A Facebook commenter with a PhD in English challenged my interpretation of halt at KJVQuiz.com. It was perhaps an incautious challenge to make to a person only too ready to write articles upon the feeblest provocation. Here goes.
Many of our common words trace back etymologically to physical actions or directions. One of the most common ways we get “new” words is by the development of old ones from literal to metaphorical. Let’s probe this feature of language, on our way to understanding one specific word in one Bible passage in one translation.
Here’s an example from contemporary English: when I say about Harvey Weinstein, “His actions were indefensible,” I’m speaking on an abstract level; I’m arguing that no argument could justify him. But strip off the affixes (in-, –de-, and -ible) and you’re left with what was once a quite concrete idea: fens, from the Latin fendere, “to strike.” Our current abstract term indefensible derives historically from a very concrete action: striking something with a fist or tool. Something that is indefensible is something not able to be “fended off,” “struck aside.” We no longer hear a literal idea of striking in that word—or in offense, defense, or fend—the literal and concrete has been fully metaphoricalized (this actually happened before English was born).
A (precocious) four-year-old can declare his little sister’s actions indefensible just fine without any idea of its roots in the concrete idea of “striking.” And so can we adults; in fact, we generally have no clue what our words used to mean—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Sometimes words have a literal meaning and a metaphorical extension. Try this:
I fell into a depression.
Both fell and depression could be literal—maybe the speaker was on a hike and stumbled into a low spot on the forest floor. But both could be metaphorical extensions of the literal, however—a low spot in one’s life. A tiny bit more context generally makes it clear which sense is intended:
My girlfriend dumped me, I lost my job, my hairline receded four inches in two weeks, and I fell into a depression.
I guess you could still read that last clause literally… (Language is so cool!) But change that last “and” to a “so” and I think we’re beyond the reach of confusion for any sympathetic reader. Exhaustive certainty in interpretation is not always available, but sufficient certainty usually is. We all tend to know intuitively, based on context, when a word is meant concretely or metaphorically.
How long halt ye?
If you’ve made it this far. Clearly, you are fascinated by the fun complexities of human language. So let’s dig a layer deeper into the depression into which we’ve fallen; let’s get below the pine needles and into the dirt. Let’s explore what is probably the key example in my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. The word is halt, and the passage is 1 Kings 18:21, where Elijah stands in his great contest with the priests of Baal and issues a challenge that has spawned many a sermon. Here’s a 1611 KJV:
From Wycliffe in the 1380s up through the English Revised Version 500 years later, every major English Bible translation translated the key word here the same way: halt.
What did all these translators mean by choosing halt?
I have gone to the trouble of asking modern readers—from my six-year-old daughter to seminary professors—what they think the word means in the context of 1 Kings 18:21 in the KJV, and almost all, quite naturally, have assumed the definition of halt as we use it today. As my little cutie said confidently, “It means ‘stop.’” It’s odd to our ears to hear the word used as an intransitive verb (the intransitive use is “archaic,” says the AHD), and even then it’s usually a military term (“The troops halted at the river’s edge”), but we can make sufficient sense of it in 1 Kings 18:21. You could imagine a contemporary speaker saying, “The Israelites halted at a spot somewhere between the worship of God and the worship of Baal.”
Looking up “halt”
The ASV of 1901 was the first major English translation to break from the halt tradition. I noticed this while reading the ASV’s successor, the ESV, which renders the word the same way, “How long will you go limping between two opinions?”
I remember reading this in the ESV and thinking, “How did we get from halt to limp?”
And then I remembered something else: the KJV has Jesus healing “the halt and the blind” in the Gospels. And who are the “halt”? They’re the lame, the limping.
Duh! I made a quick check of the Hebrew in 1 Kings 18:21. Sure enough, it used the word for “limp” (פָּסַח), not the word for “stop” (חָדַל or עָמַד). The Septuagint uses χωλαίνω, which also means “limp.” What the KJV translators meant by halt was “limp.”
Limp is first attested in 1523; it was available for the translators of our earliest Modern English Bibles (though not for Wycliffe, apparently). But the more common word was halt. (They even had another option you and I don’t, limphalt—language is so cool.)
