I turned next to a friend of mine who wishes to be identified as “Kristen.” She’s a Semitic language authority who is currently studying etching on pottery shards from ancient Assyria.
I sent her my original lesson with this request: “Don’t tell me what the commentaries and translations say — I don’t really care. What I want to know is whether the original Hebrew allows this interpretation without twisting things around too much.”
Here’s her reply: (Much of this is over my head, but I get the general gist and I think you will too.)
On “put” meaning “rest”:
The verbal form you’re referring to here is actually ?????? (wayyanihayhu) which is a composite form consisting of a temporal marker, a prefix (which indicates that the subject is masculine, singular, 3rd person), the three-letter root (which carries the meaning), and a pronominal suffix at the end (which indicates that the object of the verb is masculine, singular, 3rd person). In other words, the English “(He) put him” comes from one lexical unit in Hebrew. The form yanach is, therefore, inaccurate, because that’s not the form used here and when one refers to Hebrew “verbs” in general, one should always use the naked form which is nothing but an unvocalized (no vowels) three-letter root, in this case nwh. That’s the dictionary form. If you add any vowels to make it pronounceable, you also add a meaning to it. It may sound complicated, but it’s not.
As far as the meaning, you’re right on. The form of nwh in Gen. 2:15 is in the Hiphil stem which is causative. The general meaning of the root nwh is “to rest,” “to repose,” or “to be quiet.” In the causative sense, it means X causes Y to rest. I don’t have any problem with this part at all, other than the yanach thing.
So far, so good. She supports the first part of the RWO interpretation and disagrees with the theologian from Part Six.
On “dress” meaning “worship”:
Inaccurate. See above. Also, the second letter can be b or v depending on whether or not it’s doubled. In this case, it’s not, so it should be a v. Granted, the letter beth is often transliterated as b in English. But Hebrew speakers will pronounce the beth in this verbal form like a v. Your best bet is to say that the Hebrew verb used here is abd without suggested pronunciation. The actual form used here is ????? (le-av-dah).
Your interpretation [PWO] would have been legitimate if the object suffix hadn’t been 3rd person, feminine, singular. I actually like your interpretation a lot, and I don’t think it’s wrong to think of rest/serve/obey as the pre-Fall command at all. It’s just that this verse cannot be used to back up that idea. I tried to help you, but there doesn’t seem to be any way you can get this interpretation out of this verse. You know I don’t use commentaries. I don’t use Word Study aids either. I approached this from a purely philological stand point and tried to go as far back as I could – even beyond the vocalized texts back to the consonantal texts. I even looked at translations which were done before the fifth century AD when the Hebrew texts became vocalized to see whether there might have been some variants of the consonantal texts which back up my hypothesis. This is because the Masoretes – the guys who superimposed vowels on the consonantal texts – are known to have made quite a few mistakes. When the consonantal texts can be vocalized more than one way, the Masoretes were actually the people who interpreted the texts for all of us by assigning vowels which they thought made the most sense to the unvocalized texts. In other words, when the consonantal texts allow for multiple possibilities, they were the ones choosing one possibility for us and declaring that reading authoritative (as is “thus saith the Lord,” done deal – no further questions). I don’t necessarily think they had the right to do that, but I’m not going to go into that. Nonetheless, as evident in ancient translations done prior to the Masoretic era, not all Hebrew readers read the consonantal texts the same way as the Masoretes. In the case of what appears to be irreconcilable differences between the Masoretic texts and other versions (that are based on the consonantal texts), philologists/exegetes (at least the responsible ones) always bypass the Masoretic vocalization and go back all the way to the consonantal texts.) I did all that and found nothing that would help you.
Your interpretation would only make sense if you could establish that the object of serve and obey is God, not the garden. That’s the ONLY way you can justify the meanings “serve” [actually, I said “worship”] and “obey” which you have chosen out of the whole range of things these two verbs can mean.
