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I'm writing an essay on Isa 1:21-31 and v25 in various translations is soap, detergent, bleach, or lye (= Sodium Hydroxide = drain unblocker!)

Soap / detergent is easy to understand, but sounds like quite a mild process. Most people will not have heard of lye, but it certainly suits the radical cleaning portrayed in the passage.

Which is the better translation?

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  • WoundedEgo quotes a good resource for understanding what the original word meant. Now which is the "better" translation is a question of your intentions and audience: provide an archaic word or modern equivalent? include footnotes or leave it to the commentaries? get the main point or all the details more easily?
    – fumanchu
    May 6 '16 at 14:23
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According to Keil & Deilitzch Commentary[1] the reference is either to potash or nether would be employed to accelerate the process of smelting:

Both bor, or potash (an alkali obtained from land-plants), and nether, natron (i.e., soda, or natron obtained from the ashes of marine plants, which is also met with in many mineral waters), have been employed from the very earliest times to accelerate the process of smelting, for the purpose of separating a metal from its ore.

I provide the whole entry in commentary on Isaiah 1:25 here:

Isa_1:25 states clearly in what the revenge consisted with which Jehovah was inwardly burdened (innakmah, a cohortative with the ah, indicating internal oppression): “And I will bring my hand over thee, and will smelt out thy dross as with alkali, and will clear away all thy lead.” As long as God leaves a person's actions or sufferings alone, His hand, i.e., His acting, is at rest. Bringing the hand over a person signifies a movement of the hand, which has been hitherto at rest, either for the purpose of inflicting judicial punishment upon the person named (Amo_1:8; Jer_6:9; Eze_38:12; Psa_81:15), or else, though this is seldom the case, for the purpose of saving him (Zec_13:7). The reference here is to the divine treatment of Jerusalem, in which punishment and salvation were combined - punishment as the means, salvation as the end. The interposition of Jehovah was, as it were, a smelting, which would sweep away, not indeed Jerusalem itself, but the ungodly in Jerusalem. They are compared to dross, or (as the verb seems to imply) to ore mixed with dross, and, inasmuch as lead is thrown off in the smelting of silver, to such ingredients of lead as Jehovah would speedily and thoroughly remove, “like alkali,” i.e., “as if with alkali” (Cabbor, Comparatio decurtata, for C'babbor: for this mode of dropping Beth after Caph, compare Isa_9:3; Lev_22:13, and many other passages). By bedilim (from bâdal, to separate) we are to understand the several pieces of stannum or lead (Note: Plumbum nigrum, says Pliny, n. n. xxiv. 16, is sometimes found alone, and sometimes mixed with silver: ejus qui primus fluic in fornacibus liquor, stannum appellatur. The reference here is to the lead separated from the ore in the process of obtaining pure silver. In the form of powder this dross is called bedil, and the pieces bedilim; whereas ophereth is the name of solid lead, obtained by simply melting down from ore which does not contain silver. The fact that bedil is also apparently used as a name for tin, may be explained in the same way as the homonymy of iron and basalt (Com. on Job_28:2), and of the oak and terebinth. The two metals are called by the same name on account of their having a certain outward resemblance, viz., in softness, pliability, colour, and specific gravity.) in which the silver is contained, and which are separated by smelting, all the baser metals being distinguished from the purer kinds by the fact that they are combustible (i.e., can be oxidized). Both bor, or potash (an alkali obtained from land-plants), and nether, natron (i.e., soda, or natron obtained from the ashes of marine plants, which is also met with in many mineral waters), have been employed from the very earliest times to accelerate the process of smelting, for the purpose of separating a metal from its ore.

[1]Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament Johann (C.F.) Keil (1807-1888) & Franz Delitzsch (1813-1890)

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  • Thank you, Potash seems probably the compound originally referred to. It is made from plant ashes and thus readily available. Used in tanning process and in soap manufacture (thus washing references) also in smelting along with NaOH, (thus refining). Very similar to NaOH (lye) hence the popular translation. Still a highly reactive alkali, and nothing like modern soaps, so bleach / disinfectant is probably the modern meaning I'll go with. Many thanks May 7 '16 at 11:04

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