Does the Lord keep you?

Numbers 6:24 is the beginning of one of the most beautiful benedictions in the Bible. Ministers often recite these verses as a blessing upon their congregations. The words have been set to music and I love to hear them sung.

But I don’t know what one of the most important words in this benediction means. It is the word “keep”. I know what “keep” means ordinarily, but not how it is used in Numbers 6:24, with minor variations worded as:

The Lord bless you and keep you (KJV, ASV, D-R, Lexham, NASB, NIV, NKJV, ESV, NCV, TM, CEB)

I do understand the following translations of Number 6:24:

May the Lord bless you and take care of you (GNT)

I pray that the Lord will bless and protect you (CEV)

May the Lord bless you and take good care of you.  (NIRV)

May the LORD bless you and guard you (REB)

The Lord will bless you and watch over you. (GW)

The LORD bless you and protect you (NET)

May the Lord bless you and protect you. (NLT)

May Yahweh bless you and protect you (HCSB)

May the LORD bless you and guard you. (ISV)

Now, because I have heard the traditional words of Numbers 6:24 all my life, I have assumed that I understood them. But when I have stopped to think about the words, I realize that “keep” doesn’t sound right to me as it is used in this verse. How about you?

40 thoughts on “Does the Lord keep you?

  1. bobmacdonald says:

    while keep may mean protect, the word used here has its primary gloss as keep, in a sense which I think is still current in English. Psalm 127 expands on keeping. Psalm 67 may reflect the prayer of Numbers (but no use of keep in that psalm).

    Numbers is using a singular ‘you’, but singular in the Hebrew tradition does not necessarily mean ‘individual’. The paramount example of this for me is Rashi’s consideration that Psalms 42-43 (singular) and 44 (plural) are one psalm. Also the lamentations of Jeremiah where one person speaks in chapter 3 for the whole body.

    Keep in its sense of preserve and watch over / guard applies adequately to both singular and plural. As you know, I see translating partly as a species of pattern recognition. As such, whatever gloss you chose here has implications for other places in the body of work under consideration.

    I would keep keep.

  2. Doug says:

    You need to live in a country where they play proper football (i.e. soccer) and the keeper or goal-keeper has the job of guarding the goal from opposing strikers.

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    I’m glad that you can get the intended meaning from that usage of “keep”, Bob. I don’t have that meaning for “keep” in my dialect of English. I do get the right meaning if I add the word “safe” as in:

    “The Lord bless you and keep you safe”

  4. Wayne Leman says:

    Doug I like what you wrote the job of the goalkeeper to be! I suspect that the meaning sense of ‘protect’ for the word “keep” is being lost in your country as well as in the U.S. I prefer the principle of using words in Bible translations whose meanings are well known to users of that translation.

  5. dkmt says:

    I’ve always understood this verse to me saying “The Lord bless you and keep you (close to him)”. That is, so you don’t go away from him.

    Is that not what it means? Have I been understanding it clearly, but inaccurately?

  6. Wayne Leman says:

    dkmt, the Hebrew word at the end of the sentence means “protect, guard”. I wrote this blog post because I suspect that many English speakers today do not know that meaning for the word “keep”. So your understanding of the word was clear and as accurate as possible, based on currently known meanings of the word “keep.” A more accurate understanding is communicated to English speakers today with the translations that mean “protect”.

  7. bobmacdonald says:

    I guess I don’t understand your problem. Are you considering that ‘keep’ for you means ‘keep for yourself’? Your nuance escapes me. Translation is of course not explanation. Keep is used of the keepers of the city (Song of Songs) – and it is the city that needs keeping. There can be no exclusive individuality here in spite of the singular usage. A keep is also a dangerous place. It is not necessarily protection. How protected were the Israelites in the wilderness or in the exile? Yet they are still kept – guarded – preserved.

  8. Tim Archer says:

    We’ve largely lost that sense of keep as a verb, but we do have it in noun form, like a shopkeeper or the keepers at a zoo.

    Were this passage not in poetic form, I’d be more bothered by the usage. People are used to the use of archaic language in poetry, in my opinion.

  9. Dannii says:

    When I think of how I’d use the word “keep” with a human object I come up with sentences like these. I don’t think any of them are the right meaning for this passage.

    I think I will keep the stray dog I found.
    You’re girlfriend’s a catch, you must keep her.
    Will you keep your child or abort?

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob, the issue for me (an American), Dannii (an Australian), and others is that the English word “keep” no longer has the meaning sense of “protect”. So “keep” does not accurately translate today the original Hebrew word if it does not communicate the idea of protection to current users of the translation. It is more accurate for those who lack the intended, but archaic, meaning of “keep” to translate with a word that accurately communicates the original meaning of the Hebrew word.

