Guest post by Professor Shlomo Karni
Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).
In her delightful book “Eats Shoots & Leaves”, Lynn Truss drives home the point with the following story: A panda walks into a restaurant, orders a sandwich, eats it, then, on his way out, draws a gun and fires two shots. The alarmed waiter asks “Why?” In reply, the panda pulls out a badly punctuated wildlife manual and shows him the entry for ‘panda’: “Large black-and-white mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
“So,” writes Truss, “punctuation really does matter, even if it is only occasionally a matter of life and death.”
Punctuation in the Bible really does matter. Between the 8th and 10th centuries CE, our sages in Tiberias, the so-called “Massoretes” (from the Hebrew “Massorah”, transmittal from generation to generation), formalized the system of vowelling for the correct pronunciation of the words, and the system of musical notes (trope) for the words. With its various vocal inflections, pauses and stops, the trope gives the vowelled sentence its structure and meaning, much like commas and periods.
As just one example of the usefulness of the trope, consider the story of Sodom and Gemorrah. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, is urged to leave the place before its destruction, but “he delayed.” (Gen. 19:16). The Hebrew word for “delayed” is a very long verb (7 letters), giving immediately a sense of the delay. The trope here is the longest (some 24 separate notes!), further emphasizing the idea of delay.
However, a language is a dynamic, living entity. In its everyday use, certain errors may — and do — crop up. This is true with Biblical Hebrew in several instances.
One such remarkable error is found in the famous chapter 40 of Isaiah, “Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people.” Verse 3 reads , “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, ‘prepare ye the way of the Lord’. “ (King James’ version, et al.)
From this source, we have the idiomatic expression: “A voice in the wilderness”, meaning “someone’s words not being heeded.” For example, “Churchill’s early warning of the danger of Nazism was a voice in the wilderness.” Similarly, the motto of Dartmouth College on its seal proclaims nobly, “Vox Clamatis in Deserto.” Ernst Bloch wrote a musical composition named “Voices in the Wilderness”; likewise, Handel’s “Messiah” uses that verse from Isaiah in the same sense.
The trouble with this expression is that… it is wrong. The trope renders this verse as, “A voice calls out: ‘In the desert clear a road for the Lord! In the wilderness level a highway for our God!’”
The symmetry of the two halves — “In the desert clear a road”, and “In the wilderness level a highway” – is a very common structure of Biblical poetry. The trope reflects this, properly stressing the structure.
Yet, despite the symmetry of the sentence and despite the trope, “A voice in the wilderness” remains an established idiom. And, as if this were not enough, the same idiom and mistake exist in Hebrew (whence King James’ version got it) to this very day.
Let us hope that this note does not remain…a voice in the wilderness.