The censored Bible: translating Psalm 90

Psalm 90 speaks of a God who gives birth. This is a powerful picture the creator God yet several English translations miss it. The Hebrew is quite clear.

Aristotle’s Feminist Subject has a post in which various translations of Psalm 90 are compared. As always I’m astounded by the way most treat verse 2:

בְּטֶרֶם׀  הָרִים  יֻלָּדוּ
וַתְּחֹולֵל  אֶרֶץ  וְתֵבֵל וּמֵעֹולָם
עַד־עֹולָם  אַתָּה  אֵל׃

Before the mountains were born
or you gave birth to the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

It seems quite clear to me. I cannot see how else to render the words!

The nearest to this explicitly (I think) maternal imagery for the creation of our world (among the translations in front of me here) comes from the NASB:

Before the mountains were born
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting,
You are God.

though the NIV comes close:

Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

But the rest fudge it. Why? (There is a fuller, though still aimed at non specialist readers version of my take on it in chapter two of my Not Only a Father. Since the format of that work invites, needs, discussion, please go there and discuss either this or one of the other things I say!)

[PS the discussion feature was little used and because of hack attacks I have had to remove the site.]

2 comments on “The censored Bible: translating Psalm 90

  1. J. K. Gayle

    How do you like the way Robert Alter translates?

    Before mountains were born,
    before You spawned earth and world,
    from forever to forever You are God.

    Thank you for your post here, for showing some of the translations that get the Hebrew too. (Your question about censorship inspired me to post again).

  2. tim

    Thanks, I do not have Alter’s version handy, (I’m working at home mainly while enjoying a sabbatical) but he’s usually excellent. Here I’m not convinced by “spawned”, the problem is that English (I think) lacks a word that can cover both the mother and father’s roles in conception and birth as (I think) ילד can. “Spawned” gets that but sounds too much like a 1950s horror-movie to me ;) So unless one thinks this verse is seeking to keep a balance of both parental images (which I think the biblical writers often do, though I’m not covinced that’s the aim here) I prefer a more human term. Since the verb is 3 plural a passive rendering seems required.

    The Judaica Press Tanak renders the verse:
    Before the mountains were born, and You brought forth the earth and the inhabited world, and from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
    Here, I don’t like “brought forth” which seems to avoid the (I think) clear reference to childbirth in the verb חיל which surely here has to refer to the writhing of birthing.

    I think that like your putative LXX translators modern Christian ones have wanted to avoid theologically dangerous ideas, and they have seen thought of God as motherly as dangerous, as e.g. CS Lewis did, implying too close an identification of God and world (mother-earth etc.).