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.