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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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4 Answers 4

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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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  • + 1... a good answer but I have added some addition information that I think is useful. Commented May 8, 2023 at 20:51
  • @DanFefferman - Many thanks, Dan, but I cannot see your edits.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 9, 2023 at 5:17
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The term "familiar spirit" may have many meanings, which have been well covered by other answers. Perhaps the best synonym would be "spirit guide," which are used by modern mediums to contact one's ancestors or others residing in the spiritual world.

Spirit guides are nonhuman or human entities that reside in the spiritual realm and make their wisdom available to the living. They take a variety of forms, including guardian angels, animal or nature spirits... and ancestors or descendants who have crossed over to the spiritual realm.

I would add that the episode of King Saul and the witch/medium of Endor sheds light on the OP's reference to "...a spirit from the ground, And your speech will whisper from the dust."

“Whom do you want me to conjure up?” the woman asked him. “Conjure up Samuel for me,” he replied. When the woman saw Samuel, she shrieked at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” But the king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” “I see a god rising from the earth,” she replied. (1 Sam. 28:11-13)

At the time in question, the afterlife (Sheol) was conceived by the Hebrews in terms of what other traditions called the "Underworld." Therefore spirits were "brought up" and were thought to speak from under the ground, thus explaining the wording in both Isaiah and 1 Samuel.

Conclusion: familiar spirits are synonymous with spirit guides, although exactly what form they took (human spirits residing in Sheol, angelic/demonic beings, animal spirts etc.) is not specified. Speaking from the ground/dust refers to the tradition of bringing the spirit "up" from the Underworld.

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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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They are all just unclean spirits aka demons.

Which we have authority given us by Jesus Christ. Jesus conquered Hades the unseen realm and death and had given us the keys - has authority over them all!

‭‭Matthew‬ ‭16‬:‭19‬ ‭KJV‬‬

And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

‭‭Mark‬ ‭16‬:‭16‬-‭18‬ ‭KJV‬‬

16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. 17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; 18 they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

This authority was never taken from us! Satan had deceived his people! His disciples! Which we are!

Through the Holy Spirit he gave them on Pentecost this is what Authority we have still to this day! In the name of Jesus Christ. And not of just ourselves.

Believe! Deliverance is making a return.

We are deceived no more!

God Bless You All!

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