I often say that translation is interpretation. There is a powerful example of this fact in the creation stories of Genesis. I can’t help but wonder how history would have played out had two words been translated differently.
ADAM IN GENESIS 1-3
Adam is a word we all recognize, the name of the first human being in both creation stories. It is usually translated “man”:
Gen 1:26 And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָאָרֶץ, וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ, הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 1:27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.
וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.
Gen 2:15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
The second creation story continues with G-d telling Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, then bringing the animals before Adam to name. Then this passage:
Gen 3:21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof.
וַיַּפֵּל יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים תַּרְדֵּמָה עַל-הָאָדָם, וַיִּישָׁן; וַיִּקַּח, אַחַת מִצַּלְעֹתָיו, וַיִּסְגֹּר בָּשָׂר, תַּחְתֶּנָּה.
Gen 3:23 And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (אִשָּׁה), because she was taken out of Man (אִישׁ).’
וַיֹּאמֶר, הָאָדָם, זֹאת הַפַּעַם עֶצֶם מֵעֲצָמַי, וּבָשָׂר מִבְּשָׂרִי; לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה, כִּי מֵאִישׁ לֻקְחָה-זֹּאת.
Gen 3:24 Therefore shall a man (אִישׁ) leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife (אִשְׁתּוֹ), and they shall be one flesh.
עַל-כֵּן, יַעֲזָב-אִישׁ, אֶת-אָבִיו, וְאֶת-אִמּוֹ; וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ, וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד.
Reading in English immediately presents a grammatical problem: in Gen 1:26, G-d refers to G-d’s’ self as “us” and similarly refers to Adam as “them.”
The problem is easily solved when we understand that Adam doesn’t mean “man” until Gen 3:23 and following when it becomes the name of a specific man, the first man.
Until then, Adam, which comes from the word, “Adamah,” a feminine noun meaning earth, means something else: earth creature, both male and female. Gen 1:27 from the first creation story clearly indicates a simultaneous creation of male (זָכָר – zachar) and female (נְקֵבָה – n’kevah). As it turns out, the second creation story does as well. Adam is both male and female until G-d separates them into man (אִישׁ – ish) and woman (אִשָּׁה – isha).
Consider the implications of a clear statement of the simultaneous creation of man and woman in terms of “in the image.” I’m not talking here just about the idea, which many who don’t read Hebrew as well as many who do, assume anyway, that both male and female are in the image of G-d. We don’t need to make assumptions, though, about what the text says or over-interpret it. We just need to read it at the simplest level in Hebrew, and that statement is obvious.
This translation also explains the confusing pronouns in Gen 1:26 when G-d says, “Let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion…” Us? Them?
Suppose we imagine that G-d is a unity, containing both male and female. Male and female separated in the created world symbolizes the idea that creation is a system of differences. G-d refers to G-d’s own (unified) plurality, as “us.” Similarly G-d refers to the single earth creature created in G-d’s image, Adam, as “them.”
In essence, the pattern in how Adam is used in the original Hebrew elaborates an important theology and anthropology contained in the story, G-d is a unity, and creation is a system of differences symbolized by sexual difference.
“ARUM” IN GENESIS 3
The word arum appears in four places in Gen 3:
Gen 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field.
וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה
Gen 3:7 And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked…
וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם
Gen 3:10 I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
אֶת-קֹלְךָ שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּגָּן; וָאִירָא כִּי-עֵירֹם אָנֹכִי
Gen 3:11 Who told thee that thou wast naked?
?מִי הִגִּיד לְךָ, כִּי עֵירֹם אָתָּה
A word used four times in 27 short verses, skillfully, intentionally, just as we saw Adam skilfully worked into a text with man and woman in order to make a truthful statement within the world view, or internal logic, of the text. Outside of this text, a version of the word occurs in 11 other places in the Hebrew Bible, 8 of them in Proverbs, where it is generally translated “prudent.” Strong’s Concordance provides these definitions: crafty, shrewd, sensible.
Translators of these four passages from Genesis almost universally use “crafty,” “subtle” or “shrewd” for the snake and “naked” for the human beings. Consider how differently we might understand this text if we understood the Hebrew and associated all its meanings with the word. Consider how differently we might understand it had different translations been chosen, for example, what if the serpent were more naked than any beast of the field. Certainly that would make sense — the serpent does appear naked in relation to beasts of the field who generally have a coat of fur. The serpent’s nakedness would elevate the serpent to the level of human beings, who also have no coat of fur.
Or consider if the human beings were prudent, sensible, subtle, even shrewd? Those translations would also fit in a statement about their eyes being opened, and it would totally transform our understanding of the story.
TRANSLATION IS INTERPRETATION
Over the years I have studied this story, I have thought several different things about the nature of the act in the middle of the story and the middle of the Garden, eating from the Tree or the Meal in the Garden, as I like to call it.
Reconsidering the meaning of arum by doing the obvious and translating it the same way for the serpent as for the humans suggests at least one possibility to me: the human beings at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil made an unconscious decision to eat, a decision without “prudent” consideration of consequences. The consequences of this unconscious decision were catastrophic for all of creation. In becoming conscious, fully aware and capable of conscious choices, arum, they also become aware their action brought consequences. As they realized, after the fact, the enormity of those consequences, they are afraid. This idea certainly provides a framework for the Torah’s fierce focus on conscious choice in all things!
The internal logic of the text, the messages that might be in it, revealed through the text’s own literary clues, tells us two other stories as well. It tells us a story about the power of a translation that is always interpretation. When a translator chooses a word to use from a range of possibilities, that translator creates a new narrative which hopefully has its own internal logic. That translation then shapes a culture and a world view.
Imagine the impact over centuries of a narrative that focuses on the secondary status of women, human disobedience, sin, sexual shame and death. Then imagine how those centuries might have developed informed by a narrative that suggests the simultaneous creation of woman and man, in the image of G-d, who become conscious or prudent and thereby aware of the consequences of their earlier thoughtless or unconscious action and whose raison d’etre is to grow toward fully conscious living, making choices in full contemplation and consciouness of their consequences and implications.
Consider for a moment who, in that society, would end up honored and who shamed and punished.
This exploration tells us another story about the usefulness of taking the details of a narrative as they are presented, following its patterns and trying to discern its internal logic rather than imposing the logic of a different narrative on it. Interpretive traditions are different from the original narrative. These interpretive traditions have their own internal logic and meaning and must be understood in the same way as the sacred texts we have received, on their own terms.
Exploring first the biblical text as I have received it to discover what I can of its own internal logic, then to see how interpretive traditions developed from it, is my project in Torah Ecology.
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