by Jacques Isaac Gabizon

Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion, depicting the life of the Messiah, sparked irate controversies as to whether it was anti-Semitic in nature. Gibson used “artistic license” to reinterpret many scenes from the Gospels, thus stirring resentment in those who guard the literal interpretation of these events as sacred. The use of artistic license though, does not always spark high criticisms. William Shakespeare’s historical plays, for example, use artistic
license and grossly distort the historical facts of the times, but because of their highly esteemed literary value, they have been hailed as great works throughout the centuries.

How much has this license cost us?

When it comes to Bible translation, we cannot afford the liberties that such a license promotes. The Word of God is inerrant, divinely inspired and meant to be understood and interpreted according to the specific chosen Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek words found in its texts. We
have paid a high price because of those who have used this license to interpret the Scriptures in an allegorical (non-literal) fashion. Consequently, we find ourselves struggling to decide such things as when the Messiah will return, if indeed He will return at all to the earth, or when the Rapture will occur, if indeed it will occur at all. Another area of doctrine adversely affected by allegory is Israel’s position in and outside the Body of Messiah. Is she still chosen or has she been replaced? To whom do God’s covenantal blessings of the Old Testament belong, and is there any future for national Israel?

Semantics or anti-Semitic?

While the scholarly debates continue, we must not overlook how mistranslation deals yet another blow to Israel, this time by character defamation. And in this particular case, the mistranslation has even extended itself to include marring the gracious reputation of the Lord
Himself, as we will see in the following passage.

Tucked away in the chronicles of Israel’s liberation from her bondage in Egypt is Exodus 3:22 which reads:

But every woman shall ask of her neighbor, namely, of her who dwells near her house, articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing; and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall
plunder the Egyptians.

Why did the translators use the English word “plunder” in this verse? According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “plunder” means to take goods by force or wrongfully. It is to steal, or to loot1.

The Hebrew word used in this passage (and in the corresponding passage of Exodus 12:36), is natzal. This word natzal, according to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia is most often rendered as “delivered”, and is used primarily in these senses: “to set free”, “to give up or
over” or “to draw out.” It is used of all kinds of deliverances. For example, it is used of God’s deliverance in Psalm 25:20 which reads: Guard my soul and deliver (natzal) me; Do not let
me be ashamed, for I take refuge in You
. Genesis 32:11 recounts Jacob’s pleas as he asks God for deliverance (natzal) from his brother Esau. Of the 213 times that the word natzal is used, the King James Bible has rendered it as “deliver” 179 times. (Holladay et al. argued that since nazal is in the Piel/acc. in Ex.3:22 & 12:36 it should be read as plunder, strip [A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the O.T. on Nazal]). But this same word is found in Piel/acc. in Ezekiel 14:14 and the sense is clearly deliver; according to Harris et al. “the Piel also signals deliver in Ezk.14:14” (Theological Wordbook of the O.T. on Nazal).

In fact, there are other Hebrew words used specifically for plunder; for instance, malkoah, which represent “objects taken by a victor after a battle or war”2. Another Hebrew word is baz,
which represents “what is stolen or robbed (items, animals, or persons), especially in a military conflict”3. A third Hebrew word is salal, which signifies “objects taken by a victor after a
battle or war, implying defeat of the enemy"4. It is interesting that the word natzal is not used in the Bible passages where an “after-war” plundering has taken place, except in one instance
in 2 Chronicles 20:25.

Plundering the true sense of the Word

So, what is wrong with rendering the word natzal as plunder in this context? A lot! By translating natzal as plunder, we have accused God of forcibly demanding these items of gold and silver from the Egyptians, taking spoils of war so to speak, when actually no war occurred. Is God so ungracious that He would force the Israelites to plunder these people outside of a war context? Is God so manipulative that He would force the hearts of the Egyptians to find favor with Israel so that they would seemingly at will give up their wealth?

Not only does God become open to the skeptics’ ridicule, but Israel too, can appear as money hungry looters.

Fault Finding

This error of mistranslation was recorded in the Talmud, in that some had accused the Jews of taking without giving back. Mas. Sanhedrin 91a reads:

On another occasion the Egyptians came in a lawsuit against the Jews before Alexander of Macedon. They pleaded thus: "Is it not written, And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, and they lent them [gold and precious stones, etc.]?
Then return us the gold and silver which ye took!"

More recently, in 2003, a certain Egyptian professor decided to sue all the Jews in the world asking back for the goods they plundered (italics mine) at the time of the Exodus, something he evaluated it to be around 40 billion dollars5.

Delivering the Egyptians

How awesome would it be if we were to give the word natzal its proper rendering? Awesome indeed! We would then see God as He is, full of grace and justice. To begin with, it says that God commanded the Israelites to “ask” the Egyptians for the goods. He did not demand that Israel go and fight, or plunder. He told them to ask. Bearing that in mind, let’s consider the word natzal. When properly translated, the passage should be read as: “So you shall deliver, preserve or set free the Egyptians”. How could the Egyptians have been delivered, set free or preserved by giving away their wealth to the Israelites?

Render to each one his due

The Israelites worked 400 years for the Egyptians and the Bible nowhere indicates that they received any payment for this work. God asked that the Israelites be paid with gold and silver as a way to preserve or deliver the Egyptians from the judgment of withholding due wages. By using natzal in its proper context, the grace of God would be more fully revealed as the Egyptians would be spared from the judgment of withholding wages. Because of God’s
merciful grace, we should see His request of the Egyptians as a planned way to lessen the penalty that would otherwise be rendered against them. After all withholding wages was and still is against the Law of God and requires judgment (Leviticus 19:13; James 5:4).

A Plan for Egypt

God always has a plan that neither you nor I can interfere with. His amazing grace released Egypt from this particular judgment, but God’s love did not stop there. For in the Millennial
Kingdom, Egypt will be called God’s people, and will be re-established as a nation living in peace with her neighbour Israel. Isaiah 19:24 reads:

In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.”

A Plan for Israel

What God might give and take away from us here and now should only cause us to marvel about how all the events of our lives are orchestrated according to His ultimate plan for our goodness and our well being, and for the restraining of evil. God planned for Israel’s creation,
He planned for her forgiveness and planned for her restoration. Jeremiah 29:11-14 says:

“...For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and future. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity or will restore your fortunes. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

…and a Plan for each of us

And though we might not understand for now all of our gracious Lord’s giving and taking away, we must be carried by this promise found in God’s covenant of grace. As it says in 2 Corinthians 4:15, For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.

No artistic license has the right to reinterpret God’s motives nor His sovereignty. God is a God of grace and we must be ready to defend His glory, His reputation and His plan, a plan that
includes us all.



1. Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Includes index. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.
2. Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew.
(Old Testament) (electronic ed.) (DBLH 4917). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Arutz Sheva newspaper, www.Israel National


Jacques Isaac Gabizon is the director of Ariel Ministries Canada and congregational leader of Beth Ariel Messianic Congregation, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Preserving God's Grace may be read in its original form in
Ariel Ministries Canada's Fall Newsletter of October 2010

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