An Approximately 25-Year-Old Misunderstanding with 400-Year-Old Roots

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haltsign.pngToday I’m writing about the funny, interesting, and powerful story of Elijah for eighth graders. And just now—just now, after 25 years of being a Bible reader—I realized what the King James translators meant when they have Elijah say, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21).

I always assumed that “stopping” between two opinions was what they meant (careful statistical analysis of my wife’s opinion revealed 100% agreement). People in the olden days used to say “Halt!” when they wanted others to stop, right? Riding your horse past a HALT sign was a ticketed offense!

I have read this story in other versions before. I’m guessing I’ve read it in the NASB, the NIV/TNIV, and the ESV. The NASB has the people “hesitating” between two opinions. The NIV/TNIV has them “wavering.” But the ESV (more literal in this case than the NASB!) provided the key that uncovered my life-long misunderstanding.

To halt wasn’t just to “stop” in 1611; halt was the verb form of halt, i.e., “lame” (I checked the OED). We would say something like “hobble” or “limp.” And that’s exactly what the ESV has: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?”

More importantly, this is what the Hebrew has, too. The Hebrew word underlying “limping” is the one used to describe what happened to Mephibosheth when, as a young child, his nurse dropped him, leaving him lame (2 Sam. 4:4). Interestingly, the word also occurs again in 1 Kings 18. And the ESV uses the same English word it used in v. 21, creating a sarcastically mocking picture: The prophets of Baal “limped around the altar that they had made” (v. 26).

Elijah’s challenge to the people in v. 21 is a picturesque metaphor. An obscure one, to be sure, because the next phrase is not as clear as “between two opinions.” It’s literally something like “on two lopped-off boughs”—apparently crutches (this is the only time this word appears in the Old Testament). The whole phrase “describes a mind as wobbly and uncertain as the legs of someone lame” (Bergen, NAC p. 219).

But I missed all that until about 15 minutes ago because my Elizabethan English wasn’t as good as I always arrogantly (and I mean that) assumed that it was.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

16 thoughts on “An Approximately 25-Year-Old Misunderstanding with 400-Year-Old Roots”

  1. Good post, Mark.

    Actually, there’s another possible reading. The Hebrew plural translated “opinions” (סעפים) likely comes from the noun for tree branch (סעפה). If the verb pasach (פסח), translated by the AV as “halt,” means “limp” in this context, then the two branches are probably best understood as crutches, as you point out.

    On the other hand, the verb pasach can also denote the idea of “hovering over.” The verb is used this way in parallel with the verb ‘uph (עוף) in Isaiah 31:5:

    Like birds hovering (עוף) overhead,
    the LORD Almighty will shield Jerusalem;
    he will shield it and deliver it,
    he will ‘pass over’ (פסח) it and will rescue it” (NIV).

    The parallelism between עוף and פסח would seem to suggest a similar semantic value in this context, i.e., something like hovering or covering for the purpose of shielding and protecting.

    If the verb means in 1 Kings 18:21 what it means in Isaiah 31:5, then they both employ avian imagery. In the case of 1 Kings 18:21, the picture is that of birds hovering over two branches but landing on neither. In that case, the prophet is denouncing the people for indecisiveness and an unwillingness to “land” on Yahweh’s side.

    Meredith Kline defends this reading in an article “The Feast of Cover-over,” JETS 37.4 (1994): 497-510.

  2. Thanks, Bob! It seems like the basic meaning is fairly clear in nearly any translation; the question is what the image is. Some translations elect to have no image, just a more prosaic interpretational rendering. But if you can keep the image you can possibly get a nice link-up with verse 26, as the ESV does.

    My overall point, of course, is that KJV readers are missing more than they realize. They have a beautiful translation with a good heritage, but they’re missing some of God’s words unnecessarily. I think that’s a terrible price to pay for a beautiful translation with a good heritage, especially when the ESV is both of those things, too. I like the fact that the ESV falls firmly within the beloved KJV tradition. But its renderings here show that it is much better attuned to modern speakers’ ears than the KJV could possibly be.

  3. The Hebrew word underlying “halt” is the same for the KJV and the ESV. Dan, I’m in earnest here—I know you think you’re in enemy territory, but I have a genuine question: do you think “halt” or “limp” is a better translation in the verse discussed in this post? And what are your reasons?

  4. Thanks for your reply, Mark. I’ll answer your question further on here, but I didn’t make myself clear. My point was not about that particular word, but that the ESV is not rooted in the KJV tradition as you and the publishers claim. It is based upon the critical Nestle-Aland Greek text, which is based mostly upon three critical editions of the Greek New Testament, each of whose compilers rejected the Textus Receptus: Tischendorf’s edition, Westcott and Hort’s edition, and Weymouth’s edition. The KJV is based on the Textus Receptus, of course. Now about the Hebrew word. I’m not a Hebrew scholar (I took four semesters of New Testament Greek in college, but did not study Hebrew, not that that makes me a NT Greek scholar, either), but according to Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary the Hebrew word used here, “pacach,” means “to hop, i.e. (fig.) skip over (or spare); by impl. to hesitate; also (lit.) to limp, to dance:-halt, become lame, leap, pass over.” I think either is a good translation, as long as you understand that “to halt” means to be lame. I don’t think too many people have difficulty understanding the use of the word “halt” in John 5:3, do you?

