Continuing my check through Jeremiah I keep coming across the Hebrew word ra’ah. It occurs 99 times in the whole book, appearing in 39 of the 52 chapters. In chapter 44, which I have just finished, it comes 14 times, 5 of those in verse 9. What does it mean? The Brown-Driver-Briggs English-Hebrew lexicon gives: ‘evil, misery, distress, injury’. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Jeremiah majors on that area of meaning!
What is surprising is that the word is used of God’s activities as well as those of the wayward people of God. There is a balance between the ra’ah, ‘evil deeds’, which the remnant of Judah indulge themselves in, and the ra’ah, ‘calamities’, which God promises to inflict on them as a result. So how does the translator tackle this? It is impossible to use the same word in English to translate all occurrences of ra’ah, unless one is willing to make God the agent of evil activities. Some English versions come close to this, such as the RSV (Revised Standard Version) translation of 11:11 — Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing evil upon them which they cannot escape; though they cry to me, I will not listen to them. Other versions use words like ‘calamity, disaster, destruction’ when ra’ah occurs in this sense, and interestingly the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) has made the change from ‘evil’ to ‘disaster’ in this verse.
This illustrates the principle that there is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between words in different languages. The Hebrew word ra’ah has a wider range of meaning than any one word in English, and in most other languages too, probably. The translator has to cope with this all the time. One simply cannot use the same English word, or Kasem word, to translate one Hebrew word in all its contexts and senses. To do so sounds at best stilted, and at worst (in this case) wrongly portrays the character of God. Of course the translator tries to be consistent in translating each particular sense. In fact, I now need to go back and look at all 99 occurrences of ra’ah in Jeremiah and check just that. As far as possible in Kasem we have used lwarem kikia ‘evil doings’ in the one sense, and lɛɛro ‘calamity’ in the other.
As a footnote, we should bear in mind that God’s instrument of calamity in this case was the Babilonian army, and in that sense God was using an evil power to bring just punishment on his much-loved people.