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What does "a worthless doctrine" mean in Hebrew, as found in Jeremiah 10:8?

"But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish; A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine." - Jeremiah 10:8 (NKJV)

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Jeremiah 10:8

Jeremiah 10:8


The KJV Translation and hebel / הָ֫בֶל

The NKJV's translation 'a worthless doctrine' is derived from the Hebrew phrase above,

musar | ha-balim | ets | hu

literally

instruction | of vapor | wood | he

The original KJV scholars aimed to to align their translation of words as best they can, and the word 'hebel' (הָ֫בֶל) which becomes ha-balim is not an easy word to get into English. It's the word which is well known for its usage throughout Ecclesiastes, and so this was (most likely) their anchor for translation of the word throughout the OT. The KJV thus reads:

10:8 "But they are altogether brutish and foolish: the stock is a doctrine of vanities." - KJV

And the New King James has taken the 'stock/wood' as a reference to idols, but kept the sense of the KJV text which they were working from. But where did the text get its idea of a 'doctrine of vanities' to begin with?

The KJV translators were more fond of the Septuagint (Greek) than the Vulgate (Latin) in guiding their translation, but unfortunately this verse from Jeremiah is missing from the Septuagint, so the Vulgate was most likely the best early guide they had to go by. In translating 'hebel', they chose to follow the translation of the Vulgate text, which had rendered this word consistently as 'vanitas':

10:8 "Pariter insipientes et fatui probabuntur: doctrina vanitatis eorum lignum est." - Vulgate


Latin and Greek translations of hebel

It is worth noting that vanitas comes from the Latin word vanus which is closer to 'empty' than 'vain' in the modern English sense. As our language has grown and changed, the idea of 'vanity' no longer matches the Latin sense as originally captured by the Vulgate. Many modern translations follow the Vulgate and KJV in their translation of this word, taking the English word 'vanity' as a direct equivalent of 'vanitas'.

Though the Septuagint does not have this passage from Jeremiah, it does translate 'hebel' throughout Ecclesiastes as ματαιότης, which comes from the root matan (μάτην), meaning pointless or 'in vain'. This again is not even using the English word 'vain' in the sense of vanity, but rather in the sense of fruitlessness.


Capturing the idea in modern English

'Vanity' is not a direct modern English equivalent of the Hebrew or Latin word, however, and so I prefer to take 'hebel' back to its root of 'vapor' (see Strong's 1892). This word captures a fuller idea of emptiness, worthlessness and ephemerality, rather than just "meaningless/vanity". This makes more sense in our text here as well as throughout Ecclesiastes.

In the text then, our phrase then becomes closer to 'instruction of emptiness, wood', which is taken as a reference to idols. A better English rendition might follow the Holman Christian Standard Bible:

10:8 "They are both stupid and foolish, instructed by worthless idols made of wood!" - HCSB

The emphasis seems to be that the teaching is taken from the wood/idols, rather than the teaching being of the wood/idols, though the Hebrew phrase could capture either idea. The verse also has a parallel in v14 which confirms the idea of 'breathless idols':

10:14 "Everyone is stupid and ignorant. Every goldsmith is put to shame by his carved image, for his cast images are a lie; there is no breath in them." - HCSB

For more discussion on the translation of hebel see this similar question: "What translation best translates the word 'vanity' in Ecclesiastes?"


Conclusion

The "worthless doctrine" the KJV renders for Jeremiah 10:8 is equivalent to talking about "empty teaching" which the Israelites of Jeremiah's time were taking from idols and idolatrous teachers.