  5. You’re right, Dan, that people don’t have a difficulty understanding the word “halt” in John 5:3. At least educated people. But here in 1 Kings 8:21, the context makes the more common meaning of “halt” (for us) seem right. I’ve talked to multiple highly educated people who made the same mistake I did—and for thirty years or more.

    All I’m trying to get out of King James Only brothers and sisters (like you, I presume) is a recognition that the translation needs to be updated. That’s where I’d like to focus our discussion. I think it’s fruitless for us to discuss textual criticism. I’m not ignorant of the issues: I took a doctoral level class on textual criticism and I’ve done independent reading on the topic. I’ve taken many years of Κοινή Greek and own all the standard tools for its use. But I still wouldn’t consider myself an expert in textual criticism, and if the evidence that the critical text proponents like me have already put forward isn’t sufficient for you, I doubt I’ll come up with anything that is.

    I’m sort of presuming you arrived at my blog through my recent review of R.B. Ouellette’s A More Sure Word. In that review I basically throw up a white flag on textual criticism. I follow my own best Greek prof, a humble and godly member of my church, in saying, “So you prefer the TR? Fine! Make a translation of the TR into respectable, contemporary English.” I’m interested to hear your thoughts on that portion of the review, the portion focusing on English.

  6. I appreciate your reply again, Mark. Actually, I arrived at your blog through a link to your article “Pop Music and Twinkies” on Dan Forrest’s site I have not read your review of “A More Sure Word,” but I plan to now that I know about it. I would like to see what other evidence you personally have presented in favor of the critical texts. I do not take a “KJV only” stance in the sense of believing that it is the only possibility of a good English translation. I do, however, strongly believe in sticking with the KJV for a number of reasons, one being for the sake of unity among believers. It is very difficult to memorize, or even to read, scripture together as a body now because of the many versions. They have caused great division and confusion within the body of Christ. I am very wary of replacing the time-tested Authorized Version with another one. It should be done with the utmost care, if it should be done at all. I don’t know of anyone who would be qualified to do such a translation or update today. Great care should be taken to use the most reliable texts based on the best manuscripts, best meaning those that are most faithful to the original manuscripts, which we no longer possess. My great concern is with replacing the Received Text with those created by men who questioned the authority of God’s Word; men who seem to have been out to change the Word of God because of their unbelief. Most of the modern versions are based upon these new texts, including the ESV. The literary quality of the KJV is unsurpassed. It’s very unlikely anyone today could replace it. I am convinced the King James Version is still the best version available.

  7. Here’s the link to the review of Ouellette’s book. I’m interested in your thoughts.

    Everything you said about the KJV could have been said about the Geneva Bible by people who were nervous about the young upstart translation we now know as the KJV. I urge you to read the preface to the KJV that the KJV translators produced; the very first line is defensive; they know people will think ill of their work. I’ve often thought that that very first line—”The best things have been calumniated”—undercuts the entire KJV Only movement, because every one of the major modern translations was done with the “utmost care” by people just as qualified as the KJV translators. Perhaps more qualified because there have been significant advances in the study of New Testament Greek and of Old Testament Hebrew—and of linguistics, translation, and archaeology—since that time. In any case, the New King James has already done exactly what you describe. Why don’t you like the NKJV? Every answer I’ve ever seen to that question, including in Ouellette’s book, was perfectly described by the KJV translators in that preface:

    Zeal to promote the common good, whether it be by devising anything ourselves, or revising that which hath been laboured by others, deserveth certainly much respect and esteem, but yet findeth but cold entertainment in the world. It is welcomed with suspicion instead of love, and with emulation instead of thanks: and if there be any hole left for cavil to enter, (and cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one) it is sure to be misconstrued, and in danger to be condemned.

    I’m not criticizing the KJV one bit. I think it’s beautiful, wonderful. I grew up on it and I’ll never forget its cadences. But it is written in a form of English no one in this world has spoken for hundreds of years. What’s more important, literary beauty or readability? Of course I’d love to have both, and I think I can in the ESV. But we don’t have both in the KJV. It is simply not understandable by any but the most educated people. It’s not unintelligible; I don’t claim that. But in countless places it simply doesn’t make any sense to modern readers, through no fault of the KJV translators. As a small case in point: what does “emulation” mean in that paragraph? “Emulation” is a word we still use regularly. But its meaning, “copying something thought to be good and worthy,” doesn’t fit in that sentence. So what does it mean, and how do you know?

