This post is the second of three focussing on English translations of Genesis 22:1-19 (the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac). If you like, you can read the first post here. In this one, I discuss the impact of different translations of the Hebrew word נָא (pronounced nah) as it occurs in the Akedah in three English versions of the Bible.
Langenscheidt’s Pocket Hebrew Dictionary defines נָא as “a particle of entreating and inciting: pray! now! oh!” A particle, in grammar, I was reminded, “…does not have semantic meaning on its own, but instead relies on the word it is paired with to have meaning.” (Complete English Grammar Rules, Farlex International, 2017.) For example, in the sentence “This table takes up a lot of room,” the word “up” is a particle.
In the Akedah text, נָא occurs in verse 2. Let’s look at how three translators deal with it. I will use the same three translations here that I used in my earlier post on the Akedah: the King James Version, the Anchor Yale Bible, and The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary by Robert Alter.
For those who know Biblical Hebrew, here’s the relevant text (right to left):
The word I’m interested in, נָא, is in the middle of the sentence.
The KJV translation reads: And he said, Take now thy son,…
The Anchor Yale Bible (AYB) translation reads: And he said, “Take your son,…
The Five Books of Moses (trans. by Robert Alter) reads: And He said, “Take, pray, your son,…
“Now,” nothing, or “pray.” Compare these translations with what an ancient Biblical commentary, Midrash Tanchuma, says about Genesis 22.2.
And He said: “Take, please, thy son” (ibid., v. 2). The word na (“please” Sometimes also translated “now”) is always used to indicate a request. For example, there was once a king who was constantly engaged in wars, and he had in his army a powerful warrior who was victorious in every engagement. At one time a crucial battle developed, and he said to his mighty warrior: “Stand beside me now (na), lest my officers say that the earlier battles were minor engagements.” Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham: I have tried you nine times, and you underwent those trials successfully; now endure this final trial so that men may not say the earlier trials were of little consequence.Midrash Tanchuma, Genesis 22:2. Sefaria.org.
In the translation of the Tanchuma above, נָא is translated “please.” The critical point, however, is that נָא always signifies a request. For me, it’s easier to understand Alter’s translation, “pray,” as a request than that of the KJV’s “now.” For in the KJV, it’s possible to think of “now” functioning as an adverb. In this case, the meaning would be something like “get a move on, don’t dilly-dally.” For the AYB, it’s a moot point; the relevant word is not translated. In the AYB version, God’s words must be interpreted as a command.
So, what difference does it make; what do we gain by understanding God’s words to Avraham as a request rather than a command? In her book, Learning to Read Midrash (Urim Publications, 2004), Simi Peters says concerning this particular midrash,
The word na, so delicately inserted into God’s commandment to Avraham, is barely noticeable to most readers who are so familiar with this text. For the midrashic commentators, though, this word alludes to a relationship between God and Avraham that we might not otherwise have dared to envision…it also challenges the reader to conceive of an almost unimaginable level of obligation and self-sacrifice demonstrated by Avraham in his relationship with God.Simi Peters, Learning to Read Midrash, pp. 35-36.
That little word נָא, so delicately inserted in the story, makes a huge difference in how we understand what God said to Avraham.
All the best,