  • Good answer (though your conclusion names the KJV where you mean the NKJV). For what it's worth, I often find it helpful to include Jewish scholarship on questions of Hebrew Bible translation. JPS offers this: "But they are both dull and foolish; <·[Their] doctrine is but delusion;·> It is a piece of wood ...", with a note indicating that the meaning of the phrase in question is uncertain in Hebrew. – Schuh Mar 15 '16 at 19:43
  • Nope, I did definitely mean KJV where I said so, as that's the basis of the NKJV :) you're right though, the JPS and Hebrew scholarship are a great reference point - I was just trying to explain roughly why the NKJV arrived where it did and the rough right direction to go from there! Thanks again :) – Steve Taylor Mar 15 '16 at 20:01
  • This is helpful, thanks. Because הֲבָלִים is not in construct, it's difficult to see how we could arrive at "instruction of emptiness of wood", which also doesn't account for the dangling independent pronoun at the end. Not that I have a better translation. :-) (But using those words: "instruction of emptiness -- it is wood.") Note also the proposed emendation in BHS to מֵעֵצָה ("without counsel"). Others construe "it is wood" with the following verse... – Susan Mar 15 '16 at 20:02
  • @SteveTaylor, The HCSB seems to make "worthless" a modifier of "idols" instead of modifying "instruction". Do you think this is really closer to the original? Why? Have you thought about something along these lines: "their vaporous (or vacuous) teaching comes from wood", with the subtle pun on the flammability of their gods? – C. Kelly Mar 16 '16 at 3:20
  • @Susan - thanks very much, I have cleaned up some of the answer accordingly, and removed that second 'of'. I was trying to keep that first 'translation' fairly rough, as I'm still very rusty on my Hebrew grammar and not in the best position to see these things! – Steve Taylor Mar 16 '16 at 8:40
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The advantage of "vanity" as a translation of hebel is that it seems to be the only English word that communicates the sense of both "worthlessness" and "pride".

From Jeremiah's point of view the stock is a joke, because he knows the true God cannot be captured or represented in such a way, and indeed He commanded that it never be done. However, from the point of view of the stock-worshippers, it is a thing of pride. After all, they have the silver and gold, and they have the skilled artisans to craft their gods, and they have the fine go-to-church apparel (Jeremiah 10:9) -- all the trappings, but no substance.

This is precisely what has caused the people of Israel to stray -- they don't share Jeremiah's view that the stock of the heathen is a joke. They are drawn to it because their eyes are on the trappings, so they too, want to seek out and make inquiry of the stock. And here is the heart-ache of God: "If you would only trust Me", says Yahweh, "Then time would reveal the rock on which you've been established, and you would see for yourselves the worthlessness of the stock in which the heathen take such pride."

Conclusion

The KJV's translation of musar ha-balim as a "doctrine of vanities" is by far the best -- any teaching that would puff one up without reason. Jesus gives a great example of a doctrine of vanities in Luke 12:13-21, which is the essence of what the Preacher is on about in Ecclesiastes.

Any word that does not depict both "worthlessness" and "pride" cannot adequately communicate the proper sense of the Hebrew, hebel.

  • Can you argue out the conclusion a little more fully? You say "'doctrine of vanities' is by far the best." But you'll have to argue that out, or qualify it, or perhaps quote some authorities who agree with it. Wycliffe's translation, "They shall be proved unwise and fools together; the teaching of their vanity is a tree", seems more literal and closer to the original to me, and several hundred years older, too. These make it better in my opinion. But even Hebrew scholars aren't usually willing to say one or the other is "by far the best". – C. Kelly Mar 16 '16 at 3:01
  • @C. Kelly I would have thought the argument presented makes it obvious. Perhaps if you read my answer again, you'd get a better handle on what I've said about WORTHLESSNESS and PRIDE. You quote Wycliffe "the teaching of their vanity is a tree", which only supports what I've said. The heathen are PROUD of their tree, but it is just a tree. They can't see that this makes them laughable, but neither do the people of Israel who are constantly drawn to the tree. I've even given you an example of a doctrine of vanities, which I've then connected back to Ecclesiastes. I really can't do much more. – enegue Mar 16 '16 at 4:13
  • @C. Kelly I've just noticed your comment on Steve Taylor's answer. Your suggestion only captures half of the meaning of hebel. To you the worship of heathen gods is vaporous (or vacuous), but the people of Israel did not see it like that. They witnessed the pride (vanity) of the heathen as they gloried in their wealth and power, and they believed "the tree" acquired it for them. "We've gotta get a tree!", thinks Israel. "Vanity" is really the only word that captures the dual sense of the Hebrew word, hebel -- vacuousness that puffs one up. – enegue Mar 16 '16 at 5:12
  • @enegue - I don't know why you've reached the conclusion that the translation must include the English senses of 'worthlessness and pride': the point of hermeneutics and translation is to capture the sense of the original text. I've expanded my answer to mention how even the Vulgate's latin translation 'vanitatis' is closer to "empty" than "vain". We port this word through Hebrew and Latin to English, and if we keep the word 'vain' from Latin rather than translate it into modern English, we lose the original sense of the language. 'Vanity' is not a good English equivalent of the Hebrew word. – Steve Taylor Mar 16 '16 at 8:52
  • @SteveTaylor, is there any Hebrew word for "vanity"? Maybe it's not a BAD translation either. – C. Kelly Mar 16 '16 at 12:34

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