    While it is true that there are compound nouns such as storekeeper and goalkeeper that originally had the meaning sense of protecting, guarding, or watching over, that meaning, even in these nouns has, I suggest, been lost for many, if not most, English speakers. When I hear the words “storekeeper” or “goalkeeper” I do not have in my mind the idea that the “keeper” part of the word means ‘protector’.

    The most important job of any translator is to communicate in one language to those who will use their translation with words which they understand and communicate the same meanings as the original language words had. This does not mean using slang or any other inferior forms of language. The English versions cited in my blog post which translate the Hebrew word with words such as “protect”, “guard”, and “watch over” are using good English, not slang, words which accurately translate the original Hebrew word. All languages change over time, and as they do, any Bible versions using older words which no longer have the intended meanings for most speakers need to be updated so that they can continue to communicate the meaning of the biblical language texts accurately.

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    For me as a USA American, I don’t think there’s an issue at all.

    As a linguist, I can use Pike’s Tagmemic theory or Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory or Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphor theory or Chomsky’s Deep Structure theory to explain.

    Pike lets me understand that “keep” is one variant or “allo” of the morphophonemic set of phrases that mean “keep you guarded” “keep you safe” “keep you protected.” Sperber would say the English speaker of this blessing has a thought/intention that is encoded / transmitted as “keep” and that then is decoded and understood by the listeners as “keep guarded” “keep safe” “keep protected.” Lakoff would say “keep” is “guard” is “protect” is “safe keeping.” Chomsky lets me imagine that “keep” comes up to the surface and performed out on the page or into the ears, but underneath it is the deep notional structure. In literature and in rhetoric, these sorts of elegant forms are used all of the time. Even children do comprehend them, I think.

    Google these all together, and you’ll see plenty of English writers on the web still using “keep” in the same sense as the Blessing has it: “keep you guarded” “keep you safe” “keep you protected.”

    And GNT Psalm 121:7 still keeps this language:

    “The Lord will protect you from all danger; he will keep you safe.”

  12. Jason Leonard says:

    Whether or not one understands it meaning to “keep” watch over you, “keep” you safe, etc., translations leave these implied words out, just saying “keep you”? And that doesn’t communicate anything clear enough.

    Sure, we may still use the word keep with the same meaning in modern English, but we don’t just say “keep you”. We always supplement it with something more descriptive. Alone, it sounds possessive, and some mental gymnasitcs, however brief, have to be done to separate that we’re not talking about just holding something.

    That is not the case for other translations, however – it’s clear at 1st read what is being communicated. God is being asked to protect me. ‘Keep’ needs to go. I’m with Wayne and Dinnii. Languages change too much and translators are way too afraid to part from old phrases as if they were more sacred than their right meaning.

  13. bobmacdonald says:

    I was thinking of growing pumpkins this morning. (Honestly) It was a waking thought, brought to me by the one who keeps me – such that when I awake, still I am with you. (Ps139:18)

    Then I was somewhat stumped by this conversation – because for me, a North American, I found no trouble with ‘keep’. I think, Wayne, that ccuracy of grammar, form; imitation of word play and structure – these I get. But the natural meaning? I know – but it is inexpressible. And I doubt your contention in this particular case.

    When the disciples said that Jesus was now speaking plainly (John 16:29), I, like Sarah, laugh a little at the promise of a child. So on the nature of the word ‘keep’ – it’s like Peter, Peter Pumpkin-eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her. (I had to Google the second line to remember the first!)

    Keep – the keeping of Israel – is more than nuance. And God’s name is not Peter. Lo, now speakest thou plainly, and speakest no proverb. Indeed, this is parable and myth and saga and life – no proverb.

    But I, singular and collective am kept by One who has taken me / snatched me / captured me / bought me and can keep me through his glorious resurrection from the dead, so that I can go everywhere, into hospitals, jails, on the street, and even into war zones with fear – but knowing that in the midst of my enemies, internal and external, I am kept, even if exposed.

    Keep is greater than protection. I found it curious that protect was never used as a gloss in the KJV.

    Thank you Kurk for clarifying my gut feel. My son-in-law, Marcus Tomalin, is a linguist but I only read his books. Wayne, you might find his book on the Haida language of interest. The sections on Scripture translation I found very interesting.

  14. dkmt says:

    Here’s an observation to throw into the mix. In standard Indian English “to keep something” means “to put something down”. So whilst talking to an IT professional on the phone, I have been instructed to “keep the phone” which means to hang up.

    Clearly, in that case, keep in the context of this psalm, is communicating totally wrong meaning. It might communicate something like “The Lord bless you and leave you there”…???!