  8. Mark, I just read your review of “A More Sure Word.” I have not read the book itself and, thus, cannot comment on it. However, in response to your review, I would like to say that I began reading the KJV daily as a boy and have never had great difficulty understanding it, for the most part no more than I would any other book. The Bible is a book of which we grow in our understanding the more we read and study it anyhow and that is the task of every believer. (Obviously, some are more independently equipped for this job than others.) For me much of the meaning and impact of a lot of passages is lost in the language and rendering of the modern versions. I think it is good for everyone to learn to read the KJV, with helps such as bible dictionaries, and I believe it is possible for most people to understand it at least as well as the other translations, especially with the help of bible teachers and the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to the church. Yes, there are some differences from our English today to overcome, and perhaps these could be eliminated somehow without losing the power and beauty of the KJV, but I think that you are exaggerating them greatly!

  9. One more thought after seeing your last response: I think people should be cautious and critical in a good way about any attempt to replace a time-tested version of the Word of God, no matter how well-intentioned the attempt. This approach should help make sure it is done rightly.

  10. My heart genuinely hurts to hear you say this, Dan. I just felt sink as I read your last comment. You and I grew up on the KJV and have a comparatively easier time understanding it, but my heart hurts because it’s not you and me who are most damaged by the difficult reading level of the KJV. It’s the people who are weakest. It’s the little African-American kids with no dads that I talked to at the playground last night, the ones who couldn’t fathom that my wife and I were married. They get taught unintelligible verses at their local VBS; verses which might as well be in Swahili as far as they are concerned. I myself have asked them literally hundreds of times to explain to me the verses they were learning, and I found over and over that they weren’t getting it. “Fret not thyself in any wise to do evil”? Meaningless in contemporary English. And yet I taught that verse to a hundred children as a camp counselor. “Not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh? Also meaningless today.

    Beyond that I am perfectly convinced, after years of careful study, that even adult KJV readers simply do not know what they are missing. I’ve done some hard work collecting passage after passage which I now realize I totally missed—through no fault of the KJV translators, but simply because English has changed (see my KJV category here). I’m not going to go into someone’s house and remove their precious KJV—you’ll have to pry my cold, dead hands off of mine! =) But if there are differences from our English today to overcome, then overcome them with an update.

  11. Fine with me, brother, as long as it is faithful to and does justice to the Word of God. You’ll have to convince me of those requirements!

  12. One question, Mark. If you are satisfied with the ESV, why don’t you just use it. Why are you so concerned about pointing out the problems with the KJV and with replacing it with an update?

  13. A fair question, Dan. It’s because of all the passages I bring up in the KJV category on my blog. I have just come across too many misunderstandings among KJV readers that are ultimately attributable not to poor reading but to the KJV. People don’t know what they’re missing.

    But make no mistake: I am not attacking the KJV. I think it is a fantastic translation. Just for people who speak a language different from ours.

  14. I know it’s been a couple of years but I just came across this article. I have come to the same conclusion as the author. I had been missing and misunderstanding quite a lot in the KJV. I was KJVO. Mainly because of my own ignorance and the pastors I hung around who preached that the KJV was the only real bible. I think people misunderstand what the Bible says as a result of the antique English in the KJV and do not realise it. Can you imagine going to heaven and giving an account to the Lord for telling people that the only english bible to use was a 400 year old one that most cant understand? Therefore putting stumbling blocks in front of people. I don’t know why more men who preach do not tell their people that they should read a bible that they can understand. By not saying anything men unknowingly make it seem that everyone has a suspicioun about the updated bibles in print. I don’t know of any dynamic or formal translation that attempts to water down God’s word. I know the Jehovah’s Witness’s, Mormons and some others have their own bible and those are wrong. I’m talking about the NASB, ESV, NKJV, HCSB, NLT and even the NIV 84. Those do not wager down God’s word. Sure some are more literal than others but they are all honest and well done. It breaks my heart that people like my grandmother, who was from Western N.C., couldn’t read good and so she couldn’t understand the KJV. She went her whole life not knowing about these other translations that she could have understood a lot more. Because of man’s tradition of the KJV. What about the 1000 year tradition of the Latin Vulgate? If we go by how many years a translation is used then we should all learn Latin and read the Vulgate. There are men who do not understand what a translation is and they go around preaching that a person is sinning against God because they enjoy understanding the bible. The Holy Spirit has already given us bibles that we can understand. Why do people think that when the Bible says spiritual things are hard to be discerned that that means Elizabethan English? That is not what the Bible means. God isn’t obligated to teach us 400 year old English when we have English bibles in our own English right now. KJVO is not good and it doesn’t make a person more of a Christian. It doesn’t score anyone points with God by choosing to read the KJV instead of the NKJV, ESV, NASB or HCSB. Man will always chose the hardest thing and think himslef something rather than take from God’s provision. Makes no sense.

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