Over at Castle of Nutshells, a new blog to me, Damian Caruana takes note of a translation of Zephaniah 1:12, that of NET, which goes like this:
I will punish the people who are entrenched in their sin, those who think to themselves, ‘The LORD neither rewards nor punishes.
Damian compares NASB, TNIV, and NLT, each of which goes its own way. In this post, I widen the comparison, and show how translations almost without exception replace a concrete expression with a contour-free abstraction in this verse (‘punish’ instead of ‘pay a visit’), and figurative with nonfigurative language (the case of the men congealed over the dregs of their wine). Neither of these replacement strategies is defensible, unless the goal of translation is to spare the modern reader too close of an encounter with the poetry and power of the original.
First of all, a question of interpretation. Damian follows the lead of Roger Mugs in denying the existence of a reliable cause-and-effect nexus between disregard of the requirements of God’s law and the arrival of a judgment day when everything previously taken for granted goes poof.
That’s fine, but it is the certainty of such a nexus in a specific instance which is the subject-matter of Zephaniah’s prophecy. A nexus such that reckless behavior leads to disastrous consequences is not uniformly operative in human experience, but it was operative, according to the prophet, in the case of Judah and Jerusalem of his time.
The reckless behavior of the Judeans consisted in turning to every available means of spiritual satisfaction outside of the permissible as devotees of יהוה. Baal, the host of heaven, Milcom [emended], all were good, alongside יהוה. The Judeans’ commitment to a “global” religion went hand in hand with the benefits they enjoyed from involvement in a “global” economy (including imported fashion). Little did they realize that a “global” catastrophe was about to hit the fan.
In a nutshell, that is the sense of Zeph 1:2-11. What does 1:12-13 have to add to this?
Damian, Roger, T. C. Robinson, Nathan Stitt, ElShaddai Edwards, Jeff, Brian Fulthorp, Robert Jimenez and many other bloggers love to ponder what Scripture means by comparing one English translation with another. That’s fine, though I obviously wish a comparison would be made with what the source text says. In the case of Zephaniah 1:12, as often, the effort to do so is worth the sweat.
What does the Hebrew of Zephaniah 1:12-13 say? It is hard to tell from available English translations. Faced with a figure of speech the connotations and denotations of which are disputed, translators tend to paraphrase the source text in one direction or another. In the following, I provide the Hebrew of the passage, try to capture the figures in translation, and defend my interpretation against interpretations instantiated in previous translations.
וְהָיָה בָּעֵת הַהִיא
אֲחַפֵּשׂ אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִַם בַּנֵּרוֹת
At that time,
I will inspect Jerusalem with lamps,
and pay a visit to the men
who are congealed over the muck at the bottom of their wine,1
who think to themselves:
יהוה will not make things better,
and will not make things worse.
1 Lit., who are solidified over their dregs.
וְהָיָה חֵילָם לִמְשִׁסָּה
וְלֹא יִשְׁתּוּ אֶת־יֵינָם
Their wealth will become spoil,
their houses, a devastation.
They will build houses,
but not occupy them.
They will plant vineyards,
but not drink their wine.
The imagery of the source text is captivating. יהוה is described as the one who will carry out a night-time inspection (אחפש בנרות) and pay a visit (ופקדתי) to those who inhabit the city. The inhabitants are portrayed as wine-bibbers, stolid and immobile, congealed (קפאים) like curdled cheese over the dregs (שמרים) which are found at the bottom of a cup after the wine itself has been drained.
A night-time inspection by יהוה is threatening by definition. A Passover with no pass-over is imagined. The irony is thick, because those inspected are a population that has convinced itself that יהוה will do nothing for them, either good or bad (so also Isa 5:12, 19).
They are wrong by half. The only experience of God they will be given is a horrifying one. They will accumulate wealth, build houses, and plant vineyards. But the time will come when everything will be taken away from them. Now they are surrounded with wealth. Now they occupy their homes, and drink the wine of their vineyards glued to their couches even as disaster looms on the horizon. It will overtake them. “The great day of יהוה is approaching, approaching very swiftly” (1:14).
Most translations get the passage wrong on more than one count. פקד is given a colorless translation, ‘punish’ (NRSV, REB, NAB, NJB, NET, NASB, NLT, TNIV, etc.) The translation foregrounds the ‘why’ of the idiom, at the cost of leaving out the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’ But the ‘how’ is the necessary sequel to the nocturnal inspection that precedes it. A straight up translation, ‘pay a visit,’ in line with the verb’s main concrete sense, fits the context.
