Observations on life; particularly spiritual

What is the meaning of the Hebrew words “adamah” and “erets” in the book of Zephaniah?

zephaniah resizedIn my exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation) of the book of Zephaniah, I was amazed that most modern Bible translations have “earth” and not “land” for the Hebrew words adamah (Strongs #127) and erets (Strongs #776).

Zephaniah 1:2-3

This passage says (NIV):
“I will sweep away (“destroy” NET) everything
from the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea—
and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”
“When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.

The Hebrew word adamah (Strongs #127) used twice in Zephaniah (1:2-3) means “ground” or “land” and is translated “earth” in the NIV, ESV, HSCB and NET Bibles. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon of Hebrew words, in these verses it means “ground” as earth’s visible surface. This is supported by “the face” (#6440) meaning the surface of the ground (Brown-Driver-Briggs). Because of possible confusion with the whole planet, I prefer “land” (which is used by the CJB, DRA, GNV, ISV, NABRE and NKJV Bibles – see BibleGateway.com) or “ground” (which is used by ASV, DARBY and YLT Bibles). The NASB states that the literal meaning is “ground”. This is consistent with original readers understanding that the judgment was on the land of Judah (the next verse describes an attack on Judah), not the whole earth.

According to the Macquarie dictionary, the word “earth” can mean: the planet, its inhabitants, the surface of the planet, the ground, or the softer part of the land. The appropriate meaning of the word “earth” in a particular text is determined by the context of the word. As there are no other words in this passage or the rest of the book that refer unambiguously to the whole planet or all its inhabitants, the first three possible meanings are ruled out. Therefore, the preferred meaning for adamah in Zephaniah (1:2-3) is the ground, the land or the surface of the earth within the country of Judah.

So a better translation of Zephaniah 1:2-3 is:
“I will sweep away everything
from the face of the land (of Judah),”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea—
and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”
“When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the land (of Judah),”
declares the Lord.

Zephaniah 1:18

This passage says (NIV):
“In the fire of His jealousy
the whole earth will be consumed,
for He will make a sudden end
of all who live on the earth”

The Hebrew word erets (Strongs #776) used twice in Zephaniah (1:18) means “earth” or “land” and is translated “earth” in the NIV, ESV, HSCB and NET Bibles. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon of Hebrew words, in the Old Testament it can mean: the whole earth, its inhabitants, a region, its inhabitants, or ground (surface of ground). As there are several alternatives, the one chosen should largely depend on the context of the word. Because of possible confusion with the whole planet, I prefer “land” (which is used by the ASV, CEB, CJB, DARBY, DRA, GNV, ISV, LEB, NKJV, WEB, YLT and mentioned as an alternative in the NET). This is consistent with original readers understanding that the judgment was on the land of Judah (the next verse addresses the nation of Judah), not the whole earth. The ERV states that both adamah and erets can also mean “land” or “country”. The NLT uses “land” for the first occurrence and “earth” for the second! In a footnote, it says “or land”.

So a better translation of Zephaniah 1:2-3 is:
“In the fire of His jealousy
the whole land (of Judah) will be consumed,
for He will make a sudden end
of all the people living in the land (of Judah)”

The word erets in Zephaniah

The Hebrew word erets (Strongs #776) is mentioned eight times in the book of Zephaniah1:18 (twice); 2:3, 5, 11; 3:8, 19, 20. The table below shows how it is translated in four modern versions of the Bible; how I would translate it; and the context.

From this table, it is evident that:
– I only agree with the versions on about 25% (2/8) of the occasions (where they use “land”).
– On the other 75% (ranging 63% to 88%) of occasions (shaded yellow), the versions use “earth” (which has global connotations) even though it is evident from the context that none of these verses refer to the whole planet or all its inhabitants.
– The translators are always using “earth” when the context involves more than one country. However, they are also using it for a single country (1:18)!
By the way, the NKJV uses “land” or “nation” on 50% (4/8) of these occasions.

The phrase kol erets in the prophets

The phrase “all the earth/land” kol erets (Strongs #3605 and #776) occurs in Zephaniah 3:8 and 3:19 and is used in the Bible by other prophets. A study was made into the translations of this phrase in the prophetic books by various versions of the Bible. The results are tabulated in a similar format to that described above. The verses are listed in approximate chronological order.

From this table, it is evident that:
– I think that the phrase refers to the whole earth or all its inhabitants in about 13% (6/48) of the verses. The context of these verses is the sphere of God’s reign and God’s sovereignty. The other versions of the Bible agreed with this interpretation.
– These versions of the Bible translated the phrase as “land(s)” “country” or “countries” in about 56% (27/48) of the verses (but the NET used “earth” in three of these verses). The context of these verses is a country/land or a group of countries/lands. So it was used for both individual countries and groups of countries. I agreed with this interpretation. By the way, the fraction for the NKJV was 50%.
– However, the major difference between these versions and how I would translate the phrase is that they use “earth” where I use “land” (shaded yellow) in: Isa. 10:14 (except the NIV); 25:8; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8, 19 (except the NIV); Jer. 50:23; 51:7, 25, 41, 49; Hab. 2:20; Lam. 2:15; Ezek. 35:14; Dan. 8:5 (except the NET); Zech. 1:11. This is about 31% (15/48) of the verses. It shows that the translators are not only using this practice in Zephaniah, but in at least seven other prophetic books as well. Why are they doing this? Is it when it refers to more than one country? This is mainly the case, except for the countries of Babylon (Jer.50:23; Hab. 2:20), Edom (Ezek. 35:14) and Judah (Zeph. 1:18). So they are not consistent.

It is interesting that these versions of the Bible all tend to translate the phrase in a similar fashion in a particular verse. They agree on 90% of occasions (it is 80% when the NKJV is included). However, I can’t explain why they sometimes choose “country”/”land” for an individual country and sometimes they choose “earth”. Also, I can’t explain why they sometimes choose “countries”/”lands” for a group of countries and sometimes they choose “earth”.

Conclusion

I have shown that although four modern versions of the Bible usually translate the Hebrew words adamah and erets (Strongs #127 and #776) in the book of Zephaniah as “earth”; the word “land” would be a better translation.

A study was made of the translations of the phrase “all the earth/land” kol erets (Strongs #3605 and #776) in the prophetic books by four modern versions of the Bible. This showed that the poor translation in Zephaniah was evident in about 31% of the occurrences of the phrase in the prophetic books. The context of many of these is groups of countries (but some are single countries). I was unable to determine why these versions of the Bible all tend to translate the phrase in a similar fashion in a particular verse. Are the translators assuming that in the days of the prophets a group of nations was viewed as comprising the whole earth? But this doesn’t explain all the translations! The methodology seems to be inconsistent. Are they using some other criterion? Could the consistency between different versions indicate collusion or plagiarism?

Written, November 2014

Also See: God’s warning

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