To the Editor:
Praising the third (and final) volume of the new Jewish Publication Society version of the Hebrew Scriptures for doing well “to stick to the traditional rendering” is one thing, but taking as an example a verse which is as controversial as Job 5:7 and not quoting it in the JPS version are serious slips [“How to Read the Bible,” by Chaim Raphael, December 1982]. Mr. Raphael’s quotation, “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” is taken from the Interpreter’s Bible. In the new JPS version we read: “Man is born to [do] mischief, just as sparks fly upward.”
Now let us look at tradition. Martin Luther renders the second half of the verse as “as the birds soar upward.” Moses Mendelssohn follows and the Septuagint precedes him in saying birds and not sparks. English and German tradition apparently parted ways centuries ago. Why the confusion? The reason is that no one really knew what the Bible meant by “vnei reshef” because the word reshef occurs nowhere else. By changing the order of consonants, translators linked the word to saraf (“burning”), rendering the phrase literally as “sons of the flame.” In the Septuagint and, on the basis of its authority, in some later versions the phrase was rendered as “young birds” or just birds and even vultures, but in the King James Version (KJV) it became “sparks.”
These far-fetched interpretations cannot stand up against the idea of Gerald Abrahams, a British contributor to the Encyclopaedia Judaica (1972), who reads reshef as refesh, as in Isaiah 57:20. True, refesh also occurs only once, in this verse, but it is linked to another word meaning approximately the same which occurs three times. All translators, moreover, agree on the meaning of these two words. The KJV says “mire and dirt” and the new JPS version renders the whole verse: “The wicked are like the troubled sea . . . whose waters toss up mire and mud.” Now, which are the “sons,” i.e., the offspring? Abrahams says it is the scum that rises to the top! The parallel between Isaiah and Job is striking: man (Adam), born to sin, muddying the waters—a thought reflecting Job’s plight much better than a simile invoking sparks or birds.
Changes of the order of consonants are not infrequent in the Bible. Perhaps the best known examples are kesev which occurs nine times, and keves, occurring only twice, both meaning sheep. What makes better sense should always take precedence over what tradition makes of the text of the Scriptures.
Chaim Raphael writes:
Ludwig Seligsberger reproves me for not adopting a proposal of the late Gerald Abrahams for a bold translation of Job 5:7 that “makes better sense” than the traditional “as the sparks fly upward.” I was at college with Mr. Abrahams and knew then, and always afterward, that he loved to come out, pour épater les savants, with delightfully far-fetched ideas, as in this instance, in which he suggests, apparently, that we should abandon reshef, a word which occurs many times in the Bible, and rearrange the letters to yield refesh, which occurs only once, and in a wholly different context.
We can all agree that the phrase u’vnei reshef yagbihu uf is mysterious and rather hard to connect with the preceding “man is born unto trouble.” After looking at many translations, I decided that the traditional translation (adopted in the new JPS version: “just as sparks fly upward”) could at least be interpreted as linked with the preceding phrase, whereas the Anchor Bible’s version: “and Reshef’s sons wing high” demands a COMMENTARY, though it ends up with the same intent, a point I should like to explain.
The word reshef has two interconnected meanings. First, it is the name of a Canaanite god of the underworld and pestilence, portrayed in Ugaritic and other inscriptions as “Reshef lord of the arrow,” and “Reshef of the birds,” both indicating how swift he is in operation. He is not mentioned in the Bible directly as a god, but where the word occurs (always in poetry) it indicates flame, or arrow, or pestilence. In the sense of “flame,” Reshef’s sons could mean “sparks.” The same sense of swiftness and flight upward might yield “birds,” which would also fit in with Reshef’s delineation as a god. In a pleasantly long-winded note, the editor of the Anchor Bible says that his translation leaves it open whether the passage “is a poetic image for flames or sparks, or a more direct allusion to the god of pestilence,” and that either is appropriate to the context; for in both cases we are offered a parallel to man being born for trouble. Question marks still hover in the air; and how pleasant it would have been to hear Gerald Abrahams arguing it all fiercely, drawing on his impish mother-wit to lighten the matter-of-factness of pedants like me.