The Meaning of mîn in the Hebrew Old Testament, Part 2

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July 22, 2012 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Richard Hess. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Notes

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.

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George Bernard Murphy - #71290

July 22nd 2012

As you wrote,

“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.”

 

 I think He just dumped the DNA for all of these things,... not the mature creatures.

 They assemble themselves. THAT IS THE MIRACLE OF THE DNA SYSTEM.

WHEN A FARMER PLANTS CORN HE DOES NOT BUY INDIVIDUAL PLANTS AND STICK THEM IN THE GROUND,... HE SEEDS KERNELS OF CORN.

That is what you do to start growing plants or animals They mutate and evolve until the right gene combinations find each other. Just dump the DNA,...perhaps in different bugs, and let them multiply.

In contrast to what Darwin told you lateral gene transfer occurs like crazy in bacteria and through retroviruses in animals.

I think of it as being like Tinker Toys.

When you look at the outside of the box they show pictures of ferris wheels,... and little wagons and towers and bridges etc.

 When you dump out the Tinker Toys you just get a lot of sticks and boring wheels etc. All you got in the box was PARTS THAT ALLOW YOU TO BUILD  NEAT STUFF.

 I think God just made the big DNA dump  and it took centuries of evolution to build the little wagons etc..

 There is no intent to deceive here in the scriptures.


George Bernard Murphy - #71292

July 22nd 2012

Also I think the original mature organisms are already on  other  planets in other galaxies. I DO NOT AGREE WITH DARWINISTS [EXTENDED] WHO THINK LIFE ORIGINATED ON THIS PLANET.

SEEDA OF LIFE BLEW IN FROM OTHER WORLDS.

 Did you ever see a building that had stood for decades demolished? I mean where they haul away the rubbush and leave nothing but dirt!

Well if you come back 2 years later there will be weeds growing on that lot.

WHERE DID THE WEEDS COME FROM?

[Did they “evolve” on the empty lot?]

No the seeds blew in from other mature stands of the same weeds..

Half of the water on earth came from icy comets.

Where did the ice come from? Well I would suppose a great ocean froze somewhere. and then broke apart

Imagine how many icy comets you could get out of the Pacific ocean if it froze solid and then fragmented.

 WELL OUR ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM IS MADE FROM THE DEBRIS OF AN EXPLODING STAR.

[Did that star have planets? Did the planets have oceans? Did thoe oceans contain life?’

WELL PERHAPS THE COMETS THAT GAVE THE EARTH HALF OF ITS WATER SUPPLY DURING ITS FORMATION CONTAINED A FEW “LIVE” BUT FROZEN FISH. 

OR AT LEAST AN ABUNDANT MIX OF DNA!


HornSpiel - #71294

July 22nd 2012

Great word study.

You have the makings of a good case that traditional translations like “according to their kind” would be more faithfully rendered as “all sorts of” or “different kinds of.” Compare the two samples from Genesis 1:11 below:

Then God said, “Let the earth produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.” And it was so.Holman CSB

God spoke: “Earth, green up! Grow all varieties 
      of seed-bearing plants, 
   Every sort of fruit-bearing tree.” 
      And there it was. The Message

In addition to the word study and grammatical or syntactic study, it would be nice to see a discourse level analysis. Since that happens to be my area of expertise, let me do a brief one here.

I think the most pertinent evidence is the use of the word mîn in the closely related texts of Gen 1, 6 and 7. Compare the following sentences in literal translations:

1:24 And God saith, ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind, cattle and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after its kind:’ and it is so. 25 And God maketh the beast of the earth after its kind, and the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, and God seeth that [it is] good.

6:20 Of the fowl after its kind, and of the cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every [kind] they come in unto thee, to keep alive.

7:13 In this self-same day went in Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them, unto the ark; 14 they, and [went in] every living creature after its kind, and every beast after its kind, and every creeping thing that is creeping on the earth after its kind, and every fowl after its kind, every bird [after its kind] —every wing [after its kind].

Key

  • Main predicate: bold italic
  • Nouns as objects of the predicate: bold (only those modified by the prepositional phrase after its kind)
  • The prepositional phrase after its kind: italic
  • [implied words] in []

Note that in all these verses after its kind only makes sense with the meaning all sorts of, or different kinds of. The emphasis is on variety. The idea of conservation of species is foreign to the text. Rather than Genesis 1 supporting fixed kinds, it seems to be emphasizing God’s imaginative variations on living creatures—cattle, beasts, creeping things, and fowl. 

Let’s draw out a few lessons. In Gen 2:19-20 when Adam names the animals they are human categories not divine. There is no evidence of the animals having divine essence. Rather God affirms Man’s creative freedom in naming them whatever he wants. This is very consonant with our understanding of human cognition where categories are necessary for Man to make sense of the world. 

In contrast, God apparently sees creatures as individuals, not collectives. For example in Mat 10:29 Jesus say “not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.”

Evolution thus affirms God’s boundless and boundaryless creativity.


George Bernard Murphy - #71295

July 22nd 2012

Yeah! that is GOOD Horney.

 I just never knew that you were so darned smart!

Keep it up!

I like that part where you emphasized that God KNOWS THE SPARROWS AS INDIVIDUALS.

That is where you and I are,... little lonely sparrows remembered only by God.

BUT THAT IS PLENTY FOR US!

 THANKS TO JESUS.


Paul Seely - #71797

August 8th 2012

My paper on Min, which looked closely at related anthropological data, does not disagrees with Hess but adds another facet to the conversation.  See “The Meaning of Min, ‘Kind’” in Science & Christian Belief, 9:1 (1997), 47-56.


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