This starts out a little pedantic, but since part of the point of this blog is thinking about translation, I have to walk about it first.

Deut. 6.4 is one of the most important passages in the Hebrew Bible, the Shema, but it’s a pain to translate. The Hebrew is YHWH Eloheinu YHWH Ehad. YHWH is usually rendered as “the LORD,” eloheinu means “our god,” and ehad is the numeral one. So it’s literally something like “The LORD our god The LORD one.” The NRSV gives four possibilities of where to stick the implied “is” in the sentence:

  • The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.
  • The LORD our God is one LORD.
  • The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
  • The LORD is our God, the LORD is one.

And then in the reading I’m doing, the NCT throws in another options:

  • Warera no kami, shu wa yuiitsu no shu de aru. (Our God, the LORD, is the sole/unique LORD).

That might seem like some mindless shuffling of words, but each variation has a slight theological difference. The first NRSV says there may be other Gods, but YHWH is the only God for Israel. The second says that YHWH is a single deity, not a pantheon. The third and fourth sort of combine the first two, that YHWH is Israel’s deity and is a singular deity. The Japanese uses yuiitsu, which can mean that YHWH is the only God or that he is a singularly unique God – unlike any other.

Which of these is “right”? Languages don’t have a direct one-to-one correlation to each other, and translation is just a kind of interpretation. Maybe it’s “all of the above,” the four Hebrew words managing to capture the meaning of all the different phrases, in English and Japanese.

A more interesting passage for me was v 10-12, where the Promised land is accurately described as “a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.” That is how conquest works: you get to reap the benefits of whatever infrastructure is there that you don’t destroy. What’s suggested here is that the Israelites need to feel a constant sense of gratitude, to remember that this land is theirs not because they built everything from the ground up but because it was given to them. And that they must “take care [to] not forget the LORD, who brought [them] out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Yes, your life is good now, you’re powerful now, but you weren’t always, so don’t get complacent. Stay true to the covenant, don’t worship other gods, don’t betray God’s commandments.

That sense of complacency could be better avoided, I think, by not having people conquer a land and take things from other people. If you have to build things from scratch, you appreciate them more. I know that, as a child of the top 10% in America, that I’ve gotten a lot of things that I didn’t build, or fill, or hew, or plant for myself. It’s very easy to take them for granted until you’re reminded, from a friend or from a volunteer job, that most people don’t have the conveniences I do. I call it “rich girl guilt,” and it’s been plaguing me as my parents help me pay for a car and furniture.

I don’t know whether Deuteronomy will be as keen on the idea that the Law is mostly about justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in your midst as other parts of the Bible are, but I imagine that it might be. That command to be generous and just and to not sit smugly on achievements of other people is the remedy my parents have recommended to me for feeling guilt about wealth.

The Japanese: tsukusu “to do completely, to use to exhaustion” (v 5), hitai “forehead” (v 8), zaisan “fortune, property,” chosuichi “reservoir” (v 11), mukui “reward” (v 25).

The verb tsukusu is attached directly to the nouns heart, soul, and strength in the Japanese by an object particle. In other words, “use up all your heart, use up all your soul, use up all your strength, in loving the LORD your God.” Again, it’s not a huge difference from the English, but to me it has a stronger connotation of effort – using your heart, soul, and strength until they’re exhausted.