In this post we look at the particular oath formula used in Ruth. 1:17. This will help us see how a better understanding of oath formulas sheds light on some thorny linguistic issues that have long puzzled both grammarians and translators alike.
In a previous post we introduced the concept of Hebrew oath formulas using Blane Conklin’s book, Oath Formulas in Biblical Hebrew.1 We learned how an oath is more than a promise because an oath commits the oath-taker to certain consequences or sanctions if it is broken.
We also examined the anatomy of oaths and learned that they are composed of two parts: 1) a statement of sincerity called an “authenticating element” (e.g., I solemnly swear…); and 2) the content of the oath (e.g., …to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth). And lastly we surveyed the five different types of oaths found in the Hebrew Bible:
- Raising of a hand
- Invocation of witness(es)
- “By the life of X”
- “Thus will X do to Y, and thus will X add”
Before we look at Ruth 1:17, let’s first get some context.
The opening scene of the book of Ruth is dire, as famine forces Elimelech, his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion to abandon their home in Bethlehem in search of provisions in the foreign but fertile lands of Moab. Hoping for peace and prosperity, the family finds loss and heartache instead.
Soon after arriving in Moab, Elimelech dies. After their father’s death, Mahlon and Chilion marry two Moabite women. Mahlon marries Ruth, and Chilion marries Orpah, but tragedy soon strikes again, this time turning the Moabite newlyweds into widows. Within the space of ten years, both Ruth and Orpah lose their husbands, and Naomi her husband and sons.
Upon hearing of God’s provision in Israel–as the famine had ended–Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem. But before leaving, she instructs Orpah and Ruth to return to their own Moabite families, so that they might find new husbands to care and provide for them. Orpah follows her mother-in-law’s instruction and returns home, but Ruth resists, speaking these words in Ruth 1:16–17:
“If anything but death” vs. “If even death”
As it stands, verse 17c (the final clause of 17 marked in blue) is difficult to understand in Hebrew. I’ve provided a literal translation of this clause above (leaving the particle כִּי untranslated for now, but more on that below). The confusion is evident when comparing English translations:
- ESV: “May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
- NRSV: “May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
- NASB: “Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.”
- NIV: “May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
- KJV: “the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”
- JPS: “Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.”
Notice that while the ESV, NASB, KJV, and JPS have something to the effect of “if anything but death,” the NRSV and NIV have “if even death”. At issue, according to Conklin, is whether, in Ruth’s view, death will or will not be included in the things that may ultimately separate her and Naomi.2
Moreover, notice that each English version adds a word or two (e.g., “anything but” or “even”) in order to make sense of this enigmatic Hebrew clause. Yet, it is unclear where these words find their source in the Hebrew text.
Are the English versions justified in adding these words? If so, which versions get it right? And if not, how do we make sense of these clauses?
Is v.17c really a protasis?
Despite their differences, all of the translations above begin v.17c with the English conjunction “if.” This means that each version takes this clause to be the protasis of a conditional sentence. (In grammar-speak, the protasis is the if-clause, or the condition, while the then-clause, is the apodosis, or consequence.)
As a result, we naturally infer that the preceding clause (17b) is the apodosis (“[then] may the Lord do so to me and more also”). Yet Conklin highlights a couple of reasons why 17b-c in Hebrew is likely not a conditional sentence at all.
For starters, in contrast to 17b-c, conditional sentences in Biblical Hebrew almost always follow the order protasis-apodosis (i.e., if-then). Indeed, Conklin observes only three clear exceptions where the pattern is reversed (i.e., then-if), namely Genesis 18:28, 30; 42:37.3
Thus, the highly usual order of the (so-called) conditional clauses in 17b-c, though not impossible, leads one to question if another interpretive option is available.
Another reason for questioning the conditional interpretation centers on the function and translation of the particle כִּי that occurs at the beginning 17c. As noted above, English versions typically translate this כִּי with the English conjunction “if.” Yet, Conklin argues, an alternative view is preferred.
Although there are indeed clear instances in the Hebrew Bible where כִּי functions as a conditional particle (albeit a relatively small percentage), virtually all of these cases occur in the casuistic legal contexts of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.4 Hence, for Conklin, since Ruth 1:17 is clearly not a case of casuistic law, the conditional interpretation of כִּי is at best suspicious.
But the questions still stands: if כִּי does not function as a conditional particle in 17, what then is its function?
Outside of casuistic legal contexts, כִּי is used to accomplish a few other functions, the most common ones being:
- A connective which marks the following clause as the motivation or reason for what precedes, in which case כִּי is typically translated as “for” (e.g., “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand”).
- A complementizer which introduces an object clause of a verb of speech, perception or cognition, usually translated as “that” (e.g., “he said that”)
According to Conklin, it is improbable that כִּי functions as a motivating/reason connective in 17c since, if anything, the preceding clause (i.e., “May the Lord do so to me and more also”) provides the reason for the following כִּי clause, not vice versa.
He therefore concludes, “[t]he logic of the situation renders the motivational function unlikely”.5 Rather, he contends, a better option presents itself once we take into account that 17b-c is a particular type of Hebrew oath formula.
“(I swear) that only death will separate”
In short, Conklin suggests that כִּי in 17c is best understood as a complementizer. That is to say that כִּי introduces an object clause of a verb of speech, perception, or cognition, and is best translated as “that”. But is there a verb that meets this description in 17c?
At first glance, it seems that the complementizer function is highly unlikely here simply because there doesn’t seem to be a verb that meets this description. Yet this is precisely where an understanding of Hebrew oath formulas makes all the difference.
For starters, Hebrew oaths often involve highly formulaic and elliptical expressions. In other words, for ancient Hebrew speakers and readers, oath formulas were so well established that one need not include every word or phrase for the oath to be understood as such.
Given this fact, it is likely that the clause in question involves an elided or implicit oath authenticator שָׁבַע (“to swear”), a Hebrew verb of speaking, which requires a complementizer כִּי to introduce its object.6 As a result, the translation of Ruth 1.17 would read as follows:
In support of this view, Conklin highlights the fact that when שָׁבַע is overtly used as an oath authenticator elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, it is followed by the complementizer כִּי, as in Amos 4.2:
Alternatively, other oaths exist in which כִּי follows an authenticator that does not require a complementizer. As with Ruth 1.17, the most straightforward way of making sense of these instances is to understand them in light of an implicit שָׁבַע where כִּי is a complementizer, as in Genesis 42.16:
Furthermore, as Conklin observes, when שָׁבַע is not elided, no other authenticator is used (e.g., Amos 4.2), but when שָׁבַע is elided an additional authenticating element is always present, e.g., “May the Lord do so to me” (Ruth 1.17); “by the life of Pharaoh” (Gen. 42.16). In other words, the void left by the elision of שָׁבַע is always filled by an alternative authenticating expression.7
For these reasons and others, Conklin argues that the obscure Hebrew grammar found in Ruth 1.17 and elsewhere is clarified when we take into account the sometimes peculiar linguistic features of Hebrew oath formulas. Whether or not you agree with all of his arguments, his case is thought-provoking and informative, facilitating a better understanding of the form and function of oath formulas in Biblical Hebrew, and indeed their importance for both ancient readers and modern interpreters.
Conklin’s book and other specialized resources for the study of biblical Hebrew are available on Logos 7 in the Hebrew Studies Library Expansion, and make a great additional to any biblical scholar’s library.
Josh Westbury (PhD, Stellenbosch), a scholar-in-residence at Logos Bible Software.