Is “lest” the best?

2 Sam. 1: 20 in the NIV and TNIV reads as:

Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

Instead of “lest”, other recent English versions (other than the ESV) typically have “or” as the conditional conjunction:

Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. (NRSV)

Tell it not in Gath,
Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
Or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
The daughters of †the uncircumcised will exult. (NASB)

Don’t report it in Gath,
don’t spread the news in the streets of Ashkelon,
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
the daughters of the uncircumcised will celebrate! (NET)

Don’t announce the news in Gath,
don’t proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon,
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice
and the pagans will laugh in triumph. (NLT)

Don’t tell the news in Gath.
Don’t announce the victory in the streets of Ashkelon,
or the daughters of the Philistines will be glad,
and the daughters of godless men will celebrate. (GW)

What do you think? Does “lest” sound outdated for contemporary English Bible translation?

18 thoughts on “Is “lest” the best?

  1. WoundedEgo says:

    I haven’t looked at the underlying word, but I think the sense of “lest” is “so that the Philistines won’t”… whereas “or” is “the consequences will be…” So what does the underlying text want to say?

  2. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    “Lest” may not be contemporary English, but “or” certainly doesn’t carry the same weight of fearing something may come to pass as the result of an action.

    I like the REB’s “Do not tell it […] in case the Philistine maidens rejoice, …” or even more to the point, the NJB: “Do not speak of it […] for fear the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, …”

  3. Gary Simmons says:

    Sometimes I go with “or else.”

    “Do not give what is holy to dogs (or else they’ll turn and rend you), and don’t throw your pearls before pigs (or else they’ll trample them with their feet).” Breaks the chiasm, but that’s on purpose. Average readers won’t understand the chiasm.

  4. Diego Santos says:

    In order to avoid “lest”, I would translate like this:

    “Don’t tell it in Gath,
    don’t proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon,
    so that the daughters of the Philistines may not be glad,
    and the daughters of the uncircumcised may not rejoice.”

    I don’t know if it’s correct and usual English, because I’m not a native speaker.

  5. Doug Chaplin says:

    I think Theophrastus’ sign off indicates the continuing use of “lest”. In the UK at least this would be a common phrase around Remembrance Day (ie more or less like US Veteran’s Day).

    It’s not simply a question of obsolescence, is it, but also of poetic diction and register? I also agree with ElShaddai and others who point out that none of the translations you cite convey the same force.

  6. Dannii says:

    The use of “lest” in one frozen phrase is no support for its use in other situations!

    Now “or else” may or may not carry as much weight or force as “lest”, but surely that is irrelevant. The question we need to ask is how much force is conveyed in the Hebrew?

  7. WoundedEgo says:

    “Unusual and new-coined words are, doubtless, an evil; but vagueness, confusion, and imperfect conveyance of our thoughts, are a far greater,” wrote English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria, 1817.

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wayne, Are you intuiting that “lest” is out of use or going out of use? How?

    Those of us working with learners of English increasingly rely on corpus linguistics to get at what’s old/ new (e.g., Averil Coxhead’s Academic Word List; Michael West’s General Service List, etc.) In Mark Davies’s and Dee Gardener’s “Word Frequency List of American English” published in 2010 which “is based on the 400+ million word Corpus of Contemporary American English [@ americancorpus.org],” the word “lest” is one of the words “that you would encounter in the ‘real world'” and is tagged @ frequency 9016, which is not too low at all. See http://www.wordfrequency.info/files/entries.pdf

    I think it’s amusing that many newer Bible translations avoid “lest”; and among the ones that do use there’s peculiarly inconsistencies on the uses of “lest”:

    “Today’s NIV” drops but 2 of the 9 NIV uses of “lest” (including the one shown in another of Wayne’s posts: “Bible translation and importing N.T. meanings to O.T. passages” of Sep 20, 2008.)

    NET uses “lest” 37 times; The Message 31 times.

    @ Proverbs 22:25, 30:10, etc., NET uses “lest” but neither NIV or TNIV does.

    @ Proverbs 31:5, etc., NET, NIV, and TNIV use “lest.”

  9. Mike Sangrey says:

    If the underlying Hebrew conveys a sense of fearing what will happen, then why not,

    Dont’ speak about it in Gath,
    don’t announce it in the streets of Ashkelon;
    for fear that the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
    for fear that the daughters of the uncircumcised will celebrate.
    “?

    In other words, if we have an accurate exegesis, then let’s accurately communicate that to the intended audience. “For fear of” (and “for fear that“) are idioms expressing a desire to avoid (just like lest) with the additional tip of the hat toward fear that may be in the relatively archaic lest.

  10. Mike Sangrey says:

    Also, Gayle wrote (essentially quoting): …the word “lest” is one of the words “that you would encounter in the ‘real world’” and is tagged @ frequency 9016, which is not too low at all.

    But, lest is a conjunction; so I think that makes it a bit rare.

    Thanks for pointing to that document! Excellent resource. I think we should make use of that much more often.

  11. Anthony says:

    I have Bibles in many languages, and the expression “lest” always seems to be translated as “so that”.
    So for 2 Sam 1:20 in spanish it’s “para que”, “daß” in German
    “чтобы” in Russian and “por ke” in Esperanto.

  12. Dru says:

    I can’t speak for the underlying Hebrew, but to me, ‘or’ is not an accurate paraphrase of ‘lest’. As I understand it ‘or’ is a direct alternative, which will definitely happen. ‘Lest’ introduces an element of conditionality, a consequence which may happen, is perhaps likely to happen but is not automatic.

    i.e., in this case, if one could say, and still be translating correctly
    ‘Tell it not in Gath,
    proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
    because then the daughters of the Philistines will be glad,
    and the daughters of the uncircumcised will rejoice’.
    then ‘or’ is a correct translation, but ‘lest’ probably was not and never would have been.

    If however
    ‘Tell it not in Gath,
    proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
    in case the daughters of the Philistines are glad,
    and the daughters of the uncircumcised may rejoice’.

    ‘Lest’, or what I have just put is a better translation, but ‘or’ is not. What I do not understand, is why ‘are’ for the verb in line 3 sounds better than ‘may be’, whereas I still feel ‘may’ has to go into line 4. Perhaps it is because the second verb is further from the ‘in case’.

    On the other hand, 50 years ago, we were discouraged from unthinking use of ‘lest’ when doing Latin translation, as even then, it was slightly stilted. We were also, though, taught not to use ‘don’t’ in anything other than a conversational register. I still find I am more likley to use it in emails than in letters or memoranda.

  13. robertholmstedt says:

    I’m not particularly fond of “lest,” myself. I don’t think many of my undergraduates understand what it means, so I avoid using it when translating /pen/.

    The Hebrew word /pen/ is a negative result or purpose subordinator.
    Thus, the force of its use in the passage is either

    1) don’t tell it in Gath *with the result that* the Philistine daughters will not rejoice

    or

    2) don’t tell it in Gath *in order that* the Philistine daughters don’t rejoice.

    Clearly, the two options differ, so the exegete/translator must decide based on the context. Since David is lamenting the death of Saul and Jonathan, who were both skilled warriors and who both fought the Philistines, it makes sense to me that the 2nd option was more likely intended. That is, if the news gets out to the Philistines, they will rejoice, and that is not desirable from David’s perspective (in the song).

    (BTW, “in case” is listed as an option in the Hebrew dictionary HALOT, but it is likely not an accurate understanding of the word.)

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