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929 Project: Genesis 17 – seeds

August 6, 2018

This chapter appears is all about זרע (zera’) “seeds.”  The word appears frequently in this chapter:

The word זרע, zera’, “seed” or “progeny” appears in this chapter seven times (vv. 7 twice, 8, 9, 10, 12 and 19). Six of those times it is followed by the word אחרי, acharei, “following” or “after,” emphasizing that “era’,’’ or seed, or what grows from the seed, is continuity.

Robert Alter opines on word זרע in the introduction to his Five Books of Moses.  (Alter’s Five Books of Moses is scheduled to be incorporated into the HB-A.)

The Hebrew noun zera’ has the general meaning of “seed,” which can be applied either in the agricultural sense or to human beings, as the term for semen.  By metaphorical extension, semen becomes the established designation for what it produces, progeny.  Modern translators, evidently unwilling to trust the ability of adult readers to understand that “seed” – as regularly in the King James Version – may mean progeny, repeatedly render it as offspring, descendants, heirs, progeny, posterity.  But I think there is convincing evidence in the texts themselves that the biblical writers never entirely forgot that their term for offspring also meant semen and had a precise equivalent in the vegetable world.  To cite a distinctly physical example, when Onan “knew that the seed would not be his,” that is, the progeny of his brother’s widow should he impregnate her, “he would waste his seed on the ground, so to give no seed to his brother” (Genesis 38:9).  Modern translators, despite their discomfort with body terms, can scarcely avoid the wasted “seed” here because without it the representation of spilling semen on the ground in coitus interruptus becomes unintelligible.  E. A. Speiser substitutes “offspring” for “seed” at the end of the verse, however, and the Revised English Bible goes him one better by putting “offspring” at the beginning as well (“Onan knew that the offspring would not count as his”) and introducing “seed” in the middle as object of the verb “to spill” and scuttling back to the decorousness of “offspring” at the end – a prime example of explanation under the guise of translation.  But the biblical writer is referring to “seed” as much at the end of the verse as at the beginning.  Onan adopts the strategem of coitus interruptus in order not to “give seed” – that is, semen – to Tamar, and , as a necessary consequence of this contraceptive act, he avoids providing her with offspring.  The thematic point of this moment, anchored in sexual practice, law, and human interaction, is blunted by not preserving “seed” throughout.

Even in contexts not directly related to sexuality, the concreteness of this term often amplifies the meaning of the utterance.  when, for example, at the end of the story of the binding of Isaac, God reiterates His promise to Abraham, the multiplication of seed is strongly linked with cosmic imagery – harking back to the Creation story – of heaven and earth:  “I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea” (Genesis 22:17).  If “seed” here is rendered as “offspring” or “descendants,” what we get are two essentially mathematical similes of numerical increase.  That is, in fact, the primary burden of the language God addresses to Abraham, but as figurative language it also imposes itself visually on the retina of imagination, and so underlying the idea of a single late-born son whose progeny will countless millions is an image of human seed (perhaps reinforced by the shared white color of semen and stars) scattered across the vast expanses of the starry skies and through the innumerable particles of sand on the shore of the sea.  To substitute “offspring” for “seed” here may not fundamentally alter the meaning but it diminishes the vividness of the statement, making it just a little harder for readers to sense why these ancient texts have been so compelling down through the ages.

This is one of Alter’s most persuasive arguments for his translation style.

Going back to the 929 description of zera’, the explanation continues:

Zera’ represents the next generation both for plants and for people. One of the six orders of the Mishnah (who knows six?  I know 6…) is called Zera’im, or “seeds” as it deals primarily with laws pertaining to agriculture.

Thus, a zera’ is both what a farmer puts in the ground, and what Onan spilled on the ground (see Gen. 38 – giving us the English term “onanism”, even though technically what he did is better labeled coitus interruptus), and what can grow from both types.

Bringing forth new generations sounds like it should always have happy and optimistic connotations, but the act of zrei’ah / hazra’ah (planting/insemination) can be a very apprehensive time, not knowing if everything will come to term. Psalm 126 expresses this well: “הזורעים hazor’im They who sow in tears, shall reap with songs of joy. Though he goes along weeping, carrying משך הזרע, meshech hazara’ the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.”

And in Hebrew, it’s not only seeds that can be sown, but as in Psalm 97: or zaru’a latzadik, even light is sown, as a reward for the righteous, and happiness for the straight of heart.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 8, 2018 12:12 pm

    I should have included a reference to Shai Secunda’s meditation on Philip Roth in this post: https://www.929.org.il/lang/en/page/17/post/36912

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