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929 Project: Genesis 2 – humans from humus

July 16, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.

This entry for Genesis 2 is largely derived from a post from our co-blogger Suzanne McCarthy about the usage of ha-adam and adam in Genesis 2 and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.

Suzanne died in 2015.  We all miss her.

To give some context for this entry, Suzanne was passionately concerned with how Biblical translations reflected the notion of personhood, and how Hebrew and Greek words indicating a person are often translated into an English form that indicates a male person.  Since many Bible believers in the US and Canada cannot read Hebrew or Greek, they find themselves using translations, and inferring notions of gender relations based on translations that were not in the original.

Suzanne was quite strong in her Greek, and it was fascinating to see her back and forth discussion.  She didn’t interact as much with Hebrew, but in today’s post she does interact with Hebrew.

Most of the people who engaged Suzanne in discussion (or debate) were men.  Usually, these men didn’t know Greek very well.  I am sorry to say that a few of these men became quite rude to her.  Today, we are all painfully aware of politicians who have insulted a political opponent by calling them a “nasty woman” or saying “nevertheless, she persisted” have become common.  Suzanne faced even worse criticism in many cases.  We’ve seen that these ad hominem attacks can boomerang.  However, it has not seemed to permanently set back those who wield these phrases as weapons – one of those politicians is the current US president and the other is the US Senate majority leader.  (And, just so you’ll know, the best translation of ad hominem is not “to the man” but “to the person.”)

On the 929 page for today is a wonderful note from Marcelle Hohl entitled “Adam’s Absence:  Man and Woman are Equally Divine.”  I believe Suzanne would have appreciated Marcelle’s contribution.

In today’s post, Suzanne meditates on Genesis 2:7.  Here it is in Hebrew:

וייצר ה׳ אלהים את האדם עפר מן האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה

And here is how Robert Alter translates it in HB-A:

then the LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.

with this note:

the human, humus.  The Hebrew etymological pun is ’adam, “human,” from the soil, ’adamah.

(Side note:  it is interesting to me that in this case Alter did not translate the initial vav (ו) in the as “and,” as Alter usually does.)

In comparison, here is the KJV translation of the same verse:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Below I have edited Suzanne’s original blog post.  Suzanne’s post was constantly in dialogue with other bloggers, and as a result, many of her posts are from the middle of a discussion.  This one is from August 2010, and as a result, it would take too long to try to restore the full context of the discussion.  I’ve tried to modify her post so it does not require catching up with all the statements made back and forth.  Of course, Suzanne’s original blog post speaks for itself, and I encourage you to read it in its original entirety.

Suzanne’s post reflects her own wit and passion.  It is bittersweet to read today Suzanne’s humor as she predicts her own death in the post.

Suzanne, thank you for continuing to contribute to the discussion about gender in Biblical translation.  Suzanne, thank you for being in a tradition of strong and thoughtful women.  Suzanne, thank you for this guest post.

Suz Marcelle-150x150Chisholm_Shirley square ew clinton


[…] I am quite open to considering that biblical usage [in the Tyndale translation tradition] has affected [the English] language. […]  Tyndale’s translation […] had enormous influence, but I have also found that in certain cases, it has not had the influence that some people attribute to it. For example, an editor of the ESV [the English Standard Version translation – a conservative Christian Evangelical revision of the RSV]  told me that “propitiation” was in the Tyndale translation. However, it is fairly common knowledge that Tyndale created the word “atonement” to translate those Greek words that are normally translated as “propitiation” in the King James Bible. The use of the word “propitiation” was wrongly attributed to Tyndale’s translation.

So, I am curious to see how Tyndale translated the Hebrew word adam. Usually, it is translated as “man” or “Adam.” However, in Numbers 31 adam is [sometimes] translated as “women” because it refers to a group of all females. In the King James Version and subsequent Bibles, adam is [sometimes] translated as “persons” in Numbers 31.

Just this brief discussion provides some data. I will summarize as much relevant information as I can from this and other language resources.

The Hebrew word adam can be translated into English as

  • a man
  • Adam
  • a human life
  • persons
  • women

I assume that it can also refer to a group of men, but I cannot come up with a reference for this.

The English word “man” can translate the following Hebrew words,

  • adam
  • enosh
  • geber
  • ish

So, right away, one can see that there is enormous difficulty in mapping Hebrew into English.

I believe the following is also useful information. In Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German, there were different words for “man” referring to human beings, and “man,” a male/citizen. I personally think that we are better off in modern English with both “human being” and “man.”

  • Hebrew – adam/ish, geber
  • Greek – anthropos/aner
  • Latin – homo/vir
  • German – Mensch/Mann

Finally, I personally would go first to German and Middle English to find out the precedent of the word “man” in Tyndale’s translation. In Luther’s translation, of course, adam is translated by the word Mensch. I know that it might seem that the English word “man” is closest to the German word Mann, a male. However, that is not the case. In German, the word for “someone” is quite simply man, a person, a human being, a somebody, an indefinite pronoun referring to a person.

And in Middle English, of course, there is man, also “someone,” an indefinite pronoun, as in German. For a male person, there is the word wer/were. And that is how we know that a werewolf is a male human being who transforms into a wolf at night.

If God had wanted to call the human race after male human beings, he would have needed to use a word designating maleness in Hebrew, and this might have been translated as were by Tyndale in an effort to be specific. We might have retained the word were in English, if the attribute of maleness had been considered important to the early translators. The human race might have been called were, which is just a little bit better than being called has been.

Somehow, I am in favor of asking the[se] kind[s] of questions[…], but I find the research does not lead to simple answers. Or does it? Am I a man? Yes, I am a “somebody.” Am I a woman? Yes, a stereotypic woman, in fact. Am I a were or a has been? No, but I will be some day, in the manner of all human beings.

[Update added later by Suzanne to her post]

[…] To be parallel to Hebrew, we would need to see adam and adama as a parallel to “man” and “woman.” However, adam and adama, are parallel to “human” and “humus,” as Robert Alter translates them, in order to preserve the literalness of the Hebrew. Alter is committed to translating literally in order to reveal the meaning and the form of Hebrew, its poetry and rhythm.[…]

Hebrew has four words which English translates as “man” and Greek, German and Latin have two words. English is much better able to indicate the Hebrew pattern if we use “human being” for adam, and “man” for ish. It is not a perfect match, but closer than simply using “man” for four distinct Hebrew words.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 28, 2018, and backdated to July 16, for reasons explained here.)

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