Proverbs 26:10

ESV Like an archer who wounds everyone is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard.
NIV Like an archer who wounds at random is one who hires a fool or any passer-by.
NASB Like an archer who wounds everyone, So is one who hires a fool or hires those who pass by.
CSB The one who hires a fool or who hires those passing by is like an archer who wounds everyone indiscriminately.
NLT An employer who hires a fool or a bystander is like an archer who shoots at random.
KJV The great God that formed all things both rewardeth the fool, and rewardeth transgressors.

What does Proverbs 26:10 mean?

Many translations and commentaries note the difficulties associated with this Hebrew statement. The phrasing is not at all clear, with different possible meanings for several of the words. That's common in biblical Hebrew. Usually, only one combination of word meanings fit together into a meaningful statement. What's unique about this verse is that variant meanings of the words can be combined in more than one way, creating different outcomes. Here, there are at least two ways to arrange the terms.

As a parallel in English, consider the phrase "that's a cold burn." The word cold can mean low in temperature, or it can mean something emotionless or cruel. The word burn can mean a temperature-based injury, or it can mean an insult. The phrase "that's a cold burn" could indicate frostbite, or comment on a cutting remark. It's possible, though unlikely, it could refer to "a low-temperature insult," or "an uncompassionate injury." Since "proverbs" are standalone comments of general wisdom, not absolutes, they do not necessarily connect in any sort of narrative. That makes it harder to narrow down possible meanings.

Two crucial words are used in the first phrase. One is rab'. This can mean "an archer" (Job 16:13; Jeremiah 50:29). It can also mean "a master" (2 Kings 18:17; 25:20; Jeremiah 39:3). An extremely similar word is rōb, which describes something great, spread, large, or abundant (Job 32:7; Exodus 15:7; 1 Chronicles 22:8). The difference between rab' and rōb in Hebrew is a tiny mark, above the word in one case and below it in the other.

The second important word is mekholēl, whose root can mean "to wound" (Isaiah 51:9; 53:5; Psalm 109:22). The same word can also mean "to bring forth" or "to launch" (Genesis 4:26; 6:1).

The phrase ends with the term kōl, which is simply "everyone" or "everything" or "all."

So, the first phrase is something like this: "[archer / master / great] [wounds / produces / launches] all." Only some combinations make sense. This leads to the two main interpretations, which are "[great] [produces] [all]" or "[archer] [wounds] [all]." Which interpretation one chooses, then, becomes the context by which they translate the second phrase.

Since most occurrences of the term rab' imply "master," or "great," older translations lean towards a reference to "the great God who formed everything." Note that in the KJV and NKJV, words such as "God" and "things" are in italics. That indicates words not literally in the original text, but which the translators feel are implied and needed for proper translation. In the centuries since the KJV was translated, we've gained much more information—including more manuscripts and experience with Hebrew—which informs our methods.

Newer translations consider the general context of this passage: the consequences of poor decisions. Most statements before and after verse 10 connect a negative outcome to an unwise choice. Honoring a fool is like tangling a rock in a sling (Proverbs 26:8). Repeating prior errors is like a dog licking up its own vomit (Proverbs 26:11). One who lies to a neighbor and claims they were joking is as ridiculous as a crazy person randomly throwing fire and arrows around (Proverbs 26:18–19). Other proverbs invert the order while making the same style of comparison: butting into an argument is like grabbing a stray dog by the ears (Proverbs 26:17).

Because of that context, modern translations usually prefer presenting the first idea as "an archer injuring everyone" and the second as "hiring a fool or a random passerby." That's more fitting than the other popular interpretation, which states that God gives fools jobs and sinners wages. It's a clearer, more useful, and more fitting idea: that randomly giving people responsibility is as silly and dangerous as an archer blindly firing into a crowd.

As it happens, the obscurity of this verse is not critical. There's really nothing at stake. Either remark could be included or excluded from the Bible, and nothing would change about our understanding of God or His plans for us. The "archer" translation makes more sense of the passage, so it's the preferred option.
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