Seeing God vs. Meeting with God in the Septuagint

Jan Joosten recently published an article entitled “To See God: Conflicting Exegetical Tendencies in the Septuagint,”[1] in which he points out that while the Septuagint seems to mitigate seeing God in its translation, in some instances it actually translates the vision of God into verses that did not originally have anything to do with it. He posits that the latter verses may be directed at Egyptian ideologies about seeing God in the temple:

Influence from, and polemics against, local religious practices and beliefs may account for the Septuagint’s tendency to introduce the notion of seeing God in certain contexts.

While this is an interesting conclusion, I think it levels off thematic distinctions that may reveal where the bias of the translator lay. Many of the texts that seem to have been manipulated by the translator away from actually seeing God are better understood as deriving from the Vorlage. This post will look at examples in Exodus. Exod 24:10 is a good one:

MT:
ויראו את אלהי ישראל
And they saw the God of Israel

LXX:
καὶ εἶδον τὸν τόπον οὗ εἱστήκει ἐκεῖ ὁ θεὸς τοῦ Ισραηλ
And they saw the place where the God of Israel stood

This is generally viewed as an interpolation made by the translator to avoid the notion of Moses and his seventy seeing God. The use of the resumptive adverb ἐκεῖ after οὗ εἱστήκει, however, is not good Greek. It is good Hebrew, though. The Greek here is literally translated from a Hebrew text that read:

ויראו את־המקום אשר עמד שם אלהי ישראל
And they saw the place where the God of Israel stood

It is not unheard of for the translator to translate a Hebraism directly into the Greek, but this is incredibly rare, especially in Exodus, where the translation is characterized by good idiomatic Greek. In fact, where the translation is closer to Hebrew syntax and grammar it is the result of a literal translation of the Vorlage. Bénédicte Lemmelijn, citing Anneli Aejmelaeus, has stated [2]:

When . . . the language is used in a Hebraistic way and when it could easily be retroverted, then the variant seems to reflect a reading from the Vorlage.

LXX Exod 24:10 evinces a Vorlage which already contained the anti-anthropomorphism. It is not the translator mitigating the notion of seeing God. It was someone who copied down the text before him. Elsewhere, however, the story is different. Exod 17:6 seems to show a difference that is the exclusive work of the translator’s theological sensitivities:

MT:
הנני עמד לפניך שם
Behold, I was standing before you there

LXX:
ὅδε ἐγὼ ἕστηκα πρὸ τοῦ σὲ ἐκεῖ
Here I stood before you came there

Does this come from the translator’s exegesis or from the Vorlage? A temporal reading is not impossible with לפניך (see LXX Exod 23:28), but the context precludes it. πρὸ τοῦ appears only one other place in LXX Exodus (12:34), where it translates טרם. Does טרם underlie LXX Exod 17:6? The resumptive adverb is maintained in the Greek, as is the pronominal suffix, which would make that a very, very awkward sentence in Hebrew. It is much more likely that this translation derives from a reticence on the part of the translator either to have God meeting personally with Moses, or to have God standing before Moses, which would be a sign of subservience.

There are numerous other differences that I won’t go into, but a pattern I have found is the tendency for the translator of Exodus to shy away from representing God on earth meeting with humanity, while seeing God was not so much an issue. This is why he interprets some texts towards the notion of seeing God. That’s just how he read them. His Vorlage, however, seemed opposed to seeing God, while not necessarily to having him occupy space on earth. I suggest these are two different approaches to the problem of God’s transcendence and his relationship to humanity. One was taken by some copyist responsible for some stage of the Septuagint’s Vorlage. The other was taken by the translator himself.

Notes

1. Jan Joosten, “To See God: Conflicting Exegetical Tendencies in the Septuagint,” in Die Septuaginta — Texte, Kontexte, Lebenswelten (WUNT 219; ed., Martin Karrer and Wolfganf Kraus; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 287–99.

2. Bénédicte Lemmelijn, “Free and Yet Faithful. On the Translation Technique of LXX Exod 7:14–11:10,” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 33.1 (2007): 8.

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