Lost in translation?

I'm still loving my new ESV Bible. I spotted something while I was reading Isaiah that I had never seen before; because the NIV translates the verse slightly differently.

Here's Isaiah 11:8 in the NIV

The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest.

And here it is in the ESV:

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.

[bold face my addition]

Spot the difference? It's subtle, but it makes a big difference. If you are only reading the verse for the immediate meaning, there is little or no difference between the two, and the NIV is making the immediate meaning more accessible... but... in the context of the rest of Isaiah that has come before, particularly chapter 7, "the weaned child" is very significant. It relates to the sign of Immanuel!

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. (Isa 8:14-16)

The virgin being with child and giving birth to a son named Immanuel is of course a prophecy that not only had immediate significance, but pointed forwards to Christ. The child was to be weaned on curds and honey (also significant -- think milk and honey -- promised blessings) when it knew good and evil, and before this time there would be deliverance from the enemies that threatened. The weaned child thus represents the fulfilment of the sign of Immanuel.

The wording could thus make the difference from a nice verse about peace and security, to being a messianic prophecy about Christ subduing the power of the serpent.

So is this verse a messianic prophecy? I'm not a Hebrew scholar, so I can't make a definitive comment -- but the wording of the ESV certainly makes it a strong possibility; a possibility that you totally overlook in the NIV. I don't want to decry the NIV, I love that version too, and have read it for years, but it does illustrate the importance for serious Bible Study of getting a version that's as close to the original wording as possible. Often words are laden with significance and chosen deliberately to convey more than just one layer of meaning.


Chris HH said...

The use of the word "virgin" in Isa 7:14 is a case in point.

Imagine if it had been translated "young woman" -- the immediate meaning becomes more accessible, but the ultimate meaning is lost.

loren said...

Hello Chris,

I was trying out Google's new blog search under 'Messianic prophecy' and I found your article. Interesting distinction, I never caught that before!

Anonymous said...

I don't want to knock the bible but the NIV is a poor bible due to censorship. Put side-by-side, the NIV next to others and you will see, my meaning. For instance many words are changed and become less defined and lost meaning. NIV says "Do not murder." -fair enough BUT the traditional bibles all say: "Do not kill." the most concerning example is when Jesus says: "Man does not live on bread and water alone but every word of God." We have all heard that quoted, but what the NIV says is "Man does not live on bread and water alone." It just ends there with the most profound and important part missing. There is a saying in my town of Gore: WHAaa?!