In the Massoretic Text (MT) on which most of the translations are primarily based, these two verses contains ambiguities that challenge translators. In the MT these verses are Exodus 13-14:
וְכִֽי־יִשְׁאַ֥ל אִ֛ישׁ מֵעִ֥ם רֵעֵ֖הוּ וְנִשְׁבַּ֣ר אוֹ־מֵ֑ת בְּעָלָ֥יו אֵין־עִמּ֖וֹ שַׁלֵּ֥ם יְשַׁלֵּֽם
אִם־בְּעָלָ֥יו עִמּ֖וֹ לֹ֣א יְשַׁלֵּ֑ם אִם־שָׂכִ֣יר ה֔וּא בָּ֖א בִּשְׂכָרֽוֹ
The ambiguities are:
- The first verse states "If a man borrows from his fellow" but does not state what the man borrows, whether an inanimate item or an animal
- The word נִשְׁבַּ֣ר, nishbar, in the first verse, meaning "breaks" in Hebrew can apply equally to either a tool or animal
- Between the conditions "and it is injured or broken" and "its owner is not with" we would expect to see a the conjunctive letter ו, waw, "and", but there is none
- The words in the first verse אֵין־עִמּ֖וֹ, ain imo, can mean "he is not with him (the borrower)", or "he is not with it (masc., the thing borrowed)"
- Likewise in the second verse, עִמּ֖וֹ, imo, could be either "with the borrower" or "with the borrowed item"
- In the second verse we would expect a conjunctive before "if hired" but there is none
- The masculine pronoun ה֔וּא, hu, in the second half of the second verse could mean either "he" or "it" so it is not clear if it refers to the item as being hired or to the borrower is a hired laborer
In this instance the NASB is not only translating, it is taking an interpretative position":
- In the case of the second ambiguity listed above, the NASB is interpreting the verse to refer to animals only
- In the case of the fourth ambiguity above the NASB is interpreting "with him/it" to refer to the item borrowed (it) rather than to being with the borrower (him)
- In the case of the seventh ambiguity listed above the NASB is interpreting "him/it" to be "it", referring to the item as being hired, rather than to the borrower as being a hired hand
The NASB interpretation follows the Talmudic understanding of these verses. This reading implies a full verse break between "he shall not make restitution" and "if it is hired, it came for its hire" even though there is no verse break at this point in the MT. The NASB uses a semicolon to indicate that this is a subject break, but not a verse break, which I believe to be the source of the confusion. The Cambridge translation (also interpretive) has a full sentence break and translates the last half of the verse as "If it was hired, only the hire shall be due". The effect of this is:
When a man borrows [a beast] from his neighbor and it is injured or dies while its owner is not with it, the [borrower] shall make full restitution.
But if the owner is with it, [the borrower] shall not make restitution.
15b. If it was hired [[rather than borrowed]], only the hire shall be due.
The legal logic is that apparently that if the item is hired, the owner has taken the risk of loss into account in the price and the borrower is therefore not obligated to pay, i.e. the insurance covers the loss.
There are two serious problems with this interpretation:
- The need to interpolate a verse break because otherwise the final "if it is hired" clearly contradicts the predicate of both verses "If a man borrows"
- The words שָׂכִ֣יר, sachir, and בִּשְׂכָרֽוֹ, sacharo, in the OT usually refer to "hired" hand" and the "wages" of a hired hand respectively. See MT Exodus 12:45, Leviticus 19:13, 22:10, 25:6,40,50,53, Deuteronomy 15:18, 24:14, Isaiah 16:14, 21:16, Malachi 3:5, Job 7:1,2 14:6
Another interpretation that is consistent with the MT and does not interpolate a verse break is that the end of the second verse refers the borrower being a hired hand of the lender, and the meaning is either:
- If the borrower is a hired hand of the lender then any restitution cannot be deducted from his normal wages but must be paid separately
- If the borrower is a hired hand of the lender then the lender can deduct the restitution from the hired hand's wages (presumably over a period of time)
This interpretation makes the second half of verse 15 into an additional protection for hired labor, consistent with the protections indicated in many of the other verses of the Pentateuch that reference hired hands, e.g. Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:14 and others.
The ambiguity of the verse in the MT makes the intended meaning impossible to pin down with certainty. References to similar laws in contemporary extra-Biblical Middle East texts might shed some light. As believers, we must learn to accept this type of ambiguity in what we believe to be the word of God.