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While the NET's translation of 1 Kings 19:3 retains that "Elijah was afraid", it notes:

The MT has “and he saw,” but some medieval Hebrew mss as well as several ancient versions support the reading “he was afraid.” The consonantal text (וַיַּרְא, vayyar’) is ambiguous and can be vocalized וַיַּרְא (from רָאָה, ra’ah, “to see”) or וַיִּרָא (vayyira’, from יָרֵא, yare’, “to fear”).

Which of these is more likely the original reading?

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3 Answers 3

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The customary/traditional Hebrew reading is "he saw". The Radak (a medieval biblical commentator) states that some people read "and he was afraid" and that there's no literary necessity to do so, he "saw" that he was in trouble, and he fled. The Jonathan Aramaic translation (which is from around the 7th century) also renders "he saw".

The emphasis of the chapter (i.e. the first 14 verses, which comprise one literary unit) is clearly a spiritual one. The narrative of Elijah's escape is merely the setting under which he expresses his spiritual frustration in the idolatrous nation. He time and time again emphasises not that he's afraid for his life, but that his mission as spiritual guide is failing (which relates to the whole story of God taking him to the mountain and explaining that God isn't in the wind or fire etc. But we won't get into that). As such, I think the better reading of the verse is not to emphasise his mortal fear, but rather to emphasise that he "saw", he saw and understood that despite his attempts to show the nation the true God, he's still failed.

The verse could have but didn't use words that would support the reading that "he was afraid". Like Jeremiah 26:21 "and he was afraid and he escaped". Here, Elijah didn't "escape" but merely "got up and left". Again, he clearly was doing the sensible thing and running for his life, but that's not the textual emphasis of this section. If we take all uses of this exact word in this precise form, with accepted readings of "he was afraid", there are seven in the Old Testament (Samuel I 18:12, 21:12, 28:5, 28:20, Samuel II 6:9, Jeremiah 26:21, Chronicles II 20:3). Three of these seven have some extra emphasis describing "great" fear. Again the author chose not to emphasise the fear, which I see as support for the reading of "he saw".

All said and done I believe "he saw" makes more contextual sense. That said, maybe the author's intention was to be able to read it both ways - and "he was afraid" is a kind of subtext, or secondary, poetic connotation. Even if so, "he saw" seems to me to be the primary intention.

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Thanks bjorne. I'm curious about your comment in the last paragraph, though. How could the original author have intended it be read both ways? –  Soldarnal Aug 15 '13 at 3:46
    
A (very simple) double entendre. There are plenty of word-based literary devices employed in the Old Testament, using words that have a second related, often subtle, meaning. In general wordplay is a well-documented phenomenon in the literature. For references, the book "Puns and Pundits: Wordplay in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature" might be a good place to start. I haven't read it all - it's more or less a collection of academic papers on the topic, although I've skimmed the paper by Rendsburg. –  bjorne Aug 15 '13 at 11:21

John Gill in his Exposition of the Bible reads verse 3 as "And when [Elijah] saw." Gill takes this to mean that when Elijah "saw" that Jezebel's "design and resolution were to take away his life," he then arose and fled for his life.

In modern parlance, Elijah saw (or thought, or realized from his perspective) that Jezebel meant business. In the larger context, we can surmise legitimately, I think, that Elijah's perspective was defective, since it originated in his forgetting it was God's power, not his, that was responsible for Elijah's recent triumph over the 450 prophets of Baal.

Gill does note, however, that the Septuagint, Vulgate Latin, and Syriac versions read, "and he was afraid or frightened." (See BibleStudyTools.com).

Personally, I think it is a toss-up whether one goes with the reading "and he saw" or the reading "and he was frightened." The point is: Elijah ran for his life and had himself a little pity party! As bjorne, above, points out, perhaps "the author's intention was to . . . [enable his readers] to read it both ways."

As with so many questions, perhaps the answer is "both/and," not "either/or."

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Are you suggesting that the author intended ambiguity, or that the question cannot be answered? –  J. C. Salomon Aug 14 '13 at 16:01
    
@J.C.Salomon: Good question. I lean towards the latter. As for the former (i.e., "intended ambiguity"), I suggest the phenomenon is very rare, if not missing entirely in Scripture. When there are two equally plausible translations and consequently two equally plausible meanings, neither of which compromises an important doctrine, I say it's a toss-up which translation you choose. In the Elijah story, whether he "saw" or "feared," the result was the same: He left town in a hurry! Moreover, neither his seeing nor his fearing compromises any important biblical doctrine, in my opinion. –  rhetorician Aug 14 '13 at 19:39
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Deliberate ambiguity is actually fairly common in Scripture; and you know it’s deliberate because there are alternate words available for either meaning. –  J. C. Salomon Oct 8 '13 at 22:44
    
@J.C.Salomon: I don't doubt you have one or two or more examples. Care to share? I'm interested. Don –  rhetorician Oct 9 '13 at 1:12

The manuscript evidence is summed up well by R.B. Allen:

The reading “and he was afraid” has the support of LXX, Vg, Syro-Hexapla, Syriac, one MS of the Targum, and some Hebrew MSS. Against this largely versional evidence stand most Hebrew MSS and the Targum, which read “and he saw.”

Allen, R.B., "Elijah the Broken Prophet." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Volume 22. (1979)., 22(3), 198.

While the raw counts of the text traditions would seem to favor the "and he was afraid" reading, it's not that simple. The MT is a strong tradition. More importantly, though, "and he saw" has the benefit of being the harder reading. As most of the textual critics note here, it's easy to see why some scribe would change "and he saw" into "and he was afraid" thinking it a correction; but it's difficult to imagine it going the other way, where a scribe corrects "and he was afraid" to "and he saw."

This reading ("and he saw") also alleviates some problems in the narrative: 1) That in the following verse, Elijah, far from being afraid of death, pleads with God to take his life. 2) That none of Elijah's complaints to God revolve around the pursuit of his life, but around the failure of his mission. And 3) how it is that the prophet having stood against 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah can so quickly be terrified by a single, albeit powerful and fearsome, woman.

For these reasons, it is better to adopt the rendering "and he saw."

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While I agree with your conclusion, one possible argument for "he was afraid" is not that he was afraid of death (as you note, he then pleads for it), but rather fear of death at the hands of Jezebel (that is, granting her the "win"), which could confirm the failure of his mission. Just a thought. –  Gone Quiet Aug 12 '13 at 22:05
    
@MonicaCellio I do think Elijah left in order to avoid dying at Jezebel's hands lest she (and her god) be judged the victor. You're probably right that it weakens argument #1 regarding the narrative a little; but I don't think it's fatal to the overall case. –  Soldarnal Aug 15 '13 at 3:44

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