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Train Up a Child and Everything Is Your Fault, Part 1: Translation Issues in Proverbs 22:6

Train up 1 small sxc huProverbs 22:6 is one of the most quoted, potentially mistranslated and, thus, misunderstood verses in the Bible. As commonly rendered, it is interpreted as a glorious promise of “do it right & it’ll be right” in regard to parenting. It is also often used as an anchor of hope for wandering children… “when they are old” seems to many a promise of return.

One woman said, “My son is a drug dealer, a pimp, and a violent abuser of women… It breaks my heart… but I know that he’ll be okay, because I raised him to be a Christian, and I remember him walking up that Isle to accept Jesus… and you know what Scripture promises, train up a child…[you get rest.]

As a matter of course, Proverbs 22:6, as commonly rendered, also becomes a judgment against every parent whose child has not made good choices and come to a bad end. To those with wayward children, “do right, get right” is a slap in the face, deserved or not.

The troublesome translation of Proverbs 22:6 stems from the phrase “in the way he should go” Which in Hebrew reads, literally:

חנך לנער        Train up a child

על־פי דרכו   upon the mouth of his way

גם כי־יזקין      even when he is old

לא־יסור ממנה  he will not depart from it.

על־פי  “upon the mouth of” is a figure of speech… an idiom… a way of saying something that was clear to them, but is opaque to us. Our own inclination is to imagine what these words would mean to us if we uttered them, but that is untrustworthy.

So… what does “upon the mouth of” mean.

Genesis 29:2 reads, “…the stone on the well’s mouth (על־פי) was large.”

Just so, we find: “Upon the mouth of his sack” in Genesis 44:1 and “upon the mouth of the cave” in Joshua 10:18.

This has led many to suggest that “upon the mouth of” means “at the beginning of” for doesn’t the mouth of a thing suggest its first part?

Thus, “Train up a child “at the beginning of his way” and even when he is old he will not depart from it,” may not assume good or bad methods… being perchance a model… what you train is what you get. Though one’s inclination would be to assume that the initial imperative (i.e. command) would have a positive end in view.

  • This rendering has a certain poetic flare to it, paralleling “beginning of his way” with “when he is old,” but I don’t favor it. This places the age parallel, I believe, in the wrong place. We already have “child” and “when he is old”— a third seems superfluous.
  • This also leaves an awkward antecedent (i.e. what a pronoun represents) to the pronoun IT in “he will not depart from it.” In Hebrew, IT is a 3rd Person Feminine Singular pronoun, whose only agreeing word is “his way.” Anything that pushes the focus away from “his way” as a thing itself is suspect.
  • Train a child “at the beginning of his way” makes “his way” not a thing to be kept or forsaken, but a timing for “a training” which does not appear grammatically in the proverb, being hidden inside the imperative verb—train up. This would be an awkward pronoun antecedent.

There are better ways of translating this in keeping with the meaning of the phrase “upon the mouth of” in Hebrew.

In Genesis 41:40, we find, “You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command (על־פי-upon the mouth of you).”

This seems a bit more literal… “upon the mouth of you,” meaning “in keeping with what you say” or more simply “according to.”

Just so, we find: “According to the command of Pharaoh” in Genesis 45:21, “YHWH” in Exodus 17:1, and “Moses” in Exodus 38:21. Indeed, there are many of these.

This establishes a foundation of “according to” laid on words and command which comes to represent “upon the mouth of” as “according to” for non-verbal things too.

In Genesis 43:7, we find, “They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves…What we told him was in answer to these questions  (על־פי).” They literally say, “We answered him upon the mouth of these things.” or “according to.”

Just so…

Exodus 12:4 reads, “And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to (על־פי) the number of persons…”

Exodus 34:27 says, “Write these words, for in accordance with (על־פי) these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.”

In Leviticus 27:8 we find, “And if someone is too poor to pay the valuation…the priest shall value him according to (על־פי) what the vower can afford.”

Leviticus 27:18 goes, “…the priest shall calculate the price according to (על־פי) the years that remain until the year of jubilee..”.

Numbers 6:21 says of the Nazirite, “But if he vows an offering to the LORD above his Nazirite vow, as he can afford, in exact accordance with (על־פי) the vow…”

So, as far as translation is concerned… a better translation that keeps as many original options available from the original language is “Train up a child according to his way and even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Now the big question… What is the way of the child?

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