Larry Perkins on Seeing God in LXX Exodus

One of the papers I attended at SBL was by Larry Perkins, a professor from the seminary associated with Trinity Western University, where I’m trying to finish up an MA in biblical studies. I took a course in Septuagint from Rob Hiebert through the seminary last year, and we had Dr. Perkins in the class at one point discussing his work with LXX Exodus, and specifically with the notion of anti-anthropomorphism in the translation. I told him about my master’s thesis on the topic and he asked for a copy of it. I figured at some point I would see some kind of publication on the topic that would in some way engage ideas I discussed in my thesis. His SBL paper directly engaged almost every significant point I made in my thesis, and argued directly against each one. Basically, I argue that the translator had no problem with the notion of seeing God, but the scribe responsible for his Vorlage did. The translator only took issue with the notion of God physically communing with humans. Perkins argues that the translator is responsible for all the anti-anthropomorphisms in the text. Here’s the abstract:

The Greek Translator of Exodus–Interpres and Expositor–His Treatment of Theophanies

Within Greek Exodus the accounts of numerous theophanies reflect a similar emphasis in the Hebrew narrative, but many scholars have noted the divergencies from the Masoretic text in the the Greek translation. Almost all agree that this feature represents the activity of the translator (whether his own distinctive theological reflections or those of some portion of the Alexandrian Jewish community is debated), rather than reflects his Vorlage, in distinction from the Masoretic text. However, a systematic review, an evaluation of these accounts (especially their possible inter-relationship), as well as other translational alterations, and a definition of the specific ways in which they may modify the Hebrew Vorlage remain a desideratum. The key texts include Exodus 3:1-14; 4:24-26; 19; 24:1-11; 33:7-23; 40:28-32, as well as various other interactions with Moses and especially the translation in 25:22(21); 29:42,43; 30:36. In this paper these texts are carefully reviewed with a view to discerning more specifically the variations in the Old Greek version that occur in these contexts and whether the reasons scholars propose to explain these variances have validity. Further, this investigation may enable us to draw some tentative conclusions about the translator’s creative ability to combine the roles of interpres (non-literary translator) and expositor (literary translator), to suit his purpose, and thus define his translational profile more adequately.

For comparison, here’s the abstract of my SBL paper from New Orleans, which was later revised for my thesis:

Anthropomorphisms and the Vorlage to LXX Exodus

It has long been recognized that the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible often tend away from literal renderings of anthropomorphic passages. LXX Exod 24:10, interjecting “the place where God stood” in an effort to avoid intimating that God has a visible form, is a clear example of this theological emendation. The use of the resumptive adverb εκει in the Greek, however, betrays a uniquely Hebrew syntactical construction, and seems to reveal a Hebrew parent text that already contained the de-anthropomorphic element. This paper will investigate the LXX translations of anthropomorphic passages from Exodus and evaluate the possibility that the Hebrew Vorlage to LXX Exodus already contained a number of the anti-anthropomorphic elements traditionally attributed to the exegesis of the translators.

I was most curious with the way that Perkins would approach LXX Exod 24:10 and the very un-Greek use of the resumptive adverb. Here’s the construction in the Greek:

Exod 24:10: ויראו את אלהי ישראל, “And they saw the God of Israel”

LXX Exod 24:10: καὶ εἶδον τὸν τόπον οὗ εἱστήκει ἐκεῖ ὁ θεὸς τοῦ Ισραηλ, “And they saw the place where stood there the God of Israel”

The bold portion is a thoroughly Hebraic construction that simply does not appear in compositional Greek. It only ever appears in literal translations from the Hebrew. In my thesis I highlight multiple scholars who directly address this very construction as evidence of translation directly from the Hebrew. It can be literally and easily retroverted to read in the Hebrew: המקום אשר עמד שם.

