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In the NASB translation of Isaiah 34:11, Isaiah prophesies of Edom saying "But pelican and hedgehog will possess it, and owl and raven will dwell in it."

At first I thought it odd that they mentioned both pelicans and hedgehogs, but when I tried to do research on the significance of these animals, I found that the translations varied widely. Instead of pelican and hedgehog, I found all of these

Amplified: "pelican and porcupine"

Complete Jewish Bible: "horned owl and hawk"

King James: "cormorant and bittern"

NIV: "desert owl and screech owl"

and more. It seems so odd that you could mix up a pelican, hawk, and an owl, or even a porcupine. My question is whether the discrepancy is due to lack of knowledge of how to translate the original Hebrew manuscripts, or whether different manuscripts contain different animal names, and the translators of each version decided on a different set of names.

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Animal names are not very frequently used words. They may appear only one time in the Bible, and as a result, their exact identification is not easy. Not many classical Hebrew texts exist. The Bible is basically it. So if a word only occurs once in the Bible, it can be hard to pin down its meaning. Older translations would go off of the traditional Christian translations (Septuagint, Latin Vulgate) as well as traditional Jewish understanding.

But some more modern ones have started using Ugaritic cognates to try and define these words. Ugaritic is a Caananite dialect named after the city of Ugarit where some texts were discovered in it in 1929, and it was assumed that it would be close to Hebrew and similar sounding words would be cognate, and so many definitions are different to modern translators than they were to previous translators due to this redefinition based on a possibly faulty assumption (i.e. that the words are cognates). There are, after all, such things as false cognates. For example, in Spanish the word embarazada does not mean embarrassed, but rather means pregnant.

So you can trust modern scholarship with its assumptions about Ugaritic cognates, or you can trust the more traditional translations. But in the end, unless you're trying to keep Kosher, the exact identification of these animals doesn't matter much anyway.

  • Great explanation! I hadn't heard of the Ugaritic dialect, but it makes a lot of sense. Embarazada is a great example of a false cognate (and people who misuse it are usually embarrassed again when they figure it out) Do you have any sources which show which translations use the Ugaritic cognates and which use the more traditional translations? – user2956947 Apr 19 '14 at 4:33
  • Nothing before 1929 could have used any Ugaritic information, so the KJV, RV, and ASV are totally free from it. Probably every translation since the 50s has used it to some extent here or there. – david brainerd Apr 19 '14 at 21:40
  • awesome! I think that answers everything – user2956947 Apr 19 '14 at 22:23

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