Arguing from the English Translation?

Yes, but your daughter isn’t a graduate student in Old Testament Hebrew.

Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that if your daughter were studying Shakespeare as a scholar (for example), she would not rely on an edition with modernized English to make arguments based on the “plain reading”. Rather, she would carefully study the text in its original early Modern English (possibly even analyzing different manuscripts and editions of the text), analyzing idioms and difficult terms by looking to other instances of the term in other works of Shakespeare or contemporary Elizabethan literature. Even high school students do this when studying Shakespeare.

In contrast, what you’re doing here is like taking Act 1, Scene 1 of King Lear in the “No Fear Shakespeare” edition and then trying to understand the characters through that scene alone without looking at other scenes or what happens later in the play. This is OK if you just want to retell the story to children or laypeople for personal enjoyment, but not for any serious scholarly study of Shakespeare.

2 Likes

How many Christians have done this, would you say? Or is this only mandatory for atheists who have the temerity to question the received reading of those who are operating under the influence of a faith that only arose many centuries after the story was first told?

The problem with that analogy is, AFAIK, no one seriously questions whether King Lear was the work of a single author over a finite period of time which was meant to be understood as a unified whole (though there is considerable disagreement over the identity of that author).

Whereas we have people here treating Genesis and Revelations as if they were conceived as part of a single work.

1 Like

All Christian biblical scholars do this! And that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to convey in this entire thread. In fact @deuteroKJ gave a little taste of that in this very thread. Read any professional scholarly commentary on Genesis (whether liberal or conservative) and you’ll see this careful, scholarly study.

Now, lay Christians who aren’t scholars can’t do this because they don’t have the skill to read Hebrew or Greek. They have to read English translations, and so must rely on pastors and teachers to guide them towards features of the text which may be missed in the English translation, including cultural context, cross-references, intertextual resonances, and so on. They might read popular-level commentaries about the passage which incorporate some of the latest professional scholarship about this but without getting into the technical details.

On the other hand, if they don’t want to do all this additional work and just want to read it as it seems to read “plainly” to them, that’s fine too, but they shouldn’t expect their interpretation to be authoritative for others.

I’m not sure what you mean. First, Christians are well aware that there are multiple authors in the Bible and that it was composed over a period of centuries, if not millennia. They freely admit differences in literary style, cultural background, theological emphasis between different biblical authors. Yes, Christians take both Genesis and Revelation as part of authoritative Scripture, but this is more of a “presupposition” (this term is also a crude one - canonical development is a complex topic and I can’t go into it here) rather than logical conclusion based on purely intellectual analysis of the text. We approach the 66 books of the Bible with the assumption that it is all God’s Word and trace the intellectual consequences of that.

Second, as I said before, even if you assume that Genesis was based on a pre-Israelite work, the Genesis story you read in the KJV has definitely been edited and reworked (by Jewish scribes, editors, and compilers of Genesis) into something which reflects Hebrew cultural and theological concepts and categories. In other words, the story of Genesis as it’s presented is already somewhat tailored to harmonize with the rest of the Hebrew Bible. This influence goes both ways: post-Genesis biblical authors (including the NT) were also well aware of Genesis and referenced it when developing their theology.

As I said, if you’re not interested in any of this theology, then you have to first do some scholarly work to identify the pre-Israelite kernel of the Genesis 2:4-4:26 story. There is no way you can accomplish your goals with just analyzing an English translation of the Masoretic text, period.

1 Like

Suffering from a bout of mild curiosity, I googled:

So El is a Caananite deity?

1 Like

Mike Heiser makes a very convincing case that Elohim is used with multiple different definitions depending on the context.

I’m not familiar with Mike Heiser (checked his Wikipedia page) but I have no reason to disagree. The scope for linguistic misunderstanding seems limitless, even when communicating in a common language.

2 Likes

I find it strange, then, that with all this scholarship contradicting the wording given in the usual English translations of Genesis no one has seen fit to provide a translation that more accurately conveys the meaning of the original Hebrew. Of the ones I have read, the only one that might be consistent with the Christian narrative is the Amplified Bible, but you say this is not a respectable scholarly work.

What should I conclude from that, other than that the existing translations actually are accurate representations of the original text?

That is my impression. yes. Glad you agree.

Or, if not me, then someone else. Are you saying no one has done this?

Yes, and it’s used of the God of Israel in the OT. El, Elohim, Eloah, Elim–even Allah–are all related in the cognate languages. In the OT, this term (and its variations) is not really a name (like Yahweh) but a designation for deity. Like English “god(s).” But the Hebrew does not mean what the English usually means to us (i.e., a set of attributes like omniscience, omipoentence, etc.). This is what @swamidass is referring to by pointing to Heiser (who has helpful YouTube videos giving brief summaries). The OT recognized the existence of other elohim (as well as imaginary ones), but no other elohim is like YHWH.

4 Likes

this is inaccurate and certainly not what I had stated. It seems you are reading the English itself too narrowly.

4 Likes

First, I didn’t argue that your interpretation is necessarily wrong or unacceptable in your specific case, only that your method is deficient. A broken clock is right twice a day.

Second, many people already have explained in this thread how the choice of translation is not just a matter of “more or less accurate”. In this case there are possible ambiguities in the Hebrew itself which may complicate things. You should go back and read more carefully.

