Friday, April 12, 2024

Trying a Different Bible: "Foaming at the Mouth" in Micah 2:6-11

 Sometimes a different Bible translation catches me flat-footed. It happened just recently to me in a study of the book of Micah. I asked someone to read out loud chapter 2:6-11, which in the New International Version (my default translation) says this:

“Do not prophesy,” their prophets say. “Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will not overtake us.” 7 You descendants of Jacob, should it be said, “Does the LORD become impatient? Does he do such things?” Do not my words do good to the one whose ways are upright? 8 Lately my people have risen up like an enemy. You strip off the rich robe from those who pass by without a care, like men returning from battle. 9 You drive the women of my people from their pleasant homes. You take away my blessing from their children forever. 10 Get up, go away! For this is not your resting place, because it is defiled, it is ruined, beyond all remedy. 11 If a liar and deceiver comes and says, “I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,” that would be just the prophet for this people!

The reader used the New English Bible, and here’s what he read: 

How they rant! They may say, “Do not rant”; but this ranting is all their own, these insults are their own invention. 7 Can one ask, O house of Jacob, “Is the LORD’s patience truly at an end? Are these his deeds? Does good not come of the LORD’s words? He is the upright man’s best friend.” 8 But you are no people for me, rising up as my enemy to my face, to strip the cloak from his that was safe and take away the confidence of returning warriors, 9 to drive the women of my people from their pleasant homes and rob the children of my glory for ever. 10 Up and be gone; this is no resting-place for you, you that to defile yourselves would commit any mischief, mischief however cruel. 11 If anyone had gone about in a spirit of falsehood and lies, saying: “I will rant to you about wine and strong drink,” his ranting would be what this people like.

Just at a glance you can see the differences. There are several that would be interesting to talk about, but what struck me is the lack of explicit mention of anything related to prophecy in verse 6. 

     That was only strange to me because I took for granted that the NIV was pretty literal.

     It’s not, though neither, really, is the NEB. A very  literal translation of verse 6 might go something like this:

“Don’t drip,” they drip. They shouldn’t drip such things. We will not be overtaken by humiliation.”

Obviously, that’s not very helpful. This is an excellent example of how translation must sometimes include  interpretation in order to yield anything intelligible. This is a tough verse for folks who claim that the only good translation of the Bible is a very literal one. 

     So what’s going on here?

    The New English Translation (not related to the New English Bible), in one of their wonderful notes, suggests this translation: “‘Do not foam at the mouth,’ they foam at the mouth,” assuming that the use of “drip” has to do with spit flying from a speaker’s mouth during a particularly impassioned diatribe. In other words, in this view the prophets are “spraying” out words of judgment, and their hearers, with equal vehemence, are insisting that they shouldn’t say such vehement things. 

     The NET’s main translation isn’t quite as memorable, but still tries to capture something similar: “‘Don’t preach with such impassioned rhetoric,’ they say excitedly.” 

     The same word is used twice in verse 11. The NET has there, “If a lying windbag should come and say, ‘I’ll promise you blessings of wine and beer,’ he would be just the right preacher for these people!” In their note, though, they suggest, “If a lying windbag should come and say, ‘I will foam at the mouth concerning wine and beer,’ he would be the foamer at the mouth for this people.”

     (“Lying windbag,” is a great translation too.)

     While I love the “foaming at the mouth” translation, I’m not sure it’s validated by other places in the Old Testament where the same word refers to speaking. The word can be used of speech that isn’t vehement, and is even the opposite; take Job’s description of the respect he commanded before his troubles, where he says, “People listened to me expectantly, waiting in silence for my counsel. After I had spoken, they spoke no more; my words fell gently on their ears.” (Job 29:22) Or Song of Songs 4:11, where the Bride’s “lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb.” Or in Proverbs 5:3, where “the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey.”

     In Ezekiel, the prophet is told (in the King James Version) to “drop thy word toward the south” and “drop thy word toward the holy places” (NIV “preach against the south” and “preach against the sanctuary”). 

     In Amos, as in Micah, the prophet is told by (presumably) the leaders of Israel to “drop not thy word against the house of Isaac” (KJV). In each of these cases, perhaps the prophets were intense in their preaching, spit flying, foaming at the mouth; preaching “against” something or someone certainly suggests that.

     So what’s the “right” translation here? I’m not sure, to be honest. The NIV might miss something by just translating “drip” with “prophesy” in Micah 2. But the New English Translation and the NEB might oversell it with their “foaming at the mouth” and “ranting” translations.

     What different translations of the Bible give us are different options. They keep us from being locked in to one reading of texts that might limit or even prevent our understanding. 

     To be sure, those options are all human ones, and as such subject to every conceivable human weakness.

     But God has chosen to communicate his word to us in just that way. God’s word doesn’t change. But human language always does. So communicating that never-changing word will require some work, some patience, some prayer, and some humility.

     So when you see a difference between two translations don’t let it bother you. It’s not the sign of a conspiracy that someone is trying to change the Bible. It’s a sign that necessary hard work or interpretation is happening. That human beings still care to understand the Bible. 

     Let’s not be drips about it. Let’s not foam at the mouth over it. God still intends that his word will fall into our ears.