6

I would like to see some answers as to the discrepancy between the Hebrew and the LXX Greek Text concerning the subject matter of what is read in verse 8 of the KJV, but in other translations it can be in verse 7.

Below is the verse in focus with the above only given for context.

Isa 9:8 The Lord sent a word into Jacob, and it hath lighted upon Israel.

דבר שׁלח אדני ביעקב ונפל בישׂראל׃Hebrew of Isa 9:8(KJV)

The LXX: Isa 9:7 Θάνατον ἀπέστειλεν κύριος ἐπὶ Ιακωβ, καὶ ἦλθεν ἐπὶ Ισραηλ,

English trans of LXX: The Lord has sent death upon Jacob, and it has come upon Israel.

The two words in difference offer a very hard explanation in harmony, unless one were to combine the meaning into 'a word of death', yet that cannot be exegetically attained in this scripture.

Perhaps there is a grammatical or spelling confusion I am not noticing some one else may see?

6

Various scholars (I'm using the Brill DSS book, but my guess is that this is found in the BHS apparatus as well, and see here - this was noted as early as Gill, see here) seem to understand this issue as arising from a difference in vowelization. θάνατος is the Greek translation used for Dever/דֶּבֶר (see, for example, LXX Exodus 9:3, and it is translated in a variety of ways, certainly not exclusively as death), which has the same Hebrew letters (but not vowelization) as the Masoretic rendering of Davar/דָּבָר.

Therefore, it is likely that the LXX translators had the same letters in front of them, but vowelized, and thus translated them differently. (Of note: Although other early sources (including some Greek translations, see section 51 here) seem to follow the MT, the MT in Leviticus 25:26 itself also uses the verb שלח (to send) together with דֶּבֶר.)

4
+50

Background
Since the written text in use at the time lacked the vowels found in the Masoretic Text (MT), the issue is primarily over how the consonants דבר are pronounced, either as דָּבָר (dabar) = speech, word, speaking, thing or as דֶּבֶר (deber) = pestilence, plague. According to the lexicon a proper word for dabar would be λόγος (logos) or ῥῆμα (rhema) or λόγιον (logion) and deber would be λοιμός (loimos). The consonants appear 47 times in Isaiah and the MT has all 47 as dabar. The LXX translates 31 as logos, 9 as rhema, and 1 as logion. Of the remaining 6, only the use at 9:8 is considered as deber. Given the overall handling of the consonants the one exception appears to be intentional.

There is also a question on how to understand the action described:

The Lord has sent a word against Jacob, and it will fall on Israel (ESV)
My Lord d-let loose a word-d against Jacob and it fell upon Israel. (Isaiah 9:7 JPS)
d-d Septuagint reads "Let loose pestilence"; cf. Amos 4.10. In vv. 7-20 Isaiah alludes to and builds upon Amos 4.10-12

In his comments on Isaiah, Benjamin D. Sommer explains this issue:

The verbs here are in the past tense, but their significance is unclear. They may predict disasters to come (in which case the verbs exemplify "the prophetic past" described in 9.1-6n.); alternatively they may review disasters that God already sent in an unsuccessful attempt to chasten the Northern Kingdom (in which case the prophet does not predict the coming events but presents an interpretation of recent history).1

How Does the LXX Understand דֶּבֶר deber?
Using the KJV, דֶּבֶר (deber) is found 49 times in 14 different OT books:

