Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Retraction: More on "Couching" and "Crouching" in RSV

Earlier I noted a typo in my particular edition of the RSV that I use for class in which the LORD says to Cain that sin is "couching" at the door (Gen. 4:7). I took it as a typo, since it would be better rendered as "crouching." It would be a simple typographical error of the omission of one letter, but would totally change the meaning of the verse from a menacing predator to sexually seductive. Kevin Edgecomb, however, noted that all the RSV editions he could find say "couching," and so it might be the actual translation choice of the RSV. I had a hard time believing this, since "couching" just did not make sense, and "crouching" does, in fact, work with the Hebrew at this point. Other translations, for example, use "lurking" (NRSV). I suggested in the notes to that post that this might be an even bigger modern scribal error--one in the base text of the RSV that never got emended. Nonetheless, Kevin's suggestion that it might be intentional prompted me to check the different meanings of the verb, "to couch." Buried among all of the expected definitions of "lying down" to rest or to sleep are some that have more menacing qualities. For example, one definition means to "place or hold level and pointed forward ready for use." One can imagine someone holding a gun without its safety or a sword level and ready. It is like crouching in that one is poised and ready to pounce. This becomes much clearer in a subsequent definition: "to lie in ambush." This, in fact, is the exact imagery that "crouching" had suggested to me. The similarity in all of the definitions is that something is lying or held prone or horizontal, but it can be for rest or for destruction. This sense of "couching" however does not readily spring to mind the way "crouching" indicates a poised readiness to spring into action. This just illustrates why we constantly need to retranslate ancient texts, because our own language fluctuates so much.

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