Tuesday, August 12, 2008

He pitched her tent

I only have time for a very short thought. Before the end of the summer one should take a moment to think of a curious challenge in Bible translation regarding the pitching of a tent.

In Genesis 12:8, the Hebrew text says about Abraham, "and he pitched her tent." I know of no translation which honours the Masoretic text in this verse. They all record simply, "and pitched his tent."

"He pitched his tent" (Bereishit 12:8). The spelling, however, is OHELOH, which means "her tent". From here, we learn that Abraham first pitched Sarah's tent and, only after he had looked after her needs, did he pitch his own tent (Midrash Aggada, Bereishit 12:13). Lech Lecha

Velveteen Rabbi discusses her language lessons and struggles with trying to use gender properly in Hebrew.


J. K. Gayle said...

What a fascinating observation! How does Julia Evelina Smith translate Genesis/ Bereishit 12:8?

You quote Francis Ellen Burr from The Women’s Bible as saying:

"Julia Smith translated the whole Bible absolutely alone, without consultation with any one. And this not once, but five times--twice from the Hebrew, twice from the Greek and once from the Latin. Literalness was one end she kept constantly in view, though this does not work so well with the Hebrew tenses. But she did not mind that. Frequently her wording is an improvement, or brings one closer to the original than the common translation."

Do you know where one can find a copy of Smith's translation?

J. K. Gayle said...

Found it: here's Julia Smith's translation.

"and shall stretch forth his tent"

And here's from Rabbi Jeff Forsythe's notes on Midrash Beraishis Raba's teaching:

The Torah writes (Genesis 12:8) that Avraham prioritized his wife before himself. Avraham traveled and pitched "oheloH (his tent)." In Hebrew, the suffix "H" makes a noun possessive in the feminine gender (i.e "her" object). The masculine possessive comes with the vowel "O" as a suffix (i.e. "his" object). The Torah in Genesis 12:8 uses the strange combination of vowel "O" and the consonant "H" with the noun "ohel (tent)." The translation of the text as spoken is "his tent," and the translation of the text as written is "her tent." So what is the meaning of the Torah's placing of this unusual "O" and "H" together? The midrash explains that Avraham first pitched the tent of Sara, his wife, before he pitched his own. We see this because the "H" is a consonant which is more dominant in Hebrew grammar than a vowel ("O"). The Torah is teaching us that whenever a husband needs to do something for himself and his wife, he must take care of his wife's needs first. This will apply to all forms of help, respect, kindness and consideration for his wife.

J. K. Gayle said...

Sorry to keep commenting here. It may be important that there is a human value here, which Elizabeth Cady Stanton gets at in her commentary on Genesis 6 (in The Women's Bible). She says,

In this scene [the removing of Hagar and Ishmael] Abraham does not appear in a very attractive light, rising early in the morning, and sending his child and its mother forth into the wilderness, with a breakfast of bread and water, to care for themselves. Why did he not provide them with a servant, an ass laden with provisions, and a tent to shelter them from the elements, or better still, some abiding, resting place. Common humanity demanded this much attention to his own son and the woman who bore him.

Curiously, Stanton skips right over Genesis 12 in her commentary. She and her co-editors have Julia Smith's Bible and praise it. But curiously, the literal translation by Smith doesn't get at the feminine in Genesis 12:8. This isn't just a grammar gender issue. Clearly Stanton thinks Abraham needs to provide a tent for his child and his concubine. An English translation, with respect to women and men, really should bring out the feminine in 12:8 as "her tent." (Such is not necessarily the case when translating the Hebrew into other languages in which the pronominal possessive adjective is neuter or ambiguously gendered. Thus, in Latin, Spanish, French, German, and Chinese, it would seem more difficult (than in English or Greek) to bring across the feminine of the Hebrew.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

It must have to do with "her" being the ketiv and "his" the kere.