Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Heavens and God: Contain Vs. Sustain

"But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!"
There was a small translation oddity that I noted while reading in 2 Chronicles in a passage where King Solomon is dedicating the temple in Jerusalem. At one point in the dedicatory prayer King Solomon asks if God will dwell on the earth, because if the heavens themselves are insufficient for God then how much more is a simple temple insufficient for God. This is where the translation gets interesting.

In 2 Chronicles 6:18 records, "The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you." [emphasis added]. Here the Hebrew word translated as "contain" is יְכַלְכְּל֔וּךָ. But if we look up how the word, its root, and derivatives are used in other verses we get a different sense for the word. The general meaning of the root word is "to comprehend, contain", while various roots are also translated as: endure, maintain, provide, provided, provided them with sustenance, provisioned, sustain, sustained, and sustainer.

The general idea is that the primitive root implies a measured container that can be filled with a certain amount of stuff. But in a figurative sense it implies providing a measured amount of sustenance, hence passages such as Genesis 45:11 are translated as "I will provide [וְכִלְכַּלְתִּ֤י] for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute." Or Nehemiah 9:21 which reads, "For forty years you sustained [כִּלְכַּלְתָּ֥ם] them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing, their clothes did not wear out nor did their feet become swollen."

While the root form of word is translated as "contain" or "hold", for example, 1 Kings 7:38 reads, "He then made ten bronze basins, each holding [יָכִ֣יל] forty baths and measuring four cubits across, one basin to go on each of the ten stands.", all other variants of the word are translated as "provide", "sustain", "maintain" or some other variant of a similar concept, except for three instances relating to the same question asked in 2 Chronicles 6:18. Two of those are from the dedicatory prayer as recorded in Chronicles and Kings, and the other is uttered by King David when he is commanded to prepare to build the temple, the language of which is later mirrored by his son King Solomon.

It just seemed a little odd that a word which is almost always translated in the figurative sense as "provide", "sustain", "maintain" or some other variant, would be reduced to the literal sense as "contain" in the three cases where it refers to God. I just wonder on what basis the translators decided to go against the common definition of the word for those three verses and insert "contain" instead of "sustain". If we instead translate יְכַלְכְּל֔וּךָ as "sustain" we see that it changes the sense of the verse in such a subtle way that it can imply something very different about God.
"But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot sustain you. How much less this temple I have built!"
In the first case the verse implies an extraphysicality to God which belies a particular view of God as incorporeal. While the second case simply implies that the heavens themselves are insufficient to sustain the majesty of God, and that an insignificant building would do no better. The first makes a metaphysical judgement on God, while the second merely casts judgement on the heavens and the temple. It is easy to see why so many modern Christians would not question the first translation, but the question to ask is if there is a basis for those ideas in the Bible, in the original autographs, or if those where ideas were introduced later and no one stopped to ask if they were correct, or if they fit with other, plainer scriptures.

Sometimes there are subtleties in translation that cause original meanings to be lost, and new ones to appear. Sometimes it is a small and seemingly insignificant thing, and that is why we must be careful not to take a particular word, or verse and draw conclusions from that which may not be correct.

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