July 31, 2007

Names and the Original Language

Category: Bible - OT - Genesis :: Permalink

This afternoon, I read part of G. C. Aalders’ commentary on Genesis.  I was struck by the frequent repetition of a certain warning.  It shows up first when we hear about Eve naming her son “Cain” and punning on the Hebrew word for acquiring.  We aren’t to make too much of that, Aalders cautions.  “It should be borne in mind that Eve did not speak Hebrew” (p. 118).

The warning comes up again in connection with Abel, whose name means “futility” in Hebrew.  What did Eve have in mind when she gave him that name?  Uh uh.  You don’t ask that question: “There is … no way of knowing just what Eve had in mind with this name.  Again, we must be reminded that Eve did not speak Hebrew” (p. 119).

We go a bit farther and we hear about Cain building a city and naming it after his son, Enoch.  “Attempts have been made to relate this name to similar names that appear later,” Aalders says, “but we should remember that Cain did not speak Hebrew” (p. 130).

What about the other names in this chapter?  Same thing.  “All attempts to discover meanings for the names which are listed here on the basis of similarity to various Hebrew words end in complete failure” (p. 130).  That goes for Adah and Zillah, too: “Once again, we caution against treating these names as being Hebrew before the Hebrew language was a reality” (p. 130).

The same is true at the end of the chapter.  Yes, Aalders says, the name “Enosh”

is formally the same as a Hebrew word which means “man” or “humanity.”  We may not conclude from this, however, that this is the meaning of the name Enosh.  We are reminded, once again, that prior to the confusion of speech there was no Hebrew language.  The similarity between the name given by Seth and the similar Hebrew word must be explained by the existence of a Hebrew word which happens to have the same sound (p. 135).

Aalders doesn’t address the pun on Seth’s own name in Genesis 4:25.

Get the picture?  Time and again, we’re told that the meaning of these names — and even the pun by which Cain’s name is explicitly related to the Hebrew word for acquiring — are not to be matters of our inquiry because, Aalders says, the people back then didn’t speak Hebrew.  The names just happens to have the same sound as some Hebrew words.

How do we know that?  Aalders points to the confusion of tongues at Babel, but the fact that tongues were confused doesn’t necessarily mean that no one retained the original language that everyone once spoke, does it?

Doesn’t the evidence seem to suggest that Hebrew was the original language?  If not, then the original language was one from which all the puns could be translated exactly into Hebrew, and having done some translation myself, I find it hard to imagine such a language.  But for some reason, for Aalders and for many others, the idea that Hebrew might have been the original language is the one thing we must not consider possible.

After all, Aalders tells us so every few pages.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:49 pm | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Names and the Original Language”

  1. John van Popta Says:

    Couldn’t it be that the names were translated from some original language to the Hebrew equivalent by Moses. Names shift in sound from language to language: that’s one factor. John, Sean, Juan: all shortened take offs from yahnathan. Even Jesus sounds different in Hebrew Greek and English.

    But the pun could have been translated as well. Was Cain name Cain in Edenish or was it a pun on the Edenish word for acquire.

    Did Jacob and Rachel and Leah speak Hebrew or did the puns in the names of the 12 sons originate in Akkadian? And were the puns and their names Hebraized in the 400 years of Egyptian slavery where it seems Hebrew language must have been generated?

    I don’t have answers. But I think Alders’ solution smacks of the late 19th cent condescending attitude of German theology to all things Hebrew and Jewish.



  2. Double Dead Frog Blog » Speech in Eden Says:

    […] I’m pretty sure Adam and Eve spoke Hebrew in Eden. Emeth Hesed | Category: Books & Words | […]

  3. Valerie (Kyriosity) Says:

    John, Sean, Juan: all shortened take offs from yahnathan. Even Jesus sounds different in Hebrew Greek and English.

    A better example would be Cephas becoming Peter — the same meaning with a completely different sound when translated.

    Or the Hebrew-in-Eden hypothesis works for me, too.

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