Sometimes letters are sent to AFR addressed to no specific person. In such cases various authors, podcasters or bloggers are called upon to respond to the letter. The lot fell to me for this one. Of course, in selecting a person to respond to a question, you don’t necessarily get the best or even most correct answer to the question. You get that person’s answer—given his or her current understanding, knowledge, ability to communicate and level of sleep deprivation. I share the question and my response with you-all in the hope that some of you might find it interesting and even a little helpful—even if you have never wondered about the Hebrew rendering of Hosea 14:2.
I’ve been reading your blogs (Ancient Faith), and they’re really interesting. I liked the posts about the Septuagint and the MT, and the posts of the same author about ‘almah and parthénos. Even though I don’t agree with everything, the thing I liked is that he really addressed the issues, not like most missionaries. (I usually get into contact with many Evangelicals.) And beside his scholarship, the fact he understands Hebrew is a big turn on.
I think then you’re the right people to answer my question. As far as I know, one of the most fundamental beliefs in Christianity is that “without the shedding of blood there is no atonement” (Hebrews 9:22 I guess). Without this, Jesus would have dead in vain. That’s clear, right?So, how do we understand the passage in Hosea 14, specifically 14:2, which says in it’s conclusion “קחו עמכם דברים… ונשלמה פרים שפתינו”, “take with you words… And we shall pay the bulls (with) our lips” (my own Hebrew literal translation)? All of the Christian Bibles I know mistranslate it, some as “the fruits (פירות/פרות) of our lips” or “the vows (?!) of our lips”, or even “the bullocks of our lips (פרי שפתינו- ?!)”. For me, it seems like a nefarious deliberate mistranslation, in order to cover the huge theological problem here. For it says – both this passage alone and it’s context – that there actually is atonement to sins without any blood sacrifice (it’s talking about the post-sacrificial system). If that’s right, Jesus’ sacrifice was pointless.
I’m awaiting your reply.
Your question was forwarded to me from Ancient Faith Radio. I am Fr. Michael Gillis, an Orthodox priest, biblical tinkerer, and bonafide curmudgeon. Although my Hebrew is rusty, I’ve been asked to respond to your question and I will do so as best as I can briefly.
It seems to me there are two basic questions. First, how did “bulls of/with our lips” come to be translated “fruit of our lips.” The second question is how can/should we understand the role of blood in atonement as it relates to Jesus’ death on the cross.
The first question is somewhat easier. The Hosea 14:2 verse is translated “fruit” instead of “bull” because the Septuagint and Syriac (Peshitta) translations of Hosea 14:2 use ‘fruit of our lips.” Now we have no direct way of knowing why both of these ancient translations used “fruit” instead of “bulls,” but we can speculate. It is common in translations (ancient and modern) to provide a dynamic equivalent translation rather than a literal one. This is particularly the case if the word in the original language had a semantic range of meaning that the literally translated word in the target language does not have. Now the Hebrew word phrim (forgive me for not having Hebrew fonts readily available to me right now), certainly means “young bull” but it could also have the broader semantic meaning of a significantly large sacrifice or offering in general. And given that the verse begins with “take with you words and return to the Lord,” it makes sense that the word “bulls” at the end of the verse is being used poetically or metaphorically to refer to offering significantly sacrificial words to God, in this case words of repentance. This seems especially to be the case because earlier in 12:11, Hosea speaks of the vanity of actually bull sacrifices.
This may or may not be the reason that both ancient translators chose to translate “bulls of/with our lips” as “fruit of our lips.” Another reason may be that the ancient Hebrew that the two translators had before them actually said “fruit” and not “bulls” and that “bulls” came in as a later variant in the Hebrew.
I personally prefer the first possibility.
The second question is trickier and requires some theological work. Let’s start with this idea of what might make Jesus’ sacrifice pointless. The only place in the Epistles (that I could find) that suggests that Christ’s death might be in vain is Galatians 2:21 “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” There is no mention of blood in the context, yet crucifixion is mentioned: being crucified with Christ, which is clearly a metaphorical use of the word. No blood.
