“but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”
Isaiah 40:31 (NRSV)
In the class that I am currently taking, we recently completed a paper where we compared various translations of a passage of our choice in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). I chose Isaiah 40: 27-31 as my passage, and I compared the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the New American Bible (NAB), the Jewish Publication Society 1985 version (JPS), and the New International Version (NIV). This covered the most popular mainline, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Evangelical translations.
While there were variations in the word choices, punctuation, and line break points in the various translations, most of the passage I chose was similar enough between the versions to have essentially the same meaning. The one line that really stood out was the second line of verse 31, shown above in the NRSV. For comparison sake, I have shown the same verse below from the other three versions that I considered in this exercise.
“They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength,
they will soar as with eagles’ wings;
They will run and not grow weary,
walk and not grow faint.”
Isaiah 40:31 (NAB)
“But they who trust in the LORD shall renew their strength
As eagles grow new plumes:
They shall run and not grow weary,
They shall march and not grow faint.”
Isaiah 40:31 (JPS)
“but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
Isaiah 40:31 (NIV)
As you can see, the JPS has a substantially different translation for the line about eagles’ wings. The other three all refer to the one who hopes, trusts, or waits on the LORD having renewed strength and soaring or mounting up with wings like those of eagles. The JPS version, however, says that those in question will “renew their strength as eagles grow new plumes.” There’s no sign here of soaring at all.
A footnote in the JPS indicated that this was a reference to a common belief that eagles became young again when they molted. Therefore, translating it in this way indicates that those who trust in the LORD renew their strength by becoming young again.
While I’m rather attached to the translations that speak of soaring on wings like those of eagles—partially because that’s what I grew up hearing and partially because I love the idea of being able to fly—I have to admit that as I get older, the idea of renewing one’s strength meaning returning to the strength I had when I was younger makes a great deal of sense. It actually also makes more sense with the rest of the passage, which referred to youth and young men several times in the preceding verses.
I don’t know enough Hebrew to have any idea what it actually says in the original language or which translation is more accurate. There is a time when a difference in translation like this would really have bothered me. I would have felt a need to have it resolved clearly so I could know which one was “right.” It was threatening to me and to my faith when the words changed from one version to another, especially with this degree of difference.
I was delighted to discover as I did this assignment that this isn’t true for me any more. I don’t know which translation is closest to the original language. I don’t even know that it can be conclusively proven one way or the other, and it really doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Instead, I am delighted by the enlarged field of possibilities offered by the differences, and my faith is deepened by considering how these variations work together to express a larger truth than any one might on its own (for example, considering “hopes”, “trusts”, and “waits” in the first phrase of verse 31 as a connected idea).
I really like this expansion in the way I am able to approach the text without feeling threatened by inconsistencies. I still find uncertainty hard sometimes in some areas of my life, but I am finding that embracing mystery when it comes to my faith brings a world of freedom and space.
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