God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: On Counting Seeds and Descendants

Dannii asks on the About page:

In Galatians 3:16 Paul makes an essentially linguistic argument about Genesis 22:18. Does the Hebrew word for ‘seed’ have a similar range of meanings as the English word? Paul’s argument feels strange in English because when ‘seed’ is used to mean descendants it is a non-count noun. Is the Hebrew world also a non-count noun?

What a great question!

The issue is this:

The Hebrew word zera means “seed,” including “human seed” and, metonmyically, “descendants.” The Greek sperma works essentially the same way.

As it happens, the Hebrew and Greek words are singular even when they mean “descendants,” similar to the American English “family.” (It’s not uncommon for a singular word in one language to be plural in another — or vice versa — and usually it doesn’t matter very much.)

In Genesis 12:7, 13:5, etc., God makes promises to Abraham and his zera (singular) — sperma (in Greek; also singular) or “descendants” / “offspring” / “progeny” in English. The plural word “descendants” is a great translation for zera there. “Offspring” and “progeny” aren’t bad, either. (“Seed” doesn’t work in my dialect.) The singular/plural issue is nothing more than a curiosity.

But in Galatians 3:16, Paul refers to the grammar of the word itself:

“The promises were made to Abraham and his sperma [“seed”]. It does not say spermas [“seeds”]” but “sperma, who is Christ.” Paul’s wordplay uses the grammatically singular form of sperma in Greek — which matches the grammatically singular form of zera in Hebrew — to explain God’s promise to Abraham as referring to one person only.

Dannii correctly points out that translations of this line usually sound strange. For example (NRSV): “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is, to one person, who is Christ.” But in its oddness, the translation captures the Greek very well. The plural spermas is also odd in Greek, as zeras would be in Hebrew.

I don’t think Paul is making a “linguistic argument” so much as using a word play. Paul’s point doesn’t strike me as a rational one here (though neither is it irrational — it is non-rational), and, in fact, it’s the same sort of word play that pervades the (Jewish) Midrash from the same time period.

So the answer is that the Hebrew zera and Greek sperma behave almost the same, and the English “progeny” comes pretty close, too. The word play notwithstanding, the singular zera in Hebrew and sperma in Greek can refer to one descendant or to many.

October 22, 2009 Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , | 5 Comments