I was interested to see how Perkins dealt with this verse, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed in the argument. He basically states that since ἐκεῖ is so similar to the end of εἱστήκει, it is likely a dittograph arising from homoioteleuton. He says this is supported by the fact that later manuscripts don’t have the resumptive adverb and that v. 11 also has the notion of the “place” where God stood. I did not object to this particular argument in the question and answer session, but I found it rather weak.

First, you would need rather good evidence to insist on dittography where the resultant text is a perfectly accurate  and common rendering of a common Hebrew construction. Next, numerous scholars have pointed out in the past that later scribes found the Hebraism too awkward, and removed the resumptive adverb, leaving a more comfortable syntax. Lastly, the fact that the next verse also mentions a “place” is no more indicative of translator exegesis as it is of a deviating Vorlage. The use of the resumptive adverb does not at all conflict with the notion that both verses represent literal translations of a divergent Vorlage. The scribe making the change would be just as capable of harmonizing the next verse with the change as would the translator. The last point is a wash, as is the second point. Neither position overpowers the other. On the first point, however, the conclusion that a deviating Vorlage underlies the Hebraism is far more likely a conclusion than the assumption of dittography (which itself does not account for the η > ε shift). I must disagree with Perkins’ handling of this verse, and I think it critically undermines the thesis of his paper.

Another small point I would make about his paper comes from the handout, which I have but won’t share because I don’t know if I have permission. Exod 33:20 states in the Hebrew, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (NRSV). The Septuagint renders, “you shall not be able to see my face, for a person shall never see my face and live” (Perkins’ NETS translation). I consider this small difference to be significant. The Septuagint translator is clarifying that it is specifically God’s face which humanity cannot see and live. I believe the translator added the clarification because three verses later you have the statement, “you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” Perkins understands the translator to entirely reject the notion that God is at all visible. In his NETS translation he rendered for LXX Exod 33:23, “you shall see my hind parts, but my face will not appear to you.” On his handout, however, he changes that to read, “you shall see the things behind me, but my face will not appear to you.” He explains in a footnote that it “more accurately reflects the meaning of the Greek text.”

The Greek is as follows: τὰ ὀπίσω μου. His reading could be supported by Josh 8:2, which renders a Hebrew phrase meaning “behind it”; but it is challenged by 2 Sam 2:23, which uses the word ὀπίσω twice to refer to the back of a spear which protrudes out of Asahel’s back. This may seem like another wash, but with Josh 8:2 the construction is slightly different. It reads, εἰς τὰ ὀπίσω. There is no possessive genitive (“back/backards of X”), which appears in each appearance of the word in LXX Exod 33:23 and 2 Sam 2:23. I think this throws the preponderance of evidence behind concluding the translator did in fact suggest Moses saw God’s back. This supports my conclusion that he added “my face” in v. 20 in order to clarify that only his face could not be seen without endangering the human involved. I cannot agree that Perkins’ revision of this verse is a better rendering of the Greek. It seems to me to just help his thesis.



3 responses to “Larry Perkins on Seeing God in LXX Exodus

  • John


    I do not have much time for an exchange, and I do not fully understand all of the issues involved, but I did want to mention that the ε > η and η > ε interchanges are evidenced from the papyri of the relevant period (see Gignac’s Grammar, I, 242ff). Granted this interchange happens in fairly specific phonetic conditions, but I still think the dittography which Perkins describes is possible since the η symbol came to be used for the /ε/ phoneme ε and αι in this period. He lists a couple of examples which seem relevant: ηκ (for εκ) and ηκαστην (for εκασταην).

    Is there evidence of the Hebrew Vorlage you allege underlies the LXX? Just wondering.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment, John. I don’t have access to Gignac, but I am interested in pursuing that line of thought. Out of curiosity, do we see the preservation and the interchange of η and ε within the same phrase as would have to have occurred here?

  • John Meade


    I looked pretty closely at all the examples in Gignac, and I did not see the exact interchange as in Exodus. So far the evidence indicates that the symbol η could be confused with ε, which means the type of error that Perkins is positing is plausible.

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