The Translator's Dilemma

Words are the expressions of the thoughts, concepts, beliefs, values and philosophies of a group of people and their culture, and vice versa. Words are an approximation to the thoughts, emotions, and feelings of the speaker. A simple word-for-word translation from one language into another often results in nonsense or humourous writings instantly recognizable as the products of non-native speakers. In the 1950s and 1960s, exporters in Japan, Hong Kong, and China included English instructions with their electronic exports. Although largely understandable, these attempts at English translations from the Japanese or Chinese originals were quite amusing and gave rise to the name "Chinglish".

Apart from the problems arising from simple word substitution, there are more serious difficulties caused by idioms and figures of speech in one language which are meaningless in another. The soft drink slogan "Coke adds life!" has been reported as machine translated into Chinese as "Coke brings your ancestors back!".

A translator is expected to convert ideas from one culture into those of another, perhaps separated by oceans and continents and millenia of time. One of the obstacles facing a translator is how much to translate the original. The translator's dilemma is: should an idiom be translated in the best sense even with a complete change of words, or should the original wording be retained with the expectation that the reader will recognize and understand the figures of speech in the original? If a literal translation is presented, those who do not understand the original figure of speech are likely to be misled. A further problem with Bible translations is that people have often seized upon the English translation and read meanings which were lacking in the original. English words have been carefully examined and new churches set up on the strength of the English meaning. The Bible student needs to be aware of these problems and to be careful in formulating doctrines.

An Example -- Ben

An example of the differences in meaning and usage is the Hebrew word "ben" (and its many variations). This word is used over 5550 times in the Old Testament with a great variety of meanings. It is commonly translated as "son" and frequently corresponds to the English concept of "son". Most people have seen the award-winning epic movie "Ben-Hur" which was another triumph for the star, Charlton Heston, who played the part of a Jew in Palestine at the time of Christ, Ben-Hur, the son of Hur. This surname practice of that time continues among various groups even today. However this interpretation of "ben" as "son" is a very narrow confining of its meaning to an Old Testament Hebrew. A Hebrew would not have limited its meaning as is done in English.

If we look at a word or phrase translated as "son" or "son of ..." and read into it all sorts of meanings based on the English word "son", we can be wide of the original meaning in Hebrew.

What does "son" mean in English? Cassell's Compact English Dictionary defines the word as "noun. A male child in relation to a parent; (fig.) a descendant". The Grosset Webster Dictionary has "1. A male child; a male descendant. 2. Term of affection for a young man. 3. A native or inhabitant of a country. 4. Member of a faith or sect. 5. [cap.] Jesus Christ."

What does "ben" mean? According to Vine's "Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words", "ben" is a noun derived from the Hebrew verb "banah" meaning "to build". Ben refers to things that can be built, not just literally but also figuratively. A man can build a family and ben can refer to a literal son in that family, but ben is used in a much wider sense. In Isaiah 21:18, there is a phrase "sons of the (threshing) floor", using ben. To us English speakers, this is nonsense but to a Hebrew it made perfect sense. It is translated into English as "(threshed) grain". This is an example showing that ben need not refer to a person, and need not even refer to a living being of any type.

Ben of Oil

In Zechariah 4:12, the word ben occurs again, as "ben of oil", or sons of oil. Again, this is nonsense in English. In Hebrew, it refers to the branches of the olive tree, again nothing whatever to do with persons. These two examples have nothing to do with sons in the English language sense, but do fit loosely with the "build" origin of "ben".

Other examples are "ben of the bow" and "ben of the quiver", which could be translated poetically as sons of the bow and sons of the quiver, but are translated in English simply as arrow.

The Children of Belial

The children (ben) of Belial are referred to 16 times in the King James Version of the Old Testament, over centuries.

Around 1406 BC, in Deuteronomy 13:13, Moses wrote a warning against listening to the children of Belial enticing others to serve other gods. Many years after Moses, around 1360 BC, sons of Belial in Gibeah attacked the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19:22.

