Dragons, Jackals, and Bible Translators

Dragons, Jackals, and Bible Translators October 25, 2021

I have posted a few times on issues of translating the Bible, and how they affect its interpretation through the centuries. My subject today is on the bizarre side. Does it affect key issues of faith, scripture, and orthodoxy? Not in the slightest. But it does point to some important themes in understanding translation, even some of the most venerable and respected versions of the Bible.

There is a Hebrew word that we transliterate as tan, with the feminine form tannah, and it refers to jackals. It occurs, for instance, in Malachi 1.3 where God declares that, according to the NIV, “Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” That is straightforward, and it makes excellent sense in the context. But here is the problem. From the same root, there is also another word tannin, which usually means a regular snake or serpent, but can also signify a monster, sea serpent, or sea monster. The word is used in this sense on multiple occasions, to refer to the mighty monsters of the deep seas, probably implying whales. But it also looks as if it might conceivably be a plural for tan, jackal. On several occasions through the Hebrew Bible, the words are confused, even by translators who should have known better, and that confusion has left a long shadow in English readings. On multiple occasions, the context and the sense of a passage demands the word jackal, as in a wild creature that inhabits waste places and deserted cities. Yet repeatedly, translators read this as referring to a serpent or, commonly, a dragon, who has no business in those deserts and wastelands. I discussed this recently in terms of a couple of passages in Isaiah, where it is quite obvious that the author is talking about jackals, yet translations regularly read this as dragons or sea monsters.

Just to give a couple of examples. In Psalm 91.13, “you” are given the power to tramples the lion and the tannin, and that juxtaposition suggests a fierce, furry, carnivore. Yet from earliest times, and the Greek translations of the Septuagint, the word becomes dragon, and that is then taken over into Latin. That usage continued into Luther’s German, and into the English. The KJV reads the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

In Jeremiah 49.33, the NIV accurately translates

“Hazor will become a haunt of jackals,
a desolate place forever.
No one will live there;
no people will dwell in it.”

That is plain and uncontroversial. But the older traditions, duly followed by the King James, proclaim that

And Hazor shall be a dwelling for dragons, and a desolation for ever:

there shall no man abide there, nor any son of man dwell in it.

I have already quoted Malachi 1.3, in which God declares that he has abandoned Esau’s inheritance to the desert jackals (NIV). The KJV reads “I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.” Probably, a phrase like “a haunt for jackals” had become proverbial for a ruin, but that is altogether lost in later renderings. Um, what dragons of the wilderness are we referring to?

Sometimes, the zoological confusion becomes outrageous. In Lamentations 4.3, in the NIV, we read that

Even jackals offer their breasts
to nurse their young,
but my people have become heartless
like ostriches in the desert.

That makes great sense: the people of Israel are condemned as lacking even the basic natural instinct of those nasty jackals. In the KJV, we encounter the mind-boggling vision of the lactating sea dragon:

Even the sea monsters draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones.

There are several other examples of such confusion – in Psalms, Job, Isaiah, and Jeremiah – but these are representative.

It would be easy to say here that Early Modern English speakers had little idea of the natural world of the ancient Near East, and had never met a jackal. But in every instance that we are describing here, the confusion dates back to the Septuagint translators, who were Jews working in Egypt between around 270 and 120 BCE, and who definitely shared the same natural world as the original Biblical authors, including jackals. So familiar were jackals in the Egyptian setting that the god Anubis was very widely represented with the head of that animal. Yet in the Septuagint passages in Psalm 91 and Lamentations, the jackals have already become dragons. In the Jeremiah passage, they are strouthon, meaning – what? Ostriches? Or possibly sparrows? In Malachi, the specific creatures have been lost altogether, in favor of a generalized description of ruin and annihilation.

For whatever reason, the fairly obvious and widespread jackals have been systematically ejected or censored. I am going out on a very fragile and distant limb here, but might the Egyptian-based translators not have wanted their scriptural text to refer to an animal so closely associated with the pagan gods of that country?

Something there is that doesn’t love a jackal.

Those prejudices are reflected in the fourth century Latin Vulgate of Jerome, which became the Biblical text for the overwhelming majority of Latin Christians for well over a millennium. Jerome knew his Hebrew very well indeed, and also know the traditional natural world of the Near East. But each of what should have been the “jackal” settings, Jerome inserted dragons wherever he could:

Psalm 91.13 (Ps. 90 in the Vulgate ordering) – leonem et draconem

Jeremiah 49.33 –  habitaculum draconum

Malachi 1.3   –  et haereditatem ejus in dracones deserti

In his despair, Job laments how he wanders through the darkness alone, like a sneaking nocturnal creature. In the NIV, Job 30.29 appropriately and sensibly renders the Hebrew taNiym, “I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls.” But the Latin Vulgate “dragonizes” the original, to Frater fui draconum, et socius struthionum. The KJV follows this as “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.” The same mess occurs at Micah 1.8, where the sensible pairing of jackals and owls has given way to the odd “I will make a wailing like the dragons.” (Luther had “ich muß klagen wie die Drachen”).

Jerome ventured even further into zoological oddity at Lamentations 4.3, where the motherly creature that lovingly bares its breast for its young is a lamia, which properly means a night-hag or vampire: Sed et lamiae nudaverunt mammam, lactaverunt catulos suos.

The history of such (mis-)translations is instructive, and sobering. One surprising point is just how early some of these errors or odd tangents occurred. As I have noted, the Septuagint was composed by Jews at a time when the Second Temple still flourished, and when there should have been plenty of Palestine-based scholars available to discuss and debate the original meanings of words. Yet the translators plowed ahead with their particular interpretations, no matter how little logical sense they sometimes made. There is a sizable literature on the quirks and tendencies of those Septuagint translators, which were sometime quite marked, and resulted in some fairly loaded and intrusive renderings of the text. And that is in the ancient world, never mind what other flaws and byways were open to more modern scholars, who were much further removed from that Jewish matrix.

We should also recall that that Septuagint, with all its weirdnesses and its dragons, was what constituted “the Bible” for the earliest Christians, like St. Paul, and for the Patristic centuries.

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