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And All to Brake

February 27, 2019

       And a certain woman cast a piece of a millstone upon Abimelech's head, and all to brake his skull, Judges 9:53.

 

      Many years ago, before I understood the value of keeping meticulous notes and recording references, I read a book on the transition to Modern English from Middle English and the author commented that the King James Bible retained a Middle English reading in Judges 9:53.  His point was that "and all to brake" was a Middle English conjugation of the word "brake".  

      The wording is odd when looking at it and comparing it to other King James Bible phrases.  If the woman threw the stone down with the intention of breaking Abimelech's skull, we would say, And a certain woman cast a piece of a millstone upon Abimelech's head, to brake his skull.  That isn't what it said.  it said, and all to brake his skull.  The author of the book I read maintained that the King James translators used the Middle English rendering of what we would say in the 21st century, " entirely broke his skull".  According to this man's reasoning the translators wrote, and all to brake instead of writing and brakest his skull as they rendered other past tense usages of brake.  

      In vain have I sought for that passage through the many books that I have owned and read on the history of the English Language.  I finally consulted a philologist from Israel who is perhaps the most scholarly person I know.  I will give his answer in its entirety.

 

From Avi Gold:

       

      "To begin with, the verb in Judges 9:53 which is translated in the King James as "all to brake" is, in the Hebrew text ותרץ. This is not the simple verb "to break" in Hebrew. That one would have been ותשבר in the context of that verse.  Rather, ותרץ is a verb which has a much greater intensity. It means "to smash to pieces". Thus, it is not surprising that the King James utilized a form other than the simple verb "to break".

       Interestingly, another form of that same Hebrew verb appears in Psalm 74:14 Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.  Note that here "brakest" is intensified by the modifier "in pieces".  Without getting too gruesome, it's not difficult to imagine why the forceful braking of the heads of leviathan would use the intensifier "in pieces" but in Judges the head of Abimelech would not have ended up "in pieces", but rather in a general mess, considering the effects of gravity the millstone would have had on his skull.  Thus, in terms of the Hebrew text, the difference between "all to brake" and "brakest in pieces" makes perfect sense in context.

       Now, as for the English usage itself, it appears this special usage of "all" was connected particularly with the verb "to break" (and apparently with a few other verbs which are semantically connected with "break"). The additional source I found is in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a text which was written originally in French in the mid-to-late 14th century, and which was translated into English in the 15th century, and first printed in 1725-27.

       In chapter 19 of Sir Mandeville's travels, he describes the behavior of people encountered in India: "And some have their arms or their limbs all to-broken, and some the sides. And all this do they for love of their god, in great devotion." Note the form "all to-broken". The meaning, it seems, is "entirely broken".  So, it appears that the word "to" intrudes into this verb conjugation not only in the form "all to brake", but also in other forms derived from the verb "break". Hopefully, this 15th century example is of some help."  

         

      What is fascinating as King James Bible believers in this passage is that the translators clearly used a Middle English expression of the word "brake", and all to brake.  To the learned Englishman that would give it a sense of antiquity.  We might ask why?  Keep in mind that this is the very passage of which Joab reminds David of an historical passage that Israel used to train its armies.   And if so be that the king's wrath arise, and he say unto thee, Wherefore approached ye so nigh unto the city when ye did fight? knew ye not that they would shoot from the wall?  Who smote Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth? did not a woman cast a piece of a millstone upon him from the wall, that he died in Thebez? why went ye nigh the wall? then say thou, Thy servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also, 2nd Samuel 11:20,21.   

      The King James translators kept the sense that David and Joab would have had while reading a text from two centuries earlier.  They used an English rendering from two centuries prior to them to keep that flavor.  This is just another example of the wonders of a King James Bible.  

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