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I notice Deuteronomy 20:19 has quite a few different translations. An underlying reason is given in Why so many different translations of Deuteronomy 32:8? as differences in Masoretic and Septuagint texts. That is interesting, but I want to know people's reflections on the merits and demerits of some of these translations. Why do people read "food" into ha'adam? Should this be a rhetorical question? (A long list of various English translations can be found here.)

KJV:

thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man's life) to employ them in the siege

NKJV:

you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them; if you can eat of them, do not cut them down to use in the siege, for the tree of the field is man’s food.

JPS (from Sefaria):

you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?

NIV:

do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?

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The "problem" in Deut 20:19 is only in the second half of the verse. The first half of the verse is fairly uniform across most versions. However the second half of the verse is almost cryptic in the Hebrew. Here is my literal translation:

Deut 20:19b - if of them you eat and them not cut down for the man of tree of the field to use in the face of siege

Little wonder there is such a variation in translation - in it is almost unintelligible. Therefore, most versions attempt to smooth the sense and interpret what they believe the Hebrew is saying. Indeed, the Cambridge commentary correctly observes:

The Heb. pointing, which omits the interrogative, gives no sense.

The Pulpit commentary gives the rationale for "adjusting" the Hebrew:

This gives no good sense, or indeed, any sense at all; and hence it is proposed to alter the reading of the text so as to produce a meaning that shall be acceptable. From an early period the expedient has been resorted to of reading the clause interrogatively, and, instead of regarding it as parenthetical, connecting it with the following words, thus: "Is the tree of the field a man to come into siege before thee?" So the LXX., Rashi, etc.

That is one possibility and the Pulpit commentary offers another suggestion:

It has been thought that only a very slight change in the punctuation is required to justify this rendering (הֶאָדָם instead of הָאָדָם); but more than this is acquired: the subject and object are hereby reversed, and this is more than can be allowed. From an early period also it has been proposed to read the clause as a negation, "For the tree of the field is not a man to come into siege before thee." So the Targum of Onkelos, Abarbanel, Vulgate, etc. The sense here is substantially the same as in the preceding, and the same general objection applies to both.

In either case, the dictum is clear - the Hebrew army was not permitted to adopt a scorched earth policy and was prevented from felling fruit-bearing trees and/or using such in any siege machinery.

Thus the difference between the various versions of this verse consist in the efforts to render it intelligible. Such efforts can be traced back at least 2200 years to the LXX translators.

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  • + 1 -- Would you agree with the OP's implication that the issue is related to differences between the LXX and the Masoretic? Or is the problem simply that the Hebrew is uncertain in the first place. This translation of Dt. 20 from the DSS does not clear up the matter, and I have not been able to find a Hebrew version. Feb 18 at 17:00
  • @DanFefferman - The Hebrew is simply unclear and the LXX attempt to render it sensible by one of several methods. Modern versions use other methods.
    – Dottard
    Feb 18 at 20:31

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