The Family of God
Part 2:  The Sopherim and the Alterations of the Hebrew Text
(A transcript of a message given on June 6, 1998)

by
Jack M. Lane



Last week we looked at the Shema, and saw that the sense of the original, in the Hebrew language, may not have been the way we learned it, in the English language.

A lot of my presentations tend to be word studies. And I’ve mentioned a number of times that we can gain a greater understanding of what the inspired scriptures are trying to tell us if we go back to the original languages, and try to understand what those words mean, rather than simply reading the King James Version (KJV) and defining those words out of an English dictionary, and then thinking we have a perfect understanding of what God wanted us to know.

Even with the original languages we may not gain a perfect understanding, but so many times we’ve seen that we had missed something by reading only the KJV, and we gained a richer understanding by looking at the Greek and Hebrew words. So there is benefit in doing these word search Bible studies.

But I’d like to point out that our faith is, ultimately, in God, not in the scriptures. The Bible teaches us many things, but no amount of Bible study will justify us, grant us salvation, or give us our reward. What counts is our faith in God, and how we live as his children.

Peeling back the layers, and digging deeper into scripture, can bring us greater understanding. These are the words that lead to eternal life. The Bible is the schoolbook that brings us to Christ. But it is flawed. The various translations all have flaws. That’s why it’s important to consult many translations, and even go back to the original language.

But today, I want to bring you some information that may be startling. There was, at one point in history, an organized attempt, by the very scribes who copied the Hebrew scriptures, to change certain words and phrases in the scriptures. One of the things that they did was to remove God’s name from scripture in 134 verses! 134 times, these scribes removed the name of God and substituted "Adonay," often out of reverence and respect for God’s name, and a wish not to blaspheme God’s name by using it too often.

Did you know that we came out of a church group that revered God’s name so much, that they too forbade its use? Have you noticed how many people have come out of that church, plunged themselves into independent study, and have come out as people who use the sacred names every chance they get?

Remember, back in our previous church, we weren’t allowed to say "Yahweh." We didn’t know if that was the correct pronunciation or not, but we were practically forbidden to say it. "Yeshua"? We didn’t use that, either. We knew that "God" and "Jesus" were English translations, as was the name "Jehovah," so if we used those terms we weren’t getting close enough to the sacred names to blaspheme.

Remember whenever a sermonette or sermon guy would read the scriptures, when he would come to "LORD" in full caps, he’d substitute "The Eternal"? Well, they wanted to use God’s name, and show that God’s name was there, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to say it out loud. But we knew the name meant "I Am That I Am," or "I Will Be What I Will Be," so they would substitute "The Eternal," just as orthodox Jews to this day will substitute the word "HaShem" for the name of God. Instead of saying the name, they say "HaShem," which means "the name." It’s exactly the same principle of substitution.

Do you remember this? We were not allowed to say words like as "golly," "gosh" and "gee," because -- somehow -- this was taking God’s name in vain! They were called "euphemisms," which means "good sounds." We were accused of wanting to take God’s name in vain, but substituting the "good sound" of "golly," knowing full well that we really wanted to curse and swear using God’s name.

Did that ever make sense to you?

One mother we know bought some pants for her kids that had the brand name, "Osh Kosh B’Gosh." She felt a little awkward about it, since, according to our training, "Osh Kosh B’Gosh" was blaspheming God’s name! See how silly it all became?

I remember once when a young lady sneezed, and I said "gesundheit." She recoiled in horror, and explained that she was told "gesundheit" means "God bless you," and she didn’t like to say "gesundheit" because it was taking God’s name in vain! That’s how superstitious some of us had gotten! I had to explain to her that "gesundheit" is a German word that literally translates as "good health." It’s a wish for good health for the one who sneezed. That’s all.

Then, when people left that church behind them, and began studying the Bible on their own, many of them swung over to the opposite ditch of thinking that God won’t hear them, or smile on them, unless they pronounce the sacred names.

I try to stay somewhere in the middle, between those two extremes. I’m not afraid to say "Yahweh" and "Yeshua," but others pronounce these names differently. In fact, no one really knows the correct pronunciations. It’s funny to see someone "correcting" someone else for saying one sacred name, when they "really" ought to use another pronunciation of it. The fact is, nobody knows the real pronunciations for sure.