  15. bobmacdonald says:

    Now dkmt has a point – but it does not apply to ‘my’ continent :). How would you translate Psalm 121 for Indian English? Sorry for the wrong reference above though 127 also uses keep once, 121 uses it 6 times. There is a close translation here – but follow what you will.

  16. J. K. Gayle says:

    I really do think linguists offer valuable insights, even about translation in general and also about translation of the Bible into English in particular. One of the most valuable things that linguists tend to offer is an understanding of language(s) that is descriptive and is not prescriptive, that is relativistic and pluralistic not narrow and singular. Even linguists are varied in their approaches (as I tried to show) while valuing diversity in language(s).

    If your linguist son-in-law works in or reads sociolinguistics, then he would appreciate something else about language that relates to this post. “Code switching” and proficiency with “diglossia” are concepts that relate to this post. Can’t we regard the English phrase “the Lord keep you” as a rather “high” and “literary” form of English that we all understand (despite the hyperbolic claims that we “don’t know what it means”)? Of course we know. When we hear it sung in church, we know. There is the high code we switch to in certain churches, or at the very least we can tolerate it when, say in a movie or in a play, we hear “the Lord bless you and keep you.” I just got out of a meeting in which a professor said “Never take away a behavior. Add a behavior.” And I think all of us English speakers and listeners do this. There are different forms to our English that we find ourselves switching to in different societal settings. We don’t need to take old forms away, then. We can keep them, and then add the new too. This is a very linguistic sort of thing to do.

  17. bobmacdonald says:

    Yes Kurk – I hope you did not think I was lessening the work of linguists – I really appreciated the comment you made above. The words had not been in my mouth, and I am grateful that you gave such words to my unconscious understanding.

    Mind you, I can’t see out of my own experience and I have been exposed to poetry and music all my life. I am still hoping that dkmt will give us more insight into Indian English in the Scriptural context.

  18. J. K. Gayle says:

    Annette H.
    You are funny! I think the Hebrew of Moses, as we have it today written in Numbers 6:24 is something quite different from the Hebrew Moses spoke. This is an assertion of Hebrew scholar and English Bible translator (of Moses and of the Psalms) Robert Alter.

    Alter claims:

    “[T]he Hebrew of the Bible is a conventionally delimited language, roughly analogous in this respect to the French of the neoclassical theater: it was understood by writers and their audiences, at least in the case of narrative, that only certain words were appropriate for the literary rendering of events.”

    He says further that, “[T]he language of the canonical texts was not identical with the vernacular…. [T]he language of biblical narrative in its own time was stylized, decorous, dignified, and readily identified by its audiences as a language of literature, in certain ways distinct from the language of quotidian reality.”

    In other words, how Moses wrote what we read today is a different sort of Hebrew than he and people around him spoke, very likely.

    So I think there’s an analogy here for us. Why not have an English translation that sounds literary (that focuses on meter and rhyme and parallelism and elided forms and the like)? Why does the Bible we hear, the Bible we read, always have to sound like “my” sort of English?

    (The quotations of Alter are from his pages xxviii – xxxi in The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary)

  19. Mike Sangrey says:

    Wayne wrote: the Hebrew word at the end of the sentence means “protect, guard”.

    Really?! Whoa. I had always taken the clause to mean that I wouldn’t be lost or misplaced, that God wouldn’t lose me.

    Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a “keep ” usage that even moderately clearly conveys to me the idea of protection.

    What if Wayne were to write:

    “We have a new granddaughter, we flew halfway across the country to just see her. My wife and I took one look at her and knew, we just knew, we were going to keep her.”

    How many immediately thought of protecting her? And how many laughed (or smiled) because of the slight dis-coherence between the idea of keeping her and the thought that someone like Wayne would even possibly entertain the thought of doing otherwise. That amusement, no matter how slight, indicates the natural use of the word keep in this type of construction.

    I’m with Wayne, 100%, on this one. In fact, on both. 🙂

    BTW, Wayne, congrats!! 🙂

  20. bobmacdonald says:

    with? against? Really?! Whoa.
    Mike – I think your example shows just another sense of keep, in this case with a touch of humour. But would you guard / shelter the granddaughter – of course? Even if you were invisible. You might even protect, but it might be a complex protection, as it always is when humans raise children. For we cannot protect them from those things they must learn. But they are always our children – so are kept.

    So keep – implies remain on side, not discard, watch over (even from the other side of the country), take good care of (as in brother’s keeper – yes same word). Lot’s of stuff in those four letters in our tongue.

    Again I would bear with keep, lift it up, forgive it for being so polymorphic, and guard, cherish, care for, in short keep it.

