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Etc. & So Forth

Ezra 7:11-26 (Verse 12)


12 “From: Artach’shashta, king of kings

“To: ‘Ezra the cohen, scribe of the law of the God of heaven, etc.: Herewith”


12 "Artaxerxes, king of kings, to the priest Ezra, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven: Peace. And now.”

Today’s reflection will be a bit peculiar. First of all, resonant phrases simply didn’t emerge for me from the readings today, and I realized I was starting to force things a bit. The one thing that did jump out at me was the question of why the CJB would say “etc.” when the NRSV says “Peace.” I was relatively baffled.

So, I deleted all the verses that I had reluctantly decided to use, and decided to do some research on the odd discrepancy in the translations. Here are a few more translations, just for comparison’s sake:

Ezra 7:12 Young's Literal Translation (YLT)

12 “Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, a perfect scribe of the law of the God of heaven, and at such a time:”

Ezra 7:12 New International Version (NIV)

12 “Artaxerxes, king of kings,

To Ezra the priest, teacher of the Law of the God of heaven: Greetings.”

Ezra 7:12 World English Bible (WEB)

12 “Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect and so forth.”

As I was thinking about this odd set of words that nobody seemed to be able to translate adequately, I was reminded of how impressed I was, years ago, by the introduction to the Revised Standard Bible, which has this to say about language and meaning:

“The greatest problem, however, is presented by the English words which are still in constant use but now convey a different meaning from that which they had in 1611 and in the King James Version. These words were once accurate translations of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures; but now, having changed in meaning, they have become misleading. They no longer say what the King James translators meant them to say. Thus, the King James Version uses the word “let” in the sense of “hinder,” “prevent” to mean “precede,” “allow” in the sense of “approve,” “communicate” for “share,” “conversation” for “conduct,” “comprehend” for “overcome,” “ghost” for “spirit,” “wealth” for “well-being,” “allege” for “prove,” “demand” for “ask,” “take no thought” for “be not anxious,” etc.” (underlining mine)

Word, words, words. We call Jesus “The Word,” but we also call the Bible “The Word (of God)”. So what about when words don’t mean what we think they mean?

(Oops, a sudden flashback to the movie “The Princess Bride” —in Inigo’s voice— “I don’t think that word means what you think it means….”)

In faint defense of the NRSV, there is a footnote after the word “peace,” but it is fairly unintelligible, and doesn’t at all make it clear that the word “peace” doesn’t appear in the text at all, or that the word translated is in Aramaic while all the surrounding words are in Hebrew, or that the word only appears in one other place – the apocryphal Book of Esdras.

This is from Barnes' Notes on the Bible: “Perfect peace - "Peace" is not in the original, and the word translated "perfect" occurs only in this place. Some prefer to take it as an adjective descriptive of Ezra (see margin); others (Septuagint) as the opening word of the first paragraph of the letter, and give it the meaning, "it is completed."”

After digging through the commentaries it became abundantly clear to me that nobody really had a clue as to what the text meant, or why the word was there. Everybody was making assumptions.

Here is the most common assumption: Perfect peace, and at such a time.—Literally, ‘perfect, and so forth’. The expression occurs only here, and is a difficult one. Our translation follows the apocryphal Esdras, and is on the whole to be accepted, a salutation being implied.” (from Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers)

Here’s Gill’s take on it: perfect peace, and at such a time; the word "perfect" belongs to Ezra's title as a scribe, signifying that he was a most learned and complete scribe or teacher of the law of God; "peace" is not in the text, and the phrase "at such a time" respects the date of the letter, though not expressed, or is only an "et cetera"; (see Gill on Ezra 4:10.)

And here is a nicely pompous one, from Benson: Unto Ezra the priest, a scribe of the law of the God of heaven — Or, as the Hebrew may be rendered, a perfect scribe of the law, &c., a title which, it seems, Ezra delighted in, and desired no other; no, not when he was advanced to the proconsular dignity, and made the governor of a province. He reckoned it more to his honour to be a scribe of God’s law than to be a peer or prince of the empire.”

It may seem that I don’t really have a point to make; that I am just rambling on— from words that have changed in meaning over the centuries, to words that just don’t make sense, to words about words that should make sense but don’t.

There is a point though, and it’s this: Words are all we’ve got. Words are incredibly important. Words are too important to be making erroneous assumptions about. This is why I gravitate toward the more literal translations. I think that assumptions are dangerous, and I also think that it is nearly impossible to read the Bible without being influenced by conventional and dogmatic attitudes.

I’m also fairly certain that we have to try. We have to start with the plain sense of the words on the page, and if we’re not sure what the words mean, then we need to look them up. We’ve heard phrases quoted from the Bible so often that they are imbedded deep in our subconscious, and we never even think about what the plain meaning of them might be. English is full of such phrases—“by the skin of your teeth;” “bite the dust;” “a drop in a bucket;” “a fly in the ointment;” and “the writing is on the wall.”

So, if the Bible is at all important to you, then read it with the utmost attention, with an enquiring mind, and a will to understand.

If something in a Bible passage makes you say, “Wait, what??” then don’t just let it slide, ask questions! Find out! Maybe it will turn out to be nothing much, but I’m certain that you will be surprised over and over again, and your understanding will be deepened, and your assumptions will be dragged kicking and screaming into the light, where you can see them for what they are.

So, carry on, have fun, figure stuff out— ‘et cetera and so forth’!

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