Friday, November 18, 2011

Exodus in the NABRE

On Thursday nights, I have the wonderful privilege of teaching an Old Testament narrative class to adults, through the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan. In many ways, it is the highlight of my week since the students are very receptive and show a great desire to engage the Holy Scriptures. Having just spent a number of weeks in the book of Genesis, we have now turned to Exodus. The course primarily relies on the RSV-CE as its teaching text, but I have been using the NABRE quite closely as well. I have found that, when comparing translations, there can be a tendency to just choose those famous passages, like Is. 7:14, to see how one translation stacks up against another. However, it really does take a willingness to sit down with a translation, and read large portions of it, before one can really grasp its worth.

That brings me back to my reading of Exodus, using both the NABRE and RSV-CE. What I have found is that there are some interesting decisions that the NABRE makes which, in general, I find to be quite helpful. One may ask whether the NABRE is as literal as the RSV? Overall, no. But it is certainly a lot closer than the original NAB and in many ways is more readable. Below I am going to provide some examples of what I have found during my reading:

1) There is a verse numbering difference between the NABRE and the RSV in regards to the second, third, and fourth plagues. The NABRE appears to follow the Hebrew numbering, while the RSV does not. Those of you who are familiar with the NAB(RE) know that it will often do this, see the book of the prophet Joel for another instance of this.

2) The NABRE will at times translate some of the more confusing (perhaps?) Hebrew metaphors and idioms into more readable English. For example, Moses refers to himself as having "uncircumcised lips" in Exodus 6:12, which the RSV translated literally into English. In the NABRE, Moses refers to himself as being a "poor speaker". (The NRSV is identical to the NABRE in this case.) Is this a good change? It certainly does clear up any possible confusion that the typical reader may have in understanding the Hebrew idiom. In any case, the NABRE translators do include a helpful note explaining what is the literal rendering of the Hebrew.

3) Snakes and Serpents! In Genesis 3:1, the NABRE went with snake over the more traditional serpent. In Exodus, we find the return of snakes as well as serpents. Is there a difference? Apparently so. Even though most translations, like the RSV, use the same word "serpent" for Moses' rod (4:3) and Aaron's rod (7:9), they are technically two different Hebrew words: nahash and tannin, respectively (Larsson Bound for Freedom 54). Nahash was the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 3, which the NABRE translated consistently in this case. The word tannin though may indicate a more ferocious reptile than a serpent, perhaps a large sea monster or dragon (Ezek 29:3) or crocodile. While one could debate which English terms would be best in translating these two Hebrew words, at least the NABRE made the distinction.

4) One of the most famous idioms of Exodus is the "hardening of Pharoah's heart" which is found some 20 times in Exodus 5-11. Sometimes it is clear that the LORD does the hardening, while on other occasions Pharoah is the one who does so. It is interesting to note that there are three different Hebrew words used in these instances, the most notably being hazaq and kaved. In most cases, however, the RSV simply translates "Pharoah's heart was hardened". The NABRE translates each term differently, kaved as Pharoah was "obstinate", while hazaq as Pharoah's "heart was hardened". (Again, there is also some helpful translator notes which assist the reader in recognizing the difference.) Now, one could argue that this is either not a big deal ultimately or that another word instead of "obstinate" should be used, but the main point is that the NABRE does make the distinction, much like it did with the snake/serpent issue addressed above.

More to come....


Theophrastus said...

Tim, as always, thanks for your careful eye and attention to detail.

I want to compare your observations with the HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised Edition (HCSB2) using the NRSV translation. I think this comparison is fair because the NABRE includes study notes, so we should compare it to an NRSV with study notes.

(2) The NRSV (and thus the HCSB2) gives the interpretation in the translation, as you note, and the literal idiom in the notes.

(3) The HCSB2, has notes explaining the different Hebrew terms.

(4) The stiffening of the heart passages appear differently than you indicate, from Exodus 4 to 14. The HCSB2 carefully notes the different Hebrew words with notes; e.g. at 7:13 and 7:14.

For these reasons, I would suggest that the NABRE is not as unique as your post might hint -- and a reader using the HCSB2, for example, would enjoy most of the same advantages.

Timothy said...


As always, thanks for your comments. I think you are right that it would be better to compare the NABRE with an NRSV study Bible. Much of my focus has been in comparison with the RSV, but perhaps it would have been more helpful to include more from the NRSV.

Thadeus said...


I appreciate you taking the time to share differences in translations other than the "go to" verses. Thank you for this post.


Timothy said...


No problem. I hope to provide more examples in the future. I think one's own opinion of this or that translation would benefit from a greater examination of much larger portions of a particular translation, as oppose to those much repeated and notorious verses. I contend that many people disparage a translation without actually reading large portions of it. More often, people will rely on how one or two verses are translated, like Luke 1:28, and base their decision on that.

Theophrastus said...

Timothy -- I think you are exactly right about the many "knee-jerk" responses to translations. And I also agree with your implied suggestion that one of the best ways to really get a feel for a translation (or most any other book, for that matter), is to teach from it.

Timothy said...


On a side note, since you mentioned the HCSB NRSV, do you happen to know why it doesn't seem to get the 'pub' like other study Bibles, like the NOAB? It is barely promoted NRSV site, and seems to be harder to find in stores.

Theophrastus said...

Gee, that's not my impression, Tim. I understood the HCSB to have surpassed the NOAB in the textbook market (which is one reason why the NOAB keeps coming out in new editions -- the NOAB used to own the textbook market, and Oxford wants that market back.)

The Harper website for the HCSB certainly seems deluxe to me; it certainly goes beyond the bare-bones web site Oxford has for the NOAB. (See also here.

They do mention that they have sold over 150,000 copies; I know that figure has approximately doubled, though. That's a home run even by Bible edition standards.

The HCSB is the officially sponsored study Bible of the Society of Biblical Literature, which is the premiere secular organization for biblical studies.

Timothy said...

Perhaps my perception is based on what I have seen at popular bookstores and on websites. I was unaware that that it sold so well in the textbook market, compared to the NOAB.

Theophrastus said...

I don't know about bookstore sales: The last theological bookstore in my town closed two years ago, but when it was open, it had both the NOAB and HCSB. I'm not sure I have seen either the NOAB or HCSB in a popular bookstore (e.g., Barnes and Noble).

Maybe you've seen the NOAB referenced more on the web because it came out last year while the HCSB is now six years old.

Having said that, I would like to add that all of the Harper (Murdoch-News Corp.) book divisions (including HarperOne, Zondervan, and now Thomas Nelson) have had a great deal of turnover in their editorial staff. I believe that the average quality of published materials coming out of Harper (not just in Bibles, but across all of their book divisions) has substantially deteriorated. I believe that Harper will only publish books that they believe will earn them a substantial profit; and my sources inform me that costs (including editorial support and quality printing) have been slashed.

If Harper is not investing in web promotion, it is because they think that additional web-based sales are de minimis compared with the highly lucrative textbook market. (Even a non-profit like Oxford seems to somewhat think that way as well -- look at how the NABRE Catholic Study Bible was handled.)

In this sense publishers like Ignatius are much more visionary: while I certainly have my beefs with Ignatius, I do believe that they publish books out of a sense of mission and service; and that the people involved truly love books. Arguably both Father Fessio and Rupert Murdoch have personality flaws, but when one compares them, there is really no question about which one is motivated by bottom-line profits and which one is motivated by love of scholarship and teaching.