How Jacob lost his colour – in your Bible

Posted: July 16, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics, Pastoral issues

jacobsDreamThe second half of Genesis has the spicy story of Jacob. Watch how your translation takes out the spice.

When Jacob goes wife-hunting, we get this beautiful evocative description:

Genesis 29:1      And Jacob lifted his feet and journeyed to the land of the sons of the east.

What does the Holman to do here? ‘Jacob resumed his journey and went to the eastern country.’

As usual, the vivid, concrete body-reference omitted, and gone are the poor old sons of the east.

Jacob’s married life is dominated by  the competing fertility of Leah and Rachel, introduced with this arresting opener:

Genesis 29:31      And Yahweh saw that Leah was hated, and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.

Charged emotions, rejection, competition, jealousy, and the concrete vividness of bodily description. Dynamite. Until the TNIV gets to it:

‘When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive’.  Yawn.

How wealthy did Jacob get?

Genesis 30:43      And the man swelled out very much, very much, and he had many flocks…

This intense physical image of wealth, in the hands of the Holman, becomes… wait for it…

‘And the man became very rich…’       Slap forehead here.

When Jacob makes covenant with Laban,

Genesis 31:53           And Jacob swore by the Dread of his father Isaac.

Jacob uses this strange name for God. The word ‘dread’ is reserved for occasions of great terror. It’s a ‘bones shaking’ sort of word. Luckily our translations all water it down to the safer

‘So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac.’

When Jacob is afraid of being massacred by Esau his brother, he sends gifts ahead for his brother to find:

Genesis 32:20       “and after I shall look on his face: perhaps he will show a welcoming face.”

This is intensely personal stuff, the brother thinking about what his brother’s face will tell him, whether of welcome or of violence. How does the TNIV try to capture the colour and emotion of this bodily imagery?

“later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.”

The moment of Esau’s appearing is one of intense panic, the emotion conjured up by the careful writing:

Genesis 33:1       And Jacob raised his eyes and saw and – look: Esau coming! And with him 400 men!

Thankfully the Holman keeps everything as calm as possible: ‘Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming toward him with 400 men’.

This is all very bland and boring. How can we get Jacob back in full colour, without having to learn Hebrew? The NRSV is better than most. But for full colour, read Robert Alter’s translation.

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