The Wartburg Project

August 29th, 2017

37. In Isaiah 55:1 the EHV says, “Hey, all of you who are thirsty, come to the water.” Isn’t "hey" too slangy?

Here is the full EHV translation with its footnote:

Hey,1 all of you who are thirsty, come to the water,
even if you have no money!
Come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.

1The English word hey expresses the same urgency as the Hebrew word hoi. It is the cry of the street vendor who is eager to sell his wares.

The first Hebrew word in Isaiah 55 is not the Hebrew word for "come" which is used three times later in the verse. The Hebrew word here is hoi, which is not a verb but an exclamation that even sounds like the English exclamation hey, so the EHV rendering is following a literal understanding of the Hebrew word hoi and differentiating it from the three instances of come that follow later in the verse.

The Hebrew word hoi is often used in contexts of sorrow or grief (though the proper word for that is oi). Here hoi is simply trying to get attention, perhaps with a touch of sympathy.

The English word hey serves the same sort of functions: to attract attention, to express surprise, interest or annoyance, or to express agreement. It covers a wide range of moods: Hey, what’s going on? Hey, what’s up? Hey, that’s great! Hey, how are you doing? Hey, look at me now. All these have their own shade of meaning, often depending on the tone of voice. Hey is also regaining its old use as a synonym of hello, which is used across the Germanic languages. Here we are interested only in the first use of hey, to gain attention.

The imagery of the text is that of a street vendor, urging the crowd to buy his wares. Though we did not have this example in mind when we translated Isaiah, a recent visit to Miller Park in Milwaukee, demonstrated that hey is the right choice here. Almost universally, the vendors were shouting, “Hey, cotton candy,” “Hey, ice cold beer here,” “Hey, lemonade,” or whatever cry was appropriate to their wares. So it seems that hey catches the right tone here—the urgency of a vendor. The reason that we did not follow those translations that ignore the difference between hey and come is that they diminish the imagery and urgency of the text. We found only one other English translation that has the translation hey (the NET), but several British translations use the interjection ho, a Britishism that would not work here.

So the reason that the EHV uses hey is to preserve the imagery of a vendor’s cry. If anyone has a better word than hey to reflect that, we would be happy to consider it, but we could not think of one. An important goal of EHV is to reflect the tone of the text. The tone of this text is not the polite address of a student to a teacher, “Excuse me, Miss Smith,” rather than “Hey, Miss Smith,” but the aggressive shouting of a vendor.

There is an even bigger problem with the imagery of the text than the word hey. It is the word buy. The water, wine, milk, and bread here are the gospel of salvation. Can we buy salvation? Scripture makes it clear that we cannot. It is a gift. But here the word buy expresses the urgency of obtaining it. This imagery is not limited to the Old Testament. Jesus tells us, “I advise you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich” (Rev 3:18). The same idea is reflected in the parables of the pearl of great price and the treasure hid in a field. One thing is needful. Everything depends on getting it.

In every image we have to ask what is the point of comparison. The two imagery words in our text hey and buy both make the same point: nothing is more important than obtaining salvation. Perhaps the word buy also carries some of the connotation of the colloquial English “Hey, I’ll buy that,” which means “I agree with that.”