The problem, however, is not the text, it’s the theology. From an Orthodox Christian perspective, how Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection saves us is a profound mystery. We don’t know exactly how it saves us. Nevertheless there are many metaphors, images, parables, ironic statements and the like that point us in the right direction, that help us to experience salvation through Christ, even if we do not understand the mechanism of exactly how it works from God’s perspective. Some of these metaphors, for example, include Jesus as bridegroom (marriage), Jesus as brother/ God as father (adoption), Jesus as sacrifice (blood atonement), Jesus as example (c.f. 1 Peter 2:21), God as farmer (grafting us into the cultivated olive tree), Jesus as new Adam, etc. However, many Christians, especially those in the western scholastic and reformed traditions (this would include most Evangelicals), are very uncomfortable with mystery. In these Christian traditions there is a tendency to take a particular metaphor and to turn it into a mechanism, as though it alone explained from God’s perspective the mechanism of how Jesus saves us. Then all other images, verses or statements are interpreted through this lens.
Now I don’t want to imply that Orthodox Christians don’t also, sometimes, fall into this habit of reducing metaphor to mechanism. Rather, it’s important to recognize that this is a human tendency: to look for a easy mechanical answer to mysteries that are beyond human rational comprehension. We are talking about God, after all.
In the Orthodox tradition, however, we have many different voices, we call them Fathers (and Mothers) who speak of the same mystery, the same faith, but use different language and metaphors. Orthodoxy is a Christian tradition that generally embraces mystery. And while there have been some mystics in the western Christian tradition, a mystical approach to faith has not been largely embraced in the west.
So you can see how a blood-sacrifice-as-mechanism theology may have developed for some western Christians, especially with the Reformed, Bible Only folks. For them, the Bible is read as though a verse from Deuteronomy has the same force as a verse from the Gospels. When this is done, the New Testament tends to be interpreted in terms of the Old. Thus, since blood sacrifice seems so important in the Old Testament (if you ignore the prophets who say God doesn’t want blood sacrifice), the New Testament is interpreted in terms of blood sacrifice. And from this perspective, it would indeed seem that Christ’s death on the cross would be in vain except for the value of the blood sacrifice.
However, if you look at Christ as the ultimate revelation of what God is like and how God wants us to relate to Him and to one another, then you tend to interpret the Old Testament in terms of the New. In this way of thinking, it is not merely the death of Jesus that saves us, but the fact of the incarnation, the life (example, miracles, teaching), the voluntary death (including the shedding of blood), the resurrection, ascension, and (eventual) second coming. All of this is essential in our salvation, although each aspect of this may evoke different images and metaphors—including the image of blood sacrifice. St. Paul in his writing used many different images and metaphors to speak of the saving power of Christ’s life and work. In the book of Hebrews, written to Jewish Christians in Rome who were being tempted to return to Judaism, St. Paul (or whoever the real author was) uses Torah imagery to speak to these Jewish Christians to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah and that returning to Judaism would not help them since God through Jesus “abolishes the first in order to establish the second” (Heb. 10:9). However, unlike some Christians, Orthodox Christians do not latch onto this one image and use it as a “key” by which all other biblical verses are unlocked or as a lens through which all other images and metaphors are interpreted.
So, to sum up this very brief response to your excellent questions: Most English translations of Hosea 14: 2 uses “fruit of our lips” because two ancient translations of the Hebrew translated it that way. And Jesus’ death would be in vain only if one could become righteous through the works of the Old Testament Law/Torah (Gal. 2:21). And blood atonement is one important metaphor (but by no means the only important metaphor) that helps us encounter or experience the significance of one aspect (the death) of Jesus’ whole saving dispensation (including incarnation, life, death, resurrection and second coming).
I hope this has been a little helpful. Really a lifetime of study would not be sufficient to fully answer your excellent questions.
Fr. Michael Gillis