When Hebrew words (like ʾādām) become names

(George Brooks) #21

I think the more important question, @marshall, is why did the Sumerians equate the word “life” with the word they used for “rib”?

Did even the Sumerians REALLY mean “rib”? Or was that term a euphemism?

You are familiar with the verses in the Old Testament where “THIGH” doesn’t really mean “THIGH”, right?

(Marshall Janzen) #22

Oh yes. In Job 40, after God tells Job to gird his loins like a man (v. 7), God definitely puts him in his place by pointing out the enormity of the generative power present in behemoth (v. 16-17). Our modern Bibles may speak of tight-knit thighs, but the KJV translators were less squeamish and wrote of “stones”. The Vulgate has “testiculorum”. And then there’s a “tail” that somehow parallels these “thighs”, and that “tail” is not bending like some long-necked dinosaur tail, it is being stiffened so it is like a cedar (a tree not known for its droopiness).

I’m sure Job was feeling pretty small after that.

(Phil) #23

Well according to wikipedia:
It is absent in humans, [ungulates]…(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ungulate) (hoofed mammals),(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyena),[32] sirenians,[4] and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises),[4] among others.

But I claim ignorance in such matters. However, given the prohibitions against dealing with dead bodies, suspect the early Israelites also were unaware of that bone. Plus, just thinking about the surgery involved with removal makes me cringe a bit, even though I am sure God was a great anesthetist…

(George Brooks) #24


You say that ALL of the above groups are also lacking? This I didn’t know… I guess I have to do my homework on that … someone once told me we were the only exception … and I believed that statement without enough skepticism…


(Christy Hemphill) #25

That would be an even worse way for women to be derivative of men. Glad no one at my church had access to those ideas. I have heard men affectionately refer to their wives as their “ribs.” I do not want to ever hear a woman referred to affectionately as a penile bone.

(J Richard Middleton) #26


(Marshall Janzen) #27

I agree that they looked for connections and loved word plays. My pushback is about the idea that we can find out what the word 'adam means by looking for etymological connections to other words or seeing what it is connected to in word plays.

I’m not a D.A. Carson fanboy, but I do like what he says about this in Exegetical Fallacies (1996). It’s the first fallacy in the book:

One of the most enduring of errors, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is, by the root or roots of a word. […]

I am simply saying that the meaning of a word cannot be reliably determined by etymology, or that a root, once discovered, always projects a certain semantic load onto any word that incorporates that root. Linguistically, meaning is not an intrinsic possession of a word; rather, “it is a set of relations for which a verbal symbol is a sign.” […]

I am far from suggesting that etymological study is useless. It is important, for instance, in the diachronic study of words (the study of words as they occur across long periods of time), in the attempt to specify the earliest attested meaning, in the study of cognate languages, and especially in attempts to understand the meanings of hapax legomena (words that appear only once). In the last case, although etymology is a clumsy tool for discerning meaning, the lack of comparative material means we sometimes have no other choice. (pp. 28, 32, 33)

Since the word 'adam appears over 500 times in the First Testament, I don’t think we need to resort to etymology to discover what it means.

But that said, I do enjoy the word plays! Genesis 2 plays on the similarity (though the differences include an extra Hebrew consonant) between 'adam (humanity) and 'adamah (earth/ground):

…then the LORD God formed the 'adam from the dust of the 'adamah, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the 'adam became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

A bit later there’s another great pun with the word for blood (dam):

Whoever sheds the dam of 'adam,
by 'adam shall that person’s dam be shed;
for in his own image God made 'adam. (Genesis 9:6)

To me, it seems these puns and word plays require the reader to already know that these are different words. It works because dam and 'adamah don’t have the same meaning as 'adam.

As for etymology, I’m agnostic on where the word 'adam came from. Regardless, a word’s meaning isn’t tied to its roots. If 'adam entered Hebrew through the alteration of words meaning red, ground or leather, its meaning shifted in the process. Aside from a few disputed and hard to dissect phrases, 'adam doesn’t carry those meanings anywhere in the First Testament.

(George Brooks) #28


Well, shucks, I agree with what that fellow was writing too.

Sometimes etymologies are just over-blown speculation.

But when someone uses the word Adam 500 times… and nobody in the entire book is named Adam…

… and we find specific connections to "red’ and “dust” … just because someone says there’s etymology to be had doesn’t mean he must be wrong.

If one doesn’t find etymological connections in Adam… then you might as well forget about any other etymologies.

Important Addendum:
It just so happens that this conversation touches on my very favorite etymology!:

Obed-edom = “servant of Edom”

  1. a Levite and a Gittite who kept the ark after Uzzah was slain by God for touching the ark while it was being taken to Jerusalem
  2. a Merarite Levite and a singer and gatekeeper
  3. the family descended from him

This name hints at the very birth of the name Adam… “Edom” is not just the name of a region.
It is the name of an idea… of our God.

And here you are taking the point position of saying it is the LEAST of the etymologies…

(Marshall Janzen) #29

Thank you, Dr. Middleton, for responding. I’ve been mulling this over a bit and want to make sure I understand the details:

So in these three verses, the difference between having the definite article (“the adam”) and not having it (“adam”/“Adam”) comes down to vowel points, not consonants, due to the preposition. When the Masoretes placed the vowel points on these words in a way that allows them to read as names, is it likely they were departing from the oral tradition of how the text was read, or can we not assume the presence of anything other than the consonantal text prior to them?

Do you think this is a case where consonants were altered to remove the article, changing ha’adam to 'adam? Or is the text fine, but because 4:2 uses a similar construction with the article, they should both be read as not being names? (Since if it was a name, you wouldn’t switch between using or not using the article, similar to the argument for Genesis 1:26-27 that also uses both ha’adam and 'adam.)

I’m curious as to why this verse would be considered especially clear. Genesis 2:4 has “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth,” so I’m not seeing why the toledot construction would need to have a name in it. Could 5:1-2 not read, “These are the generations of humanity. When God created humanity, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humanity’ when they were created.” The name in verse 2 is of course a clear name (naming formula used and no definite article), but not of an individual. Only with verse 3 would we then have a clear proper name of an individual person. Does that work?

Maybe, if nothing else, this complexity shows that it is not easy to distinguish the different forms of 'adam in Genesis.

(system) closed #30

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