Translating what isn't there. What did Jabez ask for and why?
Was Jabez asking for something just for himself? Jabez asked for four things to begin his vow: 1) blessing, 2) a great border, 3) God’s hand to be with him, and 4) something else that is less clear. Most translations (every one I've seen including the current NET) render the last component as “keep me from harm/evil/trouble.” Someone left us a comment remarking that the Hebrew verb ‘asah (עָשָׂה; “to do, make, act, perform”) never has this proposed meaning in the rest of its over 2,600 occurrences in the Bible. This is quite true.
A translation needs to deal with what isn't there when the words that are there are abbreviated (see previous post), when the words that are there were miscopied, and when non-verbal components are part of the communication.
When the words were miscopied, we try to use what is there as evidence for what once was there. One of the rules of thumb in textual criticism (the science of determining what the original text was) is that “the more difficult reading is to be preferred.” The guideline reminds us that a scribe may have tried to smooth out a difficult text and cautions us that what may be difficult in our eyes may not have been so difficult for the original author and audience. On the other hand, gibberish will always constitute the more difficult reading, and gibberish is not to be preferred. Somewhere in the middle–when there are words on the page that we can use to make up a sentence in English. Maybe this post should be titled: “translating when what’s there doesn’t make much sense.”
Have we (any translation) translated what is there in Jabez’ prayer? Sort of. The translation has assigned a value to each of the words there. The verb is taken very broadly as performing an action and the preposition min (מִן) is taken as privative, thus “act to prevent harm.” But it’s not so simple.
The issue isn’t what the verb עָשָׂה (‘asah) can mean plus what the preposition min (מִן) can mean. The question is: what does the combination of this verb and this preposition mean? Based on other occurrences the answer is: the preposition min (מִן) can indicate the source or type of action of this verb, hence “do some harm” (cp. Lev 4:22; 18:30). So the Hebrew text says, “and do some harm so that I might not be hurt.” That is certainly a difficult reading, but little related or perhaps even contrary to the context, so not necessarily to be preferred.
Attempting to solve the dilemma, we could suppose something that isn’t there.
1) We could suppose Jabez is asking for God to harm enemies so that he will not be hurt.
2) The editors of BHS, the standard printed Hebrew Bible, suggest inserting “my salvation” (יְשׁוּעָתִי; yeshuati) based on a parallel to Isa 26:18 (“perform salvation/deliverance”). If it was there originally it may have been omitted by haplography, as “do” and “my salvation” (עָשִׂיתָ and יְשׁוּעָתִי) share similar consonants). This would mean “perform my deliverance from harm.”
3) The LXX did not read “from harm” (מֵרָעָה; mera‘ah), but “knowledge” (γνῶσιν; gnosin). This Greek word normally stands for Hebrew da‘at (דַעַת) or de‘ah (דֵעָה) “knowledge; wisdom.” This reading implies a simple confusion of the similar looking Hebrew letters dalet (ד) and resh (ר). The Greek text says “do/produce wisdom so that I will not be humiliated.” But if we make the change to the Hebrew text that is supposed by the Greek noun, the underlying Hebrew would be “act wisely so that I will not be grieved.” Asking God to act wisely sounds odd.
4) We might suppose that a yod is not there at the end of the verb. The ending would be tav plus yod (first singular) instead of just tav (second masculine singular). Perhaps a scribe overlooked the yod because he saw that the nearby verbs have only tav. The text would then read (if we still take a cue from the LXX) “may your hand be with me so that I may act wisely in order to not be grieved.” This would make sense and might explain all the variations. But it is speculation.
Each of these options suppose translating something that isn’t there. “Act to keep me from harm;” the syntax isn’t there. “Do some harm to my enemies;” the word “enemies” isn’t there. “Act wisely so that I will not be grieved;” the dalet (ד) isn’t there. “May your hand be with me so that I may act wisely;” the dalet (ד) isn’t there and a yod isn’t there (though they reasonably might have been).
Lastly we will consider another unknown. It is not certain whether the person Jabez should be connected with the town Jabez mentioned in 1 Chr 2:55. If Jabez were the head of the town (“more respected than his brothers” 1 Chr 4:9), then the request for an enlarged territory would not be a simple request for his own benefit, but an example of a leader of character whose faithfulness to God benefits those under his leadership. Similarly his request to not be harmed. (Most of the other prayers mentioned in Chronicles are from leaders: 2 Chr 7:12; 20:6-12; 30:13-20; 32:24-26; 33:10-13, although not 1 Chr 5:20-22). In this scenario, the message is not simply that God answers prayer, but would remind the post-exilic community of the importance of good leaders, of the benefit that their faithfulness can have for the entire community, and that God is the one who secures their borders. These are all important messages for the original audience. But they don’t fit the notion that the “prayer” of Jabez is about acquiring more personal property.
In any case it is reasonable to suppose that Jabez did want to be spared from harm. Putting that in the text might be fair because is a good representation of what’s implied by asking for God’s hand to be with him, though it is not so much a translation of the fourth component of the request in his vow. If we justified the common translation in this way, we would both have a translation of what isn’t there (having put words to an implication) and have omitted something that is there (the fourth component whose text makes little sense as it has come to us). And once again the most practical solution is the NET notes. The general trend of the vow isn’t hard and isn’t much affected by the proposed options. But the nuance is less clear. And the NET notes can explain the issues unlike any other translation.
What did Jabez ask for? Broadly speaking, for God’s blessing. Why? Quite possibly for the benefit of the community he was leading.