A Deliberate Mistranslation?
Judaism, as practiced today, is sacrifice. The siddur emphasizes this fact and offers an explanation:
Lord of the universe, Thou has commanded us to sacrifice the daily offering at its proper time and manner… Now, through our sins the Temple is destroyed, the daily offering is abolished, and we have neither priest officiating, nor Levite singing on the platform, nor Israelite attending the Temple service. However, Thou hast declared that we may substitute [emphasis mine] the prayer of our lips for the sacrifice of bullocks. Therefore, may it be Thy will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, that the prayer of our lips be favorably regarded and accepted by Thee as if we offered the daily offering at its proper time and attended at its service.
The above portion of the morning prayers refers to Hosea 14:2 [Hosea 14:3 in the Hebrew Bible]. But Hosea 14:2 has been improperly translated by the rabbis to read, “So will we render for bullocks, the offering of our lips,” instead of “that we may present the fruit of our lips.”
The difference between the two views is striking. One says that our prayer alone accomplishes atonement before God; the other maintains that prayer is offered on the basis of an atonement already accomplished.
We must remember that when the Hebrew Scriptures were penned, the text had neither the vowel pointings nor the word divisions; scribes provided these for us, the latter before the time of Yeshua (Jesus) and the former shortly afterward. There were, in Yeshua’s day, two major traditions for copying the Hebrew Scriptures. There was what we might call the Septuagint-type text, which lay behind the Greek translation of the Bible and which is also represented in the Hebrew of certain passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The other major textual tradition was the proto-Masoretic type, that is, a Hebrew text which was similar to the edition the scribes of Judaism have preserved to this day.
We almost always follow the Masoretic text in our translations of the Bible. But there are passages where it is clear that the Septuagint has preserved a better Hebrew reading. This verse is one such passage.
The difference between the reading “bullocks of our lips,” which is in our Hebrew texts now, and the reading “fruit of our lips” is the difference between assigning the Hebrew letter “mem” either to the end of one word or to the beginning of the next! It is the difference between wnytp# Myrp (parim s’fateinu) and wnytp#m yrp (peri mis’fateinu). Remembering that the original Hebrew text was written in a different alphabet than we now use and was without word divisions, we are simply considering two traditions for spacing the same letters. And there are reasons for preferring the tradition of dividing the words as “fruit of our lips.”
First of all, that reading has the earliest textual support. Not only do our manuscripts of the Septuagint antedate our current Hebrew texts of Hosea, but also this phrase “fruit of our lips” is quoted in the New Testament. The letter to the Hebrews says. “By him [ Yeshua], therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips [emphasis mine] giving thanks to his name” (Hebrews 13:15). That the writer uses “fruit of our lips” in this way not only substantiates the antiquity of our reading of Hosea, but also indicates that it was a popular passage, since the writer uses the phrase casually.
The second reason to prefer “fruit of our lips” is that we generally favor the text which was least likely to have been changed in favor of a particular doctrinal bias. When Rabbi Akiba, in the years following the destruction of the Temple, declared the Masoretic text as the only one acceptable for Jews, there was a vested interest in producing verses which could explain Judaism devoid of atoning sacrifice. And the earliest quotation of the “bullock” reading in Jewish writings appears in the Talmud in just such a connection.
The third reason to prefer our text is that “fruit of our lips” follows a more standard use of Hebrew than “bullocks of our lips.” First of all, the word “fruit” is frequently used figuratively in Scripture as a synonym for “product of.” Examples of this (in our English Bibles) would be Psalm 127:3 (the fruit of the womb), Proverbs 11:30 (the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life), Proverbs 12:14 (he will be satisfied by the fruit of his mouth), Isaiah 3:10 (the fruit of their deeds) and Hosea 10:13 (they have eaten the fruit of lies). So the word “fruit” would not be out of place in figurative speech like this. The word “bullock,” however, is only used to refer to a specific kind of animal. It is not used figuratively anywhere else in the Bible.
Furthermore, the spelling of “bullocks of our lips” is questionable, whereas the spelling “fruit of our lips” is grammatically predictable. To be proper, “bullocks of our lips” should have “bullocks” in the construct state and read wnytpc yrp (pare s’fateinu). But in our texts, “bullocks” reads Myrp (parim) in the absolute state and therefore cannot be modified by “our lips.” To retain the present Hebrew reading we need to suppose an exception to Hebrew grammar, which is unnecessary given textual evidence for a reading which follows our understanding of Hebrew grammar.
God is consistent, and under His covenants with our people He never changed His word. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood. and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement” (Leviticus 17:11).
When the Temple was destroyed and the possibility of sacrifice ended, the rabbis tried to find a substitution and then to explain their substitution from Scripture. The modern siddur is replete with such explanations. The rabbis didn’t see that forty years before the Temple was destroyed, God, who doesn’t change, provided a sacrifice to complete all sacrifices of atonement—thee sacrifice of Yeshua.