When All the People Are Evil: The Example of Sodom

Chapter 18 of the book of Genesis contains the incredible story of when the Lord and his angels visited and spoke with Abraham. At that meeting, the Lord warned Abraham about the pending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I was fascinated to see how William Tyndale’s translation of verse 21 made the meaning come alive. However, first it is necessary to understand his obsolete English!

It all hinges on a word or two

The meaning of the word altogether is the issue. See Genesis 18:21 in the New King James Version:

And the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it.”

The NKJV kept the word altogether as it had been used in the 1611 KJV. In accordance with modern English, this verse is now understood as if the Lord were saying that he would see if the sin of the city was entirely according to the outcry against it. Many modern versions paraphrase:

NIV: I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.

NLV: I will now go down and see if they have done as much wrong as the cry against them has told Me they have.

According to the modern translations, the Lord was speaking about the nature or extent of the Sodomites’ sin. Then follow Abraham’s plaintive questions: Would the Lord spare the city if there were fifty righteous people in it, or forty-five … or even only ten?

However, Tyndale’s translation in the Matthew Bible gives another meaning at verse 21. My first clue was the different spelling. In the MB it says “all together,” not “altogether.” This does not mean that the nature or extent of Sodom’s sin was in question, but, rather, the extent of the people’s involvement: were they all guilty, all involved together? Every one of them? Understood this way, Abraham’s questions now follow quite logically: But Lord, what if there are in fact fifty, or even ten righteous?

Here is how the passage reads in the Matthew Bible:

And the Lord said, The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and their sin is exceeding grievous. I will go down and see whether they have done all together according to that cry which is come unto me or not…. But Abraham stood yet before the Lord, and drew near and said, Wilt thou destroy the righteous with the wicked? If there be fifty righteous within the city, wilt thou destroy it, and not spare the place for the sake of fifty righteous that are therein?

After Abraham’s questions the Lord answered, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, I will spare all the place for their sakes [etc.]” In other words, if the people were not all together evil, the Lord would not destroy the city.

Understanding the obsolete English usage

In older English, all together was sometimes merged to make one word: altogether. The same was done with shall be, which was sometimes merged to make shalbe. This usage is now obsolete, but it was still current when the KJV was made. Therefore, it is possible that the meaning “all together” was in the minds of the KJV translators. But, in any case, modern readers who are unaware of the obsolete use – or modern translators who are guided by the old English, perhaps more than they would like to admit, and who are also unaware of the obsolete use – can only understand verse 21 as paraphrased in the NIV and NLV.

The online Oxford English Dictionary confirms the obsolete meaning of the merged form altogether, with examples showing how it was used:

Altogether: Acting at the same time or in unison.

Quotations:

1616 (W. Shakespeare Comedy of Errors) “Then altogether they fell upon me.” (= all together)

1787 (Gentleman’s Mag.) “On the Coryphæus it depended..that the chorus altogether should symphonize.” (= all together)

1820 (S. Urban Gentleman’s Mag.)  “They went altogether to the stable in Cato-street.” (= all together)

These quotations make it perfectly clear that the correct meaning is derived simply by spelling out the constituent parts in full.

Both the modern and the Matthew Bible renderings of Genesis 18:21 may be plausible, but Tyndale’s is more fitting because Abraham’s questions flow more naturally in the context. To my mind, this is just one more example of the value and importance of mining the Matthew Bible for its treasures, which lie buried beneath almost five centuries of linguistic change.

R.M.D.

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See how beautifully Tyndale translated the New Testament, and how our update of the older English makes the meaning come alive in The October Testament, the New Testament of the New Matthew Bible.

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