“…like one that hath a familiar spirit…”
A critique of an Ouldian view of Isaiah 29.4
By Ronnie Bray
“v' eyehah ceov me’eretz kole’ka u’meifar” (Ronnie Bray transliteration and translation)
“it shall come to pass that as a ghost from the dust that thy voice shall speak softly." (Norman Henry Snaith, Hebrew Old Testament, British and Foreign Bible Society, Bury St Edmunds, undated.)
“Thy voice shall be as a ghost from the ground, and from the dust thy speech shall chirp." (Brown, Driver, Briggs, Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon, Hendrickson, Peabody, Mass., 1979)
“Your voice will come from the ground like that of a ghost, whispering from the dust of the earth." (Day, Roget’s Thesaurus of the Bible, Marshall Pickering, London, 1992, p. 970.).
“your voice from the ground shall be like that of a medium; your sayings shall whisper out of the dust" (Avram Gileadi, The Book of Isaiah-A New Translation, Deseret Books, SLC, 1988, p. 147.
The Hebrew word transliterated as ‘owb is a word derived from the Hebrew word for father, apparently from the idea of:
1) “prattling a father’s name” (James Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance To The Bible, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1982 ed., item 178),
2) “a mumble” (i.e. a water skin from its hollow sound), hence, by extension, a murmuring sound
3) a necromancer – one who foretells the future by contact with the world of spirits
4) bottle - from the hollow sound it would make if struck
(5) familiar spirit - as that of a spiritualist medium, etc.
In the Authorised Version, the word ‘owb has been interpreted as “familiar spirit.” This translation has been seized upon by some who are hostile to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to infer that the Book of Mormon is a demon-ridden book. A preposterous idea. One might just as well say that the Book of Mormon is a leather bottle.
Christian Evangelical Scholar, Linguist, and Anti-Mormon, Peter Ould's contribution to this topic appeared on his site carried on the Mormon Ring website. Mr Ould, a self-confessed opponent of the teachings, doctrine, and practise of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (‘Mormonism’), is at pains to take up cudgels with Mormon Apostle, the late LeGrand Richards, and to disagree with his interpretation of familiar spirit to mean “familiar ambience.”
James White, another who is hostile to Mormonism, declares,
“Now, Elder, any beginning Bible student knows what a “familiar spirit” is - but it doesn’t’ seem that LeGrand Richards knew. A familiar spirit is a demoniac spirit, a demon. (White, Letters to A Mormon Elder, pp. 156-7)”
Now, Mr White, it depends who gave such a Bible scholar their beginning. If the student attends a scholarly instyitution of higher learning in matters biblical, then he will have no such ideas.
White makes his point by quoting another passage from the Hebrew Scriptures in which ‘owb has also been interpreted as “familiar spirit,” in which place the intention is “a means of divination.” The possibility that it could mean "ghost" is not entertained but thrown out of court apparently associated with the theological agenda of White. White does not deal with any alternative interpretations of ‘owb. Why not? Mr White, any beginning Hebraists is aware that the exact meaning of a Hebrew is to be inferred from:
1. its literary context
2. the culture and customs of the target audience
2. the sitz im leben of the people
3. the intention of the original writer.
White deals with none of these, yet Ould, having let White say his piece, concludes his own piece as if he had done so. This is a recurring disappointment for readers of Ould's forays into the field of linguistics. He were better had he stayed home!
Significantly, no one translating that passage in modern times agrees with the AV interpretation, being content to let it rest as ‘ghost’ without discussion. Nevertheless, surprisingly, Ould states that
“Cloward has attempted to explain the passage by the use of the English translation without any reference whatsoever to the original Hebrew. He seems to expect us to allow a Hebrew word to mean something entirely different just because he translates it into a different English word than is used in the KJV, an English word that can have other meanings besides “familiar spirit”.
What he seems to forget is that translated as familiar spirit, ghost, phantom, spirit or any other word, the original Hebrew is quite clear in its meaning, an evil familiar spirit."