The figure of speech which follows has been variously interpreted. One approach takes שמרים ‘dregs’ as the suspended solids in grape-pressings that sink to the bottom in the fermentation process. As such the term is often understood as a figure for ‘sins.’ The verb קפא ‘harden, congeal’ is understood as a figure for complacency (NRSV, REB, TNIV, NLT) or ‘entrenched’ (NET). Alternatively, the phrase as a whole is assigned a sense with a loose connection to its parts, e.g., ‘stagnant in spirit’ (NASB), or ‘self-satisfied’ (TEV).
However, a survey of the use of קפא and שמר in Hebrew and cognates in Aramaic does not disclose a single example of a figurative use of the required kind of the respective terms. There are no examples of קפא with the connotation of complacency, stagnation, etc., or of שמרים as a figure for something beyond itself. To be sure, שמרים is part of a complex metaphor in Jer 48:11. As a component of that metaphorical complex, not on its own, it contributes to a larger figure which evokes a placid, aged wine in all its glory – about to be meet an inglorious end:
שַׁאֲנַן מוֹאָב מִנְּעוּרָיו
וְשֹׁקֵט הוּא אֶל־שְׁמָרָיו
וְלֹא הוּרַק מִכְּלִי אֶל־כֶּלִי
וּבַגּוֹלָה לֹא הָלָךְ
עַל־כֵּן עָמַד טַעְמוֹ בּוֹ
וְרֵיחוֹ לֹא נָמָר
Moab has been at ease since his youth;
he is settled on his lees.
He was not decanted from vessel to vessel,
he has not traveled out-of-state.
Therefore his flavor is intact,
his bouquet unchanged.
In essence, TEV, (T)NIV, NLT, etc., for lack of a known alternative, assimilate Zephaniah 1:12 to Jer 48:11 and other passages like Amos 6:1 (see below). It is more defensible, however, to understand שמרים ‘dregs’ concretely as the brackish bottom found in wine at the bottom of a container of it. This sense of שמרים is attested in Ps 75:9:
כִּי כוֹס בְּיַד־יְהוָה
וְיַיִן חָמַר מָלֵא מֶסֶךְ
יִשְׁתּוּ כֹּל רִשְׁעֵי־אָרֶץ
For a cup is in the hand of יהוה,
with frothy wine, fully mixed.
He has poured from it,
the very dregs they will drain,
all the land’s wicked will drink up.
This sense of שמרים ‘dregs’ also works well in our passage. After I came to this conclusion, I discovered that NJB likewise renders accordingly: ‘the men stagnating over the remains of their wines’ - ‘stagnating,’ however, is not a defensible translation of קפא ‘become solid, congeal.’
Another upside to NJB’s translation and my own is that the addition of an explicit reference to wine in 1:12 nicely brings out the connection with 1:13 where the future loss of wine is highlighted. Incorporation of explication beyond the wording of the source text needs to serve precisely this kind of purpose. Still, I think explication should be used as sparingly as possible. The use of explication in translation often involves taking a resonant, full-bodied text and reducing it to something that connects with larger semantic wholes with far less facility.
The image of the men of Jerusalem congealing over the dregs of their wine is one of many images used by the prophets to characterize the Great Gatsby like behavior to which people are inclined when happy times roll. Elsewhere we have:
Ah the leisured ones in Zion,
the confident on Mt. Samaria . . .
who lie on ivory beds,
extended on their couches . . .
who drink from wine bowls
and anoint themselves with first-rate oil.
Ah those who rise early in the morning:
it’s liquor they chase.
They linger in the evening;
wine inflames them.
Then come the lyre, the lute,
the timbrel and the flute,
and their banquet wine. (Isa 5:11-12)
bloated with rich food,
hammered by wine. (Isa 28:1)
for all tables
are covered with vomit and filth,
with no space left. (Isa 28:8)
According to Zephaniah, in the dark of night God will discover the men of Jerusalem collapsed over the murky remnants of their beloved wine. The “discovery” paints the addressees in an unbecoming light. Isaiah and Amos used references to drunkenness to the same end.
They became an insensate people, and judgment day would catch them unawares. The people’s Great Gatsby like behavior is however only one dimension of a larger pattern the prophet depicts on account of which the population is ripe for judgment. The more salient aspects of their judgment-deserving behavior are foregrounded in Zeph 1:4-6; 8-9.
In short, while Zephaniah 1:12 is compatible with the point Roger and Damian make, that there is no inexorable logic leading from crime to punishment in human existence (but see Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for a masterful exposé of that logic at work), Zeph 1:12 is part of a larger composition which predicts that the wheels of history were turning such that punishment fitting crimes to which God’s prophet point was on its way. History then conformed itself to the prophet’s predictions. No wonder the oracles have come down to us.