I wanted to write about how the phrase “life for life” was poorly translated, but no matter how I write it, I sound like one of those know-it-alls who knows more than all the Bible translators.
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Excavating the Bible Newsletter #008

Greetings Excavators:

Jeff A. Benner We have been interpreting the phrase “Life for life” wrong.

And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life. (Exodus 21:23, KJV)

I wanted to write about how the phrase “life for life” was poorly translated, but no matter how I write it, I sound like one of those know-it-alls who knows more than all the Bible translators. While I may frequently point out errors, problems and inconsistencies in translations, I have a lot of respect for Bible translators and their translations, many of which I use in my own research and studies.

My difficulty with attempting to point out the translation problem in Exodus 21:23 is that every translation I consulted, has the same translation, “life for life.” So, when I come along and say that is a poor translation, I appear to be claiming that I know more than all those other translators. With all of that said, I have no idea why all the translations have “life for life,” but let me bring to life (no pun intended) what is really going on in this passage.

If I wanted to say “life for life” in Hebrew, it would be, “hhayim l’hhayim.” Hhayim is the Hebrew word for “life” and the prefix “l” means “for.” But that is not what is found in this verse in the Hebrew Bible. In the Hebrew Bible we find the phrase “nephesh tahhat nephesh,” which literally translates as “soul under soul.” The word tahhat, which means “under” (such as we can see in Genesis 1:7 where it says, “under the firmament”), can also mean “instead” or “in place of” (such as we see in Genesis 4:25 where it says, “in place of Abel.”)

While “life” is an acceptable translation for the Hebrew word nephesh, I believe that a translator should be consistent in how he or she translates Hebrew words. If you are going to translate nephesh as “soul,” then always translate it as “soul.” Don’t translate it as “soul” in place and “life” in another.

Let’s also take a look at the verb that precedes this phrase, which is the Hebrew verb “natan,” which means “give,” just as we see in the KJV. But let’s look at the New International Version (NIV), which says, “take life for life.” The Hebrew verb for “take” is laqahh and has the complete opposite meaning of natan. While the KJV is technically correct with its use of the word “give,” I think the English Standard Version (ESV) has captured the intent of the verb, “pay life for life.” We’ll come back to this idea of “paying” later.

This passage is not, I repeat, not, saying that if someone takes a life, their life should also be taken. What it is saying, is that if you cause the loss of a life, you must replace that life. The same is true for an eye, tooth, hand and foot as stated in the next verse.

An eye in place of an eye, a tooth in place of a tooth, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot. (Exodus 21:24, RMT)

This command is stating that if you cause the loss of the use of the eye of a person, then you must replace that eye. Of course, this cannot mean implanting a new eye, but instead, you must take whatever measures are necessary to give that person what he needs in order to compensate him for the missing eye. This might mean giving him a servant to see for him or “paying” him to replace his lost wages.

But if a man will attack the eye of his servant, or the eye of his bondwoman, and he damages [it], he will send him to freedom in place of (tahhat) his eye, and if the tooth of his servant, or the tooth of his bondwoman, is made to fall out, he will send him to freedom in place of (tahhat) his tooth. (Exodus 21:26,27, RMT)


I invite you to join me on a journey as we walk through A Cultural and Linguistic Excavation of the Bible. We will dig deep into the history of the Bible, its people, their culture and their language, and uncover hidden truths that have been lost through centuries of mistranslations, misinterpretations and textual manipulation.

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