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Isaiah 19:3:

3 And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I will destroy the counsel thereof: and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards. [KJV]

3 And emptied out hath been in its midst the spirit of Egypt. And its counsel I swallow up, And they have sought unto the idols, And unto the charmers, And unto those having familiar spirits, And unto the wizards. [YLT]

3 Then the spirit of the Egyptians will be demoralized within them; And I will confuse their strategy, So that they will resort to idols and ghosts of the dead, And to mediums and spiritists. [NASB]

3 and the spirit of the Egyptians within them will be emptied out, and I will confound their counsel; and they will inquire of the idols and the sorcerers, and the mediums and the necromancers; [ESV]

Isaiah 29:4:

4 And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust. [KJV]

4 And thou hast been low, From the earth thou speakest, And from the dust makest thy saying low, And thy voice hath been from the earth, As one having a familiar spirit, And from the dust thy saying whisperest, [YLT]

4 Then you will be brought low; From the earth you will speak, And from the dust where you are prostrate Your words will come. Your voice will also be like that of a spirit from the ground, And your speech will whisper from the dust. [NASB]

And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak, and from the dust your speech will be bowed down; your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost, and from the dust your speech shall whisper. [ESV]

What is a familiar spirit/ghost of the dead/spirit from the ground? Also: what is the reason for the different expressions used by different translations? Do all translations capture equally well the intended meaning of the original author?

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2 Answers 2

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The matter in Isa 19:3 and 29:4 is how to translate אוֹב which BDB defines as listed below in the Appendix.

Note that the word means "necormancer" or "ghost" or "spirit" - one who supposedly conjures spirits who can give information about either the future or the dead.

The translation of the word is highly dependent in the culture in which it is made. Thus we have a variety of translations:

  • NIV, ESV, BSB, NASB, etc, "medium"
  • KJV (1611), ASV: them that have familiar spirits
  • Amplified Bible: they will consult ... the spirits of the dead
  • HCSB: spirits of the dead
  • Aramaic: necromancers

Despite this variety of translations, the meaning is exactly the same.

APPENDIX - BDB entry for אוֺב noun masculine

1 skin-bottle, only plural אֹבוֺת חֲדָשִׁים new (wine-) skins Job 32:19.

2 necromancer, in phrase אוֺב אוֺ יִדְּעֹנִי necromancer or wizard Leviticus 20:27 (H; usually translated 'a man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit or that is a wizard' RV; but better a man or a woman, if there should be among them, a necromancer or wizard; no sufficient reason for exceptional use of phrase here); וְיִדְּעֹנִי ׳א Deuteronomy 18:11; 2Chronicles 33:6 = 2 Kings 21:6 (where וידענים ׳א); הָאֹבוֺת וְהַיִּדְּעֹנִים Leviticus 19:31; Leviticus 20:6 (H) 1 Samuel 28:3,9; 2 Kings 23:24; Isaiah 8:19 (where repres. as chirping & muttering, in practice of their art of seeking dead for instruction, probably ventriloquism, & so ᵐ5) Isaiah 19:3.

3 ghost, Isaiah 29:4 וְהָיָה כְּאוֺב מֵאֶרֶץ קוֺלֵח וּמֵעָפָר אִמְרָתֵח תְּצַפְצֵף and thy voice shall be as a ghost from the ground and from the dust thy speech shall chirp (so Ge MV Ew De Che and others, but chirping might be of necromancer, as Isaiah 8:19).

4 necromancy אֵשֶׁת בַּעֲלַתאֿוֺב a woman who was mistress of necromancy 1 Samuel 28:7 (twice in verse); (> RSJPh xiv, 127 f makes אוֺב primarily a subterranean spirit, and significant. 2 only an abbreviation of ׳בעלתא etc.); קסם בּאוֺב divine by necromancy 1 Samuel 28:8, which seems to be interpretation of 1 Chronicles 10:13 ׳שׁאל בא inquire by necromancy. (In these three examples אוֺב is usually interpreted as ghost or familiar spirit conceived as dwelling in necromancer; but this apparently not the ancient conception.)

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Isaiah 19:3 New International Version

The Egyptians will lose heart, and I will bring their plans to nothing; they will consult the idols and the spirits of the dead [H328], the mediums and the spiritists.

Strong's Exhaustive Concordance

charmer, gently, secret, softly
From an unused root perhaps meaning to move softly; (as a noun) a necromancer (from their soft incantations), (as an adverb) gently -- charmer, gently, secret, softly.

Isaiah 29:4

Brought low, you will speak from the ground; your speech will mumble out of the dust. Your voice will come ghostlike [H178] from the earth; out of the dust your speech will whisper.

Strong's Exhaustive Concordance

bottle, familiar spirit
From the same as 'ab (apparently through the idea of prattling a father's name); properly, a mumble, i.e. A water skin (from its hollow sound); hence a necromancer (ventriloquist, as from a jar) -- bottle, familiar spirit.

Both Hebrew words connect some kinds of tenuous sounds to ghostly sounds.

Both H328 and H178 were translated as "familiar spirit/s" by KJV.

Do all translations capture equally well the intended meaning of the original author?

No, because some versions do not distinguish between the two Hebrew words.

Wikipedia:

In European folklore of the Medieval and Early Modern periods, familiars (sometimes referred to as familiar spirits) were believed to be supernatural entities that would assist witches and cunning folk in their practice of magic.

what is the reason for the different expressions used by different translations?

Different translation philosophies, different cultural backgrounds.

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