  21. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks for the congratulations,Mike. For those of you who do not know why I deserve congratulations, let me introduce you to Karina, our newest grandchild (# 11), born last Saturday. We’re going to keep her!!

  22. Wayne Leman says:

    Biblical Hebrew scholars helped translate the Old Testament of the NET Bible. Here is their translation note for the Hebrew word šāmar at the end of Numbers 6:24:

    “The verb “to keep” concerns the divine protection of the people; its basic meaning is “to exercise great care over, “guard,” or “to give attention to”(see TWOT 2:939). No doubt the priestly blessing informed the prayer and promise that makes up Ps 121, for the verb occurs six times in the eight verses. So in addition to the divine provision (“bless” basically means “enrich” in a number of ways) there is the assurance of divine protection.”

    I agree that the English word “keep” historically has had as one of its senses the meaning of ‘keep,’ and it apparently still has that meaning for some English speakers who are well-informed of classical English literature. Today an accurate translation of Hebrew šāmar is, as the NET translators noted, ‘protect, exercise great care over, guard.’ “Keep” is not an accurate translation for those speakers, like myself, who do not have its obsolescing meaning sense of ‘guard, protect, watch over’. It is not the job of Bible translators to teach users of a translation meanings of words which they do not already have in their personal lexicons. It is, as Kurk Gayle noted, appropriate in certain contexts, to translate in a higher register of a language, for people who wish a more literary translation. But even if we translated to a higher register of English today, my guess is that field testing will demonstrate that only a small minority of English speakers recognize the meaning of ‘protect, watch over’ for the word “keep.” And I would suggest that most of these speakers are keen on reading older, more classical English literature. There is nothing wrong with such literature. But it does not set the standard for *current* English Bible translation.

  23. Dannii says:

    Kurk, there is a huge syntactic and semantic difference between “keep you” and “keep you safe/protected”, and I’m sure all your theories would agree.

    Now in the past keep had that guard/protect meaning all by itself. Then after that I suspect it began to lose it, and shifted in meaning to something along the lines of maintain. When that happened you then had to add in a second word to explain what you were maintaining – their safety. And for a while if you just said “keep you” most English speakers would fill in the ellipsis with the appropriate word.

    What Wayne and I have been suggesting is that most English speakers won’t understand “keep you” as “maintain your safety” but as “maintain possession of you”. Even though we still understand “keep you safe”, we cannot read “keep you” and think of the guard and protect meaning.

  24. bobmacdonald says:

    Dannii. Keep as ‘maintain possession of’ is not out of scope. God says – you will be my own special possession. (Deut 7:6 quoted in 1 Peter 2:9 & Titus 2:14). The sense of being kept as ownership is also supported by the verse that says “you were bought with a price”. In this way we are “for keeps”. Keep works its magic again.

  25. dkmt says:

    If I were to translate Psalm 121 or any text containing this verb in Hebrew, into Indian English, I’d have to use the word protect/guard. “Keep” conveys totally wrong meaning.

    I also think that in English it’s conveying wrong meaning, I understood it to mean “maintain possession of” and I only found out it didn’t though this blog. Surely it’s a bad translation.

    Bob, I think you’re confusing the difference between communicating the meaning clearly to the average English reader, with being able to see the semantic overlap between words and seeing why “keep” is traditionally used, even though that sense is becoming obsolete now.

    It seems to me that this (translating this Hebrew word as “keep”) is the most dangerous type of translation mistake. Other mistakes are obviously mistakes, and they don’t communicate much. This mistake communicates clearly to me, and I think I understand it, but it seems now that I don’t. In the case of Australian English, it’s not too big a problem because “maintain possession of” and “protect” are very related. You can’t protect something that’s not near you etc. But in the case of Indian English, it’s a more damaging problem.

    By the way, the test for me to see one aspect of the difference between “keep” and “protect” is that you can say “I’m keeping it to protect it” but you can also say “I’m keeping it to abuse and destroy it”. Obviously the core meaning of “keep” (for me at least) has moved from protect, to possess.

  26. J. K. Gayle says:

    Congratulations, and thanks for introducing us to your granddaughter Karina and for sharing her with us. She is just beautiful. Yes, I understand that we haven’t really been “introduced” so to speak, and you’ve only really shared with us just a link that, if we learn how to “click” it will “take” us to a photographic digital representation of her. So really I’ve used “share her” in a rather “obsolescent” way.

