The ESV translates Proverbs 29:10 – “Bloodthirsty men hate one who is blameless and seek the life of the upright.” Let’s compare that with another translation: “Men of bloodshed hate the blameless, But the upright are concerned for his life” (NASB).
ESV has “bloodthirsty men” as the subject of both verbs – “hate” and “seek.” Bloodthirsty men both hate the blameless and seek the life of the upright.
NASB, on the other hand, has “men of bloodshed” connected with only the first verb, and “upright” becomes the subject of the second verb. Also notice that they translate “seek the life” as “are concerned for his life.”
Why are these translations so different?
The easy answer is, the Hebrew allows for both translational possibilities.
As near as I can get in English, here’s what the Hebrew literally reads (a slash will separate each Hebrew word):
Men / of bloods / they hate the blameless / And (or “but”) the upright (plural) / they seek / his soul.
The first half of the verse is non-controversial. Whereas one translation might say “men of bloodshed” and another says “bloodthirsty men,” both get the general sense of the idiom.
The second half is where the difficulty comes in. Most of the problem centers around the verb “to seek.” To “seek a life” in the OT nearly alwaysrefers to an intent to kill or murder someone. The only possible exception is Esther 7:7, where Haman “seeks over his life” to Queen Esther, meaning he begs for her to save his own life. But almost always, this idiom means that one person seeks to kill another.
If that’s the sense here, we have a problem on two different levels. First, why are the upright seeking to kill someone? Where do we find that encouragement in Proverbs or elsewhere in the Bible? Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 504, argues that this isn’t problematic, since it’s OK in the OT world to put murderers (here, the “bloodthirsty men”) to death. But this is certainly out of the ordinary for an “upright” individual, in my opinion.
Some interpreters have found their way around this first issue by arguing that “seeks his life” is intended positively here (and only here)—“seek to save his life,” or something to that effect. Besides the Esther 7:7 reference, which uses an extra preposition, making it an inexact parallel to the Proverbs text, I can find no other occurrence of “seeking a life” in a non-murderous way in the Bible!
Second, if it is indeed the upright who seek his life, why does the text say “his” instead of “their”? In other words, the grammar doesn’t add up to that interpretation. It should say, “But the upright seek their life” (“their” would refer to the “men of bloodshed”), but instead it says, “But the upright seek his life.” The word “his” is singular, whereas “men of bloodshed” is plural. So even if we get around the interpretive problem and make “seek his life” mean “seek to save his life,” the grammar still doesn’t work.
The “his” could refer back to “the blameless,” which is singular. But again, this interpretation suffers from having to force the meaning “seek to save his life” into an idiom that normally means “seek to take his life.”
Because of these problems, translations like the NASB look to find another solution. It gives the first verb two objects – Men of bloodshed both hate the blameless and the upright. Then, the last two Hebrew words function as a new sentence: “They seek his life.” The word “they” would then refer to the bloodthirsty men, not the upright, and the “his” would refer to the blameless individual.
Grammatically, it works, sort of. It forces the singular pronoun “his” to refer to only the singular “blameless” instead of the plural “upright,” even though the verb governs both of these nouns at the same time. A plural “they” still would’ve made this interpretation easier.
But even if the grammar works, the parallelism is choppy. Instead of a nice balance, we have four words balancing two:
Men / of bloodshed / hate the blameless / and the upright
They seek / his life.
So ultimately, both translations have their fair share of problems. Both are possible, but neither are perfect. I lean closer to the meaning of the ESV, while still recognizing the shortcomings and difficulties of the translation.
A Bonus Comment
A scholarly group called “The Masoretes” used to count every verse, every word and every letter in each book of the Bible and come up with tons of stats. It helped them ensure that when they copied the book for distribution, they could recount each verse, word and letter and make sure everything added up from copy to copy.
Well, wouldn’t you know it… the Masoretes marked Proverbs 16:17 (which I preached on today) as the middle verse of the book!
What does that matter to us? Not much, really. It’s just kind of fun to know!