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Most modern translations of Exodus 20:18a render it something like the ESV (all emphasis mine):

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking

But Young's Literal Translation has this minority report:

And all the people are seeing the voices, and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mount smoking

Is there any basis for translating this as "seeing the voices"?

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As an aside, John 12:29, Rev. 1:12 and Rev. 10:3-4 are interesting cross references. – Soldarnal Mar 26 '13 at 3:49

The Hebrew word קוֹל (kol) can be translated as both "voice" and "thunder." The word basically means "sound." While one may wonder at the notion of seeing voices, isn't seeing thunders/ thunderings just as peculiar? We tend to hear both, not see them. So, I'd chalk it up to translator preference/ bias. Considering the context, with הַלַּפִּידִם (which the AV translates as "lightnings") adjacent, I'd go with "thunders."

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

This seems to be a case where word play is lost in translation. As H3br3wHamm3r81 mentions, the Hebrew word קוֹל (kol) can be translated as both "voice" and "thunder." The nearness of both ideas when God speaks is seen in poetic parallelisms like 2 Samuel 22:14.

The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.

In other words, the Lord thundering and his voice resounding are nearly synonymous.

The surrounding context of also points towards an intentional ambiguity. Again, as H3br3wHamm3r81 notes, the adjacent word, הַלַּפִּידִם, often translated as lightnings, points us in the direction of "thunder". However, the fear of the people at the sight (sic) of the thunder/voices issues in the request found in the following verse that Moses speak to them rather than God. This would point in the direction of "voices".

Since the word itself involves an ambiguity, and since the context suggests an ambiguity, it seems best to see this as word play that cannot quite be capture in any one English translation.

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Jewish Rabbis in the Shemhot Midrash Rabbah 5:9 state that the voice of God came down from the mountain at Sinai and split from one language into 70 voices and 70 languages at once. The words he spoke were also on fire and the fire rested upon each present at the mountain. In other words his words were visible because they were on fire explaining the voices and the lightenings or fire. That explains why the Israelites moved away from the mountain afraid to die. This is a Mosaic covenant connector as well. The tongues of fire rested on the people in the upper room in Acts Chapter 2. In the upper room God sent the fire and all were amazed they heard their own language perfectly. God was taking his copy of covenants and placing his Torah on the hearts of his people as he said he would.

Original question: Is there any basis for translating this as "seeing the voices"?

Additional Answer: The Hebrew word for “sound” (qôl) is predominately translated “voice” in the Old Testament. Moses was not visible to the people (see chapter 19) when God spoke to him. Yet v 22 says they saw that God had spoken to him. Verse 18 describes how they saw the conversation, God’s words were literally on fire. The Midrash supports Young’s use of “voice” in a “literal” translation but in the English it doesn't make sense within the context (thus why it was translated as Thunderings in other bibles-to make sense to the English reader. Yet this still then begs the question how did they “see thunder?” Verse 18 is, again, the explanation.). Going back to the context, it does answer your question. Yes there is a bases for the use of the word “voice.” See "voice" in Geneses 3: 10; 1st Kings 19:9-12. For context read Exodus 19: 9-20. There again you see thunders and lightenings and the qol in the Hebrew is also present there (v. 16). “Qol” is translated as “thunders” and then within the same verse it also is translated as “voice” of the trumpet. Knowing what I have shared you can pull from the context what you need. Thunders within the context are synonymous to voices.

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What evidence do you have that Young based his translation on the Midrash? – curiousdannii Oct 11 '14 at 9:45
I thought I was responding here but I guess I was mistaken. See reply above please. :) – user6053 Oct 11 '14 at 13:40
I did not state Young based translation on Midrash. I stated the Midrash explains the thunderings and lightenings. You may see Messiah Magazine #5 Spring 2014 / 5774 page 26 for further details. Thats a starting point if you wish to study it further. Or go to the Midrash itself for the commentary. I gave you the location within the Midrash. – user6053 Oct 11 '14 at 14:36
Well this question is specifically about why Young's translation says it this way. That means you haven't really answered the question. – curiousdannii Oct 11 '14 at 23:18
@curiousdannii I updated my answer. – user6053 Oct 12 '14 at 4:17

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