Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why I am glad John Masefield wrote “Cargoes” before the New International Version of the Bible (NIV) was produced.

A few days ago I saw John Masefields’s poem “Sea Fever” on someone’s blog, and as one thing often leads to another, it made me think of “Cargoes,” another of John Masefield’s poems with which you may be familiar. Here it is:

by John Masefield

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

[Editor’s note. From SALT-WATER POEMS AND BALLADS, edited by John Masefield, published by The Macmillan Co., New York, US, © 1944, p. 124; first published in SALT-WATER POEMS, © 1902. --RWP]

If Edward Gibbon had written that poem he might have called it “The Decline and Fall of the Shipping Industry” or “The Decline and Fall of Civilization In General” or even, in an attempt to give the final stanza’s dreariness a positive spin, “Rule, Brittania!”

“Cargoes” is lovely and conjures up all sorts of intriguing images, but I’m glad John Masefield wrote it before the New International Version of the Bible (NIV) was produced.

Here’s why:

In the King James Version (KJV) of 1611, speaking of King Solomon, I Kings 10:22 says, “For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram : once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.” In keeping with the tradition that the Bible says everything twice, II Chronicles 9:21 says “For the king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram: every three years once came the ships of Tarshish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.”

In the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of 1952,
I Kings 10:22 says, “For the king had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.” and II Chronicles 9:21 says, “For the king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram; once every three years the ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.”

Please note that after 341 years, the English is virtually unchanged. Let us pat the translators on their heads. They done good.

But in the New International Version (NIV), for which we have the last quarter of the twentieth century to thank, I Kings 10:22 and II Chronicles 9:21 say something startlingly different (I’ll show it to you just once because if you’re anything like me you’re probably getting tired of reading everything twice):
“The king had a fleet of trading ships at sea along with the ships of Hiram, and once every three years it returned, carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and baboons.”

Yes, you read that correctly.

Not peacocks. Baboons.

As they are wont to say in the British Isles, I’m gobsmacked.

Solly, we hardly knew ye.

John Masefield’s finger wrote, and having writ, moved on. We, however, are left behind to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of it all.

Here’s what an English clergyman named N. T. Wright has to say: “When the New International Version was published in 1980, I was one of those who hailed it with delight. I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses.... Disillusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul’s letters, not least Galatians and Romans. Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said....[I]f a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about.”

I don’t know about Paul’s letters, but in the case of I Kings and
II Chronicles, we started out with peacocks and ended up with baboons. Talk about disillusioned.

But wouldn’t it be a hoot if the original Hebrew really means baboons?

[Editor’s note. This just in -- the passage from I Kings chapter 10 in Hebrew (the Masoretic text) is:

כִּי אֳנִי תַרְשִׁישׁ לַמֶּלֶךְ בַּיָּם עִם אֳנִי חִירָם
אַחַת לְשָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים תָּבֹוא אֳנִי תַרְשִׁישׁ
נֹֽשְׂאֵת זָהָב וָכֶסֶף שֶׁנְהַבִּים וְקֹפִים וְתֻכִּיִּֽים׃

and in Greek (the Septuagint text) it is:

ὅτι ναῦς Θαρσις τῷ βασιλεῖ ἐν τῇ
θαλάσσῃ μετὰ τῶν νηῶν Χιραμ μία διὰ
τριῶν ἐτῶν ἤρχετο τῷ βασιλεῖ ναῦς ἐκ
Θαρσις χρυσίου καὶ ἀργυρίου καὶ λίθων
τορευτῶν καὶ πελεκητῶν

and even though (a) worldlingo has been heretofore my favorite online translator and (b) it purports to be able to translate from both Hebrew and Greek, the sad truth is (c) its talents do not extend to ancient Hebrew or Koine Greek. Therefore, (d) it gave me no help whatsoever in getting to the bottom of the peacock/baboon mystery. Still, I’m hoping (e) that you will be impressed no end with my researching skills.--RWP]

My research has also revealed the following:





  1. You can see how the mistake might be made. For example, whoever talked of 'the navy of Tharshish' was clearly drunk at the time.

  2. Interesting, and the last photo elicited a bellylaugh from this reader.
    Unfortunately, I read neither Hebrew nor Greek. If my daddy were alive, he could tell us if the cargo contained peacocks or baboons.
    Perhaps some reader fluent in ancient languages will clear up the mystery.

  3. Well, Masefield covered his tracks by ensuring that nothing had to rhyme with 'peacocks'.
    So it could be changed to 'baboons' if necessary.
    Or Aardvarks.
    Or iPads.

    Perhaps he had a vision of the New International World, with its incomplete similies ('like'), text language, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all.

  4. I am not a fan of the New International Version. I mostly use my old, faithful New American Standard, that my hubby gave me for my 20th birthday, but for sheer story-reading, I love my old copy of The Way (The Living Bible).