English is largely unique for its generally genderless grammar. Neither nouns, verbs, nor adjectives in the English language are expressive of gender. This contrasts greatly with the biblical languages which are highly expressive of gender agreement between articles, nouns, verbs, and adjectives.
A non-English language that many readers may have a cursory or close familiarity with is Spanish. Spanish is an example of a language that uses gender agreement. For example, the Spanish word for book is “libro” and it is a masculine or “male” word. Articles or adjectives that modify the masculine word libro are then also masculine hence the following phrase, “un libro blanco” (a white book). The article “un” is masculine, and the adjective “blanco” is also masculine. Now introduce the Spanish word for “chair” which is the feminine or “female” word “silla.” The previous phrase becomes, “una silla blanca” (a white chair). Notice, to agree with the feminine noun “silla,” the article and the adjective had to be feminized.
The biblical languages use similar and often much more complex gender agreements in articles, nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Gender agreements assist the reader in understanding how a text is to be read; however, English translations are unable to convey this important device. We briefly exegete Psalm 12 with reference to gender agreements and then compare the KJV translation of verses 6 and 7 with a superior Spanish translation of the same.
Psalm 12 (KJV) reads:
1Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men. 2They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak. 3The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: 4Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us? 5For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him. 6The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. 7Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. 8The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.
Many have lifted verses six and seven out of the above liturgical piece as proof texts to evidence the position that the doctrine of biblical inspiration entails the doctrine of biblical preservation. That is, if God inspired the Bible, then God will also preserve the same down to the smallest detail. We will call this position biblical preservationism. These two verses (6 and 7) are read and quoted as proof texts for this position. The relevant construction of these verses read:
The words of the LORD are pure words… Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.
Again, this is understood by biblical preservationists as a promise of God to preserve the Bible. To the extreme, it is considered impossible that even the slightest fault could then have crept into the Bible, and any maculation of the biblical text would be considered a fault on the part of God. To another extreme, some posit that this promise applies to translations (a form of “double inspiration”). In every contemporary case of this position that I have encountered of translation inspiration, it has related to the King James Version also known as the Authorized Version (AV).
In verse seven the psalmist states that God will preserve “them” twice. The verse does not disambiguate the pronoun, so the reader must look to context to identify the antecedent. Being that the pronoun is plural (“them” not “him” or “her”), the reader must find a plural antecedent. Verse six provides a likely candidate in the word “words” (“The words of the LORD”). However, other possibilities exist such as the collective nouns “poor” and “needy” in verse five. These two nouns are singular; however, they are collective groupings and might alone or together be the antecedent(s) of the “them” in verse seven. The near context would suggest, though, that the word “words” is the more likely antecedent. This would agree with the biblical preservationist reading. However, though there are structural clues in this passage as to the verse 7 “them” antecedent(s), there is a clear gender agreement determinant.
“The words (אִמְרוֹת) of the LORD” The word translated “words” is the Hebrew imrot which is a feminine plural form of Hebrew amar (“speech, word, promise”). This does not agree with the verbs for “keep” and “preserve” in verse seven which are decidedly masculine. Hence, the text, in Hebrew, requires the reader to source a masculine, plural antecedent for the “them” of verse seven. The only referents are the “poor” and “needy” of verse 5. Based on this textual cue alone, the preservation promise of verse 7 cannot refer to the Bible—it must refer to the poor and needy.
It is extremely interesting and telling to compare the King James (or any English) translations of verses six and seven with a Spanish or other language that uses grammatical gender. Notice the following translation into Spanish:
6 Las palabras (femine, plural) de Jehová, palabras limpias; Plata refinada en horno de tierra, Purificada siete veces.
7 Tú, Jehová, los(masculine, plural) guardarás; Guárdalos (masculine, plural) para siempre de aquesta generación.
For the aid of the non-Spanish reader, I have added designations of the gender into the texts. Notice that this Spanish translation provides clear gender distinctions that are not clear in English translations. The Spanish translation makes it obvious that the “words” of verse six (feminine plural) cannot be the antecedent of the “them” of verse seven (masculine plural).
In this brief analysis of Psalm 12, we have found that the biblical preservationist pericope of verses six and seven does not retain its salience to the idea of biblical preservation in the Hebrew (or Spanish). Let me comment briefly on how this relates to the King-James “word of God” position.
It should be apparent to the reader that the English language is incapable of capturing gender grammar; however, gender grammar is a very important part of reading biblical languages. It should be obvious that the King James or any English translation is inferior in its ability to capture gender grammar (not to mention other untranslated grammatical devices and nuances) by nature of English use. This makes English a very poor language in which to read biblical languages and precludes the possibility of an double-inspiration translation. Relative to gender grammar, a language like Spanish would be a better carrier of such critically important interpretive cues. Additionally, if the KJV is the English base text “word of God” for translation into foreign languages, then how is one to construct gender when translating form the sexless English to a gender-sensitive language? These are serious challenges to the King-James inspiration position.