Did I Hear What I Think I Read?
While preparing for an upcoming sermon on Psalm 100, I was translating from the Hebrew text when I noticed that my translation did not match the English I had read just a few moments before. Assuming I had made a mistake (typical, really) I double- and triple-checked my translation and other translations only to find that in fact my verse 3 was not like other translations (except the NKJV). Curious, I checked the Septuagint, with which my translation agreed, and the Vulgate which did not. I also found a footnote in my JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh that read, “So qere; kethib.” I went back to my Hebrew text to check the apparatus and the marginal masorah parva notations to discover that Ps 100:3 is written (kethib), “Know that YHWH is God. God who made us, we did not. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” Yet the Masoretes responsible for the marginal masorah parva suggest the verse be read (qere), “Know that YHWH is God. God made us, and we are his. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture.” After a bit of research, I learned that the Masoretes had a system of kethib-qere which was a way of noting that while the Hebrew text is written one way (kethib) it is better read another (qere). Most of the time it seems this system is in place to correct mispronunciations in vocalization. Occasionally a kethib-qere changes a word due to a likely scribal error, but still it is possible a kethib-qere might pose a change with theological ramifications. Before you shake your finger at a Masorete for changing God’s word, however, please do know that a kethib-qere exists because a scribe wished to make a note of a variation without changing the text; it was not their intent to alter the text, merely to add their understanding in the margins. So, while my translation was true to the text, most translations of Ps 100:3 align with the qere reading in the margins.
Absolutely none of this mattered for my sermon, but it was a fun and enlightening journey and it raised a few questions, one of which I reiterate here: do Christians today still practice kethib-qere? Do we look at the text, recognize and comprehend the writing as it stands, but then proceed to vocally proclaim it in another manner, thereby modernizing the practice of differentiating how we read the text from how we vocalize it?
The text of Matt 5:42 is written (kethib), “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,” but I’ve heard it proclaimed (qere), “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you, unless they are going to use it to ___.”
Matt 5:43-44 is written (kethib), “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” but I’ve recently heard it proclaimed (qere), “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love some of your enemies and pray for those who persecute you to stop.”
Again, Matt 5:48 is written (kethib), “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” but I’ve heard it proclaimed (qere), “Strive to be perfect, therefore, but only your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I do not believe the ancient or modern practice of kethib-qere is inherently wrong or evil. Like the Masoretes, most Christians are not intentionally trying to corrupt the text with their interpretations--nor are the ancient qere occurrences or modern interpretations necessarily wrong. Certainly, behind a good qere interpretation of Scripture is a history of research, tradition, critical thinking, experience, and prayer. Many sermons are built on a kethib-qere approach to Scripture. That is okay--good even. We would not expect a preacher to stand, read Matt 5:29-30, Jesus’ teaching on removing eyes and hands that cause you to sin, and then pass out saws and scalpels before concluding the sermon. Rather, we need the preacher to provide some qere in order to help us interpret the Scripture and apply it accurately and healthily.
I will say, though, that while the practice of kethib-qere in modern Christian usage is unavoidable and mostly benign, if it remains unchecked it has the potential to do great damage--to the text, the practitioner, the religion, and others. My prayer, then, is that we be ever aware of the filters through which we read Scripture, and if/when we decide to provide a qere to the kethib, we do so with the utmost care and preparation.