But that is far from the truth. Peter Ould again overstates his case and confirms his conclusions without taking any steps to outline it. The FARMS document to which Ould objects, while not even saying what the Hebrew word is says only that it can be and has been variously interpreted. Cloward then provides such examples as presented in Ould’s essay. Why Ould does the very thing that he accuses Cloward of doing – even though Cloward clearly does nothing of the sort, we are left to wonder.
What gets up Peter’s nose appears to be that anyone dare suggest any alternative interpretation of the word than that which he and his friend James White want to insist upon. Like a fractious child who has been thwarted in some petty enterprise, he takes to name-calling.
One does not have to be a Mormon, or even a Hebraist, to know that alternative interpretations of the word ‘owb are possible. One needs only to be able to read what is written in authoritative works whose authors are not concerned with the petty issues of the web site, nor with saving the world from its own foolishness.
Ould is correct, one does not need to be a Mormon to know that alternative interpretations of any word is possible. But Ould is wrong when he writes that it is not necesasary to be an expert in the Hebrew language to know the full range of possible translations. It is not a matter ot interpretation, but of translation whilst maintaining the intention of the original monopgraopher. Every real linguist knows that, but Ould does not, hence, Ould is not a linguist.
That neither he nor his mentor James White are proficient in Hebrew is patently obvious from the silly claims they make - it is really only one claim and an echo. What they have done is take a 500 year old English text [AV] and packed the term 'familiar spirit' with modern baggage and then whisked it back 2,600 years and deluded themselves into believing they have restored Isaiah's meaning. They have not. White does not deal with the Hebrew word, except by giving us a peculiar transliteration of it. He refers his readers to English translations in the KJV.
Linguistics has the purpose of identifying the meaning of a particular word in a particular context. Biblical exegesis serves the purpose of eliciting the intended meaning from a particular passage. Applied to Isaiah 29.4 and the word “’owb” we are led into only one direction. Painful as it might be it is that the voice of a destroyed people will speak to the living as if it was a ghost of a departed person or people or as if a ventriloquist was causing them to believe the voices or words of the dead spoke to them from the grave - out of the dust.. How any other interpretation fits all the circumstances is not dealt with.
Those having no or little facility in linguistics are able to consult works of linguistic apparatus, and nowhere are these more useful than in the arena of Biblical scholarship. Davidson's Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon offers ‘owb as:
1) a leathern bottle (Job 32.19)
2) a spirit of divination, or necromancy, and
3) a necromancer, one who calls up spirits to learn of them the future.
The Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew-English Lexicon, takes us further into the meaning of ‘owb. In a longer essay than Davidson’s, it offers the principle interpretations of skin-bottle, necromancer, etc., in the following terms:
1. skin-bottle, appearing only in its plural form ‘owvoth harashiym, in Job 32.19;
2. necromancer, or wizard ‘owb ‘o yidogiy a man or a woman, if there should be among them, a necromancer or wizard (there is no sufficient reason for exceptional use of phrase here) Leviticus 20.27;
In Isaiah 8.19 it is represented as chirping and muttering (in practice of their art of seeking the dead for instruction, probably by ventriloquism, rather than by actual contact with the dead), and such is the reading of the Holiness code.
3. Ghost, at this point, Brown-Driver-Briggs_Gesenius is solidly behind its primary example of Isaiah 29.4 and offers its interpretation as:
“and thy voice shall be as a ghost from the ground and from the dust thy speech shall chirp"
This authoritative work puts ghost in third place behind skin [or leather] bottle, and necromancer, or as we would say today, spiritualist medium.
4. necromancy ‘eyisheth b’a’alath-‘owb. A woman who was mistress of necromancy 1 Samuel 28.8, which seems to be an interpretation of 1 Chronicles 10.13 ‘shol bo’ inquire by necromancy.
5. In these three examples [1, 2, and 3] ‘owb is usually interpreted as ghost, or as a familiar spirit dwelling in a necromancer; but this is apparently not the ancient conception.
