One Hebrew Word

Three English translations?

I noticed that in Job 31:1 certain translations read “I have made a covenant with my eyes; Why then should I look upon a young woman?” However, in the King James Version it reads “I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?” Why is the word “think” replaced with the word “look” in subsequent translations? What is the actual original idea in the Hebrew?

David S.

Dear David,

Your question helps explain why we spend over an hour of Scrolling through Scripture Unit 1 studying only one verse from the Bible—Genesis 1:1. What is more, we should have spent even more time on that verse except we realized we needed to strike a good balance between depth and covering ground. Not only does Hebrew not translate easily into any other language, but each word holds layers of meaning.

The Hebrew word that you are citing in Job 31 is ‘etbonein.’ That word actually appears 3 times in the book of Job and our recommended Bible’s English translation uses 3 different English words in an attempt to make sense of it! (*Job 23:15 and Job 32:12 in addition to Job 31. ) The ‘et’ prefix means ‘I will’, leaving the root of the word as B-N-N, or in its basic form B-N-H.

Job is revealing a reality of the world as it REALLY works. No matter how many re-education hours men spend in feminist study classes, an undamaged male does not look upon a woman, especially a young and attractive one, as he might observe a cat or a camel. Instinctively, certain specific thoughts will come to his mind. Part of the job of becoming a man is learning to control and corral those thoughts, but he needs to be aware of the challenge of doing so. Pretending that a nineteen-year-old boy/man doesn’t have the thoughts that he indeed does, damages him, the women in his life, and society as a whole in ways that we don’t have room to explore here.

B-N-H is related to words for both building and understanding. It hints at the difference between learning facts and becoming wise. For wisdom, one needs to ‘build’ the facts together and understand a larger picture. Job is defending himself from his friends’ accusation that he must have done something wrong to be punished so sorely by God. He says that, instead, he was meticulous in his behavior. Recognizing that looking at a young woman could lead him to think about her improperly, he even chose to guard his eyes from unnecessarily or gratuitously looking in that direction. Tragically, in an age of porn addiction, we wish more men would follow Job’s prescription.

Translating the word ‘etbonein’ as either look or think reveals only part of the message. Both translations work, each just comes at it from a different direction. If you allow your thoughts, imagination, and fantasies to take charge, you will look. If you look it will stimulate those thoughts. A translation of the Bible into any language aims for clarity and flow. It does not and cannot achieve full comprehension.

Keep reading carefully,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

*In our recommended Bible: אתבונן
Job 23:15 – p. 2064, 5th line from the bottom, final word on the left. (consider)
Job 32:12 – p. 2076, 2nd line from the bottom, final word on the left. (attended)
Job 31:1 – p. 2074, 8th line from the top, final word on the left. (look)

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