I’ve been having a little fun lately with guessing at how the ancient names should sound. I have this idea that pops into my mind every once in awhile. I think that, in a couple hundred years, historians and scholars are going to want to study works that I have written. But they’re not going to be sure how to pronounce my name, because language will have changed by then.

Now, my name is "Jack." We know that. But will they know how to pronounce that in a couple hundred years? Probably not. So they’re going to have to guess at the pronunciation. Some will recall that the letter "J" does not go all the way back to the beginning of the English language, so they may think my name was pronounced "Yack," or "Hack," or "Ee-ack." Others won’t be sure of the vowel sound, so some may call me "Hack," while others call me "Jock," or "Yuck." Some may realize that both the "c" and the "k" may have a hard sound, so there might be another syllable hiding in there somewhere, such as "Yackack," or "Jokooka." So I have a feeling that someone, some day, may start to tell people about me, the guy named "Yahockakuck," and somebody says, "Wasn’t he one of the minor prophets?". So, rather than having a "sacred" name, I may just have a "scared" name. Or possibly a "scarred" name!

So much for the archeology of the future.

But let’s look at biblical archeology. Consider the work of the scribes.

It’s astounding to think that so much scripture could be transmitted, by hand, down through so many thousands of years, by so many hundreds of copyists, with so little alteration that it is virtually intact after all this time. The Dead Sea Scrolls are valuable in that they show an Isaiah scroll from before the first century A.D., virtually identical with Isaiah as we read him today!

No matter how Messiah railed against the scribes of His day for their attitudes and practices, He had no complaint at all about the work they were doing as faithful copyists of scripture.

Probably the best-known scribe mentioned in the scriptures is Ezra the Priest. We might not think of a priest as a scribe, but this is how he is described in Ezra 7:6 (NASB): "This Ezra went up from Babylon, and he was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses, which the LORD God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all he requested because the hand of the LORD his God {was} upon him."

And again in verse 11: "Now this is the copy of the decree which King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, learned in the words of the commandments of the LORD and His statutes to Israel."

Ezra was a sopher, or scribe. Sopher comes from the word saphar, to count, or to number. Ezra was the first in a long line of Sopherim, or scribes, who had the task of working with the scriptures after the return from Babylonian captivity, refining and maintaining the accuracy of the scriptures, and providing a correct interpretation of their meaning.

For instance, we read of the teaching and interpreting of scripture by Ezra and the other priests and Levites in Nehemiah chapter 8:

1 And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel.
2 Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women, and all who {could} listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month.
3 And he read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
4 And Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, {and} Meshullam on his left hand.
5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up.
6 Then Ezra blessed the LORD the great God. And all the people answered, "Amen, Amen!" while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with {their} faces to the ground.
7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people {remained} in their place.
8 And they read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.

So it was that Ezra, and those who followed after him, copied the scriptures, but they also began to make emendations. Emendations are alterations to the text intended to improve it. Some of these Sopherim, in a misguided zeal for God and the scriptures, took it upon themselves to make changes in the manuscripts!

The Sopherim believed they were doing a good thing. Their intent was:

(1) to make necessary corrections to errors that had crept in over time;

(2) to clarify the actual intent of the scriptures;

(3) and to show extreme reverence toward the name of God.

While we might condemn these scribes for making changes to the scriptures, we must also commend them for leaving a record of what they did! The record of these emendations is found in what is known as the "Massorah." The explanation is found on the first page of the handout, and an example of the scriptures with the Massorah in place is on the second page of the handout.

So the Sopherim made the changes in the Hebrew text, and handed these texts down to the Massorites, a group of Jewish scholars who copied the text without further changes. The Sopherim did not try to conceal what they had done; they left a clear record in the Massorah! But when movable type was introduced, and the Hebrew scriptures were printed, the Massorah was not printed along with it, and so became, in effect, lost. It was this Massoretic text, without the Massorah, that was used in the translations of the Bible we know today. Unfortunately, though, the translators were not aware of the Massorah.

Now, what about these 134 places where God’s name was removed and "Adonay" substituted? All 134 are listed in Appendix 32, and you may wish to examine each one in your own Bible and make a marginal note.

What is the history of these changes? Apparently, at some time during the days of the prophets, the use of the tetragrammaton in everyday speech became forbidden. Things evolved to the point where the tetragrammaton could only be pronounced aloud by the high priest, and then only on the Day of Atonement. Each time the name of God was pronounced, all the people who heard it were supposed to prostrate themselves.