(This scholarly and authoritative work identifies the rendition of ‘owb in Isaiah 29.4 into ‘ghost’ as perfectly reasonable and, therefore, not to be lightly set aside by the likes of White and Ould.)
Those engaging in scholarly research, even into such desert places as Isaiah 29.4 require a better approach than those of their fellows who shun “time consuming research”
What are the facts we should bear in mind in seeking understanding of the meaning of this verse? Let us look at the setting of the verse.
- Verse one deals with a warning to Jerusalem about coming distress resulting in its falling under siege.
- Verse two continues this theme but introduces another place or people who shall be to God “like an Ariel (Jerusalem)” Not ‘identical’ but similar, that is the meaning of ‘like.’
- Verse three details some of the conditions contributing to the bringing down of the other people who are ‘like an Ariel.’ “and it shall be unto me as Ariel.” The it is in the comparative position
- Verse four states that although this people is brought into the dust of the earth – a simple enough vision to grasp – they shall yet speak from out of the ground ‘like the voice of a ghost.’
What could possibly be intended here by any other interpretation than ‘ghost?’ If it were to mean evil familiar spirit, as Peter Ould emphatically declares, what purpose would it serve? If, as some anti-Mormons believe, the passage refers only to Jerusalem and not to any Book of Mormon events, then how does the speech of the fallen of Jerusalem speak from the dust like an evil familiar spirit ubnless from the Holy Bible. Have White and Ould considered the implications of their arguments?
For the most part, Latter-day Saints have to work within the text of the Authorised Version Yet to scholars like Peter Ould there are numerous translations to choose from one of which is:
“Then deep from the earth you will speak, from low in the dust your words shall come; your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost.”
Ould determines that all ghosts are evil familiar spirits. He says:
“the original Hebrew is quite clear in [this] meaning,” and he takes Robert Cloward of The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies to task for producing “poorly researched work,” while his own work shows less research than it takes to hurriedly scribble something out of one or two other books - such as White and Tanners - and upload them to his website.
Hardly disguising his tetchiness at Cloward’s lack of research, but falling swiftly in behind his hero, James White, who offers less research than does Cloward, Ould marches off into the sunset behind the banner of what he has always known to be true; namely, that ’owb can only, and must always be, interpreted as “evil familiar spirit,” Words that do not appear in the Hebrew versions of Isaiah, but which Ould must have as the meaning at all costs, even at the cost of truth!
What would this have meant to an Hebrew reading Isaiah’s words over two and a half millennia ago? Classical or Biblical Hebrew is a language with a very small vocabulary. To compensate for this, each Hebrew word commonly has a wide semantic range. Ignorance of this fact has led many would-be scholars into the error of thinking that the interpretation with which they are familiar is the only possibility. Generations of conservative evangelical interpreters have muddied the water. The only way to understand the possible range of meanings is to translate back into the Hebrew and deal with it as if it had never been translated into English.
When we do this, we discover some amazing facts. As detailed in the essays from the lexical works at the head of this article, the Hebrew word transliterated as ‘owb can mean anything from a leather-bottle, to prattling a father’s name, to mumbling, or muttering, or chirping like a bird, or peeping – a term signifying the equivalent of whispering. It can also mean either ghost, or the noise made by a ventriloquist to fool the unwary into thinking that their dead relative or friend was speaking out of the tomb or grave.
For reasons not altogether unclear, the translators of the AV made it to say familiar spirit, although the idea of a familiar was not known in ancient Israel. It is a term that is properly identified with the witch-hunts of mediaeval Europe wherein many innocent people were put to a cruel and hideous death by those convinced that they could identify such familiars. In this context, the familiar was never a spirit, but always an animal that had magical powers. The AV translators merely transplanted their superstitions into the pages of the Bible as if they had been known in ancient Israel. The results of which are facts of history in which the Christian tormentors of the innocent come away with little if any credit.
