Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Squiggles of Fate

A few years ago, when I was still teaching English, I always wanted a good example of punctuation's importance in the grand scheme of life. After all, using a comma rather than a semicolon to join a two sentences into one, or adding an erroneous apostrophe to the possessive pronoun 'its' just didn't seem very important to students. I knew, though, that I could prove punctuation's grave implications with the right example, if I could ever find one. Eventually, I did.

To my delight, the example in question involved one of the most memorable of Bible verses:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.--Isaiah 9:6, Thompson Chain Reference NIV

These words bring with them some of the most beautiful truths of Christianity: the existence of the Trinity as three distinctive parts of one almighty entity, and the prediction of Savior and Christ born as a baby human being. They exalt God with both their meaning and their beauty.

I also have a Hebrew Tanach that I often read and I find the same passage there with essentially only three differences: changed tenses of two verbs and the location of three, and.....wait for it.....punctuation. These almost inconsequential changes transform this verse from prophetic to historic.

For a child has been born to us, a son has been given to us, and the dominion will rest on his shoulder; the Wondrous Adviser, Mighty God, Eternal Father, called his name Prince of Peace.--Isaiah 9:6, Stone Tanach

The punctuation change occurs after the word 'shoulder' where the translators replace a period with a semicolon, turning the phrase that follows into a corollary of the first rather than a continuation. The effect is that the four titles no longer belong to the same almighty being, but the Wondrous Advisor, Mighty God, and Eternal Father refer to God, and Prince of Peace refers to a man, in this case according to the commentary, Hezekiah, whom God will some day honor with dominion. Suddenly, the Messiah whom the NIV's Isaiah so clearly prophesied vanishes like smoke.

Neither translator erred regarding the original punctuation; Hebrew has none. Each, therefore, brought prejudice along with expertise to their table in this work. I will not argue which is right and which wrong, but at least allow that those little punctuation marks can carry momentous worldviews on their small shoulders.

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