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Hebrew Corner 1: "Deception"
by John H. Walton
One of the constant challenges of exegesis involves the understanding of words. Most Bible readers are dependent on translations and so must be content interpreting the text based on what words their translation has chosen. Even comparing translations or consulting commentaries can sometimes fall short of answering questions that might occur.
What perhaps is not often recognized is that even translators work with significant limitations. No ancient lexicon exists that offers explanations of the meanings of words by those who spoke classical Hebrew. We have traditions, and sometimes ancient ones, such as the translation offered in the Greek Septuagint. We have comments made by Medieval Rabbinic grammarians whose expertise was substantial. And, of course, we have the multitude of translations that exist today as an outpouring of scholarly attention. With all of that said, the fact is that we only perceive the meanings of Hebrew words by their usage—not from some ancient academic repository of lexicography.
Even when modern translators do their work, they do not have the luxury of “starting from scratch” and doing thorough, comprehensive lexical study on each word. Unless there is some known discussion about the meaning of a word or some substantial disagreement or variation in the traditions, a word is unlikely to merit attention and the standard translation of the word will be followed.
As I teach in Hebrew Exegesis classes semester by semester and assign word studies and have classroom discussions, it is not unusual for questions to arise concerning a precise nuance of a word. This often leads to reconsideration of some nuances that have rarely been studied with the same inquiries in mind.
For example, a student recently raised a question concerning the precise nuance of the verb nš’ used in Genesis 3:13: Where Eve says, “The serpent deceived me and I ate.” The question was, does this verb give any indication about the type of deception involved. It is not a question that I had previously asked, but, of course, there are numerous possible nuances regarding the nature of a deception:
- Intentional deception with malicious intent
- Intentional deception with playful intent
- Subconscious deception based on misinterpretation or perhaps non-verbal communication
- Deception that only is so-revealed after the fact
- Deception in the mind of a third party observer
Others probably could be listed, but the point is that answering this question could have a significant impact on the interpretation of the passage. It is theoretically possible that the Hebrew word is fairly generic and could cover all of these. But perhaps not, and we don’t know until we check. How does one go about this research?
Since meaning is determined by usage, the way to make the decision is to evaluate all of the passages where the word is used. There are principles concerning how to do this without comparing apples to oranges (see J. Walton, “Principles of Productive Word Study” in NIDOTTE I, 161-171), which we cannot go into here. But this word is reasonably straightforward because there are only a handful of occurrences:
2 Kings 18:29 / 2 Chron 32:15 / Isa 36:14 Hezekiah is telling the Israelites to trust in the Lord and the Assyrians are labeling that deception
2 Kings 19:10 / Isa 37:10 The Assyrians indicate that the God of Israel is deceiving them when he indicates that Jerusalem will be delivered
Isa 19:13 passive--leaders of Memphis are deceived by false hopes
Jer 49:16 / Ob 1:3 pride of heart to Edomites is deceiving them into thinking that they can rebuild in security
Jer 29:8 False Prophets are deceiving Israel by telling them that they will experience deliverance and peace
Jer 37:9 Israel is deceiving itself into thinking that Babylon will leave
All of these fall clearly into just one category. None of the ones identified as deceiving believe that their words are deceptive. They are accused of giving false hopes that they believe are plausible but which, it is suggested, will not be fulfilled. Now it may be that the hopes are not false hopes at all. If they are false hope, the speaker would have been unintentionally misleading with every expectation that he was not doing so.
The remaining two passages are less clear. In Jer 4:10 Jeremiah accuses God of deceiving Israel into believing there will be peace. This is a complex “deception” in that, presumably, the message of peace has come from the mouths of false prophets of Yahweh who have been prophesying peace and have not been punished for doing so.
The one remaining passage is Obad 1:7, a very difficult verse that, nonetheless most likely indicates that Edom’s allies are intentionally deceiving them in order to take advantage of them.
Having done the word study, the question is, when Eve accuses the serpent of “deceiving” her, does she imply that the serpent intended to deceive or is she only suggesting that the serpent was giving what turn out to be false hopes but that the serpent considered to be plausible? It is an important question as it probes the serpent’s intentions, or at least Eve’ perception of them (perhaps she is giving the serpent the benefit of the doubt regarding motivation).
Additional information, though not offering determinative answers to the question, might be gleaned from investigating the Greek word that the Septuagint used to translate the Hebrew, as well as the Greek words used in 2 Cor 11:3 and 1 Tim 2:14. Perhaps my Greek colleagues, Profs. Wallace or Mounce might be able to offer some insight on the Greek terms.
It would be premature to suggest a new interpretation of the serpent and Genesis 3 based on this brief word study. I raise it as an example of how new questions can bring renewed discussion of word meanings and interpretation. We need reminding that there is still plenty of work to do.
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).
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