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FUN IN THE SEPTUAGINT

I am currently reading the entire Hebrew Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.  (I have already done this twice for the Pentateuch, but only in Hebrew and Greek.)  The longer I hang out with the translators who began the Greek Bible project in Egypt around 280 BC, the better I get to know them and how they predictably handle the vocabulary and grammar of God’s word.

In the Pentateuch, the Septuagint (known by the symbol LXX) tends to follow the Hebrew Massoretic Text (MT) slavishly.  One can account for almost every word, often in the same order as the Hebrew.  When it mistranslates (“proselyte” instead of “sojourner,” “power” vs. “army,” “man man” vs. “every man”, or its consistently awkward translation of infinitive absolutes), it does so repeatedly.  So when the LXX adds, skips, or changes anything, take note!  So in Genesis 11, the LXX adds “and he died” for each character on the genealogy.  Exodus 1:11 adds to the two store-cities “and On, which is Heliopolis.”  Genesis 46:28 adds “to meet him at Hērōōn, a city in the land of Ramessē.”

The LXX often switches “God” and “Lord,” which leads to confusion for source criticism that bases itself on the use of these names to identify sources.  It often uses different pronouns than the MT (you or I versus he).  In many cases, it switches the letters daleth and resh (Num 33:12 – Raphaka vs. Dophkah); likewise, “They crossed the crossing” (2 Sam 19:18) becomes “they labored a labor”, reading a daleth for a resh.  Several times in Exod 25-30 it reads “I will be known” (nifal of yd‘) instead of “I will meet by appointment” (nifal of y‘d).  Such transposition of letters is common in the LXX, such as in 2 Sam 7:19, where it reads “you have loved me” (’ahabtani) instead of “you have brought me” (habi’otani, transposing the letter aleph to the front of the verb).

The LXX calls Nimrod a gigas (giant from Greek mythology), as it also calls the Anakim (Deut 1:18).  It calls the Rephaim “Titans” (2 Sam 5:18).  It calls the sea monsters “whales” (Gen 1:21).  It calls discharges gonorruēs.  It calls Canaan “Phoenicia” once (Exod 16:35) and the Sidonians “Phoenicians” (Deut 3:9).  It calls the Caphtorim “Cappadocians” (Deut 2:23).  In Isaiah 23:1, it translates “Wail, O ships of Carthage” for Tyre (see also 23:10).  It often translates place names rather than transliterating them.  It provides much evidence that the letter ‘ayin is pronounced like a g: Gomorrah for ‘Omorrah, gomor for ‘omer (Exod 16:16), Raguel for Re‘uel, Haggai for Ha-‘Ai (Gen 13), and Gaibal for ‘Ebal (Deut 11:29).

The order of verses and sections of material in the LXX varies wildly in Exodus 35–40.  The compass points keep getting confused in Exodus 26–27 (see also Gen 28:14).  The LXX will also change the order of items on lists, such as Num 32:22, where tin and lead are reversed (see also Exod 25:7; Exod 26:18, 20; Deut 26:19; Deut 28:11; Deut 30:9, plus the lists of nations in Canaan).  In the LXX, Deuteronomy 27:23 adds “Cursed be whomever lies with his wife’s sister.”  The LXX adds details on Nahash the Ammonite in 1 Sam 11, while it shortens the account of David and Goliath, it drops the reference to Eli’s sons sleeping with the women who served at the sanctuary in 1 Sam 2:22, and it shortens Jeremiah by 1/8 and drastically reorders its contents.  In Num 24:7, the LXX reads “Gog” for “Agag”, and adds “a man shall come from his seed and rule over many nations.”

Out of 28 times that the term Amen occurs in the Hebrew Bible, the LXX translates it 23 times with the word genoito.  It uses exstasis for the tardemah or “deep sleep” that God puts on Adam before creating Eve.  In Genesis 21:22 and 21:32, the LXX calls Phicol the king’s nymphagogos or “leader of the bride”.  It calls the lords (seranim) of the Philistines satrapes (a Persian term).  In Numbers 11:20, Israel shall eat quail “until it becomes cholera for you.”  The name Elisheba becomes “Elizabeth” in Exodus 6:23.

The LXX uses the optative mood more than 500x (versus 67x for the NT).  It often uses edomai instead of phagomai as the future of esthiō, “I eat.”  In Exodus 32:26, it uses the rare itō as a future imperative of erchomai, “I come” (also used in a variant reading in John 7:34).

While the LXX Pentateuch transliterates beer as sikēra, 1 Samuel translates it very literally as methusma (“that which makes drunk”).  In Song of Solomon, it translates “love” (dodim) as “breasts,” and “female companion” (re‘ah) as plēsion (“neighbor”). In Isa 24:20, the LXX uses the Greek term for “hangover” (kraipalaō).  It often uses tharsei (“take courage”) for ’al-tiyra (“Do not fear” – Exod 20:20), and it sometimes uses eusebeia for the fear of the Lord (Isa 11:2).  It translates drakōn for tannin in Exodus 7:9, “donkey-centaur” for “satyr” (Isa 34:14), “sirens” for “jackals” (Isa 34:13, 43:20), and “dung” on the ground becomes a “pattern” on the ground in Jeremiah 8:2.

The Septuagint has hundreds of Greek words that occur nowhere else.  They are usually not Egyptian dialectical words, but simply compound words that are easy enough to understand, but that no other Greek writer had used before, or subsequently.  The vast majority of language in the Septuagint, however, consists of words we also find in the NT.

NEXT TIME: “FUN IN THE LATIN BIBLE” – to be posted later this summer on my coming Patheos blog site

Rev. Tom Hobson, Ph.D., is Assistant Pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church (ECO), Chesterfield, MO, and author of What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?