Did the English Standard Version translators err in the rendition “origin” in Micah 5:2?
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days (emphasis added).
The text, as it reads in the King James Version, is as follows.
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting (emphasis added).
The significant differences pertaining to the inquiry are emphasized by the words in bold type as reflected in the two versions cited above. First, however, let us consider some preliminary matters.
The Historical Background
Micah was a prophet who lived about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem. He was a contemporary of Isaiah and his ministry occurred in the reigns of Judah’s kings, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah (c. 742-687 B.C.). His messages were addressed to both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel.
Micah pronounces coming judgments upon both Samaria, capital city of the northern kingdom, and Jerusalem, capital of the southern regime. The sins of the nation’s leadership were scathingly rebuked. The situation was not utterly dismal, however. In the midst of these prophetic blasts are glimpses of glorious days to come. The messianic kingdom will appear in the “latter days” (4:1ff; cf. Joel 2:28ff; Acts 2:17ff) and a reign of spiritual peace will prevail (cf. Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:1-10).
In Micah 5:2 there is the announcement of the “ruler” who will initiate these wonderful blessings. (a) The Messiah will be born in the small community of Bethlehem of Ephrathah, literally described as “insignificant” among the communities of Judah. Almost certainly this was a part of the divine “packaging” by which the Lord would enter the world in a humble fashion (cf. Matthew 2:23). (b) Though coming from heaven to earth, the Bethlehem babe was described as one who would “come forth unto me.” This is sometimes interpreted as meaning “for me; on my behalf; by my power” (Pusey, II.69-70). It is nonetheless true that a return to the Father was preliminary to the Messiah’s reign (cf. Daniel 7:13-14; Acts 2:29-36; Ephesians 1:20-23). (c) The child who was to be born in Bethlehem eventually would be “ruler in Israel.” The “Israel” contemplated was not old national Israel, but the church, the new “Israel of God” (Galatians 3:26-27, 29; 6:16; Romans 2:28-29).
New Testament Fulfillment
Micah’s prophecy finds its fulfillment in the birth of Christ—as was indicated even by the chief priests and scribes at the time of the Lord’s arrival. When the envious and vicious Herod sought the whereabouts of the child who was to the “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2), the Hebrew officials responded:
In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus is written through the prophet, “And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah, are in no wise least among the princes of Judah: for out of you shall come forth a governor, who shall be shepherd of my people Israel” (5-6).
Professor Fairbairn of Oxford once pointed out that the translation of the original text conforms neither to the Hebrew version of the Old Testament, nor the Greek (LXX). He noted, for example, that whereas the original emphasizes the political insignificance of the tiny community of Bethlehem, Matthew focuses upon the fact that the town “was yet destined to be great in another” sense—as the appointed place of the Messiah, Israel’s Shepherd (394). Matthew dropped the final clause, which obviously was not material to the special point he was making.
The Evolution of Translations
As noted previously, earlier translations rendered the controversial phrase as: “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (cf. NKJV). In 1901 the American Standard Version translated the phrase similarly (cf. also the NASB Updated, 1997).
In 1953, the Revised Standard Version came out with this rendition, “whose origin is from of old, from ancient of days.” The Amplified Old Testament (1962) reverted to the older phraseology, “whose goings forth have been from of old, from ancient days — eternity.”
The New English Bible (1971) loosened the language considerably: “whose roots are far back in the past, in days gone by.” Too, there was the Watchtower’s New World Translation (1981) that mistranslates the term as “origin” (singular). And, as indicated earlier, the ESV (2001) has followed the format of the RSV of a half-century ago with the same “origin” rendition.
The problem one encounters in attempting a consistent translation of Micah 5:2 is the flexibility in a couple of the terms within the concluding phrase.
Goings Forth / Origin
At the beginning of the phrase, the original expression “goings out” can suggest an “act of going forth,” as conveyed in such texts as 2 Samuel 3:25; Psalms 19:6; Hosea 6:3. Or it may signify “origin,” as reflected in other texts (Numbers 30:13; Deuteronomy 8:3; Jeremiah 17:16). McComiskey says that the Hebrew literally is: “his goings forth” – a masculine, plural form (7.427).
Even if one should take “origins” (plural – NIV) as the meaning of the word in Micah 5:2, such would not suggest an actual “origin” (i.e., commencement of existence) of the pre-incarnate Word himself, as the Watchtower Witnesses allege (ABU, 918). Christ could not have had multiple “origins”—in terms of beginnings to exist!
