God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Here’s the Story of Toldot

From the about page comes a question about the Hebrew word toldot:

I ran across Genesis 6:9 in the TNIV, which says “this is the account of Noah and his family.” I’ve checked the KJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, Message, Luther’s translation (1545), the Amplified Bible, the NLT, and the Leningrad Codex for good measure. Only the TNIV and NLT mention his family.

We don’t have a good word for toldot is English (at least, not that I can think of). Though it occurs only about a dozen times in Genesis (and then once in Exodus and once in Ruth) it’s an important word. In a sense, what Genesis is about is toldot.

Unfortunately, the usual translation “generations” is completely wrong, and comes from a misunderstanding of how to interpret Hebrew. (Specifically, it comes from using word internal structure to figure out what a word means. This is the second time that that translation trap has come up this week. I’ll try to write more about it soon.)

We first encounter the word in Genesis 2:4: “These are the toldot of the heavens and the earth as they were created.” There’s a lot to bicker about in that translation. What follows, though, is what’s widely called “the second account of creation,” so one thing is clear: “generations” makes no sense here. “These are the toldot” introduces the story of creation: heaven, earth, plants, (lack of) rain, etc. There’s nothing about generations there.

Genesis 25:12-13 gives us more information about the word toldot: “These are the toldot of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom the Egyptian Hagar, Sara’s servant, bore to Abraham. These are the names of Ishmael’s children … Nebaioth — Ishmael’s firstborn — Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam…” Because it’s the children of Ishmael that follow the introduction “these are the toldot,” — and because of the (wrong) English translation “generations,” it looks like toldot here is specifically introducing descendants. Indeed, the NAB translates the word here as “descendants.”

But the reasoning is faulty. Just because the descendants come next doesn’t mean that the word means “descendants.”

In Genesis 6:9 we read, “these are the toldot of Noah. Noah was a righteous man in his generation [dorot in Hebrew, not toldot]. Noah walked with God.” It’s not until the next verse that Noah’s children are listed. The toldot seem to include the fact that Noah was righteous.

Genesis 25:19 tells us, “these are the toldot of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham was Isaac’s father.” Particularly after the phrase, “Abraham’s son,” the sentence “Abraham was Isaac’s father” stands out. The toldot here seem to include Isaac’s father, not just his children.

More evidence comes from Genesis 37:2: “These are the toldot of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father” (ESV — which uses “generations” for toldot here). Here the word toldot includes particularly what happened with Joseph.

The bits of information that come after each person or thing’s toldot have something in common: they are all important for understanding the person or thing. In Genesis 6:9, it’s important to know that “Noah was righteous in his generation” in order to understand Noah. In Genesis 25:19, it’s important to know that Abraham was Isaac’s father; that’s part of who Isaac is. In Genesis 2:4, was follows “the toldot of the heavens and the earth” is important information about their creation. And so forth.

The word toldot seems to introduce something important to know.

It just so happens that descendants were particularly important in the Bible, so frequently the important bit of information regards children.

As for the TNIV’s “account of Noah and his family,” I understand the motivation, but I don’t agree with the translation. The passage is about Noah, even though it mentions his family.

By comparison, we might consider two English sentences: “What you have to know about Bill is that he loves sports” and “what you have to know about Bill and sports is that Bill loves sports.” They’re not the same thing, and to take one and render it as the other seems like a mistake to me.

I think “story” would work pretty well for toldot if the word didn’t have two meanings. “Story” can be “information about” (that’s like toldot) but also “tale.” The first meaning seems pretty good for toldot, but the problem is that the second meaning encroaches. And particularly regarding a text whose nature is a matter of fierce debate — is this is a story? history? fable? myth? etc. — prejudicing the issue with “story” doesn’t seem to work. (Still, some translations use “story” for toldot in places.)

At any rate, I think it’s important not to deflate the force of toldot, which is what I see happening in translations that substitute more specific terms for “toldot” or that over-explain the text.


March 2, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. How did the Greeks interpret this word? Is it the same as what the author of Matthew does in the beginning of that gospel?

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | March 2, 2010

    • I’m not sure which edition of the Septuagint they are using, but blueletterbible.com shows:

      “αὕτη ἡ βίβλος γενέσεως οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς” for Gen 2:4 and similar statements for the other occurrences in Genesis.

      I’m at work right now and can’t check my UBS4, but the Textus Receptus (again from blueletterbible.com) shows this for Matthew 1:1

      “Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, υἱοῦ Δαβὶδ, υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ”

      Same as Genesis. I never made that connection before!

      Comment by Bob Kuo | March 2, 2010

    • Yes, the Greek word is genesis, and Matthew starts with “the book of genesis, of Jesus Christ,” just like Genesis 5:1 (“the book of genesis of Adam…”).

      James 1:23 is instructive, too. There, to hear and not obey is to be like someone who looks in the mirror to see one’s “appearance of genesis.” (James 1:24 explains a bit more: people who look in the mirror forget what they are like once the mirror is gone.) I’m not sure if the point is that the mirror doesn’t show one’s genesis, because the mirror is superficial, or (as in James 1:24) it does, but people who have to look don’t know who they are.

      Comment by Joel H. | March 3, 2010

      • Joel, I never considered the mirror as being superficial – I’ll have to think about that more. I always read it as a wisdom-esque parallelism:

        Listeners-but-not-obeyers of the word are like people who look into mirrors and then forget what they look like.

        (“Just as a dog returns to its vomit” type parallelism)

        James then uses the mirror metaphor in v. 24 for “looking into the law” with a reminder to remember and obey.

        Comment by Bob Kuo | March 3, 2010

      • As I say, I don’t know. If genesis really is “what’s important about a person,” though, then I wonder if it’s what a person would see in the mirror.

        Comment by Joel H. | March 3, 2010

  2. Thank you, Joel. Good to have you back. I left a reply to my own question on the About page, also. I propose that “legacy” would be a serviceable translation, since that can refer to deeds OR descendants, or simply something that someone was famous for.

    Do you think that works?

    Bob: Matthew starts pretty much the same in TR and NA27/UBS4. Good, thoughts, both of you Bobs!

    Comment by Gary Simmons | March 2, 2010

  3. For what it’s worth, the sages of the Midrash saw תולדות as referring to descendants. In certain passages where that meaning does not fit so well, it just gave them more to talk about. For example, see Genesis Rabbah 12.7, 30.6, 63.3, 84.6.

    Comment by Aaron | March 2, 2010

    • Yes.

      Of course, generally the Midrash is more concerned with what the words can be made to mean than with what they originally meant. Still, it’s intriguing to ask who (or what) the descendants of heaven and earth are.

      Comment by Joel H. | March 3, 2010

  4. […] too closely on word-internal structure to figure out what words mean. We saw this last week with toldot and in a comment regarding […]

    Pingback by Top Translation Traps: Relying on Structure « God Didn't Say That | March 8, 2010

  5. Must the toldot introduce what follows? Could it instead be a colophon, closing off what came before?

    Comment by Dannii | March 8, 2010

  6. Dear author,
    above you wrote:

    “Unfortunately, the usual translation “generations” is completely wrong, and comes from a misunderstanding of how to interpret Hebrew. (Specifically, it comes from using word internal structure to figure out what a word means.”

    I do not unerstand how using the internal word structure to derive meaning is “completely wrong”? Please explain to me why that is so.

    It seems to me that toldot is a derivative of yalad, and has the primary meaning of offspring. While your article spends a great deal of time to show that literal offspring is not always meant by this word, it does not discount the notion that “offspring” is being used in a wider abstracted sense. Moreover, it actually seems equally plausable to me that the literal, primary meaning of offspring is exactly what should be understood in the toldot passages. This may require us to change our point of view to understand the text, but nothing less should be expected of a modern reader who approaces such ancient things.

    For example, the generations of the heavens and earth is literally about that which came forth of earth and heaven (that constitutes a literall offspring), namely Adam, who is made of both the dust of (or deriving from)the earth and the breath of life, which comes from God himself.

    The generations of Noah tell about the survival of Noah’s literal offspring during the great flood, and culminates in the enumeration of the nations. It’s a tail of how the offspring survived the disaster in order to become the people of the world.

    Likewise, the generations of Jacob tell of the establishment of Joseph’s children (despite being sold as a slave, where one would not expect him to establish a household). It also tells of the struggle of Judah to establish his seed, and how it was accomplished through Tamar. Lastly, and most emphasised, the story is told of how all of the children of Jacob are able to establish their families through the agency of Joseph in the years of famine. A parallel exists here between the establishment of Noah’s children into the nations, and the establishment of Jacob’s children into the holy nation.

    In short, I see no fault in discerning the root of a word and deriving meaning from that. It seems to me vastly more prudent when trying to understand the original meaning of the word then ignoring the internal structure and applying a highly subjective and interpretive mode of translation. In the latter case, there doesn’t seem to be any guards against the subjectivity of the translator, because too much emphasis is placed on how the translator understands the use of the word in other contexts. The more objective method is to FIRST look to the internal structure of the word for PRIMARY meaning, and LAST to seek patterns of usage in light of the primary meaning.

    Just my opinion,
    Joel S

    Comment by JoelS | April 5, 2010

    • Joel S:

      Thanks for stopping by.

      I do not understand how using the internal word structure to derive meaning is “completely wrong”? Please explain to me why that is so.

      It’s a good question, and a common one. I explain the dangers of this translation trap here, and go into even more detail in And God Said.

      -Joel H.

      Comment by Joel H. | April 7, 2010

  7. […] faithful to the original intent of the Masoretes would look something like this. These are their generations. Ishmael’s firstborn was Nebayot; and then Kedar, and Adbel, and […]

    Pingback by 1 Chronicles 1:29 — Accents and Sentence Structure | December 9, 2011

  8. It should be “This is the record of” . Toledot is a colophon that comes at the end of ancient tablets. It was like a signature. The authors of Genesis are God, Adam, Noah, Shem/Ham/Japeth, Shem, Terah, Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau, and Jacob’s 12 sons. And how we know it comes at the end and not the beginning is because Abraham, the most important person in Jewish history, doesn’t have a toledot. Yet Terah, who we barely know anything about, has a toledot.

    Comment by James | February 29, 2012

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