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Reconnoitering Translations

In the view of many biblical scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, the fact-finding expedition narrated in Numbers 13-14 is a composite account from several sources. In the first, Caleb is among the scouts sent by Moses to the Promised Land, but only as far north as Hebron; Caleb alone remains loyal to God when his colleagues put a pessimistic spin on their reconnaissance report; of his generation, only Caleb will be allowed to enter the Promised Land. In the second, Joshua joins Caleb and the others on a far more extended and extensive survey of Canaan commanded by God; because they are both steadfast, they will both survive the years of wandering to which Israel is now condemned. The narrative in Numbers can also be compared with parallel material in the first two chapters of Deuteronomy.

Some translators prepare their versions in isolation from such scholarly analysis. Others are deeply influenced by these discussions. The JPS Tanakh provides a dramatic example of the latter when, at Genesis 2:4, it divides the verse (in both Hebrew and English) into two parts and two paragraphs, in conformity with the Documentary Hypothesis, which posits the end of one source (P or Priestly) and the beginning of another (J or Yahwist) precisely at this point, midverse. (With its subtitle, “Another Account of the Creation,” the widely used New Revised Standard Version accomplishes the same purpose.)

Although modern readers of the Bible should be aware that features like paragraphing and formats are not ancient, nonetheless modern versions, even among Jews, often function as the Bible for huge numbers of people. From this perspective, a translation that provides maximal contact with the original best serves readers interested in determining for themselves whether there are multiple sources or resources involved in the formation of a given biblical passage. For example, the beginning of Numbers 13:2 is rendered in the Tanakh as “Send men to scout the land of Canaan.” The verb “send,” however, is an incomplete rendering of the phrase “Shelah-Lekha,” from which this week’s portion draws its name; Everett Fox (Schocken Bible), with “Send for yourself,” is literal. The nuance of the Hebrew, captured by Fox (and also perhaps by ArtScroll, which has “Send forth, if you please”), is that this mission is one that God permits, but only as a concession to Moses and the people.

The nature of the expedition undertaken by the tribal representatives is “to scout the land” (so, Jewish Publication Society), “to scout out the land” (Fox, who nonetheless describes chapter 13 as “The Spies in Canaan and Back”), “to spy out the land” (ArtScroll) or “to explore the territory” (so Aryeh Kaplan, in “The Living Torah”). It strikes me that, given contemporary usage, none of these expressions captures the essence of the Hebrew. I would fall back on a term that, admittedly, I first encountered in biblical translations of another “spying” episode, namely Joshua 2. There, the common Hebrew root “to see” is rendered “reconnoiter,” which is exactly what these men do here, although in Numbers 13 a different root is used.

With Caleb (or Joshua and Caleb) unable to deflect the defeatist words of the other “scouts,” panic broke out. The JPS Tanakh describes the onset this way: “The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night” (Numbers 14:1). But this rendering compresses the first clause, which in Hebrew is composed of two verbs. Far more literal is Fox, “The entire community lifted up and let out their voice,” or ArtScroll, “The entire community raised up and issued its voice.” In my opinion, the picture of “lifting/raising up” and “letting out” is sufficiently distinctive and dramatic to require the longer English rendering to do it justice.

In his JPS commentary to Numbers, Jacob Milgrom speaks of two “interpolations” (associated by some with the Priestly source) within these chapters: Numbers 13:21 (which expands the scope of the reconnaissance to all of Canaan) and 14:26-38, in which Joshua is included, along with Caleb, as the only “scout” to survive the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and the only adult to enter into the Land of Israel. Milgrom subdivides this latter “interpolation” into three parts: verses 20-25, 26-35 and 36-38.

When we note that the Tanakh begins new paragraphs at precisely verses 20, 26 and 36, we might imagine that its translators are intending to promote a view similar to the one that Milgrom promulgates. However, the ArtScroll translation, a version decidedly and determinately not influenced by modern biblical criticism, has the same paragraph division. Thus, readers of both of these English-language renderings are provided here with the same format, and similar wording, to induce them to ponder the meaning of the biblical text and the relationship of one passage to another. That these readers may come up with different interpretations places them firmly in good company: They are continuing a tradition that is millennia old and authentically Jewish.

Leonard Greenspoon, who holds the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University, writes and lectures frequently about translations of the Hebrew Bible.

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