NIV Turns “Land of Sinim” Into “Region of Aswan” by a Twist of the Ball-Pen!

Timothy Tow

The translation of KJV of Isaiah 49:12, “Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim” from the Hebrew text,

הנּה־אלּה מרחוֹק יבאוּ והנּה־אלּה מצּפוֹן וּמיּם ואלּה מארץ סינים׃

is correct. How does the NIV differ to translate מארץ סינים into “from the region of Aswan”?

The word “Sinim” in Hebrew is סינים. And the word for “Aswan” according to the NIV in Ezekiel 29:10 and 30:6 is סונה. Now סינים is pronounced “Sinim” but סונה which is pronounced “Seveneh” is translated “Aswan.” But why is סינים at Isaiah 49:12 by a twist of the NIV’s ball-pen also become “Aswan?” Even the non-Hebrew reader can see that Sinim (סינים) and Aswan (סונה) are two different words. Perhaps the NIV translators think they can palm off their ware to the unwary non-Hebrew English reader.

Another difference between the KJV and NIV translations is the NIV rendering of ארץ into “region” whereas ארץ has almost always been translated “land,” “earth,” or “ground.” Now if the NIV translates “the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali from the word ארץ (Isa 9:1) and Zebulon and Naphtali are small tribes, why does not NIV use the word “region” here? The right word for “region” in Hebrew is חבל according to the Hebrew lexicon.1 There is no valid reason to translate ארץ as “region” except for the sinister purpose of demoting the Land of Sinim into some Egyptian outback.

The land of Sinim, according to Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, from the context, must have been the extreme south or east of the known world.2 The LXX favours the view that a country in the east is intended, and some modern commentators have identified Sinim with China, the land of the Sinae. The ancients’ view that Sinim refers to China is attested overwhelmingly by continuing modern Hebrew usage. My English-Hebrew, Hebrew-English lexicon by Prof M Segal and Prof M B Dagut, says China is סין (Sin) and Chinese is סיני.3 The root of “Sinim” is “Sin,” so “Sinim” points most assuredly to China and not to Aswan, which is translated from a different word סונה as stated above. Thus, one who is well-versed in Chinese is called a sinologue and sinology is the study of Chinese language, history, customs, etc; and the war between China and Japan was called the Sino-Japanese war.

Let me quote from Dr Allan A MacRae my teacher on the above subject under discussion. In his Studies in Isaiah, Dr MacRae says as a matter of fact:

In verse 12 the remarkable extent of the work of the servant is clearly indicated with people coming to his light from the north and from the west and even from the land of Sinim (China). What a marvelous prediction of the extension of the gospel of deliverance from sin through the servant of the Lord to the very ends of the world! How wonderfully it has been fulfilled in these days when groups of believers have come to the Savior from so many sections of the earth, even including this very land of China, which must have seemed in the days of Isaiah to be the utmost fringe of civilization. Truly He has become “a light to the Gentiles.”4

Furthermore, let us see how the translators of the Chinese Bible (和合本) treat the Hebrew text. They translate the land of Sinim as 秦国, the Kingdom or Country of Chin, and “Chin” is a root word for China, verily, as it was Chin Shih Hwang Ti the first Emperor who united the many ancient states into one China. This is a good translation in the tradition of the LXX, and in line with time-honoured Hebrew usage to this day.

Speaking from my experience as a Certified Chinese Interpreter of the Supreme Court, Singapore in my young days, whenever there was any doubt in the translation of a Chinese document into English, the Judge would know exactly and objectively what the original says, and not some dynamic equivalent, the subjective NIV style. The KJV renders the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible without subtraction or addition, least by juggling, when מארץ סינים can be twisted to read “from the region of Aswan.” Let us have an answer from the learned NIV translators.


1 BDB, 286.

2 Dictionary of the Bible, ed James Hastings, s.v. “Sinim.”

3 מלון אנגי־עברי English-Hebrew Dictionary, s.v. “China,” “Chinese.”

4 Allan A MacRae, Studies in Isaiah (Hatfield PA: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1995), 237. See also MacRae's The Gospel of Isaiah (Chicago: Moody Press, 1977): 109–12. Edward J Young wrote likewise, “In any attempt to identify the land of Sinim we must look for a place far from Palestine. An ancient interpretation would identify it with China, …” (Edward J Young, The Book of Isaiah, NICOT [Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1972], 3:282, 294).

Rev Dr Timothy Tow is pastor of True Life Bible-Presbyterian Church, and principal of Far Eastern Bible College.

Published in The Burning Bush, Volume 2 Number 2, July 1996.