The Meaning of mîn in the Hebrew Old Testament, Part 1

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July 21, 2012 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Richard Hess. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Meaning of mîn in the Hebrew Old Testament, Part 1

Note: Recently, the related ideas of the “fixity of species” and “natural kinds” have been prominent in the science and faith conversation. Philosopher Bruce A. Little examined those concepts together in his paper for our Southern Baptist Voices Series, and that same central idea—that the Bible depicts species as un- or minimally-changing categories established by God during the initial creation—forms the basis of the scientific work of Dr. Todd Wood, who was profiled along with BioLogos President Darrel Falk in the July-August 2012 issue of Christianity Today. The baraminology Wood and others pursue as an alternative to evolution is predicated on taking Genesis to mean that God created (Hebrew bara) such fixed species (Hebrew mîn).

But does the text truly indicate such a concept? In this two-part essay, Biblical scholar Dr. Richard Hess looks at the Biblical context and meaning of the Hebrew mîn, and suggests that when Christians use it to frame our understanding of the entire created order, we may be asking too much of this one, small word.

In Part 1, Dr. Hess carefully examines the usage of the Hebrew term mîn in the Old Testament, using its context as the key to discovering its meaning. His analysis finds that mîn denotes distinctions that were meaningful to ancient Israel, such as green plants with seed, fruit trees, birds, sea creatures, fish, wild land animals, domestic animals, and creatures that creep along the ground. The categories are not those of modern scientific classification systems, which would have been of little or no value in the ancient Near East.

The role of a single word in Christian doctrine can sometimes make all the difference in the world. In the first millennium the Church divided between Eastern and Western Christianity over whether the Latin filioque, describing how the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and from the Son,” should be included in the Creed. Five hundred years ago the Protestant Reformation was launched in no small measure due to the issue of how “faith” (Greek New Testament pistis) should be understood.

This essay considers the meaning of another small word, but not one in Latin or Greek. This word appears in the Hebrew language in which the Old Testament was written. It is the word pronounced, mîn, that can be rhymed with “green.” In Modern Israeli Hebrew the word has taken on the meaning of “species.” This is also the traditional way in which is it translated in the Old Testament of Genesis 1. It appears in Genesis 1:11, 12, 21, 24, and 25. A survey of a variety of English translations (King James Version, New American Bible, New Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, and New International Version) reveal that the translation “kind” or “kinds” is used.

Can we be more specific? Does the word imply a zoological classification such as the term “species” would in scientific discussions of the animal and vegetable kingdoms? It is always dangerous to apply modern concepts to ancient literature. The use of classificatory schemes provides a good example. The application of categories of knowledge in pre-Aristotelian writings invites misunderstanding as the means of viewing the world and its elements differed from the way we look at things today. This does not mean that communication is impossible; only that we need to remain especially cautious not to import our understanding of matters onto the ancient worldview of writers without approaching these questions carefully and critically.

In terms of ancient (or modern) literature, a word is best understood according to its usage in the writings in which it occurs. This suggests that context determines meaning. This is especially true where it appears multiple times in the same type of literature written from the same culture and general time period. The study of context is the primary determinant for understanding the definition of a word.

Secondarily, one may consider related words in the same literature. Because a Semitic language such as Hebrew is based on roots (usually of three consonants) that each generate verbs, nouns, and other particles of speech, words formed from the same root may provide additional understanding of the term we are considering.

The third area for study is where the same word occurs in comparative literature coming from similar, though not identical (which we consider in the first category), cultures and times. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew but we do not have much additional Hebrew writing preserved for us from the time when this part of the Bible was written. However, there are closely related Semitic languages that possess a wealth of literature and may contain our word in their writings. If so, it would be good to check this and see if there is a relationship there. At the same time, later Hebrew, written by Jewish scholars, may also use this word. It is of value to compare the usage here. This part of the study can confirm and refine our understanding of mîn, but it should not overturn clear contextual indications from the Old Testament usage itself.

Finally, we should note that, in the Old Testament, mîn does not appear by itself. Every one of its occurrences forms part of the same prepositional phrase. Thus our work is not complete when we have identified the contextual and comparative meaning of the word. Instead, we need to examine the usage of the term within this prepositional phrase. Such expressions can sometimes alter the meaning of the term. This is especially true in idioms, but also occurs in other common expressions.

