The Complete Book of Judges

Help Solve This Bible Translation Mystery
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Oct. 6 2006 5:20 PM

The Complete Book of Judges

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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:

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David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

"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."

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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.)

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