When God Spoke Greek… Did We Forget Who “God” Was?

I find myself conflicted when it comes to the Septuagint. I’m sympathetic to recent arguments in favor of the Septuagint’s importance, particularly in light of the early Christian community [see Timothy Michael Law’s excellent book When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Hebrew Bible]. However, I don’t know what to make of the ways in which the LXX seemingly whitewashes some of the more robust (read: not-Hellenized) theological descriptions found in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.

A few examples:

Genesis 6:6
The LXX usually translates the Hebrew nhm (repent, change one’s mind, regret) with the Greek term metanoeo or metamelomai, but here it avoids both of these verbs and reads “And God considered that he had made man.” As Wevers observes in his Notes on the Greek Text of Genesis, the author “obviously softened the anthropopathic metaphors of the Hebrew and has God, rather than reacting emotionally to man’s evil condition, concentrating on what he will do to rectify the situation.”

Exodus 32:12, 14
A similar phenomenon happens in another classic “divine repentance” text – Exodus 32. Verse 12 changes from the Hebrew “repent of the evil against your people” to the Greek “be merciful concerning this evil” while v. 14 changes from the Hebrew “YHWH repented of the evil which he spoke to do to his people” to the Greek “the Lord was propitiated concerning the evil he said he would do to his people.” (Translations from Victory P. Hamilton in The Book of Genesis, NICOT)

Job 13:15, 14:14
The LXX of Job contains significant interpretive revisions from the Hebrew text (see D. Gard, The Exegetical Method of the Greek Translator of the Book of Job). Job 13:15 transforms from the Hebrew “He may well slay me, I have no hope” (NJPS) to the Greek “Though the Mighty One lay hand on me, since he has already begun, I will speak and plead before him” while Job 14:14 transforms from the Hebrew “If a man dies, will he live again?” to the Greek “If a man dies, he will live again!”

Should Christian theological reflection take the Hebrew texts seriously?
More seriously than the LXX texts?

Lamentations 4:20 – MT or LXX?

How important should the LXX be for Christian preaching?

Lamentations 4:20 was an important christological reference to many of the church fathers (such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyril of Alexandria, and Augustine) and is a good example of how the LXX guided early Christian interpretation.

Possible Hebrew Translation:*
[The] breath of our nostrils, YHWH’s anointed,
was captured in their pits –
[He of] whom we said, “In his shade,
we will live among the nations.”

Majority Christian Rendering of the LXX:*
The s/Spirit before our face, Christ the Lord,
was taken in our/their corruptions/snares,
of whom we said, “In his shadow,
we shall live among the Gentiles.”

“A christological re-reading of the passage opens up interesting new ways of construing it. The capture of the king in 4:20 is the climax of the woes in the chapter: he who embodied the whole nation representatively has fallen to the foe. Immediately after this we have the unexpected oracle of salvation (4:21-22), with no hint in the text as to how one could move from the lowest point to the highest point of hope in the book….
On a christological interpretation, the move from verse 20 to verse 21 makes perfect sense. The loss of the king of Israel to the pagan foe in 4:20 is simultaneously the climax of the exilic woes and the means by which those woes come to an end…. The violence of the enemy is engraved on the subjugated and broken body of the Messiah, and yet in the act of being overcome by evil the evil is itself overcome by nonviolence. A subversive, cruciform element is introduced in the reception of the text.”*

* from Lamentations, Robin A. Parry (188-190)

Introducing Construction Grammar

Recently I’ve been reading “Louder Than Words” by Benjamin Bergen. It is a well written introductory work about how our brains create meaning. Bergen introduces several complex concepts concerning language and the brain in a way that is engaging and fun to read. I encourage you to go to a library and check it out. His initial chapter on language (chapter 5) will provide the ‘jumping off’ point for this post. The concept that I want to focus on is the basic idea of construction grammar.

