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know your biblical sex verbs

December 19, 2013

The writer of the Greek gospel of Matthew knew his biblical sex verbs. His intended Jewish audience knew them too. Their shared biblical knowledge signaled a sort of insider intimacy.

This worked somewhat like I’m trying to make this English blogpost work. My intended American pop culture readers will get the fact that I’m having fun. Like tv talk show host David Letterman’s “Know Your Cuts of Meat” is intended to get people involved and chuckling. My title itself is pun-funny in other ways that I won’t give away in explanation here.

I may be pretending, even, to be convicted by that thing that Robert Alter would avoid, what we all know, because of his coinage of it, as “the heresy of explanation”: “the use of translation as a vehicle for explaining the Bible rather than representing it in another language, [which] in the most egregious instances . . . amounts to explaining away the Bible.”

Alter translates Genesis 4:1 from the Hebrew to the English, as follows:

And the human knew Eve his woman and she conceived and bore Cain, and she said, “I have got me a man with the LORD.”

An earlier translator translated Genesis 4:1 from the Hebrew to the Hellene, as follows:

Αδαμ δὲ ἔγνω Ευαν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ καὶ συλλαβοῦσα ἔτεκεν τὸν Καιν καὶ εἶπεν ἐκτησάμην ἄνθρωπον διὰ τοῦ θεοῦ

And now I’m beginning to engage with the “all kinds of questions” that Victoria (Gaudete Theology blogger and my BLT co-blogger) has raised, beginning with just these:

Kurk, how would you translate that key word ἐγίνωσκεν [in the Greek sentence of the nativity episode of the gospel of Matthew, aka Mt 1:25 – καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν· καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν]?
Can we tell anything about it from its use in non-Biblical texts? What about its etymology? Is it a verb that is only ever used with a male subject, or could it equally well be used with a female subject?

Linguistically, did it function as a euphemism for sex, like the English phrase “sleeping together”? Or is it a more direct word that might be used of animals as well as of people?

She asks more, and I’ll think about them for a long time. Let’s just look at these five or so.

I would translate ἐγίνωσκεν into English with scare quotes:  “and he didn’t ‘know’ her until . . . ” I’d also give the readers a long footnote (to explain, like one might explain an inside joke):

The writer of the Greek gospel of Matthew knew his biblical sex verbs. (The gospel opener is political, and see this blogpost on that). The verb γινώσκω /ginóskó/ is not used for human sex or animal “generation” before its use in the Septuagint, where the Hebrew verb יָדַע /yada/ is an ambiguous verb for human sex between two individuals. If you’ll pardon my Greeky English, it’s probably a euphemism. And yet it seems to function more as a play on words. There were other Hebrew words that are biblical sex verbs. The King James translators translated this one as “know.”

(Those other phrases, different Hebrew verbs for “sex,” the KJV Englishers translated as “to lie with” and “to force” and “to love” – as in the narrative of the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon in 2 Samuel 13. And they rendered other Hebrew phrases for sex as “to give [a daughter to]” and “to take [a wife]” and “to go into” – as in Deuteronomy 22, in the instructions regarding a virgin who’d been had sexually. Some of these biblical sex Hebrew verbs are used in combination, and so the KJV has English translations like this one for 2 Samuel 12:24 –

And David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bare a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him.

And there are other verses with two Hebrew verbs for sex, like this one, Numbers 31:17 / 18 –

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known [ginóskó – LXX, yada – MT] man by lying with [koité – LXX, mishkav – MT] him.

But all the women children, that have not known [eido – LXX, yada – MT] a man by lying with [koité – LXX, mishkav – MT] him, keep alive for yourselves.

The second Greek phrase there in the verse in Numbers – κοίτη or koité – refers metaphorically to a “bed,” and its Hebrew equivalent does too. Outside of the LXX, before the Septuagint, this phrase does show up in Greek literature as a euphemism or metaphor for human sex.

But that first verb in the first verse above [i.e., in Numbers 31:17], as a Greek verb, is really Hebraic Hellene. It shows how – at least in Greek translationese – it is a verb that is not only always used with a male subject, but it could also sometimes also be more or less “equally” used with a female subject. In the verse, the female subject has “known” a male object and earns capital punishment, death.)

So this Greek verb γινώσκω /ginóskó/is a Pentateuch word. It appears in Greek Torah. It is something the writer of the gospel of Matthew would have known, and so would his readers. He includes a Tamar in his genealogy of the baby Jesus. And in the LXX Greek Genesis 38:26, there’s this Hebraic Hellene for sex –

And Judah acknowledged them, and said, She [Tamar] hath been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son. And he knew [γνῶναι – gnonoai] her again no more.

Early in the Five Books of Moses translated into Hebraic Hellene, there’s Adam “knowing” Eve (and having the baby that may have been prophesied about, a foreshadowing Matthew’s readers might assume). There’s this baby, Cain, growing up and saying as an adult – in answer to where his dead murdered brother his – “I know not; Am I my brother’s keeper.” There’s Cain “knowing” his wife, and Adam “knowing” his wife again, (and the boy born may be another baby prophesied about, another foreshadowing perhaps of a second adam.)

Greek readers who didn’t know the Greek Pentateuch, the LXX, or the various Jewish Hebraic Hellene literature that grew up around it would not have really understood, wouldn’t know,  all the wordplay in Matthew 1:25’s Greek verb for biblical knowing, for sex.

That’s why I’d translate ἐγίνωσκεν in Matthew 1:25 into English with scare quotes:  “and he didn’t ‘know’ her until . . . “

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2014 11:11 am

    That’s a long (but good) footnote!

  2. March 28, 2014 11:49 am

    Thank you (Abram)!


  1. Words on the Word | Septuagint Studies Soirée #5
  2. A Short Note on God’s First Greek Puns: Earth, Birth-Word, Woman, Know | BLT

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