Translation commentary on Jude 1:11

In this verse Jude continues his attack on the godless people, pronouncing a curse on them and comparing them with three Old Testament characters who are well known for their wickedness and rebellion against God.

Woe to them! is a common expression in the Gospels, but outside the Gospels it is used only here and in 1 Cor 9.16. This expression functions as a formula that states the certainty of God’s punishment and condemnation. So Woe to them can be translated “How horrible it will be for them,” “How severely they will be punished by God,” or “God will surely punish them.”

The punishment is directly related to, and is in fact a result of, their actions, which are similar in nature to the sins of which the three Old Testament characters mentioned are guilty. This is the significance of the word For at the beginning of the second sentence, which here gives the sense: “They are being punished because….” In certain languages it will be helpful to state this directly. However, the idea of punishment may be included clearly in the previous sentence, Woe to them (compare Good News Translation); for example, “God will severely punish them!”

The first example given is Cain, who is known from the Old Testament for killing his brother Abel. In first-century Jewish thought, Cain was described as a person of treachery, lust, avarice, self-indulgence; he was the unloving person who cared for nothing except his own self-interest; he was a cynical, skeptical, materialistic person who had little faith in God or in morality, and who therefore did everything according to his own whims and wishes. Furthermore Cain was also represented in the tradition as a false teacher who led the people into licentiousness and immorality. Among the early church fathers Cain is represented as an example of those who through jealousy, dissatisfaction, and rebellion against society lead their fellow believers to death (1 Clement 4.1-7). It is of course rather unlikely that Jude had all of this in mind; but at any rate it was easy to take Cain as the first clear example of an evil person.

The people Jude is attacking are therefore accused of walking in the way of Cain. The word translated “walk” is literally “go” or “proceed,” but here it is used figuratively to mean “conduct oneself,” “live.” In some languages translators may keep this metaphor and say “they walk on the same path as Cain,” which means “they live the same kind of life that Cain lived.” The way of Cain actually means the kind of life Cain lived, including his thinking, feeling, and actions. To walk in the way of Cain then means to live as Cain lived, to follow his example, to act as he acted. And if Cain is as bad as Jewish tradition pictures him, then certainly those who follow his example deserve God’s curse and punishment.

The second example given is Balaam. The godless people are said to have abandoned themselves to Balaam’s error. The word translated error can also mean “delusion,” “deceit,” “deception.” What was Balaam’s error? The references are in the book of Numbers, chapters 22-24, and in particular 31.16, where Balaam leads Israel to worship other gods, and all because of a bribe from Balak. Jewish tradition remembers Balaam primarily as a man of greed, who was prepared to commit sin and lead others to sin, for the sake of gaining a reward for himself. In other parts of the tradition, Balaam is represented as a false teacher who perverted the youth of Israel and led them into idolatry and immorality.

The word translated abandon themselves can also mean “plunge in,” “wallow in,” or “devote themselves to.” The picture is that of a person who in utter and selfless abandon gives himself or herself to some activity. And the godless ones have done just that; they have devoted themselves to doing exactly what Balaam did, committing sin and leading others to commit sin, all for the sake of monetary or material gain. For the sake of gain means “in order to get money” or “in order to enrich themselves.”

As a result of their imitating Cain and following the example of Balaam, these people are said to perish in Korah’s rebellion. The reference here is to Num 16.1-35, where Korah, son of Izhar, together with over two hundred and fifty others, rebelled against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, with the aim of getting hold of a share in the priesthood. The end result is that all those who rebelled, together with all the members of their families, were swallowed through an opening of the earth. Later tradition pictures Korah as a heretic who had utter disregard for the law or for duly constituted ecclesiastical authority. Korah therefore is a good example from Scripture for these people, for they also are disrespectful of authority and have coveted for themselves positions in the Christian community that they have no right to occupy. Perish means “to be destroyed,” “to die,” “to have their breath snuffed out,” or “to be wiped off the earth.”

Rebellion is a Greek word that can also mean “argument,” “dispute,” or “hostility”; but here it refers primarily to Korah’s rebellion against Moses. The whole expression then means that, because these people are rebelling as Korah did, they will also perish.

It should be noted that all the verbs in this verse are in the aorist tense, which is normally used to express a completed action in the past. In some contexts, however, the aorist may function as a perfect tense; that is, it describes actions that have already taken place or begun to take place, but whose effects continue in the present and even into the future. This seems to be the case here.

In translating the three expressions, they walk in the way of Cain, abandon themselves … to Balaam’s error, and perish in Korah’s rebellion, one must note that past and present events are joined together, with the present event being compared to and explained by what has happened in the past. Translators will do well to make the relationships of the events clear, as Good News Translation has done, for example.

An alternative translation model for this verse is as follows:

• God will punish them for sure! For they live the same kind of life that Cain did. For in order to enrich themselves they have devoted themselves completely to the error that Balaam committed. They have rebelled as Korah rebelled, and like him God will destroy them (or, snuff their breath out).

Quoted with permission from Arichea, Daniel C. and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on The Letter from Jude. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1993. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .