There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
In Part II of this series on Proverbs 14, I'd like us to get to the Hebrew, the Hebraic Greek, and to various translations a bit later in the post. The questions I'd really like to start with are these: "What's the right way to read the Bible, to read the Proverbs?" and "What is the worst consequence of just reading in a way that seems right?" You see how I'm immediately riffing off of Proverbs 14:12, the epigraph above. My own father used to quote this one often, often in his daily life but as an outgrowth of his Southern Baptist evangelical Christian missionary preaching. He used this proverb not only to justify his work; but he used it also as a metonym for the entire mission of the gospel. As far as I know, he never ever gave a second thought to whether this was the right way to interpret the proverb or not. What seemed right to him was right. And so I'd like us to consider this: there's a bit of irony here in really believing what this proverb means, for any of us.
But let's skip back to verse 1 of Proverbs 14. There are some, I've noticed, who read Proverbs 14:1 as justifying a woman's, particularly a wife's, being sub-ordinated to a man, to her husband. For example, here and here are two bloggers who self-identify as Christian women, as helpmates of their respective husbands; both of these wives quote the proverb not only to justify their sub-missive position to their husbands but also to suggest that this complementarianism is the universal and timeless norm for all wives in every place. The way these individuals are reading Proverbs 14:1, are claiming their reading as right not only for themselves but also for others, certainly seems the right way for them. But then we find Jared, and Bob, and Kristen, all reading this proverb differently in comments here from Part I of this blog series. So what's the right way? What seems right? And what about the big fat but the end (that's so plain to see in Proverbs 14:12)?
Today, I see that yesterday the Associated Baptist Press reported that representatives for the denomination made clear: "Southern Baptists ‘cannot commend’ [the] new NIV Bible translation." It's the way that seems right to these Southern Baptists that's at issue:
The Southern Baptist Convention went on record June 15 saying it “cannot commend” the 2011 New International Version Bible translation and its use of gender-neutral language. “This is as big as it gets.... This is the word of God. The best-selling Bible translation in the United States is now gender neutral.” ...[T]he NIV retains 75 percent of gender-neutral language included in a Today’s New International Version translation denounced by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2002.... “As Southern Baptists, I don’t think we have the luxury of not speaking to this important issue.... People are buying this translation unaware of what’s happening. We are the anchor of the evangelical world.”So sure enough, we see this:
The old 1984 NIV, which was not "gender-neutral," had Southern Baptist language that seemed right. And 1984 NIV Proverbs 14:12 reads in this way: "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death." But in the end, the 2011 NIV Proverbs 14:12 goes this way: "There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death." Now it's not just "a man's" Bible version, like the right NIV was, and the KJV, the NASB, the ESV, and the "Holman Christian Standard Bible, released in 2004, ... considered [by many Southern Baptists to be] among the most accurate translations" all still are. And the new NIV's explicit omission of a man, that obvious gender neutrality added so inaccurately to the Bible, just appears to be wrong here in this proverb. So what's the right way? What seems right?
Well, let's get to the Hebrew and the Hebraic Greek in just a bit. I'm going to inflict a little feminism on us blog readers for just a bit first. Please, by all means, feel free to skip right over this paragraph. This is my reader's advisory to you. This paragraph contains references to radical, activist and not-just-academic feminism. If such does not seem right to you, if its end is death somehow for you, then please do skip the white space to the paragraph immediately following. Now, I've been following with great interest how bloggers are covering (either promoting or dissing) the Slutwalk movement. Here's the background: It seemed right to a man, Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto police officer, a Constable with considerable authority, to announce publicly that it's not seemly, it's not right, for females to dress provocatively, or else they're setting themselves up for abuse, even rape. Some of Mr. Sanguinetti's actual words to the wise were these: "women should avoid dressing like sluts." And so feminists, worldwide now, are taking to the streets in protest of this victim-blaming wisdom. They're dressing like sluts to show that there is a way that seems right to a man but in the end for the woman it can mean abuse, rape, death. There's a growing entry at wikipedia for any who are just getting up to speed on all of this. If you want to be impressed, however, with how feminists who disagree are talking, then see this set of blogposts: Meghan Murphy's conversations with Hugo Schwyzer; and Jessica Valenti's conversation with Meghan. At stake is what seems right. And then what appears right to somebody else.
Now, let's get to the Hebrew (Masoretic Text) and the Hebraic Greek (the so-called Septuagint):
יֵ֤שׁ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יָ֭שָׁר לִפְנֵי־אִ֑ישׁ וְ֝אַחֲרִיתָ֗הּ דַּרְכֵי־מָֽוֶת׃
ἔστιν ὁδὸς ἣ δοκεῖ ὀρθὴ εἶναι παρὰ ἀνθρώποις τὰ δὲ τελευταῖα αὐτῆς ἔρχεται εἰς πυθμένα ᾅδου
What doesn't really seem so right to translator Robert Alter is the repetition of a Hebrew word, which he gives in his English translation as "a straight way" (in the first part) in comparative contrast with "the ways of death" (to end the proverb). In his footnote, Alter says:
Alter, I'm sure, is not intending just to be pedantic here. What do you think? What I'm noticing is how little he needs to appeal to the Septuagint here (which he does so often elsewhere) even though the Greek would help his case, as the awkwardness that seems not right to him is avoided in the Hellene. Oh well, I just finished reading Rob Bell's book that talks so much about Hell and such and noticed how he keys in on the Greek word Hades as one of the few references to this place in the Bible. (A friend who bought the book and was also given a second copy lent it to me to read because there is a way that seems right to a man but in the end it's not. My friend wanted me mostly just to look at what's right, or just seemingly right, in Bell's way of looking at the biblical language. Well, he himself uses the word Hades four times. So I got a free meal out of my book review for noticing things like that. So did you notice how this LXX Proverb 14:12 ends in Hades?)The repetition of "way" from the first verset is a little awkward. That effect might be at least mitigated if one adopted Tur-Sinai's proposed emendation of 'aharit to 'orhotaw, yielding "its paths are ways to death."
What way seems right? What's the end?