Genesis 12:1 – A Minor Textual Problem

So, the KJV isn’t the best translation one could use (see Ronan’s post here). Although it’s very good, the authors of the KJV often took liberties in translation where perhaps they should not (Isa. 26:19, anyone?). I imagine this is OK, given that much of what we know of the ancient languages today may not have been known back in the late 1500s to early 1600s. They did the best they could given what they knew at the time.

But there’s one verse where I wince at the KJV translators, and it came up last Sunday in Sunday School. I didn’t mention it to the class, and I lament somewhat for not saying anything.

Genesis 12:1 reads: “Now Yahweh said unto Abram: ‘Go from your land, and from your relatives, and from the house of your fathers unto THE land which I will cause you to see.'”

One stark difference, which I emphasized here, is the definite article on the word “land.” Indeed, the KJV translators went with the anarthrous translation of the word, and I believe this to be erroneous.

First, the concept of “land” in the OT is immense. It is the locale of Israel’s salvation and kingdom; so much so that even today is one of the major causes for war and oppression in the Middle East. A cursory reading of the book of Joshua would reveal the importance of the conquest of the land, and of its allotment to the tribes of Israel. The idea of land reserved for God’s people continued through the tradition, had a place in the united and divided monarchies, and even is part of the reason for the rise of a resurrection doctrine in Jewish lore. “Resurrection? David J, have you lost your marbles?” Yes, resurrection doctrine. But that’s for another post later on (when I review N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God).

Next, the idea of being gathered into the land is one of the high points of Biblical (OT) theology. But this isn’t just any land, this is God’s chosen space unto the children of Israel. It’s a big deal, and they all know it, even today. Curiously, the translators get it right in Gen. 12:7, where the adjectival demonstrative “this” is employed in conjunction with “the land.”

One would do well to read the indefinite article, “a,” as “the” when reading from Genesis 12:1. The KJV (and its sister ship, the NKJV), so far as I can tell, are the only translations I have in my possession which contain the indefinite article.

I’m not saying “lets sack the KJV,” (well, on this post, anyway) but I am saying that other translations often reveal insights that the boys of the KJV missed.

Canaan isn’t just “any” land, it’s THE land.

4 Replies to “Genesis 12:1 – A Minor Textual Problem”

  1. I have a mixed reaction. On one hand, you are quite correct about the link between land and theology — and you know more about it than I. On the other, I’m thinkin this is the first PL pericope, so an indefinite has some standing.

    So what’re your thoughts on the exegesis? Did God show Abram where he was going, or just tell him to go without giving him a destination? Is the destination known in 12:7? (No OT here and I’m too tired to get out of my chair and walk down the hall..;)

    More broadly, I’m no fan of the AV, but don’t you think that the translator ought, as a rule, to lay out the text and leave the exegesis to the reader?

  2. If the “indefinite has some standing,” please by all means justify it for me. Keep in mind that weighing in against any such justification(s) are:

    1. Given the theological importance of land in the OT,

    2. The use of the definite article on the word ‘eretz is virtually ubiquitous in Gen. 12:1 English translations outside the KJV, and related to that,

    3. The fact that the Hebrew has the definite article. This is the biggest problem facing the KJV right here.

    Why the KJV dudes chose to go anarthrous given #1 and #3 is what’s causing my irritation.

  3. Ah, I didn’t go look at the Hebrew. I thought your point was that an indefinite noun should have been translated with the definite article.

    If it has the definite article, then that’s definitely what the translation should read.

  4. Did God show Abram where he was going, or just tell him to go without giving him a destination?

    The author of the epistle to the Hebrews might have the answer, and I examined the passage in the original again, and I think he’s right:

    Hebrews 11:8 (updated NASB) – By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.

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