Such a spirit moves among those Christians who occupy the lunatiuc fringes of evangelistic fundamentalism today. They are the modern witch-hunters, using the Bible dangerously to prop up their particular mindsets that demand all think exactly as they think. These are the religious thought-police, modern Pharisees that seek the destruction of those who dare to think outside their rigid constraints.
The translation of the Authorised Version of the Bible was made at a time when belief in wizards and necromancy was a strong belief in the minds of the superstitious general populace. The Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries have seen these medieval ideas almost disappear. Therefore, “familiar spirit” is a meaningless term for modern Christians. The term had no such significance in Old Testament times for the idea that one could be possessed with the spirit of another was not current, although it was held that there were lying spirits
Isaiah 29.1-4 deals with a people who, like and including those who dwell at Jerusalem, will be humbled by God because of their faithlessness, yet their voices shall not be silenced forever. Ghost-like they will speak long after their demises, and their voices shall be heard. That is the primary intent of verse four and although it has been made to say other things, no modern translator, Christian or otherwise, will make it perform as did its mediaeval translators.
A further level on interest is added when one considers the Hebrew text of this verse to discover that the word ‘owb does not appear in the text. What does appear is ce’owb. That is ‘owb with the inseparable preposition indicated by the Hebrew letter kof prefixed.
This inseparable preposition has the force of “like” meaning similar to, or “as” with the same meaning. It does not and can not be made to mean “identical.” This illustrates that it is the manner of speaking “like” or “as” one would expect a ghost to speak that the scriptural records referred to will speak to the living. In the same way that William Shakespeare the playwright speaks to audiences and readers today through his works, although he is dead and in the grave.
Was Richards right in using verse four mean that the Book of Mormon would have a similar ambience to the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. In broad terms I do not think he was, but he was not so far off the mark as Ould and White.
Are Peter Ould and James White right when they insist that the words have to mean an evil familiar spirit. I know they are not, and so would any first year student of Hebrew.
Now, Mr White and Mr Ould, any beginning Bible student does not know what a familiar spirit is. Moreover, they will never know if they listen to you. However, if they begin to get some facility in the Hebrew and Chaldee languages that the Hebrew Scriptures were written in, he or she will then be able to make a good, accurate translation that will not lead him or her astray as the AV and certain commentators and anti-Mormons will do to those who cannot think for themselves
Peter Ould has written that the only way to understand the Bible documents is to spend three years taking a degree in Greek. Facility in Greek is offered to those who undertake Biblical studies in a department of Theology and Religious Studies. Nevertheless, Greek will help no one understand the Hebrew Scriptures; so called because they are written mainly in the |Hebrew language, unless one wishes to read LXX. However, reading LXX will lead to further difficulties for the unwary, but that’s another story!
Permission is granted to Peter Ould to post this document onto his website if it is posted in full including this notice without any additions or subtractions.
Copyright © Ronnie Bray 1999 - 2010
- The words ‘demon’ or ‘demoniac spirit’ as used by White do not appear in the Old or New Testaments.
- (In agreement with this rendition are no less authorities than, W Gesenius, Hebrew Grammar, Ed. Kautzsch, Lehrgebaude d. Hebrew Sprache; W Gesenius, Handworterbuch uber das Alten Testamentum, edd. F Muhlau and W Volck; H Ewald, Hebrew Grammar, Geschichte d. Volkes Israel, Jarbuch der Bible, Wissenschaft, Biblical Theologie, Antiquities; Franz Delitzsch, Complutensiche Variantum zum alttestamentlichen Texte, Commentary uber das Hohelied und Koheleth; TK Cheyne, Founders of Old Testament Criticism, Isaiah in Hpt’s Sacred Books of the Old Testament (Polychrome Bible), Introduction to Isaiah, Origin and Religious Contents of the Psalter; and others. Ould tends to regard these auguste scholars as mere witterers.)
- Lori MacGregor, Coping with the Cults.
- Often referred to as the King James Version.
- The Revised Standard Version, p. 563.
- 1 Kings 22.22-23.