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A Criticism of NET Word Choice in Psalm 33:6
I take issue with NET’s translation of Psalm 33:6.
I. In the first line, I would use the majority translation “word” rather than the minority translation “LORD’S decree,” because the context does not support NET’s paraphrase over the literal text of the original Hebrew and Greek.
ESV Psalm 33:6 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
NET Psalm 33:6 By the LORD’s decree the heavens were made; by a mere word from his mouth all the stars in the sky were created. (Psa 33:6 NET)
LXE Psalm 32:6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were established; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.
The following translations use “word” in verse 6: ESV, NIV 1984, NIB (British NIV, 1984), NAS, BBE (Bible in Basic English), LXE (Brenton’s Septuagint English Translation), NETS (New English Translation of the Septuagint, Pietersma, 2009), KJV, NKJV, NRS (New Revised Standard Version, 1989), and the NIV, 2011. “Word” literally translates both the Greek of the Septuagint and the Hebrew, as the NET points out in its notes. However, the NET model, 2006, and the NIRV (New International Reader’s Version, 1998) have taken the liberty to interpret the literal “word” of the two original languages and to place the interpretation into the text. NET then puts the literal translation into the notes. Can these two be right and everyone else wrong?
The NET writes for Psalm 33:6, “By the LORD’s decree the heavens were made; by a mere word [breath, or spirit] from his mouth all the stars in the sky were created.” The NIRV writes, “The heavens were made when the LORD commanded it to happen. All of the stars were created by the breath of his mouth.”
The interpretation NET and NIRV have given (although the 2011 NIV returns to “word”) is a narrow slice of the semantic range of possible meanings of the literal “word” of the original. In the case of the NET, I strongly suspect that this is an editorial decision based upon the philosophy (hermeneutics) of Old Testament interpretation the editors have chosen. NET is fond of placing the literal in the margin and their particular interpretation in the text itself.
Why does this matter?
1) These two versions are changing the literal translation of God’s word.
2) They are interpreting for God the meaning of the text, rather than allowing the reader to do so under the guidance of God.
One of the readers of Psalms was John the Apostle. In John 1:1-5, he writes,
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was with God in the beginning.
3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (NIV, 2011)
The author of Hebrews writes,
2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.
Why rob the reader the pleasure of seeing the Word, the Son, in Psalm 33:6 by changing the literal translation “word” to “LORD’s decree“? The semantic domain of “word” includes the concept of “decree,” while “decree” erases the possibility of the Personhood of God’s Word.
In support of keeping the original rather than NET’s interpretation, the text of Psalm 148:5-6 is interesting in its contextual similarity to Psalm 33:6.
5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.
6 He set them in place for ever and ever; he gave a decree that will never pass away. (NIB, NIV 1984)
5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he gave the command and they came into existence.
6 He established them so they would endure; he issued a decree that will not be revoked. (NET)
In these verses, “them” means everything named in verses 2-4: angels, heavenly hosts, sun, moon, shining stars, highest heavens, and waters above the skies, i.e., creation, apart from the earth. These verses contain the translations “commanded…created,” “set them in place,” and “gave a decree.” Interestingly, NET notes does not mention any of the three verbal phrases.
In comparison with Psalm 33:6, the immediate creation context is identical. “6 By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Yet even though the context is identical, the original Greek and Hebrew words referring to the act of creation are different. Psalm 33, as noted above, uses the Hebrew and Greek original for “word,” “logos” (see Strong’s H1697 and G3056), whereas Psalm 148:5-6 uses different words more directly related to “command” (see Strong’s H6680, H8765, G1781, G2476, and G4367).
“Logos,” which is “word” in the New Testament, carries great weight, and one cannot help but wonder why the NET chose to minimize its potential importance in Psalm 33:6, given that NET’s claimed translation “the LORD’s decree” uses other, specific Hebrew and Greek words that God could have chosen, as for example, those he did choose in Psalm 148:5-6 in an identical context. Are we to think that God pays less attention to details than NET? In Psalm 33:6, if God intentionally chose Hebrew “dabar” and Greek “logos,” both meaning “word,” then “word” it is.
3) There is yet another reason why an accurate translation should stick with the Greek and Hebrew, rather than an interpretation. This has to do with God’s creation. We are in a period of time in church history in which some churches and pastors are abandoning the traditional understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 as actual history and substituting an interpretation that compromises with naturalistic, materialistic science. These compromising methods of interpretation sometimes fall into the categories of “literary framework” and “poetic.”
While this particular article is not the venue for exploring the above allegation in detail, the readers may consider this a signpost pointing them to an area they might want to study. To my ear, the non-literal, interpretive translation of NET Psalm 33:6, “By the LORD’s decree the heavens were made,” allows for a “decree” whose manner is unspecified. How was this decree made? The reader doesn’t know. Perhaps it could have been a decree whose form permitted natural processes only to unfold for millions and millions of years before the events in the later chapters of Genesis. When the ESV writes, By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, the connection between God personally speaking as a Being and something immediately happening is made clear.
4) Hebrew poetry often consists of couplets or triplets. Psalm 33:6 contains a couplet (two lines), which basically state the same thought in two slightly differing ways. Why did the NET feel it preferable to disrupt the Hebrew symmetry by substituting the original words of the first line with a narrower, paraphrased interpretation?
ESV Psalm 33:6 [Line 1] By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, [Line 2] and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
NET Psalm 33:6 [Line 1] By the LORD’s decree the heavens were made; [Line 2] by a mere word from his mouth all the stars in the sky were created.
5) NET also reinterprets the second line of Psalm 33:6 in its paraphrase. A reader without access to the original languages might think that the NET compensated for their paraphrase of Line 1 by stating what should have been stated there in Line 2. Isn’t everything clear now? However, as the ESV makes clear, both the Hebrew and Greek do not say, “word,” or “mere word,” as NET writes in Line 2. The original word used in Hebrew is, “ruwach,” meaning “wind, breath, mind, spirit,” according to Strong’s number 07307. The original word in Greek specifies “spirit,” Spirit,” or “breath;” the word is πνεύματι, or “pneuma.” Genesis 1:2 (ESV) teaches that,”the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” NET’s choice of “mere word” does means neither, “breath,” nor “spirit, or Spirit,” nor “word.” The NET has completely obscured the act of the triune God in creation. Consider the following:
ESV Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
The ESV above gives an accurate translation, based upon both Hebrew and Greek. There in verse 1, the reader perceives God, as in God Almighty. The word in Hebrew is plural. In verse 2, the reader finds the Spirit active in creation. Finally in verse 3, the reader finds the Word in the phrase, “And God said…” The Apostle John verifies this meaning in John 1:1-3, “John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3 ESV)
SUMMARY: Psalm 33:6 summarizes the presence of the Word and the Spirit in creation in its two lines, [Line 1] By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, [Line 2] and by the breath of his mouth all their host (ESV). The NET obscures these truths, [Line 1] By the LORD’s decree the heavens were made; [Line 2] by a mere word from his mouth all the stars in the sky were created.