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No. 78: Getting the Translation Right

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 78
October, 1995
Copyright 1995, Biblical Horizons

A couple of the most serious mistranslations in our Bibles are found in the book of Leviticus. The main reason these errors have gone unreformed, I believe, is because Leviticus is simply not studied often enough, so the problem has never been fully addressed.

The first mistranslation is found right away in Leviticus 1, where the Hebrew word `olah is mistranslated "burnt offering." While it is true that the offering is (usually) burned, the word `olah does not mean "burnt." It means "ascend." Jacob Milgrom, in his Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus (1991), writes, "`ola literally means `that which ascends,’ . . ." (p. 172). Milgrom does not like the translation "ascension," however. He writes: "`Ascending offering,’ the name suggested by the root meaning of the verb `ala, is meaningful only if it refers to the incineration of the sacrifice on the altar" (p. 173).

This is not very persuasive. By associating the `olah with burning instead of with ascending, Milgrom misses all kinds of important connections, and thus is forced to misinterpret to some extend the meaning of the offering itself. The verb `alah is used for the arising of the morning, the arising of blossoms from plants (consider Aaron’s rod), going up on God’s holy mountain, going up into the holy land, going up to a rooftop, going up to Jerusalem, going up by steps to God’s altar, angels ascending and descending upon a ladder to heaven, God’s Glory Cloud ascending from His throne in the Tabernacle to lead the people, and animals bringing up the cud to chew. These are but a few of the many kinds of ascensions one finds in a Hebrew concordance.

Once we see that the proper translation is Ascension Offering, we realize several things. First, when the animal is put onto the fire of the altar, this is not a sign of judgment. It is the killing of the animal that is the substitutionary death of the animal for the sinner. The fire represents God’s presence, and the animal is given to God, and then ascends into heaven. This is a type of Jesus’ own ascension.

Thus, second, the Ascension Offering speaks of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and our ascension with Him. This means that Jesus’ ascension has a greater meaning than we usually give it.

Third, the Ascension Offering ties in with all the other ascensions of people in the Bible: going up on a mountain, going up to an altar, going up to a rooftop or upper room, and going up to Jerusalem. These are all pictures of approaching God, who dwells in heaven, above the firmament.

Fourth, a proper translation may answer a long-standing question: Why do clean animals have to bring up the cud? (Leviticus 11:2-8). Clean animals must wear sandals, and thus avoid the curse-prosecuting soil, but their hooves must resemble those of the altar-cherubim (Ezekiel 1:7). The symbolism may well be that these clean animals image the throne of God. The animals bring up their food into their heads and chew it. The fiery cherubim bring up the sacrifices to God, the Head, for Him to "chew" in the sense of purifying the offering. Thus, God brings us up into his mouth to "chew" us, sanctifying and purifying us (compare Revelation 3:16). Note that the first face of the cherubim is the ox-face, representing the sacrificial system of the Mosaic era.

Finally, though we could go on further, a proper translation settles once and for all Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11:29-31. The Holy Spirit compelled Jephthah to promise to offer as an ascension the first person who greeted him from his house after the battle. That person was his daughter. Clearly, the Holy Spirit did not impel Jephthah to promise to burn anyone up! Rather, Jephthah’s daughter was sent up to God’s house, and served Him for the rest of her life.

The second serious mistranslation is found in Leviticus 2, and associated passages. Here we have the minchah offering. Minchah means "gift" or "tribute," and so the offering should be called a Tribute Offering. It is true that the offering consisted of grain, though it also included oil and incense, and later, wine. It is simply a mistranslation to call it a Cereal, Grain, Meal, or (in the older English of the King James) a Meat offering.

The Tribute Offering is something we give to God. It can only be given on top of the Ascension Offering, because only in Christ can we offer anything to the Father.

Once we have this translation correct, we can see clearly the following matters. First, we can get the order of the sacrifice clearly in mind. 1. The animal is slain and its blood displayed before God. This atones for sin. 2. The animal is cut up, and the clean head and inner parts ascend to God. This foreshadows the ascension of Christ. 3. The unclean feet and inner parts are washed. This points to our baptism. 4. The baptized parts are sent up to God. This points to our ascension into the heavenlies in union with Christ, our Head. 5. Now we bring our own tribute to God, which is sent up to Him in the fire also.

Second, we can understand the meaning of the Tribute Offering. No matter how the grain is prepared, it is always broken up, and a "memorial portion" is sent up to God. Then a libation of wine is put with it (Num. 15). This ties directly to the Lord’s Supper. The bread is broken, and then the wine is served, and these are done "In memory of Me," or better, "As My memorial." The breaking of the bread displays the death of Christ to the Father. Our gift, which we offer the Father, is Jesus Himself. We offer Him Jesus’ death. We remind Him ("memorial") of Jesus’ death. When we eat the bread, we show the Father that we accept Jesus into ourselves, and when we drink the wine, we show that we accept Jesus’ death, so that we die more and more to sin and live more and more to righteousness.

Third, we can see that the Tribute Offering comes before and covers all our other tithes and gifts. We offer Jesus to the Father first, and then everything else in union with Him.

Until such time as we get proper translations of these two words, these truths will be obscured. To my knowledge, every available translation is in error as regards these two terms. Further reformation is, thus, needed.