niv 2011/tniv and ecclesiastes 11:1–2

John Hobbins raised the 2011 NIV’s rendering of Eccl 11:1–2 (although it really just retains the TNIV’s translation and so isn’t a new feature of this translation). The 2011 NIV/TNIV render these verses as follows:

Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.
Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

The interpretation is promoted by a number of commentators, in particular Gordis, Delitzsch, and Longman. Of course, as others have noted, the translation is somewhat tendentious — offering far more interpretation of the text than is normal elsewhere in the NIV family of translations. A rendering which more closely reflects the Hebrew is this:

Cast your bread on the surface of the water,
for after many days you may find it.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you do not know what trouble may come upon the earth.

Traditionally the passage has been understood to refer to alms-giving or charity. It also appears to reflect a similar proverb in the Egyptian Instruction of Onkhsheshonqy, which reads:

Do a good deed and throw it in the water,
when it dries up you will find it.1

The 2011 NIV/TNIV understand the text to refer to maritime trade. לחם is understood to refer to merchandise or to grain, and the second verse supposedly advises spreading the risk of such trade.

While this may be a legitimate interpretation of the passage (more on this below), is it a legitimate translation or does it move too far down the spectrum by excluding possibilities inherent in the Hebrew? Read on for more…

Since scholarly opinion over the correct understanding of these verses is nowhere near consensus, it seems inappropriate for the 2011 NIV to provide an unnecessarily specific translation which disallows one prominent reading in favour of another uncertain reading. What’s worse — if the Bible Gateway text accurately reflects the final version — is that there isn’t even a footnote presenting the alternate reading.

Furthermore, there are some problems with the maritime trade interpretation. First, the Egyptian parallel cited above offers a precedent for the traditional understanding. Second, it is not clear that sending one’s bread on the surface of the waters will, in Qohelet’s words, result in any profit, merely that it will (or, perhaps better, “may”) be found after many days. Third, the resumptive pronominal suffix on the verb מצא ‘find’ suggests the recovery of what was originally sent. In trade the aim would not be to have the original goods returned but to make a profit.

For scholars who claim that לחם here refers to ‘merchandise’, their interpretation depends on an unattested meaning for the noun לחם. The only parallel cited, Prov 31:14, does not attribute the meaning ‘merchandise’ to לחם; rather, it likens the actions of the woman bringing food to the actions of a merchant ship. Although it might be argued that this meaning could be attributed to לחם metaphorically, there needs to be some means for the reader to infer the metaphorical meaning, and here there is no clear basis for such an inference.2

Homan’s more recent attempt to read in this passage a reference to beer production also faces significant problems. Homan appeals to Akkadian literature in which the verb nadû ‘to throw’ is used in technical language for brewing beer. However, Qohelet uses the Piel imperative of שלח, which does not mean ‘to throw’. Furthermore, the Akkadian texts cited by Homan list other ingredients besides bread, and the bread is a special type of bread used specifically in the production of beer (bappir—a sweet and possibly pungent bread made from barley dough, mixed with malt to make mash for beer). Fully baked bread (in which the yeast is killed in the cooking process and is therefore of no use for fermentation) is not used in beer-production. In light of this, לחם ‘bread’ here would need to have a special meaning. Finally, despite Homan’s insistence to the contrary, it is quite uncertain that there is any specific word for “beer” in BH (see David Jordan, An Offering of Wine [PhD Dissertation, University of Sydney, 2002], 115–128).

Consequently I favour the “traditional” understanding of the verse and think the reading of the 2011 NIV/TNIV which explicitly excludes this understanding is a poor choice.


Notes:

  1. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature.
  2. There may also have been clearer ways to refer to (maritime) trade (cf. מכר in Neh 3:16; Sir 42:2b; hiph. of עמר in Deut 21:14; 24:7; ערב in Ezek 27:9, 27; etc).

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