    If I ever I really do have the privilege of meeting Karina, and if we are speaking USA American English or Indian English, then I promise not to say to her “The LORD bless you.” And I hope she won’t say that to me either, unless I’ve just unintentionally sneezed on accident in her presence. Nobody in any standard English today uses or even understands the use of “The LORD” when spoken. (Well, my brother who is a permanent resident of the UK although a native speaker of Texan USA English does refer to some in London as “Lord”; but he also has learnt to switch his pronunciation and his syntax and his lexicon, poor fellow, when driving by the window of McDonalds there in his lorry lest he is misunderstood.) Weird, he tells me some Londoners use German (Gesundheit) and not always “bless you.”

    I agree with you that how we speak and how a high register written English Bible sound are necessarily different. There is a place to for more contemporary and colloquial and conversational English Bibles too. Who sets and prescribes “the standard”? And who gets to keep the standard for *current* English Bible translation?

  27. J. K. Gayle says:

    When we google The Time of India, we can find headlines that include “Keep your skin young” and “keep your staff motivated” and “keep your teeth clean” and “keep watch in Hinjawadi” and “keep Ganga clean.”. And somebody in India has posted this:

    Right now I am serving on the dissertation committee of an English graduate student in the USA who is from India. Her topic is the rhetorics of “world Englishes.” She herself speaks English, Hindi and Bānglā, but really she speaks Englishes. For some years she taught ESL to international students in the US university where I work. Although she speaks a standard American English flawlessly and fluently, although she writes in academic English prose beautifully and clearly, she chose to teach differently. In her ESL classes here in Texas, she spoke in her Indian English. She taught her ESL students to read different varieties of written forms, and she used Peter Elbow’s theory, practice, and pedagogy on free writing in her composition class while her writing students were also engaged in study of academic university writing in another standard composition course with a faculty member in the English department. Her goal, in part, was to help her students become observers and users of different forms of different Englishes for a variety of purposes. She taught her students to be ethnographers, to be writers of culture and of language; the culture they focused on was the culture of the “freshman composition course” in the USA. I think her students are well prepared to encounter “The Lord bless you and keep you” and not to have to shrug and just say, “that is not current English because it’s not the way people in America or Australia or England or India always speak.” Her students, hearing her Indian English, are in some ways better prepared also to hear Texan English than many other people are. The point is that Indian English speakers are not all stuck with slang and with other low forms of their lect. While some may keep the phone these same ones should not have any trouble saying, the LORD bless you and keep you.

  28. dkmt says:

    “The point is that Indian English speakers are not all stuck with slang and with other low forms of their lect.”

    I’m not saying that “keep” to mean “put down” is slang. Do you understand it that way? It’s standard Indian English, just because it’s not the same as American English doesn’t mean it’s slang.

    I’m saying that if a person who speaks Indian English (and is not bi-dialectal in American or British English) reads “Someone will keep you” they will assume that it means “to put that person down.”

    You said: “While some may keep the phone these same ones should not have any trouble saying, the LORD bless you and keep you.”

    I think you’re confusing what they would understand if they simply read it (which is what I’m talking about) and what they are capable of understanding if someone explains it to them.

    Regarding all your Indian links, all those headlines are using “keep” in the sense of “ensure” or “continue to” which is another sense again.

  29. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurt asked:

    Who sets and prescribes “the standard”? And who gets to keep the standard for *current* English Bible translation?

    Language speakers do. English teachers help maintain mainstream standards of what is considered “grammatical” for a wide portion of speakers. Sometimes English teachers have to adjust their list of rules to agree with language changes, such as allowing the Latin-based rule of not splitting English infinitives to be quietly laid to rest in a pleasant cemetery.

    There are a variety of standards. There are standards for high register, literary English. There are standards for everyday English as spoken and written by a high percentage of speakers when speaking and writing in their “ordinary” lives (at the grocery store, dentist’s office, library, etc.) There are even standards for localized dialects in the hollers of Kentucky or Appalachia. If one follows these standards there is greater solidarity with the local people. Outsiders can quickly learn to be diglossic and switch codes depending on what is appropriate for the speech context.

    If one wants a Bible translation to be acceptable to a wide range of speakers of different Englishes, it is important that that translation be written in English which they can each understand. And reactions so far from many speakers of English dialects has been that they prefer that the Bible be written in a standard of wider distribution than their own dialect. Many African Americans felt demeaned by the well-intentioned efforts of those who translated the Bible into Ebonics. They preferred the beautiful cadences of the King James Version.

    Standards, Englishes, dialects, sociolinguistics, and language attitudes are complex issues and interact in complex ways with the desires and needs of people who speak different Englishes.

    I suspect that most people reading this blog can comfortably understand English versions which are written in a kind of standard “broadcast” English. Broadcast school used to teach this American dialect to those not from the St. Louis, Kansas City area which was considered to exemplify such English). And in the U.K. there has been a Received Pronunciation (or something like that) for a broadcast standard. I find it interesting that when I am in the South or Northeast of the U.S. the newscasters are not speaking a local dialect of English.

