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God’s Long Nostrils

July 11, 2008

In what Doug Chaplin has characterized as The Perennial Translation Playground Fight many bibliobloggers have been weighing in on translations of the Bible. I believe this began with Dr. West’s Why Modern Translations of the Bible Bungle It. David Ker brought his two cents in Beg to Differ; he also has a good list at the end of his article of those around the old interweb that have written some on the subject.

So completely ignoring McKnight’s advice at Jesus Creed I am going to write a few pieces in the near future on translations and interpretation that could definitely get me in trouble with a future employer! However, before I enter those dangerous waters I would like to give you just one small example among many that translators face.

In English Exodus 34:6 reads, ” The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (NRSV). Similarly Psalm 103:8 reads “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The phrase “slow to anger” has also been translated as “long suffering” (KJV) and “Patient” (GW). “Slow to anger” in the original Hebrew is אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם and can be literally translated as “long of nostril” or “long nostrils”.

Apparently, according to a strict literal rendition of these verses YHWH has long nostrils! Of course to make this sort of anthropomorphic conclusion would be silly; but what is going on here? If the Bible literally says God has long nostrils should we be teaching this, thereby, remaining faithful to the text?

This is where the difficulty, art, commentary of translation arises. What we encounter here is a metaphor from a high context society that no longer bears any meaning or sense in our own. The translator cannot render this phrase literally, this would confuse too many already confused persons, and by being literal he would not be faithful to the intent of the original passage. He must choose words that are not represented in the original document, but adequately reflect the message of the original document. Elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible speaks of God’s “Burning nose” (Numbers 25:4) which is “anger”; in the instances mentioned above God’s “Long Nostrils” intend to imply his patience and slowness to anger; which is why you read what you read in your English version.

Figures of speech such as metaphor, irony, euphemism, hyperbole, synecdoche–among many others–are employed throughout the Scriptures. If we were to render these all literally I suspect our religion would be quite different than what we have now. Language and translation are extremely complicated. If I was to say to an ancient Hebrew, “That woman is a real fox” he would probably make some sort of connection with her being ritually unclean, and not as attractive as I intended. Likewise, “YHWH has long nostrils” would lead many to the wrong conclusion in our modern society: the bridge must be gapped.

I will leave you with one addendum: many, many modern Christians would be benefited by being stripped of some of the illusions they carry towards the text, and some of the comfort they have with it. It seems to me that an appropriate translation for some of אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם would be “God’s a really cool customer, and he just wants you to be happy, wealthy, and content.” This would be importing our current individualistic, impotent grandfather God, materialistic ideas on to the text and would not reflect the attitude of the original.

The disciples were not some old guys in bathrobes and Birkenstocks; Jesus did not speak in King James English; it is not just “you and Jesus”. The thought world, language, worldview, society, and economy of the biblical world were immensely different to our own. To jolt the reader to an awareness of the radical message of the biblical authors, and get modern people out of their comfort zones, while dealing with the complicated nature of language and figures of speech…

Can this be done by a translation – literal or dynamic? Or does it require some commentary?

Possibly, more to come soon…maybe!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 11, 2008 1:35 pm

    Well, I was going to hire you as a translation consultant and pay you a huge salary but after publishing that nose you’ve blown it.

    Part of me agrees with Tim on this one. It bugs me that our translations hide the original language from us. Yes, I know many times these are dead metaphors, but “long nose” how cool is that? And Jonah’s red nose… I guess I’d just like to nose when the translation is rendering an idiom with an equivalent idiom.

    And owl’s are daughters of ostriches or something bizarre like that.

  2. July 11, 2008 1:42 pm

    Well, I was going to hire you as a translation consultant and pay you a huge salary but after publishing that nose you’ve blown it.

    Arggghhhhh!!! Story of my life!

    “long nose” how cool is that?

    It is cool. It would be even cooler to get up at church read it that way and not explain it! “I the Lord am long of nostril” and then just move on. I’m betting there would be some awesome looks on people’s faces. A video camera would be necessary.

  3. July 11, 2008 2:47 pm

    During the 1 Cor 13 blogabout a while back there were some interesting commentaries on “Love is patient” makrothumias and its ties to the exodus verse. Check out my blog and BBB I can’t remember where it was. “Love is long-nosed” is much better.

  4. Jake permalink
    July 11, 2008 4:15 pm

    I keep reading this blog. I too must be long of nostril…

    You should do a completely literal translation of scripture. Using the idioms and euphemisms of the Hebrew and Greek cultures. It’ll be the total antithesis to Peterson’s “The Message”.

    I’d buy it. I might even read it.

  5. July 11, 2008 8:54 pm

    No, I think you’re mistaken. Jesus did speak in “thous” and “thees.” He also had blue eyes and long blonde hair…ha…

    I am all for jolting people’s naïve perceptions of scripture and faith in general…but you would have to be a velvet-covered brick…basically, give the hard truth but with grace and gentleness…or a commentary. So yeah, I like the idea of a literal translation with accompanying notes or something to bring the intricacies and issues of the original languages to light.

  6. July 11, 2008 9:45 pm


    It is good that you are “long of nostril”; it makes up for the inadequacies of length concerning protrusions elsewhere on your body!

    Read a Bible? Just regurgitate what you heard a pastor say somewhere once and you’ll be OK.

  7. Jake permalink
    July 12, 2008 12:23 am

    So my left leg is slightly shorter than my right! You didn’t have to publish that on the internet… geeze.

    Regurgitated Christianity. I like it.

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