Verse       Heb  Greek     Verse     Heb    Greek      Verse     Heb    Greek
Ex 5:3      בַּדֶּ֖בֶר θανατος   Jer 14:12 וּבַדֶּ֔בֶר θανατω     Jer 44:13 וּבַדָּֽבֶר  θανατω
Ex 9:3      דֶּ֖בֶר  θανατος   Jer 21:6  בְּדֶ֥בֶר  θανατω     Ez 5:12   בַּדֶּ֣בֶר   θανατω
Ex 9:15     בַּדָּ֑בֶר θανατω    Jer 21:7  הַדֶּ֣בֶר  θανατου    Ez 5:17   וְדֶ֥בֶר   θανατος
Lev 26:25   דֶ֙בֶר֙  θανατον   Jer 21:9  וּבַדָּ֑בֶר ---        Ez 6:11   וּבַדֶּ֖בֶר  θανατω
Num 14:12   בַדֶּ֖בֶר θανατω    Jer 24:10 הַדָּ֑בֶר  θανατον    Ez 6:12   בַּדֶּ֣בֶר   θανατω
Deut 28:21  הַדָּ֑בֶר θανατον   Jer 27:8  וּבַדֶּ֜בֶר λοιμω (x)  Ez 7:15   וְהַדֶּ֥בֶר  θανατος
2 Sa 24:13  דֶּ֙בֶר֙  θανατον   Jer 27:13 וּבַדָּ֑בֶר֙ λοιμω (x)  Ez 7:15   וָדֶ֖בֶר   θανατος
2 Sa 24:15  דֶּ֙בֶר֙  θανατον   Jer 28:8  וּלְדָֽבֶר λοιμου (x) Ez 12:16  וּמִדָּ֑בֶר  θανατου
1 Ki 8:37   דֶּ֣בֶר  θανατος   Jer 29:17 הַדָּ֑בֶר  λοιμον (x) Ez 14:19  דֶּ֥בֶר    θανατον
1 Ch 21:12  וְדֶ֙בֶר֙ θανατον   Jer 29:18 וּבַדָּ֑בֶר λοιμω (x)  Ez 14:21  וָדֶ֔בֶר   θανατον
1 Ch 21:14  דֶּ֖בֶר  θανατον   Jer 32:24 וְהַדָּ֑בֶר λοιμου (x) Ez 28:23  דֶּ֤בֶר    θανατος
2 Ch 6:28   דֶּ֣בֶר  θανατος   Jer 32:36 וּבַדָּֽבֶר λοιμω (x)  Ez 33:27  בַּדֶּ֥בֶר   θανατω
2 Ch 7:13   דֶּ֖בֶר  θανατον   Jer 34:17 הַדֶּ֣בֶר  θανατον    Ez 38:22  בְּדֶ֣בֶר   θανατω
2 Ch 20:9   וְדֶ֣בֶר θανατος   Jer 38:2  וּבַדָּ֑בֶר λοιμω (x)  Hos 13:14 דְבָרֶיךָ  θανατον
Ps 78:50    לַדֶּ֥בֶר θανατον   Jer 42:17 וּבַדָּ֑בֶר λοιμω (x)  Am  4:10  דֶּ֙בֶר֙    θανατον
Ps 91:3     מִדֶּ֥בֶר λογου     Jer 42:22 וּבַדֶּ֖בֶר λοιμω (x)  Hab 3:5   דָּ֑בֶר    λογος
Ps 91:6     מִ֭דֶּבֶר πραγματος                 (x) - some manuscripts

θάνατος (thanatos 2288) is the most common choice (34 times, 69%) to translate deber. Twice the consonants are treated as dabar and translated as λόγος (logos) 3056; once as πρᾶγμα (pragma 4229) and 10 times, all in Jeremiah it is translated as λοιμός (loimos 3061). .

The only book where deber is treated differently is Jeremiah where only 38% are translated as θάνατος. There are wide divergences between the LXX and MT in Jeremiah.2 If these are discounted, θάνατος is used 88% of the time (28 of 32). Also, 2 of the 4 exceptions treat the Hebrew as דָּבָר (dabar), the other possible pronunciation.

Some translations (i.e. JPS) note "pestilence" is a possible meaning for θάνατος. That does not appear to be how the LXX understands the word. One example:

He made a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death (מִמָּ֣וֶת), but gave their lives over to the plague (לַדֶּ֥בֶר). (Psalm 78:50 ESV)

He made a path for his wrath; he did not spare their souls from death, and their cattle he consigned to death. (Psalm 77(78):50 LXX NET)

Here the LXX also renders מָוֶת meaning death as θανατον. Therefore, when the LXX translator considers דבר as דֶּבֶר deber, the reader should expect to find θανατον meaning "death."

Isaiah 9:8(7) and Amos 4:10

The Lord sent death against Iakob, and it came on Israel. (Isaiah 9:8(7) NETS)

Θάνατον ἀπέστειλεν κύριος ἐπὶ Ιακωβ, καὶ ἦλθεν ἐπὶ Ισραηλ (LXX)

The verse is correctly placed in the past tense. If דבר were to be translated as "word" the reader would understand the divine word was sent against Jacob and it fell only on Israel. For the LXX translator, it would make little sense to say the word sent to Jacob fell only on Israel (the Northern Kingdom). Nor would it be historically accurate: the word went to both kingdoms.

The translator knows all warnings to both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms were ignored. They are also living at a time in which the Southern Kingdom had experienced restoration. The LORD had dealt with both but Israel never had an Ezra or Nehemiah to begin to put things back in order. Israel was "dead" because of what the LORD had done. For one considering the passage as recent history, deber makes more sense than dabar and it would be translated as θάνατος.

Moreover, the LXX is historically accurate. The LORD sent death against Jacob (both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms) but, as the Southern Kingdom had been revived, death fell only on Israel.

It is obvious, as Sommer notes is possible, the LXX translator decided to convey this passage as an interpretation of history not a prediction of disasters to come. Accordingly the translator understands דבר as דֶּבֶר deber and renders it as θάνατος. The LXX correctly informs the reader the Northern Kingdom (only) is dead because of what the LORD had done. In fact, historically neither "word" nor "pestilence" would accurately convey the divine action taken against the Northern Kingdom.

