The Meaning of mîn in the Hebrew Old Testament, Part 2
Note: In Part 1, Dr. Hess began by examining the usage of the Hebrew term mîn in the Old Testament. In Part 2, he expands his analysis in three ways. First, he explores closely related words in the Old Testament. Second, he looks at how mîn is used in literature coming from similar cultures and times. Third, he points out that mîn always occurs in the Old Testament within a prepositional phrase, and he assesses how that affects its meaning.
Ultimately, Dr. Hess concludes that the Hebrew text emphasizes the diversity of life – both plants and animals – with which God filled the sky, the sea, and the dry land he had created. The Bible in its original language and context does not assert that each plant and animal reproduced exactly as what preceded it (the fixity of species). It says nothing about that point.
Words Related to the m-y-n Root
Are there any words in the Hebrew Bible related to the root behind mîn? That root is m-y-n. The term is applied only to living creatures as described in the Bible. It is never applied to people, abstract concepts, or nonliving objects. There is only one word that is generally agreed as coming from this root. It is těmûnāh. The term occurs ten times in the Hebrew Bible. It is used to describe the form or image of an object that might be worshiped (i.e., an idol) in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 4:16, 23, 25; 5:8. It may also refer to the form of God (Numbers 12:8; Psalm 17:15), which is normally not visible (Deuteronomy 4:12, 15). Job 4:16 describes an unidentified form, a spirit seen in a dream.
In every case this term describes one of two things. First, there is the image of any material object, including both living and non-animate objects created by God. In a second category are those descriptions of the form of God or of a spirit. None of these “forms” occurred in our survey of the uses of mîn in the Old Testament. Thus this confirms the general category of a “form” or “kind.” However, it describes different examples of this rather than the living creatures identified by mîn.
Words in Comparative Literature
This area of study considers both similar words found in the literatures of Semitic languages closely related to Hebrew in time and place. The first is the term mīnu, found in literature of the Akkadian dialects. Primarily this is Babylonian and Assyrian written in hundreds of thousands of texts throughout the centuries from the latter part of the third millennium B.C. to the first century A.D. Volume 10 (M part II), pp. 96-97, of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary defines this term primarily as “number, amount.” Less frequent meanings can include, “accounting; shape, figure, good looks.” While some of the latter usages may be more closely related to the noun, těmûnāh (see above), the more frequent “number, amount” balances some of the translation directions for Hebrew mîn.
In our survey of mîn (in part 1), the emphasis was on the quality of the living creatures described—what kind of creature they were, and how general and how specific mîn was in identifying them. The Akkadian usage invites us to consider the quantitative element, in contrast to the qualitative one. Here the question arises as to how many types of creatures are being described in the contexts by the usage of mîn. While the Leviticus and Deuteronomy usages seems to stress a specific set of animals in their usage; the occurrences of mîn in Genesis 1, 6, and 7 imply the whole plant kingdom and animal kingdom.
The one other occurrence of this term is found in the closely related West Semitic language of Ugaritic. Thousands of texts written in the script and language of this people were discovered at the Syrian site of ancient Ugarit near the Mediterranean coast. Of all of these, the mythological texts have proven to be the most interesting for what they may reveal about Hebrew poetry and about the stories of Canaanite deities that are mentioned in the Bible (Baal, Asherah, etc.). Dating from the thirteenth century B.C., these texts were written about two hundred years before the era when King David ruled in Jerusalem. For our purposes, the most important text is found in fourth tablet of the Baal epic (CAT 1.4.1 line 39), where we read in translation about a table build by the craft expert god,
line 39 a great table filled with creatures
line 40 animals from the foundations of the earth
The word translated “creatures” is written in the consonantal text (without vowels) as mnm. The final –m indicates the plural. The mn is most likely the Hebrew mîn. In plural with the word for “animals” in line 40, it seems reasonable to translate it as a synonym. Here that would be “creatures.” As in the Akkadian term that is related, the emphasis falls as much or more on the great quantity of animals that such a (literally) “god-sized” table can hold, as it does on the variety of animals found on the table.1
We may conclude the comparisons with related languages by suggesting that the term mîn occurs more widely with a sense emphasizing the large number of diverse creatures under broader categories than “species” alone.
A second area of Comparative Literature was identified as the use of mîn in later Jewish literature. Thus the Apocryphal book, Ben Sirach, uses mîn four times, in 13:14, 15 (2 times) [13:15, 16] and 43:25. Here the writer describes how all flesh loves its own “kind,” and how people associate with their own “kind.” The text of 43:25 identifies creatures and mentions “all ‘kinds’ of life.” The sense is that of the animal world in general, with a specific reference to humanity as a mîn. This is the first use of mîn as referring to human beings.
The Dead Sea Scrolls attest to at least seven occurrences of mîn.2 In addition to animals and people, the usages here refer to different kinds of spirits, angels, and righteousness. Thus the term mîn extends into abstract and more spiritual categories. The diversity of content increases although the matter of quantity does not.
The Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic literature moves in two directions. On the one hand, mîn is again used primarily regarding plants and animals. On the other hand, mîn also carries the sense of “sectarian, infidel,” sometimes applied to Jewish Christians.3
The later Hebrew literature demonstrates a natural linguistic tendency to use this term in more diverse contexts. Overall, this review of the comparative materials suggests that quantity as well as quality may play a role in the definition of mîn, and that later usages continued to apply the term to both broader and more specific categories of living creatures. As with the biblical usage, these categories do not resemble modern taxonomies of living creatures as much as the ancient Israelite world view of locomotion appropriate to one of the three domains (sky, sea, and dry land) and the opposition of clean animals vs. unclean animals.
mîn in a Prepositional Phrase
All thirty-one biblical occurrences of mîn appear in the singular in the Hebrew. They all occur as part of a prepositional phrase that begins with the preposition meaning, “to, for.” This is the single letter, lamed, in Hebrew. There follows the mîn. Suffixed to these two elements is a third person possessive suffix, either feminine (“her, its”) or masculine (“his, its”), according to the gender of the plants or animals with which the phrase is associated. In Genesis 1 every reference to plants and animals is a singular used as a collective. So the singular “bird” actually refers to all birds. Correspondingly, the mîn element takes on a collective quality, “their kinds.”4
With this in mind, we may turn to the appropriate translation of this prepositional phrase. The traditional interpretation in Genesis 1 is to relate the phrase to the verb of creation. Thus God created “according to their kinds,” and they are to reproduce “according to their kinds.” Thus the phrase modifies the verb.
However, this approach does not enable a meaningful understanding of the phrase in the flood story. In Genesis 6:20 Noah is to bring into the ark every kind of bird and every kind of animal. Here the phrase modifies the noun, to describe what kind of bird or what kind of animal. The sense is that representatives of birds of every kind are to come to the ark. The same is true of Genesis 7:14 where the ark contained “every kind of wild animal,” etc.; not “wild animals according to their kind.” The latter translation is largely meaningless in a context that assumes representatives of all kinds of wild animals.
The same is true in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. So Leviticus 11:14 does not discuss “the black kite according to its kind,” but “every kind of black kite.” The emphasis is on the various sorts of black kites, ravens, hawks, etc. None of these classes or kinds of animals can be eaten. They are all unclean.
This can only be the sense of Ezekiel 47:10. The fish in the river are not each according to its kind. This is nonsensical. Here, as elsewhere, the phrase modifies the fish and describes the variety of fish, explicitly compared to the variety of fish in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus “there will be fish of all kinds” in the river that flows into the Dead Sea.
Returning to Genesis 1, we may translate the phrase as elsewhere. Genesis 1:12 emphasizes how the plants bearing seed and the trees bearing fruit are created in all their kinds; that is, all kinds of plants and trees are created. Again, in Genesis 1:21, 24, and 25, God creates the sea creatures, the birds, the wild land animals, the domestic animals, and those animals that move along the ground in all their kinds. He creates all kinds of such animals.
Thus the phrase in which mîn appears in Genesis 1 emphasizes the great variety of kinds of plants and animals. It does not assert that each plant and animal reproduced exactly as what preceded it. It says nothing about that point. Instead, the biblical text emphasizes the diversity of life – plants and animals – with which God filled the sky, the sea, and the dry land he had created. Consistent with the basic message of Genesis 1, the emphasis rests upon God’s creation of life in all its abundance and diversity.5 In this context, the Hebrew term mîn carries a sense of all types of divisions between plants and animals, not necessarily in the taxonomies of modern scientific divisions but certainly in those distinctions that were meaningful to ancient Israel, movement within their domain of sky, sea, and land, and clean and unclean.
1. For this understanding, see the discussion of the text in Mark S. Smith and Wayne T. Pitard, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle: Volume II. Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU/CAT 1.3–1.4 (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 114; Leiden: Brill, 2009), pp. 421-22. Note that the translation “species” is suggested by G. del Olmo Lete and J. Sanmartín, A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition: Part Two [l-ẓ] (Second Revised edition; Translated and Edited by Wilfred G. E. Watson, Handbook of Oriental Studies Volume 67; Leiden: Brill, 2004), p. 560, for this text. However, “species” seems less likely a parallel to “animals.”
2. See Richard Neville, “Differentiation in Genesis 1: An Exegetical Creation ex nihilo,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130 (2011): 209-26. The occurrences are listed on p. 224.
3. Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (2 volumes; Brooklyn: P. Shalom, 1967), pp. 775-76.
4. See Neville, “Differentiation in Genesis 1,” for comments here.
5. See my “God and Origins: Interpreting the Early Chapters of Genesis,” pp. 86-98 in Darwin, Creation and the Fall: Theological Challenges (ed., R. J. Berry and T. A. Noble; Nottingham: Apollos, 2009).
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.