The Meaning of mîn in the Hebrew Old Testament


The related ideas of the “fixity of species” and “natural kinds” have been prominent in the science and faith conversation. Some Christians take Genesis to mean that God created (bara) fixed species (mîn). But does the text truly indicate such a concept? 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 single word.


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 bymîn. 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.

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 t?mûn?h. 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 m?nu, 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, t?mûn?h (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.


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