Halt is what I call in Authorized a “false friend,” because when you read the KJV, it looks like a word we know. The “stop” sense makes sufficient sense in context, so no one thinks to look up halt. Who looks up words they already know? But if you don’t look up this word, or don’t happen to check one of the modern translations that uses limp, you miss the word-picture Elijah is going for: people hobbling back and forth between Baal and the Lord.
However, fellow word nerds, there’s a possible objection to my argument: halt was, like fall, a word that could be literal or metaphorical. The Oxford English Dictionary, the only lexicon that traces English’s full history, offers “limp” as the first sense of halt, but it gives another sense, too: “To walk unsteadily or hesitatingly; to waver, vacillate, oscillate; to remain in doubt.” And it cites 1 Kings 18:21!
So halt had a metaphorical extension, according to the OED. Maybe Wycliffe and the translators after him didn’t mean the concrete, literal “limp” after all?
And here’s where I have to halt—because I’m skeptical of the OED, and that’s an odd place to be in for someone who relies on it so often. Yes, the overall phrase “halt between two opinions” means to waver, vacillate, and oscillate, to remain in doubt. The whole phrase is a metaphor. And I’ve got no problem with translations that use such words. But particularly because of the underlying Hebrew (and the concurring LXX), I don’t think the single word halt meant “remain in doubt” in 1 Kings 18:21 in the minds of the KJV translators. I still think it meant “limp.”
There are some fundamental uncertainties going on here, however: those translators didn’t “choose” halt; they “approved” it. They left it in the text they were revising—which was itself a revision of a revision of a revision. So do you look at English usage in the 14th, 15th, or 16th centuries to determine what halt meant? That’s tough. Literal ideas like “limp” develop metaphorical extensions like “vacillate, remain in doubt.” But is that really what’s going on in 1 Kings 18:21? When would most readers have heard the metaphorical rather than the literal idea? I don’t know. Exhaustive certainty is not available in all linguistic questions.
But I’ve got a clincher, a secret weapon that will show that I’m right even if I’m wrong. The OED follows up the sense of halt that I’ve just doubted for 1 Kings 18:21, the metaphorical sense, with this comment:
Especially in the scriptural phrase ‘to halt between two opinions’; now often associated with halt v.2.
Halt v.2 is the “stop” sense. What the OED has been saying since 1901 is that, whether or not halt means the literal “limp” or the metaphorical “waver,” English speakers have been misunderstanding it. They have often erroneously associated it with “stop.” When modern readers see halt they misunderstand it without realizing it. Halt is—through no fault of the KJV translators or of modern readers—a “false friend.” The OED says so.
I checked the NOW Corpus, and I looked at many dozens of uses of halt—I couldn’t find a single one in which “halt” meant “limp.” I couldn’t find one in which it meant “vacillate,” either. In every instance it meant “stop” or “pause.” (I also couldn’t find it used intransitively.) I saw, “In an effort to halt the matter, the Doves Group filed papers in the Durban High Court.” I saw, “The resolution called on Israel to halt settlement activity.”
It is not a sign that you or I are intellectually deficient if we see in the KJV a common word we all know and assume it means what we all know it means, a meaning which makes perfect sense in the context of whatever KJV passage we’re reading.
It is not a sign that the KJV translators made a mistake when they failed to predict the future of the English language. Who could have predicted that the “gay nineties” would mean something very different in the “gay 90s”?
This post is way nerdier and more detailed than my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. I’m playing to my nerdy audience here (and, honestly, answering a challenge from a skeptic on Facebook!).
But even if you don’t read the book, I invite you to get the point: all of this nerdery should not be expected of anyone but nerds. And God didn’t give his words to nerds; he gave them to all Christians. There are two really simple solutions to the misunderstanding now created (it wasn’t confusing in 1611) by halt in 1 Kings 18:21. And every major modern English translation uses one of them. You can use the concrete “How long will you go limping between two different opinions?” like the ASV and ESV; or you can translate the overall meaning of the phrase and say “How long are you going to be paralyzed by indecision?” like the NET Bible.
These two solutions actually boil down to one, and it’s the thesis of my book: English Bible translations ought to be made into the current English vernacular.