    So, I suggest that there is a kind of generic (“standard”) American English into which English Bible translators attempt to compose the English in their translation. Although dialectalisms like “I’m fixin’ to get new tires on my car today” are widely spoken in parts of the U.S. we will seldom, if ever, find “fixin’ to ___” in any English Bible. I suspect that just as many African Americans rejected Bibles written in Ebonics, speakers in the South would reject Bibles which have “fixin’ to ___”.

    Determining desired standard dialects to be used in English Bibles is part of field testing. Field testing can be formally, scientifically conducted. Or it can be conducted informally with anecdotal evidence. English Bible translators usually have an intuitive sense of what is considered a standard English which will be acceptable for their audiences.

  30. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thanks, Donna, for offering some clarifications. Let me step forward in that direction with you to try also to show how much we agree on some points:

    * Indian English is not slang (although like USA American English, Canadian American English, English English, Australian English, Singaporean English, and so forth, it does have slang).

    * If there’s a speaker of Indian English, and if that person is not bi-dialectal in either American or British English, then there will be certain American or British English texts she reads that she could misunderstand the meanings of.

    * Simple reading on one’s own does often yield different meanings from those gained by an explanation from someone else.

    What I can’t be sure of are the following:

    * Whether “keep the phone” is really “standard Indian English.” To Southern Indians generally, it seems, it just sounds like confusing Hindified, Northern Indian talk. Here’s a rather funny dialogue that shows different Indian Englishes regarding “keeping” the phone:

    * Whether all of the links and all of the India Times headlines fail to “keep” the word keep from having the meanings “protect,” “take care of,” and “guard.”

    The headline “Keep your skin young” is followed by phrases and sentences such as “protective skin gear” and “People with sensitive skin must use sunscreen while going out as protection against rashes and sun burns.”

    The headline “keep your staff motivated” is followed by this short paragraph: “So it will be a tough job for organisations to keep their staff motivated enough and retain their productivity. The management needs to look for ways and means to keep their staff in good humour.” Can’t this mean “protect” and/or “take care of” and/or “guard” the motivation and the good humour of the staff (with the further goal of retaining their productivity)?

    The headline “keep your teeth clean” is followed by an article with this slangy written Indian English sentence: “Whether or not you’re a wannabe mom – taking care of those choppers can yield big health benefits.”

    The headline “47 CCTV cameras will keep watch in Hinjewadi” quotes an official who insists that “All roads in the three phases will therefore have cameras to ensure safety and security in the area.”

    The headline “keep Ganga clean” is followed by this sentence: “The activists took a pledge to preserve the sanctity and purity of the river.” There’s also the clause, They “demanded adequate water in the river to keep it free from pollution.” Now, I would agree that there’s the sense of “ensure” and “continue to” here; and yet, “to preserve” can have the meanings of “protect,” “take care of,” and “guard” as well.

    Finally, the Indian link shared above to the discussion of the New Year’s blessing has the exact poetic lines:

    “May The Lord bless you
    and always keep you”


    “The Lord Bless you and keep you!
    The Lord let His face shine upon you,
    and be gracious to you!”

    So I can’t be sure if this would only be narrowly understood in India by just simply a few as merely meaning something other than “protect” and/or “take care of” and/or “guard.” In other words, if the India Times headlines and articles are any indication at all, these meanings of “keep” in India are also widely understood and used.

  31. J. K. Gayle says:

    Interesting you mention Ebonics. I don’t think there is literature much at all written in this language. So it is peculiar, and marked, to try to render the written Hebrew Bible and the written Greek New Testament into Ebonics. Clarence Jordan advised readers to use the RSV or the NEB but nonetheless offered his “Cotton Patch Version” of parts of the NT; he’s not translating into Ebonics, but seems sensitive to synchronic and diachronic issues as he works on something like a dynamic equivalence:

    To give us a sense of participation or involvement, that “certain man” would need to be going from New York to Boston, or from Atlanta to Savannah, or from San Francisco to Los Angeles, or from our hometown to the next one. So the “cotton patch” version is an attempt to translate not only the words but the events. We change the setting from first-century Palestine to twentieth-century America. We ask our brethren of long ago to cross the time-space barrier and talk to us not only in modern English but about modern problems, feelings, frustrations, hopes and assurances; to work beside us in our cotton patch or on our assembly line, so that the word becomes modern flesh.


    [T]here is no adequate equivalent of “Jew and Gentile.” My translation as “white man and Negro” is clear evidence of superimposing my own personal feelings, which is the unpardonable sin of a self-respecting translator. But in the Southern context, is there any other alternative?