Unger and White state that the verb “Yatsa is not used of God’s initial creative act, but only of His using what already exists to accomplish His purposes, such as His causing water to ‘come out’ of the rock (Deut. 8:15)” (156). When scripture indicates that Jehovah’s “going forth” (motsa) to redeem his people is as certain as the morning’s sunrise (Hosea 6:3), there is no reference to the Creator’s “origin.”
One writer comments:
While it is tempting to see here a reference to the eternal preexistence of the Messiah, no such idea is found in biblical or post-biblical Jewish literature before the Similitudes of Enoch (1 cent. BC – 1 cent. AD; see 1 En 48:2-6 (Tomasino, 3.347).
Our respectful response to the gentleman is this: (a) What difference would that make? (b) The rationale simply is not true. The use of the plural Elohim, combined with plural pronouns in Genesis 1:1, 26; 3:22; 11:7, together with the use of the name “Yahweh” (suggesting self-existence, non-derived existence) as a title for the Messiah in numerous Old Testament texts (Isaiah 40:3; 44:6; Jeremiah 33:14-16), not to mention the expression “everlasting Father” in Isaiah 9:6—are all perfectly in harmony with a recognition of the Messiah’s eternal existence suggested in Micah 5:2.
Some conservative scholars do take a different view. They suggest that his “goings forth” were with respect to his operations in time, in terms of his redemptive role.
The meaning in Micah 5:2 (v. 1 in Heb.) is debated. The translation “origin” (RSV) is unsuitable for the messianic reference. The meaning of the KJV “going forth” is obscure. The NIV “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” agrees with the idea that the ancestry of the expected ruler traces back to David’s time as well as David’s city. The NEB “roots” is similar (Gilchrist, I.394; emp. WJ).
Professor Bruce Waltke says:
“Goings out” is from the same root as the verb rendered literally in the previous line of this verse, “he will come forth” (cf. AV). There it refers to his historical origins, which is probably true also in this parallel line. The Messiah, humanly speaking, will have the finest royal blood flowing in his veins (that is, he will be a servant of the Lord) and be an heir of God’s eternal covenant with David (cf. 2 Sam. 7:8-16; Ps. 89:35-37 (23a.184; cf. also Allen, 343-344).
Charles Feinberg also contended that Christ’s “goings forth” were in the “creation, in His appearances to the patriarchs, and throughout the Old Testament history of redemption,” but he further notes that the “phrases of this text are the strongest possible statement of infinite duration in the Hebrew language” (173; emp. WJ).
The theory of some, that the passage is a reference to the “eternal generation” of Christ, or to say the same thing another way, his “eternal Sonship,” is based upon an idea that is popular in both the Catholic and Protestant communities, but is without support in the Bible (see our article Was Jesus the Son of God Eternally?.
The term olam can be used of “absolute eternity” (cf. Psalms 10:16; 90:1-2, etc.). Certainly there are numerous texts that depict the eternality of Jehovah by the use of this term.
In some instances, however, the word is employed of that which “exists as long as designed to last,” e.g., the rite of circumcision (Genesis 17:13), the Passover (Exodus 12:14), the Sabbath (Exodus 31:16), or the showbread of the tabernacle (Leviticus 24:8). The context (both immediate and remote), therefore, must be the determining factor (see Girdlestone, 316-317). The nature of the object being described is of supreme importance.
Modernists (including most Jewish writers) generally suggest the idea is that the “Messiah” merely has existed in the eternal mind of God. This obviously is wholly incorrect. See Michael Brown’s work for some unusual Jewish viewpoints regarding Micah 5:2 (3.38-40).
Other scholars insist that nothing fits the overall context as well as the concept of his timeless existence and nature, prior to the Bethlehem birth. Hailey says “it relates Him to God, the eternal One” (209). Carlson contends this person “is the eternal ‘Angel-Jehovah’ coequal with Jehovah throughout the OT” (858).
In my judgment, nothing satisfies the entire biblical context like “whose goings forth are from eternity.” Thus, while the ESV may be grammatically and lexically possible (though not so in the singular form), I do not believe it best conforms to the overall Bible evidence; hence, respectfully I would say that the ESV translators erred in their rendition judgment in this instance.