“The Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare.” Psalm 29
I don’t know the original language here, but I’m not sure I need to. What I know is that a clear difference of opinion exists on this verse’s accurate translation. In about half the versions I’ve checked, the wording looks similar to this, the NIV. In the other half—and most notably, I suppose, in the King James—that reference to oaks is instead to deer, the quadruped the OT frequently calls “hinds.”
And while there is no verb similar to “twists” in the deer version, there is some shared pain. The KJV goes like this: “the voice of the Lord maketh the hind to calve, and discovereth the forest.” That wording is not particularly close to the NIV’s version.
Seems to me that the NIV’s idea makes literal sense because lightning twists oaks and storms ravage trees by stripping them of their leaves. The NIV’s version is really functional; it follows what’s already been said cleanly, even—dare I say it?—redundantly.
But the KJV’s version is itself a twist. The voice of the Lord—which has been, throughout, the lightning and thunder—pushes deer into labor and premature birth. Furthermore, it discovers the forest. Nothing immediately redundant there. The KJV is not nearly as functional, but may be, as a result, far more interesting.
When I hold the Bible in my hand, I have no problem confessing that what I’m holding is “the Word of God.” But when I set myself down somewhere in its pages, I’m far less sure of what exactly is going on. Here too. But let’s speculate, because it seems to me that’s what God almighty wants us to do. If he didn’t, he would have given us a set of directions instead of a story book.
Even my sidekick and confidante Charles Spurgeon runs from this premature birth business. In his Treasury of David, he hightails it for something akin to the NIV translation: “In deadly fear of the tempest,” he says, those “timid creatures. . .drop their burdens in an untimely manner.” That’s it. And then, “Perhaps a better reading is. . .” And he moves up close to the NIV.
For Spurgeon and all of us, there’s a Bambi factor here that’s not easy to stay clear of, just as it isn’t for most municipalities in North America today, where an immense deer herd threatens every last Burpee’s Beefsteak tomato plant. It’s far easier for us to imagine oaks blasted by lightning, then it is for us to see pale dead fawns in the wood’s undergrowth. God’s lightning slays fawns—that’s the truth that’s unavoidable in the KJV. A pregnant doe aborts in the tumultuous flash of storms. Not a pretty picture.
A dead grizzly we might tolerate, after all; a dead caneback rattler, even enjoy. A dead possum is roadkill; a dead coon means one less masked midnight marauder. But a dead faun? And it’s God who slays them? Please pass the NIV.
Our soft hearts notwithstanding, each translation isn’t inaccurate: lightning demolishes trees; blasts of thunder prompt fright and trigger premature birth. Forest fires kill deer by the hundreds every year.
The shock-and-awe that David is after in this psalm of admonition is accomplished, or so it seems to me, by either translation, one of them, the NIV, is just a bit easier on the sensitivities. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we should look more closely at dead fauns, biting our lips as we do.