16th February 2011
One of my pet peeves is when Bible translations seem to base their translations on tradition or theology rather than the biblical text. One glaring example of this is found in the prologue to the book of Job where virtually all English translations render “the satan” (השׂטן) as capital-s “Satan” (Job 1:6, 7 [2x], 8, 9, 12; 2:1, 2 [2x], 3, 4, 6, 7). Despite some major problems with this translation, you will find it in the KJV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, NJB, among others.
In the Hebrew text the term “satan” (שׂטן) has a definite article attached to it (i.e., it is “the satan”), and thus is not a personal name. The actual word means “adversary” and is used to refer to human adversaries as well as celestial ones. For example, in 1Kings 11:14 it is used to refer to a human opponent: “Then Yahweh raised up a satan against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite” (see also 1Sam 29:4, 2Sam 19:22; 1Kgs 5:4, 11:23, 25; Ps 109:6). Now, in the book of Job, “the satan” is clearly a celestial adversary. He is, after all, portrayed as one of the “sons of elohim” (בני האלהים) in Yahweh’s heavenly court (Job 1:6; the notion of a divine assembly is found throughout the HB: 1Kgs 22:19-22; Psa 82; Isa 6:1-8; 14:13; Gen 1:26). This does not, however, mean that this figure is the chief demon, aka the Devil, found in later Jewish and Christian theological traditions. You would search in vain in the Hebrew Bible to find a fully developed angelology or demonology.
In the book of Job, this figure fills the role of a prosecuting attorney. As such, a fitting translation would be “the Adversary” or the like. This, by the way, is what the NJPS translation has, and as such wins my coveted “Translation with Integrity Award”! (As an aside, the NJPS is a truly beautiful Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible that has the novelist Chaim Potok as its literary editor.)
The problem with rendering the Hebrew text with “Satan” is that the typical reader will read into the text all the theological and cultural meaning that it has come to signify in later times. But that is not what it means in the book of Job. Even more problematic is that such a translation will likely obfuscate the legal metaphor that holds the book together (in this regard see Habel’s superb commentary; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com).
So that is my pet peeve for today (or at least one of my many!).
Also of interest may be my previous post along the same lines: The Mysterious Appearance of “Satan” in English Translations of the Book of Job