    Martin Luther King Jr. seems to have befriended Jordan and appreciated his ministry. So he wrote on, versioning, translating, in his white man Southern context alongside African Americans speakers of what we call Ebonics now.

    Zondervan publisher blurbs for their “The Bible Experience” has this description:

    unique, epic re-enactment of the New Testament (full Bible is also available) on audio CD is fully-dramatized, performed by a cast of more than 200 leading actors, musicians, personalities and clergy, many of whom have won or been nominated for Oscar and Emmy awards, such as Samuel Jackson, Blair Underwood, Angela Bassett, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. The entire script uses the accessible and most up-to-date Today’s New International Version (TNIV) Bible translation.

    If you’ve listened, then you know that while the syntax and lexicon cannot be Ebonics (due to the written TNIV text) nonetheless the phonology and spoken phrasing approaches Ebonics.

    But both The Bible Experience and the Cotton Patch Version are not intended at all to “update” what some might feel is literary or even old, not often used English. As mentioned, Jordan pointed readers to other standard versions, and Zondervan still sells a variety of literary English Bible.

  32. bobmacdonald says:

    There seems to me to be another clarifying aspect to Hebrew poetry. Words are internally ‘defined’ by the parallels they are used with or that are used in contrast.

    Numbers 6:24-26 is a progressive poem, each phrase expanding on the prior. One who reads the Hebrew Bible will need to be taught that this poem’s cola are an expression of such progressive parallelism. If there are those who don’t know how to interpret ‘keep’ than the poem interprets it for them.
    יְהוָה bless thee and keep thee – what does that mean? Here it is:

    יְהוָה bless thee and <i?keep thee
    יְהוָה make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee
    יְהוָה lift up his face upon thee and appoint to thee peace

    Keep is ‘explained’ / ‘presented’ / ‘clarified’ / ‘expanded’ by the poem. To be a kept person / nation / congregation is to have the face of יְהוָה shining on you, to be in the presence of יְהוָה and to see the results of this blessing in the actions taken on your behalf.

    Now maybe you don’t like the idea of the face/countenance/presence of יְהוָה looking on you, as Job notes in 7:17:
    What is a mortal that you make him great
    and that you set your heart on him
    and that you visit him every morning
    and every moment scrutinize him?

    This blessing is a part of a conversation. Gracious is the other side of supplication (same word in Hebrew). Appoint to thee Peace completing the trio, reminds us that all is not well. Peace implies the presence of enemies and troubles. We are not all sound and whole.

    But even if we have Job’s problem or the enemies of the Psalms, it is pretty hard to confuse the positive intent of that word ‘keep’.

    The alternatives presented at the top of this conversation seem to me to be overly guarded in their focus, overly protective of the poetry, or superfluous.
    יְהוָה take care of thee, or protect thee, take good care of thee, guard thee, watch over thee, …

    ‘take good care’ is particularly superfluous. My thoughts are not your thoughts, says יְהוָה. You need not add ‘good’ to my word. Watch over is reasonable, but it will give one problems when we come to translate other words in the ‘visual’ domain such as צָפָה. Watch implies ‘seeing’. Keep may imply other senses: touch, the hand of יְהוָה, hearing, the words of יְהוָה, or seeing, the eyes of יְהוָה. In this, it anticipates John’s recognition of the sense-filled nature of the incarnation (John 1, 1 John 1:1).

    I maintain that keep includes these meanings and more. And that it is not ambiguous given the nature of the poetry. It is also not without cost.

  33. bobmacdonald says:

    Another question raised in this conversation is – what is the role of the translator? I asked an NT professor last night at choir, and he said, almost predictably, to render the meaning. You won’t be surprised to know that I disagree. Render reminds me of a glue-factory. Meaning reminds me of demeaning, leveling, and reducing the complexity of a foreign culture into a tamed version of our own.

    We have touched on what the role of a translator is not in the comments above: Wayne: “It is not the job of Bible translators to teach users of a translation meanings of words which they do not already have in their personal lexicons.” Bob: “Translation is not explanation.”

    But I see translating positively also: as a type of pattern recognition. As such, whatever gloss one chooses in one place has implications for other places in the body of work under consideration.

    Translation is much more than assigning glosses. It is mediation. The translator is a mediator between a foreign text and a non-foreign reader. And that reader may also be the translator. If we add the adjective Bible does this change what a translator is? I expect it does because the Bible is written in languages that are no longer spoken in the same form, so one is dependent on a few experts and teams of experts. Also the Bible is a hot potato so the experts are very careful or they might risk being burned at the stake or have their heads cut off.

    Perhaps we have changed in the last 500 years.

