Lifting the Veil of Translation that Obscures “Adam”

Recently, while doing some word studies in the New Testament, I realized how much of what we read is colored by the choices made in translation. Often, there is no direct English counterpart for words in the original language, so the translators have to make decisions between multiple imperfect options. Ideally, the choices accurately convey the original meaning. But once in a while, traditions develop that obscure details that are evident in the original languages, making it difficult to appreciate how the text would have been read by the original audience. This isn’t very common, but it can be interesting when we run across it. Once such example is the way “adam” is translated in Genesis.

The ancient Hebrew word “adam” is used over 550 times in the Old Testament, and is generally translated as the noun “man”. It usually refers to a single person, but may also refer to the entire human race in the same sense as “mankind”. In a few places, particularly in Genesis, it is also used as a proper name instead of a noun. When translators believe adam is used as a noun, they translate it as “man” or “mankind”. When they believe it is used as a name, they leave it as “Adam”.

In the original language, both the noun and proper name use the same word “adam”, so it seems like using the word “man” in both cases would be reasonable. The difference between use as a noun and personal name could be indicated by capitalization. So, the simple noun use could be translated “man”, while the personal name could be translated as “Man”. This indicates the difference, and would also make it clear that a common word was being used in an unusual way, as would have been obvious in the original language.

However, this is not what’s done. Instead, the two uses are translated differently. The noun is generally translated “man”, while the name is not translated, resulting in “Adam”. This makes the two uses much different in English.

One place that “Adam” is used as a name is in the New Testament. This reflects the fact that people recognized that the term was a personal name of the first man. It was recognized as a personal name in the Old Testament too, in 1 Chronicles 1:1, where its use in a genealogy clearly is using it as a name. But even so, it clearly retains the sense of the noun.

Try reading that genealogy by starting with “Man, Seth, Enosh…”, instead of “Adam, Seth, Enosh…”, and you’ll see the difference. It seems odd to us, but isn’t that how it would have seemed in the original language?

It’s as if Old Testament translators think it important to emphasize the use as a personal name even at the expense of obscuring other nuances of the text.

With this understanding of subtleties involved, let’s take a look at what some Genesis texts would look like if we only used the word “Man”. Below is an experiment in which some excerpts of Scripture are changed to use “Man” instead of “Adam”.

The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Man there was not found a helper fit for him. Genesis 2:20

And to Man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;” … The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made for Man and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. Genesis 3:17a, 20-21

This is the book of the generations of Man. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Man had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. The days of Man after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Man lived were 930 years, and he died. Genesis 5:1-5

Some of these occurrences seem strange to me, especially in the last block of text. This very strangeness seems to indicate that there is something significant in the difference between the two uses. Changing it the way most modern translations do almost certainly makes it read much different than it would have to the original readers.

Among other things, writing it this way makes the term somewhat more abstract. Is this abstract nature being introduced by the experiment above? Or did Moses intend to convey a sense of abstractness in the original text? A clue may be found in this post, that explores a related aspect of Genesis 5:1-2. I may revisit those verses again in the future.

To me, it seems significant that Moses was led to use a word that is not a name anywhere else, and that nuance should be carried into English somehow. Without doing so, the related literary and spiritual perspectives become veiled by translation. Translations can be a product of beliefs also, so I can’t help but wonder if young-earth perspectives weren’t part of the word choices here, and have become part of the veil that perpetuates that perspective.

But for now, I think it’s safe to say that the choice of translation can have significant effect on our perspective of these verses, and we need to be diligent to seek to know what the Word says, and not just what people say the Word says.

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3 Responses to Lifting the Veil of Translation that Obscures “Adam”

  1. bruce r bloomberg says:

    I like the thinking “outside the box” of interpretation we have been ‘shoe-horned’ into by the myriads of generations, now can we do the same with image and likeness of God? It is not necessarily something physical.

  2. Good thoughts. I have a few points.

    1) In Gen 5:2 the name Adam is given by God to both the man and the woman (this is obscured in some translations). This is appropriate as the term means human in Hebrew. But as Adam is seen an a male name in English, this can be totally missed.

    2) In Gen 2, God uses a 2 stage forming process. In the first stage, the problem is there is a lack of water for irrigation; the solution is to form a human from the dust to manage the garden. In the second stage, the problem is that it is “not good for the human to be alone” which I read as “not yet fully functioning” per John Walton; the solution is to split the human into a male and a female, man and woman.

    3) There is also a wordplay, adam and adamah. In Hebrew the suffix “ah” can be used to feminize a word or name, so sar means prince and sarah means princess. If one were to reverse this process, then adam can be seen as derived from adamah, that is, the human is from earth/land, an earthling.

    4) There are 3 Creation/Origins stories in early Genesis. They start on what we now call Gen 1:1, Gen 2:4, and Gen 5:1. How these 3 stories relate to each other and to other Creation/Origins stories in Scripture is a big question. Some try to smoosh all the stories together to form just one story, but that is not the only way to read them.

    • jim0211 says:

      Great points to add. There’s clearly a lot more going on in these passages than a simple literal interpretation would allow. I think the statement in Genesis 5:1-2 gives an important clue as to the universal reference of “Adam”. It’s interesting to keep that reading in mind when looking at the uses of “Adam” in the New Testament.

      I think the idea of splitting the man into two pieces has come up in several contexts, as John pointed out. But I’m not sure that it needs to be explained that way, and similar to the wordplay you mentioned, don’t see why that has to be the only interpretation. However, it’s possibly something that would have occurred to the original readers, so at the very least represents a nuance that should be kept in mind. Thanks for pointing those things out.

      I agree about the multiple creation accounts, although don’t know how to handle the third yet. The things that are tried to reconcile them seem to be more questionable interpretation than the the things non-literalists are accused of!

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