However, no matter from how many angles I look at this, I just don’t see anything in the linguistic realm that allows for that possibility. You see, the object in Hebrew is built-in; it’s attached right onto the verbs. When Hebrew speakers look at these verbs, there’s no confusion whatsoever that the object of these two verbs (the “rest” verb doesn’t apply here as it is intransitive, requiring no objects) is the garden, not God. “Garden” in Hebrew is feminine in gender and serves as the antecedent of the object suffixes which are attached to these verbs (also feminine singular). If the object suffixes on these verbs were masculine, singular, then, no doubt, the antecedent would definitely be God and you would have yourself a very, very solid case. If the word “garden” were masculine, then one would have two ways of understanding this verse due to the ambiguity revolving the antecedent, i.e., “till it” vs. “serve [worship] Him” and “guard it” vs. “obey Him.” (Both interpretations would be grammatically possible, because a 3rd person, masculine lexical unit in Hebrew can be translated “he/him” or “it” in English depending on what it is.) Now, as for which reading one decides to go with, that depends upon one’s judgment. Syntactically, you can make a case for either view.
However, as the verse stands, whether in the vocalized texts or the consonantal texts, there just isn’t any possibility that the object of the two verbs would point to God. This has made the rendering of the verbs as “serve” [worship] as opposed to “till/work” and “obey” as opposed to “guard” implausible. True, the meaning range of both abd and shmr covers “serve” and “obey,” but when you see that the built-in object is inanimate (garden), “serve” [worship] and “obey” have no relevance. You cannot serve [worship] and obey an object. A general rule: a verb means what it means according to how it’s used and the context in which it’s used; it doesn’t mean everything it can mean.
That seemed to be that. The RWO interpretation won’t work. I may have to admit that I’m wrong or at least that the issue can’t be definitively resolved.
But I still want to pursue it a bit further.
- I want to track down the professor from whom I first heard this interpretation and see what he has to say about all this. He’s a good friend of a good friend of mine, so I think I’ll be able to do this sometime.
- It still makes no sense to me that God put man in a perfect place for the purpose of keeping it nice.
- Resting in, worshipping and obeying God is our purpose now, after the fall. I have to believe it was our purpose before the fall too.
- The professor, Krell and Kristen all agree that “put” means “rest.” If that’s the case, the rest of the verse doesn’t make sense if interpreted as “dress” and “keep.”
That’s where it stands at present. If I discover more, I’ll post it. As for the original lesson that started this all — I rewrote it. I made the exact same point — that man’s purpose is to rest in God and worship and obey Him. I didn’t use Genesis 2:15 as a proof text, but relied on other Scripture. Everybody liked it just fine.
The rest of this post consists of a couple questions that Kristen wants me to ask the professor when I see him. They don’t add anything new to the discussion, so you don’t need to read them. I’m including them here so I’ll have everything together in one place.
Based on the Masoretic text, the pronominal suffixes on both abd and smr are clearly feminine singular which point to gan as their antecedent. Even if one was to override the masoretic vocalization, the consonantal text would still support the feminine/singular reading. One could argue that, according to the consonantal text, the waw immediately following the two infinitives could have originally been part of the pronominal suffixes attached to the two verbs (thus making them masculine/singular), but that is highly unlikely given the fact that the first waw would be needed to link the two infinitival phrases at the end of 2:15 and the other waw would be needed to form a waw-consecutive form at the beginning of 2:16. To make God the object of abd and smr (which is the only way to justify translating these verbs as serve and obey respectively as opposed to till and guard as required by the context), one has to argue very convincingly that the consonantal text is corrupt or that the Masoretes, for whatever reason, intentionally altered the consonantal text and vocalized the emended text in such a way that the object of these two inifinitives is the garden (or a feminine/singular entity), not God. This position would be considered strong only if the hypothesized reading is supported by pre-Masoretic versions such as the transliteration in the second column of the Hexapla or the translation of the LXX (which probably wouldn’t lend much help since “garden” in Greek is masculine, thus adding to the ambiguity).
Unless a strong case is made for God as the object of the two verbs, the context demands that the verbs be understood according to their object, garden. This has significantly narrowed down the semantic range of these two verbs. Undoubtedly, “serve” and “obey” are part of the semantic range of abd and smar, but can one “serve” and “obey” a garden? Elsewhere in the OT where abd and smar are used to convey the meanings “serve” and “obey,” they’re never used in conjunction with an object like a garden. Therefore, again, the only way to justify translating the two verbs as “serve” and “obey” is to prove that the originally intended object is God, not the garden. Can this be done without violating the Hebrew syntax or clearly demonstrating that this is indeed a case of textual corruption and religiously-motivated vocalization? And if so, on what bases can this be done?