Around 1100 BC, in 1 Samuel 1:16, Hannah begged Eli not to mistake her for a daughter of Belial. In 1 Samuel 2:12, we are told the sons of Eli were also the sons of Belial! How can that be?

Around 1050 BC, the children of Belial despised Saul, the newly appointed King of Israel.

1 Samuel 25:17,25 tells us that Nabal who insulted David was a son of Belial.

1 Samuel 30:22 they are league with all the wicked men that went with David.

2 Samuel 23:6 has a pronouncement by David of evil upon the sons of Belial.

The children of Belial are around again in 2 Chronicles 13:7 in 910 BC, at the time of Rehoboam the son of Solomon.

The latest use of the sons of Belial is in 1 Kings 21:10,13 about 856 BC, at the time of Ahab and Jezebel. Belial does not occur in the writings of the minor prophets. It seems that with the passing of time the Hebrew use of the term "ben of Belial" was dropped from the written language.

In every case, these sons of Belial are wicked scoundrels. If we take the literal translation of ben of Belial (sons(s) of Belial) to be the correct meaning, we have this person Belial producing male children over a period of more than four centuries, yet we do not have any other information of this person who outlived his own grandchildren. Who was this long lived Belial who was still producing children after his grandchildren had died?

Unger's Bible Dictionary has an entry which states that "Belial" means "worthlessness" or "wickedness". "Belial is often used in the A. V. as if it were a proper name, but beyond question it should not be regarded in the Old Testament as such; its meaning being 'worthlessness', hence 'recklessness, lawlessness'. The expression 'son' or 'man of Belial' must be understood as meaning simply a worthless, lawless fellow. In the New Testamen the term appears (in the best manuscripts) in the form 'Belias', and not 'Belial' as given in the A. V. The term, as used in II Corinthians 6:15, is generally understood as applied to Satan, as the personifiction of all that is bad."

Belial was not a person who lived for centuries, producing many offspring who were involved in crimes and wars, as a literal interpretation such as the KJV would indicate. A "son of Belial" was not a son of a person named Belial, but a person with the characteritics of belial (worthlessness) or a belial-like person, i.e. a worthless person. The next section presents some other uses with this same descriptive sense of meaning.

Used for Description

Ben can be used in a descriptive manner, where English speakers would use an adjective.

The Complete Word Study Old Testament (AMG International, 1994) tells us "1121. Ben: son, child, boy, young one; grandson, grandchild, descendant, a member of a group; pupil; subject, disciple, favourite, When ben occurs with a subst. noun, it FUNCTIONS AS AN ADJECTIVE (e.g. "a son of fat" means "stout")". (My emphasis)

The use of ben as descriptive is in the term "ben of man" as applied by God when addressing Ezekiel, e.g. Ezekiel 6:2. The word for "man" is "adham", for which The Complete Word Study Old Testament has a lengthy entry. Some excerpts are: "this noun usually refers to mankind in the collective sense (Gen. 1:26, 27)". "The word is generally used in the Hebrew Bible to denote the human race and its characteristic nature in contrast to God in heaven." "Adham refers to generic man as the image of God, the crown of his creation, distinct from the rest of creation." Thus the phrase which occurs fifty seven times in the book of Ezekiel is better regarded as "ben of mankind" of "ben of humans". Ezekiel had only one human father, not all of mankind as his father. We conclude that the term "ben of mankind" is descriptive of Ezekiel's humanity, in contrast with God's divinity.

Another example is in Deuteronomy 25:3 where the original has ben of a beating, which could be translated as sons of a beating, but is translated as deserving of a beating.

Subjects and Subordinates

Ben is sometimes used in the sense of followers, disclipes, students, subjects, servants, as built outcomes from their leaders, teachers, or mentors. 1 Kings 28:35 refers to the students at a theology school as "sons of the prophets", the prophets being the teachers or trainers.

