land flowing with milk and honey

The phrase that is rendered in English versions as “land flowing with milk and honey” is translated into Afar as niqmatak tan baaxoy buqre kee lacah meqehiyya: “a blessed land good for fields and cattle.” (Source: Loren Bliese)

In the interconfessional Chichewa translation (publ. 1999) it is translated with the existing proverb dziko lamwanaalirenji or “a land of what (type of food) can the child cry for?” (i.e. there is more than enough to eat). (Source: Ernst Wendland in The Bible Translator 1981, p. 107)

In Kwere it is “good/fertile land.” (Pioneer Bible Translators, project-specific translation notes in Paratext)

desert, wilderness

The Greek that is translated as “desert” or “wilderness” in English is translated in a number of ways:

Note that in Luke 15:4, usually a term is used that denotes pastoral land, such as “eating/grazing-place” in Tagbanwa (source: Tagbanwa Back Translation).

See also wilderness and desolate wilderness.

Translation commentary on Numbers 16:12 - 16:14

And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab: Having spoken to Korah and his followers in verses 5-11, Moses next sent for Dathan and Abiram, the Reubenites, to come. The narrative now returns to the Reubenite rebels, and a special discourse marker may be needed in the translation to indicate this. Good News Translation and most other English translations begin with the connector “Then.” In some languages the verb sent may require an object, such as “someone” or “messengers.” Good News Translation avoids this problem by rendering sent to call as “sent for,” and so does New Living Translation with “summoned.” For Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, see verse 1.

And they said: Since the Reubenite rebels do not agree to come, the conjunction and is better rendered “but” (New Revised Standard Version, Good News Translation). Their response in verses 12b-14 has a chiastic structure, which supports the interpretation of the unity of these verses as a distinct literary element in the account. We will not come up begins and ends their response (verses 12 and 14); you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey (verse 13) matches you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey (verse 14).

We will not come up: In this context the Hebrew verb for come up has the connotation of appearing before somebody of higher status or authority, so a good rendering for it here is “appear.” (Rashbam, the Jewish medieval commentator, noted that verbs relating to “going up” are commonly used in the Hebrew Bible for appearing before judges.) There is also narrative irony here: since the Reubenites refuse to go up (to Moses), they will, in fact, go down into the ground soon (so Sherwood, page 165). The forcefulness of this refusal may require a special device in the target language, for example, an initial negative: “No, we will not come!”

Is it a small thing…?: This rhetorical question begins in a similar way to the one in verses 9-10a (see the comments there), and in many languages it will be possible to duplicate the accusatory function and force by means of a corresponding rhetorical question; for example, Chewa begins with “Is it [really] insufficient for you to…?” In other languages, however, it will be more natural to follow Good News Translation, which has “Isn’t it enough…?”

That you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey: You have brought us up is literally “you have made us come up.” The Hebrew verb here is the same one rendered come up in verses 12 and 14. Although this verb is different from the one in 15.41 rendered “brought … out,” it is hard to see a meaningful distinction between them. In any case, the Reubenite rebels are implying that it is all Moses’ fault that the Israelites left the good land of Egypt and ended up in a terrible place. They describe Egypt as a land flowing with milk and honey, which is an ironic contrast with what was said in 13.27 (see the comments there). Good News Translation renders this phrase as “the fertile land of Egypt,” but translators should try to keep the imagery here or use an alternative idiom.

To kill us in the wilderness: Deliberate murder should not be implied here. Nevertheless, this is another case of hyperbole in the rebels’ complaint. For the Hebrew word rendered wilderness (midbar), see 1.1.

That you must also make yourself a prince over us: The Hebrew verb here means “appoint oneself as lord/master.” It is repeated here for emphasis, first as a finite verb and then as a participle. It has a negative connotation in this context. Good News Translation renders this clause idiomatically, saying “Do you also have to lord it over us?” Contemporary English Version is similar with “Now you also want to boss us around!”

Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey: The rebels also accuse Moses of failing to bring them to a fertile land. The Hebrew particle rendered Moreover introduces an additional argument in the discourse. Revised English Bible translates this particle as “What is more,” which is a more accurate rendering than “certainly” in Good News Translation.

Nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: The Hebrew word for inheritance (nachalah) refers to inherited property that must not be sold or taken away. The Hebrew words for fields and vineyards are singular, but here they have a collective sense. Fields are where crops are grown, and vineyards are where grapes are grown. Here these two terms refer figuratively to property and wealth in general.

Will you put out the eyes of these men?: This rhetorical question is literally “Will you bore out the eyes of these men?” which is an idiomatic expression for deception. Good News Translation makes this clear by saying “and now you are trying to deceive us,” but this translation is rather flat. In some languages it will be possible to use an idiom that refers to eyes in a natural way, for example, “Will you throw dust in our eyes?” “Do you think you can turn a wheel before the eyes of men like us?” (De Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling), and “Will you grab us in the eyes?” (Chewa). Compare NET Bible with “Do you think you can blind these men?” These men refers to the Israelites. Since those who are speaking are Israelites, Good News Translation says simply “us.”

We will not come up: The Reubenite rebels end their obstinate refusal in the same way that they began it. In some languages the emphatic force of this repetition needs to be marked; for example, Chewa says “No, as for us we are not coming there!”

Quoted with permission from de Regt, Lénart J. and Wendland, Ernst R. A Handbook on Numbers. (UBS Helps for Translators). Miami: UBS, 2016. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .