God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Definiteness and Numbers in Genesis

Bob MacDonald asks on the About page:

Tomorrow I teach my five minute Hebrew lesson to children[…]

This year I was thinking of learning numbers — starting with one and using the ordinal numbers of Genesis 1-2:4 as a beginning. No wonder I have not learned numbers yet — I have been reviewing Lambdin and there are so many variations in the form of 1 to 7 in Hebrew. I noticed that only on day 6 and 7 is the definite article used with the number and it is never used with the word “day.” I notice also that Hebrew is much more careful (as is Greek) with the concept of definiteness. English speakers tend to use definite also as generic and often without much thought.

Should translators into English of Genesis 1-2:4 be more careful with the idea of definite? And why is the definite not attached to the word day in the 6th and 7th day. Does the number act as adjective here or as something slightly different?


This is really more than one question, but because the “tomorrow” is now “today” I’ll try to give a bit of information quickly this morning.

First, you are right that most of the days of creation in Genesis are called “a second day,” “a third day,” etc., while the sixth day is closer to “the sixth day. It’s not exactly “the sixth day,” though. The Hebrew is yom hashishi, literally, “day the sixth,” would under normal circumstances would mean “day of the sixth [something].” But it would only mean “the sixth day” if either (a) the grammar is unusual; (b) the grammar is wrong; or (c) shishi (“sixth”) is a noun. (Most people think (a) or (b).)

Though I’m not sure I agree with you that “Hebrew is much more careful (as is Greek) with the concept of definiteness,” I do agree that the definite determiner in Hebrew doesn’t always match up to the English one. So in general there’s no reason necessarily to mimic the word ha- in English.

However — whether by mistake or part of the grammar that we don’t understand — Genesis has “the” only on day six, so in this case, I would preserve it in translation and translate “day one” (note: not “a first day”) and “the sixth day.” For the intervening days, I see a valid choice between “day two” etc. and “a second day” etc.

(By the way, I’ve written a few Jerusalem Post columns about the numbers. They’re here: “As Easy as One, Two, Three,” “First Things First,” and most recently, “Count On It.” I also have a column on the determiner: “Side by Side.”)


October 4, 2009 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , ,


  1. Joel – thanks very much for the real-time response. For now it is enough for me to know there is an unknown here. I will look forward to reading the columns. They will fit in well with what is turning into a two-year curriculum for English children learning Hebrew, Letters in year 1 and Numbers in year 2.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | October 4, 2009

  2. Joel – the articles are delightful. Thanks

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | October 5, 2009

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