Posted by: mattcolvin | April 11, 2006

“They Shall Never [sic] Enter My Rest”

Reposted from Fragmenta:

While translating along today with my Greek II class, I got all excited (as my students can testify) when I realized that a fairly trivial mistranslation in most English bibles actually obscures the argument of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The verses in question are Hebrews 3:11, 4:3, and 4:7, the latter two being a recapitulation of the former. The usual English translation is “I swore in my wrath, They shall never enter my rest.” The NET, NIV, NASB, NKJV, ESV, and KJV all agree in translating 3:11 this way. But the Greek for both verses says “ei eiseleusontai eis ten katapausin mou” — “If they shall enter into my rest” — and the old KJV parts company with the modern translations and translates 4:3 literally, with “if they shall enter…”

The NET, despite going lemmingly along with the others’ interpretation, has a helpful note:

Grk “if they shall enter my rest,” a Hebrew idiom expressing an oath that something will certainly not happen”

This confirms my suspicions. The utterance is not a complete sentence. It is an elliptical version of such Hebrew oaths as Solomon’s in 1 Kings 2:23, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if Adonijah does not pay with his life for this request!” — which would be abbreviated to “If Adonijah does not pay with his life!”

Thus, the text does not say “they shall never.” There is, in fact, no negative at all. And it is because of this that the author of Hebrews is then able to reason as he does in 4:6-7:

“If they shall enter my rest” — since it remains that some enter into it, and those who had the gospel preached to them earlier did not enter in because of disobedience, again he defines a certain day, ‘Today’…

In other words, the author of Hebrews takes a passage that was using a Jewish idiom for an oath, and turns it into …a wish, perhaps? At any rate, “If they shall enter” remained to be fulfilled, since the wilderness generation did not enter. So God extends the deadline and the author of Hebrews exhorts Jewish believers to persevere and not apostatize as the wilderness generation did. The argument makes sense, though what Hebrews does with ei eiseleusontai, the Jewish oath form, must be considered another instance of NT exegesis that modern pastors cannot get away with imitating.

Note well: you cannot get the argument from the usual English Bibles. Try to follow the logic from 4:5-6 in the ESV, for instance:

“They shall not enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains for some to enter it…

What sort of reasoning is that? Why the “therefore”? Try it with some other English examples: “They shall not eat pork.” Therefore it remains that someone shall? How so? But when we understand the Hebraic idiom, the logic makes sense.



  1. “They shall not enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains for some to enter it…

    I’ve still been able to make sense of the ESV translation to conclude in context that “they” must be a few short of everyone because “some” entered.

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