Sunday, January 30, 2011

IN THE BEGINNING: Correcting an Ancient Typo in the Second Verse of the Bible

One of my Latin students recently asked my advice on how to charge up her Biblical Hebrew abilities. She's preparing for her Jewish Confirmation and hadn't been reading regularly since her Bat Mitzvah. I told her to take just a few verses and practice them very solidly and then build from there. We looked together at just the first three verses of Genesis. She reports that she's been reading them out loud every day and already feels her abilities are coming back nicely.

But something about Genesis 1:2 bothered me. If you've ever studied Biblical Hebrew, you are acquainted with the famous word pair
tohu wa-bohu ( תהו ובהו ), traditionally translated as "without form and void." What struck me in this fresh reading was how the sing-songy quality of this pair just seems flippant within the grandeur of the overall Creation Narrative. I mean, tohu wa-bohu sounds like the ancient Hebrew equivalent of "splish-splash" or "teenie-weenie."

Linguists call these paranomastic and pleonastic doublets (meaning words that occur together, mean pretty much the same thing, and are playing off each other). And they're pretty common in languages.

But the appearance of one in a text of such gravity seemed out of place. I'm not required to like those words there, and just because they seem out of place to me doesn't at all mean that a native speaker of Hebrew in ancient times would have had the same reaction.

Even so, the experience made me look a little more deeply into the words in question. And this led me to the theory I'll explain here, namely, that the second verse of the Bible contains a textual error in the Hebrew. And the actual original Hebrew changes how the Bible describes Creation itself.

I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail about all the places in the Bible the words
tohu wa-bohu ( תהו ובהו ) appear. If you want to explore all the uses of tohu, bohu, or the two together, click on the links I provide.

The main points are that the word
tohu occurs a lot more than bohu, with the meanings "wasteland" (Job 12:24) or "vanity" (Isaiah 59:4). bohu, by contrast, occurs only three times and only with tohu (Gen 1:2, Jer 4:23, Isaiah 34:11). And there have been many explorations into possible etymologies of these words by comparison to Arabic, Akkadian, and other related languages.

At first glance, since
tohu is a full fledged word that can stand alone and mean something to someone, we would conclude that bohu is the rhyming tag-along that fills out the doublet for effect. Kind of like how "super" is a real word that describes something good. The addition of the "duper" somehow makes the two together even stronger. But you couldn't really tell someone out of the blue, "Hey, you did a duper job on that project!"

Isaiah does make a word play in which he uses both. In 34:11 he describes the destruction of the land and writes "he stretched over it the line of vanity (
qaw-tohu; קו־תהו ) and the stones of nothingness (abney-bohu; ואבני־בהו ). This would seem to be like saying "he did super in the morning and duper in the afternoon." It only makes sense because the two are being employed together.

And that's what we know about
tohu wa-bohu.

So I'm looking at the phrase in context and something hits me. We have two small words, each ending in the letter waw and they're connected by the particle waw (which means 'and'). Almost half of the phrase is that single letter! Then I spot that immediately after the phrase
tohu wa-bohu we have "and darkness" (wa-khoshek; וחשך ).

Now, we need to remember that the texts we have that were eventually turned into the Hebrew Bible were copied by hand for centuries. If you've ever tried to hand copy something a page or so long, you're amazed at how easy it is to make a mistake.

One common mistake that bleary eyed copyists would make is either omitting letters or words or copying them twice (called dittography). I catch myself making these kind of mistakes even while typing a simple email. I've gone back and, to my bewilderment, I typed the word "the" twice in a row.

Hebrew copyists did a remarkable job. But they made understandable human errors. One error was accidentally double copying the letter
waw (the letter "w").

This is what happened in Hosea 11:3, where the Hebrew text says: "I taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in
his arms (zero'otayw; זרועתיו )." The problem is that that makes no sense whatsoever.

Translations into Greek and Latin made in ancient times were clearly looking at a different Hebrew text than the one we currently have. The ancient translations are reading this as "my arms" (
zero'otay; זרועתי). And when we realize that the very next word starts with the waw (wa-lo'; ולא "and not"), we can see what happened here. Some scribe accidentally copied the waw twice and then the extra waw was tagged onto the preceding word (which turns "my arms" into "his arms").

Back to
tohu wa-bohu wa-khoshek. Let's imagine that the final waw of bohu ( בהו ) was a copyist duplicate from the following waw of wa-khoshek ( וחשך ) "and darkness." This made me suspect that this sing-songy little phrase wasn't originally two words at all. After someone accidentally added a waw, more could have been added later to try and make some sense of the resulting problematic word.

 So I looked at the possible original word, removing the vowels and all waw's: *t-h-b-h. A Semitic word should have three consonants that make up its root. This word looks to be a noun from the root h-b-w (since a final waw turns into h). And words prefixing a t- are common in Semitic languages. In Hebrew, for instance, we have tip'arah ( תפארה ), "beauty"; torah ( תורה ), "teaching"; tiqwah ( תקוה ), "hope."

Now, there are no other words in Hebrew with the root
h-b-w. But the closely cognate Arabic language has preserved considerably more of the original Semitic base. So many times rare words in Hebrew are explained by comparison to Arabic.

It turns out that the Arabic root
h-b-w means "dust." As a verb it means "[dust] rising in the air." As a noun, the root produces words like habwa (هبوة) "swirl of dust" and habaa' (هباء) "fine dust/dust particles." In the phrase habaa' manshuur ( هباء منثور), it means "atoms scattered in all directions."

And so, we can surmise that there existed a Hebrew word on this root, *
tihbah (*תהבה ), meaning "[scattered swirl of] dust." And this makes a whole lot more sense suddenly than "without form and void."

After all, in Genesis 1:1 God created the Earth. And in the traditional understanding of
tohu wa-bohu, that Earth God created is then called a "void."

What does it mean for anything to be a void? I mean, a hole is, by definition, a void. A hole describes the absence of the surrounding earth such that you can fall into it. But to call the entirety of the newly created Earth a "void" is ultimately senseless.

But for the original Hebrew author to describe the newly created Earth as a scattered swirl of dust is perfectly understandable. The rest of Genesis 1 will describe how God sorts out and divides the creation toward ever greater complexity and solidity. It makes more sense for him to be doing that from a starting point of a swirl of dust scattered in all directions than with a void.

Science tells us that after the Big Bang, energy becomes matter and slowly coalesces into the structures such as galaxies we observe today. Genesis 1:2 may now reflect a vision of Creation startlingly similar to what modern science has posited.

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