Make Them Like a Wheel

by Apr 15, 2013KJV

I’m a Bible curriculum author for high school students. I love my job. And one neat aspect of my duties is answering occasional letters like the following from high school kids around the country:

I have a question about something that I read in the Bible the other day. In Psalm 83:13, David is asking God to destroy his enemies and he asks God to make them like a wheel. Why would he ask for them to made like a wheel? What’s negative about wheels? Just curious.

Here’s the verse the student was asking about:

O my God, make them like a wheel; as the stubble before the wind. (Ps 83:13 KJV)

The Psalmist—Asaph, in this case—is praying an imprecation. He clearly wants God to do something bad to his enemies. The teenage reader caught that quite clearly in the context. She expected this to be an imprecation; she just wasn’t sure what is so imprecatory about turning someone into the Michelin Man.

This student was a practitioner of good reading: she noticed when a word didn’t seem to fit its context. I’m confident that good readers in the early 17th century had the same question this student did. So I consider this particular KJV rendering to be bad translating (though not excessively bad, as we’ll see), because it really is totally opaque to competent readers of English.

There’s a reason for this: it appears that the passage was likely opaque to the translators, too—in the original Hebrew. There’s no note (and I checked the authoritative reference) offering a more idiomatic translation or alternate rendering. It’s just “wheel.”

Gilgal is the Hebrew word. It’s also a place name, as anyone familiar with the Old Testament will immediately recognize. But it’s the simple word for “wheel,” and as a common noun it appears 12 times. There are several contexts among those 12, however, in which “wheel” clearly doesn’t work. Psalm 83:13 is one. Isaiah 17:13 is another:

The nations shall rush like the rushing of many waters: but God shall rebuke them, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind. (Is 17:13 KJV)

Here the KJV translators did what they could and probably should have done in Psalm 83. “A rolling thing” isn’t a huge improvement over “a wheel,” but it is better. You don’t normally think of whirlwinds rolling wheels around on the ground. But “tumbleweed” or “whirling dust”—which is the choice of the modern translations in Psalm 83—fits. “A rolling thing” is generic, not as helpful as “whirling dust,” but it’s not opaque. Teenage readers can imagine the wind pushing “rolling things” around.

What I have said before I say again: when we insist on the use of just one Bible translation, we take some of God’s words out of people’s hands. An opaque translation is as bad as no translation.

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