The JPS translator also notes a connection between this passage in Isaiah and Amos 4:10-12:

I sent you death in the way of Egypt, and I killed your young men with the sword, along with the captivity of your horses, and I brought up your camps with fire in your wrath; even so you did not return to me, says the Lord. I overthrew you as God overthrew Sodoma and Gomorra, and you were like a firebrand snatched from the fire; even so you did not return to me, says the Lord. Therefore, thus I will do to you, O Israel, but because I will do thus to you, prepare to call upon your God, O Israel. (Amos 4:10-12 NETS)

Like Isaiah 9:8(7) the LXX has θανατον "death" for the Hebrew דֶּבֶר deber in Amos 4:10, indicating a consistent handling of the consonants in the message.

Conclusion
The LXX understands the prophet has interpreted recent history and so conveys their understanding of that history to their reader. It is a fact the LORD who tore the Kingdom in two to make Israel, later put Israel to death. Significantly, there is no reason for the LXX translator to believe the future will once again be made up of a divided kingdom and there is no reason not to say death fell on Israel.


Notes:
1. Benjamin D. Sommer, The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 802
2. How do the traditions of the LXX and MT versions of Jeremiah relate?

  • The question wasn't about which is correct, it asked what caused the difference between translations. As an aside, I happen to disagree with your conclusion, but am not here to debate it. – רבות מחשבות Feb 12 at 22:09
  • @Bʀɪᴀɴ Thank you for pointing out my errors. I have corrected the answer accordingly. – Revelation Lad Feb 14 at 6:41
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Why the ambiguity

Other answers here have correctly noted that an unpointed (i.e. consonantal only, no vowel pointing) text, which alone is what existed at the time of the LXX, would have had simply the three radicals דבר, which could be either the word דֶּ֫בֶר (pestilence, plague) or דָּבָר (speech, word) in translation; for those words, see Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), hereafter BDB. So the words are homographs, spelled the same (in the consonantal text), but pronounced differently and having different meanings.

Determining which idea is most likely requires consideration of the context.

Relevant, but not wholly determining, facts

But before considering context, let me note two facts that may be relevant. First, by frequency, it is far more likely to have the intended meaning of "word," as it is found in the singular 875 times (+564 times in plural, for 1439 total) in the Hebrew scriptures with that meaning (BDB). Whereas the word for "pestilence" is (if I counted BDB right) found 53 times in total. So about 6% of the combined occurrences with singular (3.6% if including plural). (My search of my Bible software yielded comparable numbers: 1423 to 46.) So frequency would tend to favor "word" as the translation.

The second fact is that when translated pestilence or plague, it is always to those more specific ideas—not generically as "death," but rather death by disease. So while the Greek θάνατον (the accusative form of θάνατος) can roughly be used, by context, to refer to "a particular manner of death, fatal illness, pestilence" (William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000], s.v. θάνατος), the word is not specifically designed to convey the meaning of "pestilence" or "plague" directly (that word would be λοιμός). So if the LXX translators had really wanted to convey the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew to clearly denote pestilence or plague, they could have chosen a better word (that does not rely on context to gain the idea of a particular manner of death).

Context

Now contextually, there is nothing preceding or following that gives indication of a disease being what is "against Jacob." Preceding, in fact, refers to the blessings of the Messiah coming (v.6-7). So more specifically, the following verses discuss acts of war: tearing down of buildings and cutting down of trees, v.10; adversaries in v.11-12, and even against each other in v.21. Similar language continues throughout the end of chapter 9. So there is no contextual indication that disease is what will be "against Jacob."

Additionally, a "word against Jacob" makes more sense in context. It is "pride and arrogance of heart" (v.9) that is the issue, and they do not "turn to" or "seek the LORD of hosts" (v.13). It is the lying prophets and leaders (v.15-16) that are bringing this upon Israel, and "every mouth speaks folly" (v.17). So words and thoughts (which are words of the heart) are leading Israel down this path of God's wrath, which contextually implies that God has "sent a word against Jacob" (in contrast to their own words). Most likely, it is a declaration that the very statements of the prophecy of Isaiah given in the following verses of chapter 9 are that "word" sent, through Isaiah, against Israel.

Conclusion

While I don't believe one can be 100% definitive on which translation is best, everything in context implies to me that the MT interpretation of the word (and what they chose to point for vowel vocalization) is more likely accurate compared to the LXX. Context just seems to support that far more, in my mind, than any idea of a disease coming upon Israel in the context of this particular prophecy. Rather, war and fighting were coming.