Old Testament Context of mîn

The Hebrew term, mîn, occurs 31 times in the Old Testament. These occurrences are found in four contexts: the creation story of Genesis 1 (vv. 11, 12, 21, 24, and 25), the flood story (Genesis 6:20; 7:14), the lists of clean and unclean animals in Leviticus 11 (vv. 14, 15, 16, 19, 22, and 29) and Deuteronomy 14 (vv. 13, 14, 15, and 18), and the single occurrence in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the future river that will flow from the Jerusalem temple to the Dead Sea (Ezekiel 47:10).

The usage in Genesis 1:11 and 12 associates mîn with vegetation, especially those plants and trees that have seeds and bear fruit. These will form the basis for the food to be eaten by people, birds, and land animals in Genesis 1:29-30. There is no specification of mîn in terms of species or any more specific category than edible plants and fruit trees.

The same seems to be true in Genesis 1:21, where mîn appears alongside large and small sea creatures and birds with wings. The second and third days of creation in Genesis 1 describe God’s demarcation of three domains of the physical world: the sky, the seas, and the dry ground. On days five and six God fills these areas with life, with living creatures. For the sky and sea, the creatures are defined according to their general means of locomotion and not in any other way. Modern zoological classifications use criteria in addition to locomotion. Thus there are few clues that would connect mîn with any modern classification system.

The appearance of our term in Genesis 1:24 and 25 brings us to the fifth day when God fills the dry land with life. Here God creates three categories: livestock, wild animals, and creatures that crawl along the ground. In v. 24 the general category of all living animals on the ground is described with mîn; whereas in v. 25 each of these three categories receives this term. Thus the term can be used of more general and more specific “kinds” of animals within the same grouping.

The term recurs in Genesis 6:20 and 7:14, where it modifies individually the bird, the wild animal of the land, and the creature that crawls along the ground. In Genesis 7:14 livestock is added to those in the ark. It also is modified by mîn. Here the categories of animals resemble those in Genesis 1. From these “kinds” would come all the species that are found in nature. This confirms the broad usage of mîn but does not add new information.

The usage of mîn also occurs in the listing of unclean animals. It occurs in a list in Leviticus 11:14, 15, 16, 19, and 22; which closely follows the list in Deuteronomy 14:13, 14, 15, and 18. Only Leviticus 11:22 is separate. This list includes specific names of small wild animals, various birds, and insects (Leviticus 11:22). Although there is discussion and dispute regarding the specific identification of various of these animals, it is clear that they form subcategories of those types to whom the term mîn was applied in Genesis 1, 6, and 7. The resulting picture is thus that mîn applies to a variety of animal categories, both those more general and those more specific. While particular species may be described in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that is certainly not the case in Genesis, where the categories of living creatures are much broader.

The remaining text with mîn is Ezekiel 47:10. Here the fresh water that will pour from the temple into the Dead Sea forms a natural habitat for fish that are mîn and are compared with those fish found in the Mediterranean Sea. As in Genesis 1:21, the picture is one of general creatures of the sea, rather than what anyone might identify as a particular species. Indeed, if the translation of the phrase in which mîn occurs is understood (following the New International Version) as, “The fish will be of many kinds,” then this could envision various species. However, such an interpretation is not explicit from the text itself.

Our survey of the usage of the term in biblical Hebrew suggests that it may describe all types of plants and animals, and this may include mîn in the broadest categories of living creatures: green plants with seed, fruit trees, birds, sea creatures, fish, wild land animals, domestic animals, and creatures that creep along the ground. It may also include specific categories as enumerated in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Thus mîn does refer to various kinds of living creatures without a predisposition as to how large a category is intended. Only context can tell us that. The term is applied only to living creatures as described in the Bible. It is never applied to people, abstract concepts, or nonliving objects.

In Part 2, Dr. Hess expands his analysis in by exploring closely related words in the Old Testament and by comparing how mîn is used in literature coming from similar cultures and times.


Dr. Richard S. Hess is Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary. He is also the editor of the Denver Journal, the Seminary’s online theological review journal, and the Bulletin for Biblical Research. Dr. Hess earned a PhD from Hebrew Union College, an MDiv and a ThM from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Wheaton College. He is a member of the Committee on Bible Translation for the New International Version and serves as Old Testament and archaeology editor for the forthcoming NIV Study Bible. Dr. Hess has also worked for the New American Bible, the Holman Standard Christian Bible, the English Standard Version, and The Common English Bible translations of the Old Testament. His current research projects include commentaries on the books of Genesis and Kings, an Introduction to the Old Testament, Hebrew grammar, and the study of ancient Near Eastern texts related to the Old Testament.