Meaning is not only produced by the individual words of a language. Although words do contribute a large portion of meaning to a sentence, phrase, or passage, they are not the only meaning carrying instruments. The grammar of a sentence also contributes to the meaning. Grammar is not limited to the aspect of the verb (kind of action) or the connectors used to link clauses (and, also, but, etc.). Bergen provides some fun examples showing how argument structure constructions provide meaning to language.

Now the most common way to talk about argument structure is using the language of transitivity. A transitive clause contains two arguments (an argument is a noun that the verb requires to be complete), the subject and the object. Intransitive clauses only contain one argument, a subject. Examples used by Bergen belong to the ‘ditransitive construction’ which contain a subject and two objects.

The ditransitive
(1) John sent his landlord the check.
(2) The goalie kicked his defender the ball.

Bergen argues that there is a meaning associated with this construction. There is a form-meaning pairing where the individual parts (the words in the sentence) do not produce the meaning. In most cases the first noun transfers the third noun to the second noun, so that the basic semantic value is a transfer of possession. Some may argue that it is not the construction that conveys this meaning, but Bergen offers some fun examples to prove that this is the case, and that it is the construction which produces this meaning of [transfer of possession].

(3) The delivery boy motorcycled his clients some blueprints.
(4) Venus tennis racketed her sister the hair clip.
(5) Lyn crutched Tom her apple.

In these examples the meaning cannot be contributed by the verb alone because the verbs themselves (motorcycled, tennis racketed, and crutched) are unique to these sentences. These examples match the regular patterns found in (1) & (2), so Bergen assumes that the meaning [transfer of possession] is contributed by the construction itself. The form of the sentence is paired with the meaning much like words have a certain form that is paired with a meaning.

Ancient Greek scholars have used the theoretical framework of construction grammar to show that Greek also possesses constructions which are non-compositional or idioms. This means that the individual parts do not account for the semantic value of the whole.  Jóhanna Barðdal & Serena Danesi cover two example constructions which are idiomatic, the “dative of agent” and the “infinitive with accusative subject” constructions. 1


Luke 23:15 (dative of agent)
οὐδὲν ἄξιον θανάτου ἐστὶν πεπραγμένον αὐτῷ·
Nothing deserving death has been done by him

Mark 1:14 (infinitive with accusative subject)
Μετὰ δὲ τὸ παραδοθῆναι τὸν Ἰωάννην ἦλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν
Now after John was arrested Jesus came into Galilee.

In both of these constructions there is a break in the normal grammatical patterns of the Greek language. The dative case does not normally indicate the agent of an action, even with the passive voice. And the accusative case does not normally indicate the subject of a verbal action. Both of these constructions can only be accounted for by assuming that the constructions themselves indicate some semantic value.

I would like to look at two verses that I ran across in my daily reading which are very normal grammatically. The reason I want to look at these sentences is to show that even ‘normal’ sentences, while being compositional, follow patterns.

LXX Isaiah 7:18

καὶ ἔσται ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ συριεῖ κύριος μυίαις, ὃ κυριεύει μέρους ποταμοῦ Αἰγύπτου, καὶ τῇ μελίσσῃ, ἥ ἐστιν ἐν χώρᾳ Ἀσσυρίων,

And It will be on that day, The Lord will whistle for the flies that rule part of the river of Egypt and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. (NETS)

Ignoring the relative clauses, there is a simple sentence with one verb (συριζω) and three noun phrases (κύριος, μυίαις, τῇ μελίσσῃ).

(6) The Lord will whistle for the flies and bees.

The verb (συριζω) can be translated ‘to whistle or hiss like a snake’ and while the subject will be producing a whistling sound, the meaning of this sentence is more than production of a noise. The point of the sentence (what it means) is the purpose of the action, the reason the sound will be produced. The Lord κύριος is not going to whistle the bugs a tune. He is going to call them into the lands of Israel. The two noun phrases, μυίαις and τῇ μελίσσῃ, will be the recipients of the Lord’s whistle, and they will not just hear the call, but be affected by it. A translation which makes this idea more explicit would be something like; “the Lord will call the flies and bees over with a whistle.”

