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