I don’t really think that’s the kind of reverence that pleases God. I think He would rather have obedience any day, rather than idolizing the sound of His name.

At some point, the vowels for "Adonay" were intermixed with the consonants YHVH, and the mixture of the two gave the word "Yahovay," which we call "Jehovah" in English. It became acceptable to use this name, because it was not the true pronunciation of God’s name, so everyone was safe from misusing God’s name and angering Him.

But what about the 134 places where the Sopherim substituted "Adonay" in the text for YHVH? There were some general guidelines the Sopherim followed. The guidelines were:

1. Those passages where a man directly addressed God. Apparently they felt it was not proper for a man, even Moses, to address God by name. Even today, we wouldn’t go up to a king and call him by name. We would use a title, such as "Your highness." We wouldn’t call the President by name. We might call him names, but we wouldn’t call him "Bill." (Examples: Exodus 4:10, 13; 5:22; 34:9.)

2. Changes were made in statements that bring God into a personal relationship with the speaker. So, "my YHVH" was changed to "my Adonay." (Examples: Numbers 14:17; Judges 6:15; 13:8.)

3. When God Himself directly intervened in the affairs of men, His name was removed so God wouldn’t seem to be getting so personal with mere humans. (Examples: 2 Kings 7:6; Isaiah 3:17-18; 4:4; 7:14.)

4. If anyone caused a reproach against God, the passage was seen as an affront to God, and God’s name was removed. (Example: 2 Kings 19:23.)

5. If anyone had actually seen YHVH, His name was removed so the person saw "Adonay" instead. (Examples: Isaiah 6:1, 8; Amos 7:7; 9:1.)

6. If "YHVH" was used twice in the same verse, the second one was often changed to "Adonay." (Example: Exodus 4:10.)

One scripture where this apparently was not the case is Psalm 110:1: "The LORD said to my Lord." We discussed this last week. Here the first "LORD" is "YHVH" and the second "Lord" is "Adonay," in the original Hebrew. So we have two Beings shown here, representing the Ones who became the Father and the Son. But in verse 5, there was an emendation by the Sopherim. "The Lord is at Your right hand." It goes on to describe the Messianic things this Lord will do. However, this "Lord" in verse 5 was also "YHVH" in the original Hebrew. So we now have a second YHVH, sitting at the right hand of the first YHVH. The Sopherim changed this double YHVH reference to make the problem go away. It hasn’t gone away.

Let’s look next at some of the 18 emendations listed in Bullinger's Appendix 33.

Genesis 18:22 (KJV):

"And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD."

Originally:

"And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but the LORD stood yet before Abraham."

Apparently, it was demeaning to God to have Him stand before Abraham, so the Sopherim turned it around so that the lesser, Abraham, would stand before the greater, God.

Numbers 11:15

"And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness."

Originally:

"And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see thy evil."

Apparently, God should not be able to possess evil.

1 Samuel 3:13:

"For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not."

Originally:

"For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons cursed God, and he restrained them not."

This text was softened because it was a harsh thing to think of someone cursing God.

2 Samuel 12:14:

"Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die."

Originally:

"Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast greatly blasphemed the LORD, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die."

How could King David be a blasphemer? A man after God’s own heart! So this was changed so that David would be the vehicle through which others -- enemies -- might blaspheme God. Yet, the original shows that God forgives blasphemy upon repentance, and that adultery and murder -- David’s sins in question here -- are considered blasphemy.

I Kings 12:16:

"So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying, What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel: now see to thine own house, David. So Israel departed unto their tents."

Originally:

"So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying, What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your gods, O Israel: now see to thine own house, David. So Israel departed unto their tents."

Job 7:20:

"I have sinned; what shall I do unto thee, O thou preserver of men? why hast thou set me as a mark against thee, so that I am a burden to myself?"

Originally:

"I have sinned; what shall I do unto thee, O thou preserver of men? why hast thou set me as a mark against thee, so that I am a burden to thee?"

Could a mere mortal be a burden to God? The Sopherim thought not, but that is what Job said about himself.

Job 32:3:

"Also against his three friends was his wrath kindled, because they had found no answer, and yet had condemned Job."

Originally:

"Also against his three friends was his wrath kindled, because they had found no answer, and yet had condemned God."

But if Job’s three friends had only condemned Job, that wasn’t such a big deal. But if what they had said had condemned God, as it says in the original, we might want to study what they had said, so we can avoid condemning God ourselves!