But what is certain is that "word of death" is not an option for translation as the OP asks. The ideas of the two possible meanings for the word cannot be combined. That would be like combining two English homograph meanings because two different translations chose a different idea for which meaning was intended. Let me give a silly, made up example to illustrate the point. Suppose this was the English context of some text:

The trees of the forest were shattered in the aftermath, and the dogs ran wild among the debris. The bark settled across the land.

Now suppose one interpretation believed "bark" in that context was a reference to the sound the dogs were making, while another interpretation thought it referred to the debris from the trees laying everywhere. (The latter would be better in context, since in English, if it referred to dogs barking, then the word "barking" would likely have been used, rather than "the bark"; but one unfamiliar with English might not catch that.) What should be obvious, however, from this silly illustration, is that the "[dog] bark of [tree] bark" would be an unsupportable translation (or vice versa), and this is exactly what is being proposed with the idea of "word of death" to translate the Hebrew homograph דבר.

  • Thanks for the very informational answer and good logic. However, the supposition to "translate word of death" into a rendering was never proposed, nor implied in the question, but a "meaning"; and that if any other Bible student saw a reason that the pronounced devouring of Israel with open mouth and so on, which is spoken by the context was provided in that "word of death" as a viable 'meaning', a play on words, or a grammatically variant not easily seen. Again, Thanks. – Lowther Feb 16 at 22:41
  • @Lowther Glad it was of some value. There is a fine line between "translation" vs. "meaning"; after all, a dynamic equivalent translation is one that is trying to express "meaning" from the source language to the target language. My point still holds that combining meanings of homographs (especially based on the fact that two translations interpreted the meaning differently) is not really a valid option. Either "word" or "pestilence" was intended, but not both. – ScottS Feb 18 at 16:11
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First of all, I don't spot any link between the two concepts "word" and "death", really. I agree with ScottS that we cannot perform a 'crossbreeding' between this two terms (so to have it both ways) with an expression like "a word of death".

However, we don't overlook over the fact that sometimes - in the TaNakh - we are before to some identical (or, much similar) roots, though they are very different meanings (or, meanings that cannot be - di per sé - linked together). For an example, we found in TaNaKh the root בער, indicating the different meanings of "to tremble" (e.g. Isa 19:11) and "to burn > to consume (by fire)" (e.g. Exo 3:2) [in the Mandelkern Concordance you may visualize all of these omographics distinguished by Roman numbers].

So, Is there a possibility that in Isa 9:8 [7] the term DBR was really an omographic one?

I think so, taking also into an account the LXX testimony. Maybe, DBR can be a variant that come from a lost original root, with the meaning of "to apply pressure on". From this basic meaning were derived - probably - the sub-meanings as "to compress" > "to be under pression" > "to cause tribulation (to someone)" (interestingly, the Latin word 'tribulo' may be a derivate term from that root (through the consonantic commutations D > T, and L > R). In fact his meaning is ‘to press' > 'to thresh'. From this Latin word was derived the English verb 'to tribulate', that is 'to apply a great pressure [on someone]).

Moreover, a number of TaNaKh roots that include the consonantic group -DB, DB-, or also D-B, again have this same meaning (see, please, 1 Sam 2:33 [ADB, linked with Eli's heart condition], Lev 26:16 [DAB, linked with the 'eyes'], 1 Sam 25:18 [DBL, linked with a noun with the meaning of "loaf of (dried) pressed figs"]).

In conclusion, without be dogmatic, there's a probability that the Isaiah passage in issue may means: "My Lord will send a tribulation [or, 'a plague', broadly speaking] against Jacob, and it will fall over Israel, and all the people will know it...".

-2

Firstly, most commentators and Bible versions place a section break between Isa 9:7 and Isa 9:8. Isa 9:1-7 is the a Messianic prophecy. Isa 9:8 begins a prophecy of doom for Judah.

The operative words Isa 9:8 are:

  • Hebrew: דָּבָ֛ר debar = word or message
  • Greek LXX: Θάνατον thanaton = death

There are several possible explanations for this unexpected translation.

  • The LXX uses a different Hebrew text at this point which may or may not be more correct (older now lost?) than the Masoretic text of Biblical Hebraica in common use today.
  • The LXX uses an interpretive translation since this is a prophecy of doom for Judah.

There is almost no way of definitely knowing which of these (if any) is correct. My personal preference is the second but I would not exclude the first.

  • 1
    There is no way to know of a certainty, sure, but there are often reasons imposed by use of language, and or misidentifications of brake in thought or language which help answer these types of questions. That is the answer I am specifically looking for, if available. – Lowther Feb 6 at 15:33
  • This doesn't provide an answer to the question, it simply restates it. -1 – רבות מחשבות Feb 11 at 22:14

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