament was Israel’s testimony of the uniqueness and sovereignty of the Lord over nations and individuals.  In the very act of creation, the Lord demonstrates his power by calling the world into existence.

Thus, in his call for human beings to worship God, the psalmist declares that we are not self-created, that we owe our existence to God, because only the God of Israel is the creator: “Know ye that the Lord is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3 KJV).

The translation of the King James Version poses a difficult issue of interpretation.  The problem is focused on a textual corruption introduced into the Hebrew text.  In Hebrew, there are several words that sound alike but have different meanings.  Words that sound alike are called homophones.  A homophone is “a word pronounced the same as, but differing in meaning from another, whether spelled the same way or not, as in heir and air.”  There are many homophones in English also; a classical example are the words to, two, and too.

In biblical Hebrew there are many words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. Two of them are the words lo’  (Hebrew לא) and the word (Hebrew לו).  The first word is negative and means “not.”  The second word is positive and means “to him.”

In Psalm 100:3 the written Hebrew text or the ketiv (the word ketiv means “what is written”) reads lo’, “not.”  However, an old scribal traditions notes in the margin of the text that the correct reading of the text should be , “to him.”  This marginal reading is called the qere.  The word qere means “what should be read.”

In making this marginal note, the scribe or scribes who copied the text are telling the reader that even though the text reads lo’, “not,” that it should be read , “to him.”

Several older translations have adopted what is written in the text.  Among these are the Darby Bible, the Douay-Rheims Bible, the Geneva Bible, the King James Version , the New American Standard Bible, the New King James Version, and the Revised Webster Bible.

Modern translations, such the New International Version (NIV), the English Standard Version (ESV) and others, have adopted the correction proposed by the scribes.  For instance, the New Revised Standard Bible reads: “Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (NRSV).

In light of the different readings between the older and modern translations, which translation is better?  Which translation provides a better understanding of what the psalmist was trying to convey to his readers?  As it is, both translations are plausible and both of them make sense.  Both readings would fit the context of the words of the Psalmist and both readings would be in harmony with the teachings of the Old Testament.

The reading of the KJV is found also in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), the Vulgate (the Latin version of the Bible), and the Peshitta (the Aramaic version of the Old Testament). However, from the perspective of the world of the Old Testament and of other nations in the Ancient Near East, no people of antiquity, however primitive they might have been, believed  that they had made themselves.  Only someone with a sense of grandeur, one who is obsessed with the pride of possession, one who would believe himself to be a god, like the Pharaoh of Egypt, would dare say about a small part of creation: “The Nile is mine, and I have made it for myself” (Ezekiel 29:3).

Every Israelite believed the Lord to be the true creator.  The faith of Israel declared that men and women derived their beings from God.  A similar idea to Psalm 100:3 is also found in Psalm 95:7: “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”

The message of Psalm 100:3 is clear: God is the creator.  He made us, therefore, we are not independent, but belong to him.  For this reason, the reading of the NRSV and other modern translations should be adopted.  Because God created us and because we belong to him, we should worship the Lord with gladness, we should come into his presence with singing (Psalm 100:2).

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

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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3 Responses to Translating the Bible: Dealing with the ketiv/qere

  1. llamapacker says:

    I am finding the study of translation difficulties fascinating. This article demonstrates what problems the translator faces. So many of my friends think it is merely a matter of finding THE English world for the Hebrew word, little realizing so much more is involved. I am finding your articles very interesting and informative.


    • Llamapacher,

      Most people do not realize that translating the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek is very difficult. It takes a lot work and consultation. Even with all this work, translators face many challenges before they can arrive at a good translation of the text.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini


  2. Pingback: Bible Linguistics and the Problems of Translating the Bible by Claude F. Mariottini | Crossmap Blogs

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