Psalm 10:3:

"For the wicked boasteth of his heart's desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth."

Originally:

"For the wicked boasteth of his heart's desire, and the covetous man blasphemeth, yea, abhoreth the LORD."

Here is another place where a derogatory reference to God was changed.

Psalm 106:20:

"Thus they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass."

Originally:

"Thus they changed My glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass."

Again, a derogatory comment about God is altered.

Ezekiel 8:17:

"Then he said unto me, Hast thou seen this, O son of man? Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here? for they have filled the land with violence, and have returned to provoke me to anger: and, lo, they put the branch to their nose."

Originally:

"Then he said unto me, Hast thou seen this, O son of man? Is it a light thing to the house of Judah that they commit the abominations which they commit here? for they have filled the land with violence, and have returned to provoke me to anger: and, lo, they put the branch to My nose."

It makes no sense that they would try to spite themselves. Whatever the phrase may mean, putting the branch to God’s nose is definitely an act of rebellion and mischief against God. But the Sopherim apparently felt that it was derogatory to God to refer to Him as having a nose, even when using hyperbole, as this verse does.

Hosea 4:7:

"As they were increased, so they sinned against me: therefore will I change their glory into shame."

Originally:

"As they were increased, so they sinned against me: My glory have they changed into shame."

The real meaning of the verse is that when men sin, they bring shame to God’s glory.

Habbakuk 1:12:

"Art thou not from everlasting, O LORD my God, mine Holy One? we shall not die. O LORD, thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction."

Originally:

"Art thou not from everlasting, O LORD my God, mine Holy One, who diest not? O LORD, thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction."

The emendation transferred immortality from God to men. It makes no sense, and has no bearing on the context. In its original form, it glorifies God who is immortal.

Malachi 1:11-12:

"For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts. But ye have profaned it, in that ye say, The table of the LORD is polluted; and the fruit thereof, even his meat, is contemptible."

Originally:

"But ye have profaned Me, in that ye say, The table of the LORD is polluted; and the fruit thereof, even his meat, is contemptible."

The Sopherim wanted to protect God against men, and made it seem that men were profaning God’s name, rather than profaning God Himself.

Malachi 3:9:

"Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation."

Originally:

"Ye have cursed Me with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation."

God’s message to Malachi shows that it is God Himself who is being cursed by the disobedience of those rebellious people who are supposed to be followers of God. It’s not that the people are cursed, but that they have cursed God with a curse.

We’ve seen a number of verses where the Sopherim, ancient scribes, made changes in the scriptures, not all of which were helpful. There were times when they should have let God tell it like it is, and not try to soften, or de-personalize, the relationship God has with His people.

From this study, I’ve seen that the scriptures show God as a Being who created us and wishes to have a relationship with us. He uses down and dirty, shirt-sleeve language, even slang terms and the colloquialisms of the people, to show that He is not the aloof, Wizard of Oz type of character that men should run from in terror. He wants to have a personal relationship with humans. That’s why He uses terms such as "marriage," "sons," etc.

I’ve seen how some of the very scriptures that show God as a personal, acting and reacting Being, were changed by scribes who didn’t see God as being that kind of a God.

Is it too undignified to speak of men blaspheming and abhorring God, thumbing their nose at God? Is it too familiar and demeaning to talk of God standing before Abraham, to talk of "my YHVH"?

We have to take scripture as it comes. There are a great many things in the Bible we don’t understand yet. But it is important that we revere the word of God, and to want to understand what it originally said. As much as the scribes were entrusted with the sacred responsibility of transferring scripture safely from one generation to the next, there was one group of scribes, the Sopherim, who were not as careful about it as perhaps they should have been.

It should have been well known to the scribes that there were many things in scripture they themselves would never be able to understand, for many things were written for a time yet future, for the last days. But they transferred those words faithfully from their time to the time of their children and grandchildren.

But being human, the scribes did make mistakes. Some scribes made mistakes in copying, others, such as the Sopherim, took it upon themselves to "correct" scripture in places. Mistakes can be spotted by comparing various copies. But the emendations of the Sopherim are only found by their own notations, the Massorah, in the manuscripts, and those have not been a part of any Bible in print until The Companion Bible was published, within the last 100 years or so.

Now you are armed with this information. This should keep you busy with your Bibles for awhile. And that's always a good thing.