The Complete Book of Judges

Help Solve This Bible Translation Mystery
What's really in the Good Book.
Oct. 6 2006 5:20 PM

The Complete Book of Judges

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

This won't be a full entry today. I just want to respond quickly to two reader critiques of yesterday's blog.

Dozens of you vigorously protested my interpretation of Judges, 7:5-7, the passage about how Gideon reduces the size of his army. At God's orders, Gideon takes his men to the water and has them drink. I wrote:

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

"Gideon sends home any soldier that picks up water with his hands. He keeps only the soldiers who lap up water with their tongues, like dogs. That leaves him with just 300 men."

Advertisement

According to many of you, I'm dead wrong: You say Gideon actually sent home the men who lapped like dogs and kept the 300 men who picked up water with their hands. As Carl Fitzpatrick wrote, his Sunday School teachers had a great explanation for why Gideon kept the men who drank out of their hands: "They were the alert ones, who were always looking around and wanted to be constantly aware of what was going on. For the stealth mission Gideon had planned, a few of these guys were better than 30 times as many mindless grunts."

I couldn't believe I had read the passage so wrongly, so I went back to my Bible to check the source. It turns out that the origin of our dispute is a very odd discrepancy in the Bible translations. Read the Bible I used, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV):

The Lord said to Gideon, "All those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, you shall put to one side; all those who kneel down to drink, putting their hands to their mouths, you shall put to the other side." The number of those that lapped was 300; but all the rest of the troops knelt down to drink water. Then the Lord said to Gideon, "With the 300 that lapped I will deliver you … "

Clear as day, the men who use their hands are sent home.

Now read the New International Version (NIV), probably the most popular Christian translation:

There the Lord told him, "Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink." Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. The LORD said to Gideon, "With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you … "

This is baffling. In my NRSV, the ones who kneel put their hands to their mouths and are disqualified. But in the NIV, the ones who kneel don't put their hands to their mouths. Rather, the lappers put their hands to their mouths. (The King James Bible and the English Standard Version, incidentally, agree with the NIV.) Is there a superb scholar of biblical Hebrew out there who can explain why these translations contradict each other? Is it, as I fear, a mistake by the NRSV translators?

Several readers also chastised me for neglecting the funniest, most revolting part of Ehud's assassination of fat King Eglon. There are a lot of disgusting deaths in Judges, but Eglon's may be the worst. Eglon is killed in his private bathroom when left-handed Ehud stabs him in the belly. According to the NRSV, Ehud stabs him so hard that "the dirt came out." I passed right over this phrase, not stopping to think what "the dirt" was.

It's not dirt.

When you read this translation, you can understand why this verse sent Sunday School students into gales of nervous laughter: "And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out."

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

How Moscow’s Anti-War March Revealed One of Russia’s Deepest Divides

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 7:46 PM Azealia Banks’ New Single Is Her Best in Years
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.