Lent MW 1.18 “Seed: Not Descendants; Seed…(!)” Gen 17:1-16
So, God is often in the details, the little grammatical nuances that even good translations hide from you so that you can’t see them. So let me be hard on my favorite translation tonight—I criticize the NIV often enough—too often probably, because honestly it’s not really that bad a translation. Years ago, I picked 100 difficult passages and did a “strictly literal” test. The King James and New King James each scored 95/100—though the 5 where they stray from literal are actually a different 5! The ESV clocks in at 92, and the NIV at 86, only a point behind the NRSV which is not that bad either—the difference between B+ and a low A on standard grading scales. But hey, every little bit helps! If you are used to the NIV, the flaws aren’t going to be soul destroying or anything, especially if you know where they generally lie: in OT Christology, the bodily presence of Christ on earth, and the divine power of the sacraments. The ESV lags too on the last two, whereas the King is pretty rock solid there, which is why I prefer it—that and it remains the highest scorer, next best thing to knowing Greek and Hebrew!
But tonight, we run into a very important Old Testament passage where the New King James seriously messes up—and in a way that is theologically and politically very crucial in our world! It’s the word the NKJV (and the NIV too) translates “descendants” but is literally “seed”. I read it straight tonight, but often when it comes up as it will this Sunday, I’ll correct it on the fly to “Seed”. Only the King James translates it straight up “seed”. The ESV has “offspring” which is pretty good, though most hear it as plural like “descendants”, so honestly: it’s not fantastic. It’s not what the original Hebrew and the Greek translation actually say.
Let’s focus on one verse out of the 17 to see why this matters and why you should care and why you really should get a pencil and correct whatever translation you use (unless it’s the original King James, in which case all you have to do to make it perfect—which actually it isn’t, quite, is to change the lower case “s” in seed to upper case “Seed”. My bibles have lots of pencil lines and changes. I used to use a pen, but that bleeds through the page too much. And sometimes you’ll find an even better translation years later and go “Oh. Kind of stuck with that now.” Learn from my mistakes, friends!).
Anyway, let’s look at Genesis 17:8: The Lord, God Almighty says to Abraham “Also I give to you and your Seed (singular, capital S!) after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” Most people read this and assume that “seed” is a plural (which it is not in either the Greek or the Hebrew!) and so will translate it “descendants” or “offspring”. “Descendants” can only be plural, and thus is simply a wrong translation. “Offspring” was something the ESV committee was pressured into by the LCMS guys on the translation team, but it’s a bit of a dodge, because 95% of the people who read it assume “offspring” is a plural. Only the hardcore read it as singular and they know it’s really Seed, anyway!
Why is this a big deal you ask, wisely? OK, because St. Paul, writing under divine inspiration the very word of God on the matter says this in Galatians 3:16: “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many but as of one, “and to your Seed” who is Christ(!!).” By the way, the Greek Paul writes there is τω σπερματι which are the exact words and dative case(!) that the Greek Septuagint has here in Genesis 17:8 (and several other passages in Genesis 12, 15, 22, and 24—Paul is probably using the Septuagint much of the time for his bible, which is a discussion for another time). When you botch the translation rather badly (as the New King James does here in Genesis 17:8, let me say again!) by rendering it “Also I give to you and your descendants the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession” you completely obscure the fact that God is speaking of Christ Jesus, not of the whole people of Israel(!).
Why does that matter? Because, then you get the wrong-headed idea (which has caused so much trouble for the world since 1948!) that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people as a permanent possession—so that Great Britain, the US, and UN did well when they gave the land of Palestine back to the newly created Jewish state of Israel as a permanent possession. And you encourage all the lunatic pre-millennial dispensationalists to pressure the US government into giving billions in aid to Israel and making all kinds of trips over there with the nutty thought that until Israel rebuilds its kingdom and temple, Jesus can’t return. A very large part of the Muslim terrorism directed at the United States since the 1950’s is motivated by our support for the State of Israel. So getting a bible translation wrong can have serious consequences geo-politically as well as theologically!
The truth is that there are two and only two people to whom the land of Canaan (which is pretty much the same as the borders of ancient Israel, and which was quite a big larger than the borders of the current Israeli state—which is part of the ongoing dispute and fighting) is given: those two people are 1) Abraham and 2) Jesus Christ. That’s what Genesis 17:8 clearly says when you translate it correctly and read it as St. Paul (a divinely inspired apostle!) tells us God intended. And only one of those two people is still present on earth—Jesus; and He only shows in a way that the faithful discern His Presence.
Imagine if we got the translation correct?! No one would think the much fought over “holy land” belongs to anyone but Abraham and Jesus; and since neither of them particularly care at all for staking a claim on the land anymore or erecting earthly kingdoms upon it, the status of the place changes, drastically(!). No earthly people or state or kingdom can ever say of this land “This land is our land!” Nope. Only Jesus and Abraham can say that! And both of them make clear they are not into making claims on earthly territory right now, as Jesus clearly states to Pilate. Really, the land ought to be a stateless place of pilgrimage for the adherents of all religions. A place to visit and reflect. Maybe Disney could turn it into a religious theme park? Maybe that would finally bring peace? Ah, nah; probably not. But it’s my favorite solution to Middle Eastern strife.
So, now you know better why I harp on translations. But the geo-political thing is very minor compared to the theological thing! To see that really all the Scriptures point to Jesus, (as John 5:39 declares) we see that until we see that, until we see that we have no land, or kingdom, or state unless we have it by faith in Jesus alone, under His cross, mysteriously, freely, as squatters ourselves—that we have not understood the slightest thing in the Story Scriptures tell!
Seeing that, though, clarifies our vision of so many things! Most of all, that there is no Holy Land except that on which Christ dwells bodily, giving us His gifts by Word and Sacrament—like here, now(!). And standing on the true holy ground, we have Peace surpassing understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.