A Wide Range of Meanings

Here are meanings of ben as described in "Unger's Bible Dictionary":

Production or offspring of any source

"sons of the burning coal" in Job 5:7
Coal does not produce male children.
bene of the burning coal is better translated as sparks

"sons of the bow" in Job 41:28
A bow is not even a living creature and is incapable of producing a son (in English).
ben of the bow is better translated as arrow

"sons of the quiver" in Lamentations 3:13
Same remark.
ben of the quiver is better translated as arrow

"sons of the floor" in Isaiah 21:10
Same remark.
ben of the floor is better translated as threshed grain

"sons of oil" in Zechariah 4:14
ben of oil is better translated as branches of the olive tree

"sons of beating" in Deuteronomy 25:3
Translation of ben as son becomes even more stupid, doesn't it?
ben of beating is better translated as deserving of beating

Indicate age

"son of one year" in Exodus 12:5
1 year old


"sons of the east" 1 Kings 4:30; Job 1:3

Students, disciples

(Samuel and Eli) 1 Samuel 3:6

"sons of the prophets" in 1 Kings 20:35
It is commonly believed that these were not exclusively the biological descandants of a group of prophets but were students at some form of a theological school.
ben of the prophets is better translated as disciples or students.

Disposition or conduct

"sons of Belial" in Judges 19:22 1 Samuel 2:12
bene of Belial has been discussed above.

"sons of the mighty" in Psalm 29:1
Who were the mighty who produced these children? The literal translation tells us nothing about these children; the parents were mighty but the chidren may have been mighty or may have been cowards. The context shows that the alleged children were mighty in deeds and the phrase is not intended to refer to the parents. Considering these facts, ben of the mighty is better translated as heroes.

"sons of the band" in 2 Chronicles 25:13
Again, they weren't the sons of the band in the English sense.
ben of the band is better translated as soldiers

"sons of the sorceress" in Isaiah 57:3
Again, they weren't literally.
bene of the sorceress is difficult to translate into English otherwise but most people would not be confused.

Adopted son

Ephraim & Manasseh Genesis 48

Remote descendants

Numbers 2:14, 18


Laban, "son" of Nahor Genesis 29:5; 24:29
Mephibosheth, "son" of Saul 2 Samuel 19:24

Immediate Offspring

At last we come to the correct English translation, which is the way ben is mostly (but not exclusively) used.

Sons of God?

Ben of God is used in Genesis 6, in the early chapters of Job, and in several Psalms. The literal translation is commonly used, "sons of God". The common belief is that, at least in Job, the writer is referring to angels. Are angels the biological descendant of God, the same biological species, or is one of the other meanings of ben more appropriate? Recall the ben of Belial, ben of fat, Ezekiel ben of mankind, the ben of the prophets, the ben of the band, the ben of the sorceress, ben of oil, ben of a beating, etc.

Scientists classify life forms into general groups and refine these into finer groups. The scientific levels of classifications are as follows, with the most general at the top, the most specific at the bottom.


The best known of the five kingdoms of life on earth are Kingdom Animalia (animals) and Kingdom Plantae (plants). Even though animals and plants have many attributes in common, they differ in even more. All life forms can be classified by this technique. For example, the classification of us humans (commonly referred to as Homo Sapiens) is:

Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Subphylum - Vertebrata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Primates
Family - Hominidae
Genus - Homo
Species - Sapiens

A law of biology is that only beings of the same species can possibly produce sons of the same species. Apple trees don't produce lemons as offspring; apple trees always produce only apples. A sockeye salmon will never produce a giraffe as offspring; it reproduces only sockeye salmon. A human cannot give birth to a turtle. Sons of humans are always humans.

God can be classified scientifically into a biological Kingdom, so can angels, as humans and all earth-bound life forms are. For ben of God to mean literal biological sons of God, God and angels must be of the same Kingdom, Phylum, Subphylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. If you believe this is so, then use the translation "sons of God"; if not, consider a more appropriate phrase, e.g. glorious beings, angels, godly beings.

Written by Selwyn Russell, December 1996. This version 10 March 1997. Reformatted March 2013.

Copyright (C) Selwyn Russell. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to copy and distribute this article royalty free if the article is retained in its entirety along with the author information and source.

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Latest Text Update: 10 March 1997