Eat or Be Eaten – Word Play in Isaiah 1

“Eat or be eaten” that’s what the prophet tells Israel their choice is in today’s lectionary reading from Isaiah 1, though I’m not using this idiom in the same way it is often used in English.  It is more of obey or disobey and experience completely opposite results.  This message comes in the form of a word play in verses 19-20; however, the translations obscure the word play somewhat.  Compare the following translations:

If you are willing, and obey, you shall eat the good things of the land; 20 But if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you: for the mouth of the LORD has spoken! (Isa 1:19 NAB)

“If you consent and obey, You will eat the best of the land; 20 “But if you refuse and rebel, You will be devoured by the sword.” Truly, the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa 1:19 NAU)

If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa 1:19 NRS)

*Translation comparisons on this site are done in BibleWorks 8 using Parallels

There is a parallel between “eating good things” and “being consumed/devoured by the sword.”  This is where I’m pointing out the contrast “eat or be eaten.”  Regardless of the translation, whether “consumed” or “devoured,” the underlying Hebrew word is the same one that is translated “eat” in verse 19.

And here again is one of the trade-offs in deciding how to translate.  Do you translate the word in verse 20 as “be eaten,” so that the word play “eat or be eaten” comes across more clearly, even though that phraseology is a bit awkward?  Or, do you translate the word differently in verse 20 as “consume” or “devour” in order to avoid the awkwardness?

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