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George Bernard Murphy - #71258

July 21st 2012

Nice but to get right down to the nitty gritty,.. the word “yom” is the real doozy.

And then the word translated as “firmament” would open our insight to a huge area of cosmology.

But you are correct.

 There are only about half dozen words that cause all the conflict.


George Bernard Murphy - #71259

July 21st 2012

I do see a lot of significance in the exact words describing Day 3 of the creation story.

The living things were all plants  [GREEN THINGS], that reproduced by sexual reproduction.

DNA as the information-carrying code for life was adopted,....[as I see it.]

Now to try to correlate with the actual events,.. we have to look at the other event of Day 3…..shifting continental land masses,.....magma circulation,.... “plate tectonics” if you will.

THIS MEANS THAT THE MAGMA STARTED CIRCULATION FROM THE CENTER OF THE EARTH AT THAT TIME.

This magma circulation meant that one of the two factors required for magnet poles was established.

[The other is a rotation of the planet to produce a coriolus effect in the molton lava.]  This began a short time thereafter when the collision with another planet struck the earth from behind,... at a point we might call “the left shoulder”.

 This started the earth rotating and tilted forward,...the axis of rotation 23 was 23 degrees and gave us all the wonderful units of time we now enjoy. [DAYS, SEASONS, YEARS!] as we continued to orbit the sun in a perfect circle.

Once we had this complex pattern of magma flow we had magnetic poles,...  [see the work of Walter Elsasser],..and a magnetosphere ,......AND THIS MEANT WE WERE READY FOR PLANTS WITH CHLOROPHYL TO START PRODUCING OXYGEN.

Without the magnetosphere sunlight is a death ray which will kill everything including green plants.

Two of the most powerful beams of radiation used in radiation therapy to kill cancer are proton therapy beams and the betatron.

 Unfiltered sunlight contains both [positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons.]

But with magnetic lines of force encircling our planet, [the magnetosphere]... these beams bend right around the earth and don’t hit it.

 BUT THE ELECTOMAGNETIC RAYS,... [LIGHT] COME STRAIGHT IN AND HIT THE GREEN CHLOROPHYL USING UP CO2 AND PRODUCING OXYGEN. [getting it ready for us!]

The earth is about 4.6 Billion years old.It was formed by multiple collisions of smaller space bodies.

When it was about 90% present size it was hot and molten but the magma didn’t circulate.

 Fortunately it contained a lot of radioactive atoms and these are always big heavy atoms so they sank to the center of this molton mass.

 Here they reacted with each other as a natural fast breeder reactor SO THAT THE CENTER PRODUCED EVEN MORE HEAT.  THEN THE HOTTER CENTER BEGAN TO RISE AS CONVECTION CURRENTS WHERE IS ENCOUNTERED OCEANS [a fine coolant] and began to spread them in the middle,..[This made the crust parts move and collide with each other  and push up where “the dry land appeared”]

OK That is the first half of Day 3.

 The earth had dry land and a protective magnetosphere so it needed PLANTS.

 The atmosphere was still anoxic and would be for about 2 billion more years.

But I think it is highly significant that the Bible says the living things in this first infusion of life were PLANTS,GREENS THINGS.

 If the Bible said these first living things were air-breathing animals I WOULD KNOW IT WAS JUST AN ANCIENT MYTH.


Enosh - #71267

July 22nd 2012

As a young-age creationist, the point is well taken that mîn is not a technical term in the original Hebrew in the way it has come to be used in modern baraminology, but this is not news to baraminologists. I refer the reader to a young-age treatment of the matter from 15 years ago here: Williams, P.J., What does min mean? Journal of Creation (CENTJ) 11(3):344-352, 1997. I especially refer the reader to Dr Williams’ acknowledgments as explicit evidence that this has been known by baraminologists, including Todd Wood, for a very long time. While some early (and some modern) young-age writers have read the Hebrew anachronistically regarding taxonomy, not all are guilty of this. See e.g. Lightner, J.K., Hebrew Scriptures as an aid to developing a creationist taxonomy, Journal of Creation 24(1):77-81, 2010. This is an important point of clarification for those new to the debate, but not one that should count against baraminology. Baraminology, like many disciplines, has developed it’s own technical terminology, and I would urge the reader not to commit the etymological fallacy when trying to understand them. Look at the stipulated definitions, and observe how the terminology is used in the literature.