    Anyway – for those of you who like ‘meaning’, consider the pattern, then let the meaning be in the gaps, in the ellipses, that the Ancient of Days will not allow you to include lest you despise one of these little ones.

    My apologies for the typos in the prior comment – than for then, and a missing tag closure.

  34. Wayne Leman says:

    Bob wrote:

    Bob: “Translation is not explanation.”

    I agree, Bob. You quoted my statement which you posted before yours:

    Wayne: “It is not the job of Bible translators to teach users of a translation meanings of words which they do not already have in their personal lexicons.”

    My statement reinforces yours. It looks like we agree.

  35. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wayne and Bob,

    On translation of the Hebrew it’s interesting to compare the patterns (or lack of them). For example, here’s the GNT and HCSB English and the LXX Greek, side by side for the Hebrew of Numbers 6:24 and of Ps 121:7 —

    “May the Lord bless you and take care of you”

    “May Yahweh bless you and protect you”

    εὐλογήσαι σε κύριος καὶ φυλάξαι σε

    “The Lord will protect you from all danger;
    he will keep you safe.”

    “The Lord will protect you from all harm;
    He will protect your life.”

    κύριος φυλάξει σε ἀπὸ παντὸς κακοῦ
    φυλάξει τὴν ψυχήν σου


    Which is better English? Yahweh or the Lord? And why does the HCSB waffle on this?

    Which is better English? “take care of you” or “keep you safe“? And why does the GNT waffle on that?

    Wouldn’t we all agree that the LXX keeps the Greek lexical pattern most consistent?

    And doesn’t the Greek reading of the Hebrew שמר shamar as φυλάξ* phylaks* have the idea(s) of the English keep we’ve been questioning?

    Notice how Brenton’s 19th century English and then Flint’s and Pietersma’s respective 21st century English translates the Septuagint’s Greek:

    The Lord bless thee and keep thee;

    – Brenton’s English translation of the LXX Numbers 6:25(24)

    May the Lord bless you and keep you.

    – Flint’s English translation of the LXX Numbers 6:25(24)

    May the Lord preserve thee from all evil:
    the Lord shall keep thy soul.

    – Brenton’s English translation of the LXX Ps 120:7

    The Lord will keep you from every evil;
    he will keep your soul.

    – Pietersma’s English translation of the LXX Ps 120:7

    Is “keep” in this context (whether translating the Hebrew or translating the Greek that translates the Hebrew) really so unclear? Does Brenton do a better job of having “preserve thee” as a synonym of “keep thy soul” than Pietersma, who only uses “keep”?

  36. bobmacdonald says:

    The LXX retains the pattern of the Hebrew in Ps 120 (121) as far as I can read. It is my belief that the Hebrews liked repetitive sounds, so to remove them from the English, while it may have been acceptable style to chose a synonym 60 years ago, it undoes a factor in Hebrew thought formation. That’s why I say that pattern recognition is an important part of translation. The repetition of keep in Psalm 121(H) has
    – three keeps then this
    יְהוָה your shade at hand on your right
    by day the sun will not strike you
    nor the moon in the night
    – then three more keeps.
    The bit that is surrounded is the message, one that you will see is (possibly) reflected in Rev 21, sun and moon used for light no longer needed and not as perfect as ‘the shade at hand on your right’ – a curious image!

    Another question to ask is who is doing the keeping? Keep is frequently used of יְהוָה in Book 1 of the Psalter but in Books 2 and 3 only in Psalms 86 (of David) and 89 (as lament). In Book 4 it regains יְהוָה as subject (Psalms 91, 97). In Psalm 119, the focus is on the adoring word of the elect to keep the commandments, testimonies, instruction, word, statutes, promise, judgments, precepts and the elect’s own way also.

    It would be a shame to throw out a word that can reciprocate between יְהוָה keeping and the poet keeping when there is no other corresponding word in English. Are we going to say that the one who adores in Ps 119 (118) guards or protects the commandments?

    As far as I can see, English has sufficient synonym and polymorphic capacity to allow it to function with flexibility. We should not lose this – though I see no reason to worry about it.

    And (when translating) we need to ask about synonyms such as נָטַר (Song 1:6, 8:11-12, a frame for the Song) – another word glossed as keep, guard, etc. KJV is random in its choices of gloss sometimes and we are just used to it.

    As to your specific questions, Kurk, I have struggled to keep a serious consistency in my glossing, even when it is missed in other translations. It is as close as I can come to not overlapping synonyms for different Hebrew words. I think I am still free within these self-imposed boundaries. My glossary for the 19500 words of the psalms is here You can see that I have not been slavish since I render (glue factory again) shamar by keep, guard,
    disregard, dregs, keep watch, night watch, savor, shelter. Smile!

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