Word Order in Septuagint Judges


Most of the time, if you were to sit down, open up your Hebrew Bible and Greek Old Testament, and read them side-by-side (as we all do), it would quickly become clear that the Greek translators were perfectly content to mirror the word order of their Vorlagen (a fancy German word for "source texts" that we Septuagintalists like to use because it makes us feel special).  This practice worked well for the translators — since Koine Greek word order and Hebrew word order were largely similar, mirroring the Hebrew text resulted in a translation that visually resembled the Hebrew and also fit within the Greek idiom (not a literary masterpiece but perfectly coherent). Granted, since the Septuagint is a collection of translations from different translators, some books will exhibit more freedom, but on the whole, this is the practice found throughout the Greek OT. What is interesting, then, are cases when a translator who has a penchant for mirroring the Hebrew text exactly decides to switch things up and change the word order in his translation.  Cases like Judges 6:2:

καὶ ἴσχυσεν χεὶρ Μαδιαμ ἐπὶ Ισραηλ· καὶ ἐποίησαν ἑαυτοῖς οἱ υἱοὶ Ισραηλ ἀπὸ προσώπου Μαδιαμ τὰς τρυμαλιὰς τὰς ἐν τοῖς ὄρεσιν καὶ τὰ σπήλαια καὶ τὰ κρεμαστά.

"And the hand of Midian was strong against Israel.  And the sons of Israel made for themselves, from the face of Midian, holes in the mountains and also caves and [hanging fortresses?]."


וַתָּעָז יַד־מִדְיָן עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִפְּנֵי מִדְיָן עָשׂוּ לָהֶם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־הַמִּנְהָרוֹת אֲשֶׁר בֶּהָרִים וְאֶת־הַמְּעָרוֹת וְאֶת־הַמְּצָדוֹת

"And the hand of Midian was strong against Israel.  Because of Midian, the sons of Israel made for themselves dens which were in the mountains and also caves and strongholds."

You might be thinking, "What's the big deal?  The phrase, while spatial rather than causal, is just placed after the subject, who cares?"

Well, I care.  And it's a big deal.

Word order hardly ever gets changed to this extent in Judges.  The Septuagint translators, on the whole, were creatures of habit.  To mirror the Hebrew text more-or-less exactly and then to have a change like this thrown in there should cause one, at least, to ask the bread-and-butter question of Septuagint scholars: "What?"

Now, those of you who are keen on Septuagint studies may have noticed that I am quoting from the B Text of Judges.  [For the unitiated, we have two versions of Greek Judges, the A Text (from Codex Alexandrinus) and the B Text (from Codex Vaticanus).]  Thankfully, it doesn't really matter which text I use, because the A Text and the B Text, aside from a couple lexical choices that don't affect our discussion here, agree on this verse, that is, they both witness to the same word order.  However, I do intentionally quote from the B Text because it is a recension of the Old Greek translation toward the Hebrew.  Why is this important?  Because if any revision of the Greek was going to mirror the Hebrew, it would be the B Text — but it doesn't!

So, we have two options:

  1. The Hebrew Vorlage actually contained the same word order in the Greek.  This is certainly possible, though Greek Judges matches up pretty nicely with the Masoretic Text throughout, so this would be an anomaly.  If someone wanted to look into it further by checking out the Old Latin and the Lucianic versions (considered to be the best witnesses to the Old Greek for Judges), be my guest!  I'd be interested to see what they have.
  2. Explain why the translator would switch the word order.

I'm going to go with the second option.  This is not because I am opposed to the first, but because I think the word order can be explained as being a very reasonable and necessary change in the Greek.

So, starting with the assumption that the translator's Vorlage is similar to the Masoretic Text, which is not too great a leap as it seems to be the case throughout Judges, I think that key to understanding what the translator did here is the fact that מִפְּנֵי מִדְיָן ("because/before the face of Midian") is translated as ἀπὸ προσώπου Μαδιαμ ("from the face of Midian").  Translating the Hebrew phrase literally, the translator understood the expression as spatial (it could be a spatial, rather than causal, frame in the Hebrew as well, though causal makes better sense.  Regardless, it doesn't matter for this discussion).

This brings us to an important point, while spatial frames do occur at the beginning of sentences in Greek, they do so in order to give an explicit frame of reference for the following clause (Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 220).  Most often, a fronted spatial frame will also signal and highlight a change in location.  Here, though, there is no real need for an explicit spatial frame of reference; the Israelites are hiding in their land, the location is established.  Thus, because there was no spatial discontinuity, it seems reasonable that the Septuagint translator felt the spatial frame did not belong at the beginning of the sentence.

Furthermore, from an information structure point of view, fronted spatial frames are presupposed information.  It is possible that the translator regarded the spatial frame "from the face of Midian" as asserted/new information and thus better suited to the focus domain, the bulk of which typically follows the sentence topic ("the sons of Israel").

Now, the discussion does not end there.  We must also ask why the translator placed the spatial frame in the middle of the sentence rather than at the end, since prepositional phrases tend to come at the end of Greek sentences.

I think the simplest explanation for the arrangment is that

  1. The translator did not want to alter the text to too great an extent.  Placing the phrase all the way at the end, would, presumably, look very different from his Vorlage.
  2. By placing the direct objects after the prepositional phrase, they are regarded as the most salient elements of the sentence. (Levinsohn, Discourse Features of New Testament Greek, 30ff.)

If, then, the above explanation is correct, what more can we say?

  1. Though he mirrors the Hebrew text most of the time, the Septuagint translator did feel free to make a change if he felt the information structure of the Hebrew could not be replicated in the Greek.
  2. The translator was not focusing on only one small unit at a time as he translated and was aware of at least the most immediate context if not more.  (If he was ignorant of the wider context, he would have just continued translating word-for-word, placing the spatial frame at the beginning of the sentence.)