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In the "Jacob's ladder" passage, some translations say that "the Lord stood above [the stairway]" (ESV, NASB, ISV, others - this seems to be the more common translation), while others say "stood beside [Jacob]" (HCSB, NRSV, JPS, NJPS).

The commentaries I have checked say nothing about the multiple translations - they tend to focus on the angels ascending and descending. All I have found is this sermon by John Ritenbaugh:

Seeing the ladder in a dream stretching into heaven, with angels ascending and descending, not men, angels. Verse 13 is very important: "And Behold the Eternal stood above it and said..." That is as far as I need to go.

"The Eternal stood above it." I believe that is mistranslated. The Revised Standard Version, the Revised English Bible, and the New International Version all translate that God was standing beside him. In other words, He was at the foot of the ladder not above it. He was at the foot of the ladder standing beside him. Not only do those Bibles translate it that way or have a marginal reference translating it that way, or referring to it in that way, other Bibles do as well. Standing beside him...

Note that modern NIV translates it "above". This is really just an assertion; Ritenbaugh does not explain why he believes it's a translation error. It appears he just picked the translation that best suits his intended teaching.

I assume we have conflicting translation sources - what would be the best translation?

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2 Answers 2

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OP asks:

I assume we have conflicting translation sources - what would be the best translation?

Not exactly "conflicting translation sources": all the modern versions are working with the same sources, but drawing different conclusions about how that source text is best rendered. As ever, we need to set out those texts first of all, i.e. the first clause of Gen 28:13, omitting for the moment a translation of the key phrase:

[Masoretic Text] ... וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו
wᵉhinnēh YHWH niṣṣāb ʿālā(y)w ...
and behold YHWH stood [preposition ʿal] + [pronoun 3rd person, masculine, singular: it? him?] ...

[Septuagint] ὁ δὲ κύριος ἐπεστήρικτο ἐπ᾽ αὐτῆς ...
ho de kurios epestērikto ep’ autēs ...
and the Lord stood (leaned?) upon it...

There are two related questions about the text bearing on the question of its translation:

  1. What is the antecedent for the pronoun: "him", that is Jacob? or "it", that is the "stairway"?1
  2. What is the semantic value of the preposition ʿal: beside Jacob? or upon (or "over") the stairs?

Some observations:

  • The Septuagint is unambiguous in its understanding of the Hebrew: the Greek translator takes it that the Lord is standing (? the choice of verb here is a bit interesting in itself -- but not our problem) upon the κλῖμαξ (klimax), or "scaling ladder". The pronoun autēs is feminine, and so is klimax. No ambiguity here.
  • The Hebrew is ambiguous, however. The preposition ʿal has a wide range of meaning, and either sense is perfectly admissible here; the "stairway" (סֻלָּם sullām from 28:12) is masculine ... and so is Jacob, so the pronoun's antecedent could be either.
  • We could look at all the uses of this verb (√nṣb) + preposition ʿal,2 but that turns out not to be vastly illuminating, since meaning varies according to context. There isn't a consistent pattern that would settle the argument for Gen 28:13.
  • Gordon Wenham has some valuable comments on this problem.3 I won't go into the issue of putative sources that bears on this question for some commentators (who see a seam in the sources at just this point). But he makes the telling observation that in 28:12, there is a pair of 3rd person, masculine singular pronouns both referring to the sullām ("stairway"), not to Jacob.4 It would be very odd for the narrator to carry on into our v. 13 maintaining the same pronoun, but tacitly switching the antecedent to Jacob. Admittedly, that's not impossible -- but if the narrator wanted hearers/readers to see the Lord standing beside Jacob (rather than on the stairway), one thinks that this would have been made explicit.

So, in conclusion, context inclines me towards agreeing with Wenham, and those translations which have "upon it" (or, less likely to my mind, "over it", which again could have been disambiguated), i.e. positioned on the stairs, and not standing "beside him" (i.e., with Jacob).

P.s. Ritenbaugh was certainly mistaken in claiming there was a "translation error" (although that's OP's language, the quotation is a tad more circumspect with "believe that is mistranslated") - both translations adequately represent the Hebrew. As it happens, Rashi adopts the interpretation I reject!


Notes

  1. How to translate סֻלָּם sullām (28:12) is not our problem -- but it is more likely a stepped ramp (or "stairway") than a "ladder".
  2. Gen. 18:2; 24:13, 43; 28:13; 45:1; Exod. 17:9; 18:14; 33:21; Num. 23:6, 17; Ruth 2:5, 6; 1 Sam. 4:20; 19:20; 22:6, 7, 9, 17; 2 Sam. 18:17; 1 Ki. 4:7; Amos 7:7; 9:1.
  3. G. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (Word, 1994), p. 222.
  4. Genesis 28:12 [NASB]: He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top [וְרֹאשׁוֹ] reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it [בּוֹ].
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It is doubtfully a question of translation sources as the Masoretic Text (commonly abbreviated MT) supplies the base of almost all English translations from Hebrew. Other translations and versions will be examined, especially ancient ones, but translators going from Hebrew start with the MT. (Obviously a translation of the Septuagint into English will use the Septuagint as the base.) The MT contains עָלָיו-"upon it" for:

28:13 and the Lord stood at its top. He said, "I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the ground you are lying on." [NET Bible]

The same preposition (עָלֶיהָ) is used later in the verse for "ground you are lying upon."

The spelling difference in the two is that the first ends with the suffix for third masculine plural ("him/it") while the second ends with the suffix for third feminine plural ("her/it").

What I can look at right now does not show if there is a marked textual variant on this verse.

Hebrew has no neutral gender. The same suffix would be used for either "over him [Jacob]" or "over it [the stairway]." And the NET dictionary notes that in a minority of cases עָל can be used for "next" or "against." Gesenius' Lexicon (skip over the Strong's at the top and go straight for the Lexicon) notes that it is a frequent preposition with a wide variety of meaning. These meanings fall within 4 classes.

  1. Upon in the physical sense (the most common)
  2. Being high over without touching
  3. The sense of neighborhood and contiguity.
  4. A sense of motion such as "He stretched his hand towards the waters."

It is the third sense that comes into play here. Gesenius notes that even this sense springs from and can be reduced to the sense of being over. It is used in Genesis 16:7 when Hagar is near a spring of water in the desert. Genesis 24:30 contains a double example of this sense:

Genesis 24:30 "And, look, he stood over the camels over the spring." [my translation]

We should imagine the scene as the servant is standing next to the camels which are lying down next to a spring of water. As the water is at ground level, anything on the ground would be over it. And for the servant to be over the camels (as the preposition primarily requires), they would have to be lying down. His head would be above theirs even though their feet are at the same level. This would also be the case with Genesis 28:13. Jacob is lying down and the Lord stands over him if the preposition is used that way. A case could be made for this as Jacob is lying down and Gesenius notes that this sense is most common with the receiver being at rest.

It's not a difference in source. It's a difference in how they understand the preposition 'al being used here.

To answer which is best, I would go with "over it [the stairway]" since the preposition is most commonly used for "over." I would also have a translation note like:

The Hebrew pronoun could refer to either Jacob or the stairway. Some translations render it such and take the preposition to mean that the Lord is standing next to but towering over Jacob.

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Have you mis-read the Gesenius entry, Frank? The first "class" is "upon", not "above, over", and the fourth better glossed with "unto, against" (in Gesenius's handling). See also (or in preference?) Driver's extensive entry in BDB. –  Davïd Jul 22 at 21:33
    
@Davïd, thank you. That clears some things up in my mind (why the first and second were different). I plan on checking BDB. –  Frank Luke Jul 22 at 21:46

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