An analogy with this situation is: you are trying to debunk the physics of black holes by carefully analyzing the account in Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, even though you have very limited mathematical or physics background. A physicist points out that Hawking’s book is just a popular account with many simplifications, and probably does not give the full picture about black holes. He tells you that if you really want to overturn black hole physics, you should first study it from real GR textbook, including all the rigorous mathematics. But you object that such a thing is unnecessary; it must be possible to get a full picture of the physics of black holes by simply reading a bunch of popular accounts on the subject, even without knowing any mathematics. You challenge the physicist to produce a different popular book (no math!) about black holes which contradicts your argument.

Do you see the absurdity in the situation above?

I don’t know. As I said, I’m not an expert in this field. Furthermore, I happen to not be particularly interested in your method of reading the text.

I appreciate your willingness to discuss and find meaning in just the text, but even scholars that try to find truth in text alone will struggle unless they believe. I know this from experience. They would probably not even bother trying if they studied and understood 1 Corinthians first (or they would come to know Jesus, one or the other).

Isn’t elohim plural?

2 Likes

@John_Harshman I’m reading Unseen Realm right now by Heiser. I think you would really like it. He argues convincingly that Elohim is the divine council of God. That’s why it’s plural.

Want to read it with me?

The -im ending is the normal masculine plural, but we know in almost all cases whether elohim is referring to a singular or plural because of context, and particularly because verbs are marked for number (i.e., singlular vs. plural). This isn’t the only case; e.g., the Behemoth of Job uses the feminine plural ending (-oth), but we know it’s referencing an individual creature (“mega-beast”). Conversely, Hebrew also employs collective nouns, such that a grammatical singular can refer to a plural (e.g., “humanity,” “seed”).

I have acknowledged that my interpretation is based only on the standard English translations of Genesis. My methodology is to read the words carefully. I don’t know how better to determine the meaning of text in English than by reading it carefully. What do you suggest?

That is not an apt analogy to the current situation.

A better one: I read Hawkings’s book and say “This is what I understand his book to be saying, though I realize it might not be a completely accurate representation of what is presented in the technical literature. Am I understanding what he wrote in the book correctly?”

“Your understanding seems to be correct. But maybe it’s completely wrong based on the the primary literature.”

“OK, what does the primary literature say that is different?”

“I’m saying it does say anything different. But it could, don’t you admit?”

“I guess, but I’m just asking if I understand Hawkings’s book correctly.”

“Well, there’s this invisible being that guides me when I read books, and he says it says something different.”

“???”

So far, it seems to me just the opposite is the case. The text clearly says something, but “belief” causes people to misread it.

1 Like

When it comes to works of theology I’m cheap, so probably not, unless it’s at a library (which, thanks to covid-19, it isn’t at anything I have access to). But if there’s a divine council, who’s on it? God’s wife? A Hebrew pantheon? That would explain various other plurals, such as “let us make man in our image” and “the man has become as one of us”, etc., which I presume are also present in the Hebrew.

You’re saying that the noun and verb forms can be contradictory? So when is elohim clearly singular and when is it plural?

2 Likes

Morphology is different than meaning, so yes there can technically be grammatical disagreement. We know largely because of the verb forms. E.g., in phrase like “God said…” the Hebrew for “said” marked different for “he said” and “they said.” Or, take Ps 82:1, where the first Elohim is singular (based on the verb) and the second is plural based on the intro “in the midst of” (i.e., can’t be in the midst of one).

1 Like

Great. So is it singular or plural in Genesis?

Gleason Archer used to call the -im in ELOHIM “the plural of majesty” and then comment about the “royal we” in English, as when Queen Victoria said, “We are not amused.” (Years later I discovered that there is actually considerable disagreement about the context of the Queen’s disapproving comment and whether it was truly a “royal we” [referring only to herself in the plural] or simply referring to herself and all of the ladies present when they were offended.)

Sometime in the early 1980’s I went along with Dr. Archer to the Oriental Institute in Chicago. It was always fun to be with Gleason when he would read the museum’s cuneiform tablets and stelae. It didn’t matter the language. He could read them all. Sometimes he would read the entire inscription and start rattling off related ancient texts which came to mind. And this ELOHIM discussion brought that to my mind because I remember one of his tangents included mention of some ancient letter of vassal kings to the “big cheese” king—and they addressed him (in Akkadian or whatever, can’t remember the language for certain) as "O Pantheon!" They were addressing one individual but everything in the inscription addressed him in the plural, according to Dr. Archer. [I couldn’t read those language so I still take his word for that.]

The jarring “disagreement” between a singular/plural noun form and a singular/plural verb form used to greatly annoy me in various languages because I would struggle to get the grammar right. But it also brings to mind the fact that before the Civil War “the United States of America” took a plural verb but after the war it took a singular verb. (That is, “The United States of America are home to a free people.” versus “The United States of America is a powerful nation.”)

So one sometimes needs to understand history as well as culture and context to really grasp the intended meaning of a sentence and to not botch the translation.

I should send another old-guy-tells-story alert to @Dan_Eastwood. Perhaps @deuteroKJ as well.

2 Likes

There appears to be some disagreement about that — not that Gleason Archer said it, but that it’s the correct interpretation.

Now, in English, names of singular things may be in plural form. What we see in “The United States of America is” resembles “The Grapes of Wrath is”; the change after the war is a change in viewpoint about whether we were a country (singular) or a collection of states (plural). But does elohim in Genesis take a singular verb?

1 Like