ambiguity, inference, and judges 1:19

Christopher Heard recently posted a brief discussion of Judges 1:19. Here’s that verse from the NRSV:

The Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron.

The point under discussion is whether this verse is restricting God’s power in some way, suggesting he was stymied by chariots of iron. Chris writes:

Unsurprisingly, modern translators disambiguate the text, but I can only see religious reasons for doing so, namely, the assumption that God could have driven out the valley folk, or at least that the author of the book of Judges (or this section thereof) held that assumption.

Of course the same iron chariots in Judges 4 prove only to be a problem for the Israelites, not for God who does raise up Deborah who is ultimately victorious in spite of the iron chariots. So it would seem that these don’t present an insurmountable obstacle in the mind of the author.

But is it valid to reject the disambiguation of the text if it is founded on “religious” reasons? The issue is not so simple as it may first appear. Virtually all language has some degree of inherent ambiguity, and that ambiguity is often resolved through tacit information shared by the author and the audience. The scope and content of such tacit information can be enormously varied, and can quite reasonably include “religious” information (as much as it can include social, geographical, meteorological or other data external to the text).

Consequently, if the author and audience of Judges themselves disambiguated that text through an appeal to “religious” information external to the text, then I’d argue that it is perfectly appropriate for the modern translation to disambiguate the text in exactly that way, assuming (and that can be a very big assumption in some cases) that we have sufficient confidence that our understanding of the author’s/original audience’s allows us to accurately disambiguate the text appropriately.

Indeed, in such circumstances, preserving a purely literary ambiguity may ultimately mistranslate a text by presenting a moder reader with the perception of ambiguity when, in its original context, there was no such ambiguity!

2 responses to “ambiguity, inference, and judges 1:19”

  1. Gordon Cheng

    if the author and audience of Judges themselves disambiguated that text through an appeal to “religious” information external to the text

    Skipping lightly past the question of ‘intended audience’ [eek!], I find there is ambiguation in even my direct and clear words to the four other members of my immediate family; sometimes intended by me and frequently noticed by them.

    All of which is to ask whether or not disambiguation in translation is ever really called for?

  2. Martin Shields

    Gordo, the best you can do is go for the implied audience.

    But as for disambiguation, some ambiguity is invariably introduced by the cultural and linguistic distance between ourselves and the text. To preserve this ambiguity in translation when it can be reasonably disambiguated through extra-textual information is essentially to alter the meaning of the text.

    So, consider Judges 1:19. Is it legitimate to ensure modern translations specifically include the possibility that the text could be saying that Yhwh was not sufficiently powerful to overcome iron chariots?

    I’m not suggesting that all ambiguity be eliminated in translation — sometimes it is legitimate. But introducing ambiguity which didn’t exist in the mind of the (implied) author and the (implied) audience is to change the meaning of the text (assuming that the task of translation is to effect communication between the author and the reader).

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