Isa 5:26
τοιγαροῦν ἀρεῖ σύσσημον ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν τοῖς μακρὰν καὶ συριεῖ αὐτοῖς ἀπ᾿ ἄκρου τῆς γῆς, καὶ ἰδοὺ ταχὺ κούφως ἔρχονται·

Therefore he will raise a signal among the nations that are far off, and whistle for them from the high place end of the earth. And behold, they are coming quickly, swiftly! (NETS)

Verse 5:26 follows the same pattern as 7:18; a subject noun, verb (συριζω), and the recipients of the whistle in the dative case. The context makes it clear that the recipients of the whistle are responding to it like it was a call to action and not just a noise or song. This is a common usage for the dative case. Smyth says that the dative is commonly used to denote “the person who is interested in or affected by the action.” 2

Again, grammatically these two examples are normal, but the use of συριζω is uncommon as far as I can tell. But it makes sense. I didn’t have to figure out what the text was trying to get at when I read these passages. Because I, like you, have seen westerns where the rough and tumble cowboy got out of a jam by using a sharp whistle to call his horse, and I have pets who I call by whistling. The performative sense of whistle makes sense to me. I assume that this is true of the ancient audience as well, but I don’t yet have any evidence to support that claim.

Could it be that this is a type of sentence pattern? I’m not really sure. It will take more searching on my part. If this were a kind of patten it should be productive. It should be used with different subjects and different recipients and maybe even different verbs. Remember the English construction Bergen used? The ditransitive construction is so productive that he could make up verbs to use in the construction. I’ll be on the look-out for more sentences that could fit this pattern. If you know of any please pass them along in the comments.

1. Construction Grammar and Greek Jóhanna Barðdal & Serena Danesi University of Bergen Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics (EAGLL), Brill
2. Smyth §1459

Meet Jimmy…

Well, I finally convinced my husband Jimmy (@fakejimmy) to be a guest contributor here at Cataclysmic!  While he won’t be one of the regular Cataclysmic bloggers, he will be posting every now and then on his favorite subjects: linguistics and Biblical Greek.  Below is a short bio to help you get to know Jimmy:

jimJimmy Parks is a graduate of Houston Baptist University (MA in Biblical Languages) and will be pursing a PhD in the near future.  Jimmy currently works at a Maternal-Fetal Medicine office where he spends his lunch breaks reading Septuagintal Greek.  He also works as a student grader and occasionally substitutes for Greek, Hebrew, and Linguistics classes at HBU and SWBTS. During the summer he enjoys teaching Greek grammar classes at a local prison.  He is a deacon at First Colony Christian Church (Sugar Land, TX).  Jimmy is married to Jessica and they have two dogs – Charlie and Parker.

Jimmy is interested in Biblical Languages and Linguistics.  He loves reading books about language and the brain and is especially interested in how humans process language.

His first post will be up later this week so stay tuned!

The Septuagint Studies Soireé has arrived!

Abram K-J over at Words on the Word has started hosting a monthly Septuagint Studies Soireé, similar to the monthly Biblical Studies Carnival but focused (obviously) on the LXX.  I am an LXX fanatic and so I’m especially glad that Abram is putting this together each month.  The world needs more exposure to LXX studies and this is a great place to start.

I hope to be able to contribute some more posts on the LXX in the near future (I recently posted snippets from my work on Susanna here, here, and here).  Since I’m currently taking a class on Paul and his letters I would like to touch on Paul’s view of Scripture, particularly his use of the LXX.  I’m also planning to read through the Apocrypha this semester since I’ve only ever read bits and pieces… I know, for shame!).  One could easily get lost in the field of Septuagint studies as there is so much to learn and discover, but it’s all wonderfully fascinating and incredibly important to the life of the Church.

Be sure to check out the Septuagint Studies Soiree #1 as well as August’s Biblical Studies Carnival hosted by Brian LePort (coming September 1st).