George Bernard Murphy - #71272

July 22nd 2012

Well Enosh correct me if I am wrong,... but I looked up baraminology on google and got the impression it is not a REAL science.

 Only YEC’s recognize it.


Enosh - #71297

July 22nd 2012

What does it matter who recognizes it or not? Truth is not decided by a majority vote. Barminology is a creationist discipline of natural history; a young-ager alternative to evolution, so of course only young-agers are going to accept the fundamental premises of baraminology as legitimate. Even so, not all young-agers are happy with baraminology (at least as it currently stands).

But if you’re going to critique something, make sure you know what you’re talking about first. Looking up baraminology on google is not enough to deal with the references I gave. Dr Hess has sounded an important corrective for those first approaching the field of baraminology, but as I pointed out, his warnings were idenitified by baraminologists themselves at least 15 years ago. The fact is that this series doesn’t affect one way or the other whether baraminology is a viable discipline; that can only be decided on the arguments it advances.

And as for your notion of “REAL science”, why should I buy into it? Scripture is my final commitment, not “REAL science”; whatever that is. And since I think Scripture explicitly contradicts evolution and long-ages, I’m not going to accept them. And frankly, I think that’s an open-and-shut case for young-agers. Even if I don’t have all the answers regarding how good natural history gels with good biblical hermeneutics (evolutionists certainly don’t have all the answers to plug up all the holes in their own historical framework), I trust that it does regardless of my lack of understanding. Proverbs 3:5.

Self-serving defintions of buzzwords with a lot of credibility currency will not win you respect in this debate. Informed and respectful dialogue, on the other hand, will. Please stick to the latter, in the future.


wesseldawn - #71280

July 22nd 2012

This is my difficulty that some words are interpreted individually instead of in the context of the sentence (or thought) it’s used!

And when matching information is found, it explains the meaning. An example is the word ‘stars’:

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:7)

*morning stars/sons of God = angels

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! (Isaiah 14:12)

*Lucifer (BlueLetterBible.org) = “light-bearer” 1) shining one, morning star

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them to present himself before the LORD. (Job 1:6, and 2:1)

Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty, thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness: I will cast thee to the ground, I will lay thee before kings, that they may behold thee. (Ezekiel 28:7)

And it waxed great, even to the host of heaven; and it cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground, and stamped upon them. (Dan. 8:10)

*host/stars = synonyms

Stranger (and shocking for me) is how Jesus referred to Himself in Rev. 22:16: 

I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star. 


Francis - #71285

July 22nd 2012

“His analysis finds that mîn denotes distinctions that were meaningful to ancient Israel, such as green plants with seed, fruit trees, birds, …”

“Bird” appears six times in this essay. A thought occurred to me that might be helpful in your future dialogues on evolution.

If you’re ever in a situation that calls for a very short (but very accurate and very true, of course) summation of the history and substance of evolution theory, you might try something like this:

Back in the mid-1800’s, Charles Darwin traveled to the Galapagos islands and there observed that the beaks of finches lengthened and shortened over time or generations, apparently from changes in the birds’ environment. Therefore, the conclusion that “molecule”-to-“mole”-to-“monkey”-to man evolution should be  true.

A short, sweet and sure bird’s-eye-view of evolution.


wesseldawn - #71309

July 23rd 2012

This suggests that context determines meaning.

I agree but in a much broader sense than is currently used: not just in the context of one verse but in the context of all verses associated with a particular topic.

Gen. 1:11, 21 & 24 are not speaking of the same things so they cannot be used as examples to support each other. Gen. 1: 11 & 12 however, can be used because they are speaking about ‘the earth’ as bringing forth, vegetation:

Gen. 1:11 - And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.

Gen. 1:12 - And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

Gen. 1:24 & 25 however, speaks of the ‘living creature’, which is a different topic:

Gen. 1:24 - And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.

It’s quite clear from all of these verses that ‘the earth’ itself produced both the herb yeilding seed (whose seed was in ‘itself’) and the living creatures! Obviously this would have been a slow process as nature perpetuates from and of itself over long periods of time (it takes time to grow a tree). 

My question is “Where did foiliage originate? Was it from algae? Or possibly oceans plants (kelp) that were washed onto soil, the seeds self perpetuating over the earth, being blown by the wind!

 


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