Insulted by God?: The Anatomy of a Genitive

21 12 2006

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 features a curious law. The following is the Hebrew text of these two verses, followed by my own (deliberately obscure) translation:

וכי־יהיה באיש חטא משפט־מות והומת ותלית אתו על־עץ
לא־תלין נבלתו על־העץ כי־קבור תקברנו ביום ההוא כי־קללת אלהים תלוי ולא תטמא את־אדמתך אשר יהוה אלהיך נתן לך נחלה

And if a man should be guilty of a capital crime,

1. and he is killed (/ then he should be killed)

2. and you (/ then you / that is, you) hang him upon a tree (/ impale him on a stake / crucify him on a wooden thing)

3. His body shall not remain overnight upon the tree (/ stake / wooden thing)

4. Rather, you shall bury him on that day,
a) for a hanged (/ impaled / crucified) person is cursed by God
b) for a hanged (/ impaled / crucified) person is an affront to God
c) for a blasphemer of God is the one hanging (/ impaled / crucified)

It goes without saying that there are a number of ambiguities within this small section of the Hebrew Bible, not least among which is the nature of the penalty. Is the person being hanged? Are they being impaled? Or are they being crucified? And, furthermore, is this the manner of their execution or is it a post-mortem method of displaying their body? Finally, what is the reason behind needing to take them down? Is it because they cursed God? Is it because the act of hanging them is an affront to God? Or, finally, is it because God will curse them? This final part, the section that was typed in bold, is the subject of this brief analysis.

Before presenting the range of opinions on the topic, a short introduction may be in order for the benefit of anybody who is unfamiliar with the necessary terminology. In brief, the Hebrew clause in question (כי־קללת אלהים תלוי) features what is known as the genitive construct. In English, we represent the genitive case (which indicates, among other things, possession) with the word ‘of’ (the hand of the king) or with an apostrophe-s (the king’s hand). While Israeli Hebrew tends to favour the usage of the particle של (similar to the English ‘of’), Biblical Hebrew is much more terse and utilises, instead, the so-called ‘construct state’.

This is formed by putting two nouns next to each other and modifying the former. In such a construction, the initial noun is known as the regens and the latter noun as the rectum (or, in Hebrew, the נסמך and the נמשל). If I wanted to say “the hand of the king” I would simply say יד המלך (where יד = ‘hand’ and מלך = ‘king’). In some instances, such as in our one above, the initial noun (the regens) undergoes modification. In our case, that modification consists of the addition of a final ת, thus reducing the sort of ambiguity which is found in famous verses like Exodus 34:29-30 , in which one cannot even be sure if what they are dealing with is a genitive in the first place.

The ambiguity in our verse appears to be centred around a different issue: we know that what we have is the genitive construct, but we don’t know whether it constitutes the subjective genitive or the objective genitive. In other words, is the second word of that chain (the rectum) the subject of the clause (ie: the thing doing the verb) or is it the object of the clause (ie: the thing having the verb done to it). The structure of the clause is such that it can go either way, but just to make things absolutely clear, here is the clause again with the relevant section italicised and with the relevant verb in bold:

Subjective Genitive:
a hanged person is cursed by God

Objective Genitive:
a blasphemer of God is the one hanging;
a hanged person is an affront to God

As you can see, “cursed by God” has God (the second word within the construct chain) as the subject of the sentence. The word “God” is the word that is doing the verb “cursed”. In that instance, the object of the sentence is “a hanged person”, for it is “a hanged person” that is having the verb “cursed” done to it. In the following two examples, “the one hanging / a hanged person” serves as the subject. In one instance, the verb is translated as “blaspheme” and in the other as “affront”, but in both cases it is the word “God” that is serving as the direct object – ie: the one that is being blasphemed / affronted.

What do the ancient authorities have to say on the topic? Opinions are, as always, divided. For our purposes, we will differentiate between the first and second of our two objective genitives, labelling them Objective Genitive 1 and Objective Genitive 2.

Witnesses to Subjective Genitive
There are three witnesses to the subjective genitive: the Greek Septuagint (LXX), the New Testament and an Aramaic translation known as Targum Neofiti. They are as follows:

1. Deut 21:23 (LXX)
κεκατηραμενος υπο θεον πας ο κρεμαμενος επι ξυλου
Cursed by God is everyone hanged on a tree” (trans. acc. to Bernstein)

2. Galatians 3:13
χριστος ημας εξηγορασεν εκ της καταρας του νομου γενομενος υπερ ημων καταρα οτι γεγραπται Επικαταρατος πας ο κρεμαμενος επι ξυλου
“Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed [by God] is every one that hangeth on a tree” (KJV)

3. Deut 21:23 (Neofiti)
ליט קדם ה’ כל דצליב
Cursed before God is everyone who is hanged/crucified” (Bernstein)

Witnesses to Objective Genitive 1
There are five witnesses to the first of our two objective genitives: Josephus, the Mishna, the Babylonian Talmud, Symmachus, and the Syriac Peshitta.

1. Josephus
ο βλασφημησας θεον καταλευσθεις κρεμασθω δι ημερας και ατιμως και αφανως θαπτεσθω
“Let him that blasphemes God, after being stoned, be hanged all day long, and let him be buried dishonorably and ignominiously” (Bernstein)

2. Mishna (mSan 6:4)
כי קללת אלהים תלוי וגו’ כלומר מפני מה זה תלוי מפני שברך את השם ונמצא שם שמים מתחלל
“[The Mishna quotes the Bible and explains]: כי קללת אלהים תלוי. That is to say, why is he hanging? Because he cursed God, and the name of heaven shall be found reviled [if he remains hanging]”.

3. Talmud (bSan 45b)
ת”ר והומת ותלית יכול כל המומתין נתלין ת”ל כי קללת אלהים תלוי מה מקלל זה שבסקילה אף כל שבסקילה דברי רבי אליעזר וחכ”א מה מקלל זה שכפר בעיקר אף כל שכפר בעיקר
“The Rabbis taught: ‘He is killed and you hang him upon a tree [from Deut 21:22]’. Is it possible that all executed people are hanged? It teaches, ‘כי קללת אלהים תלוי’. Just as this blasphemer [died] by stoning, so too all who are stoned [are hanged afterwards] – the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. The Sages say – Just as this blasphemer was a heretic, so too are all heretics [hanged after execution]”

4. Deut 21:23 (Symmachus)
οτι δια βλασφημιαν θεου εκρεμασθη
“For on account of blasphemy of God he was hanged” (Bernstein)

5. Deut 21:23 (Peshitta: transliterated here into Aramaic due to typesetting constraints)
דמן דמצחא לאלהא נזדקף
“For an insulter of God is the one hanging (/ impaled / crucified)”

Witnesses to Objective Genitive 2
There are two witnesses to the second of our objective genitives: the Babylonian Talmud and an Aramaic translation known as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan.

1. Talmud (bSan 46b)
תניא אומר ר”מ משלו משל למה הדבר דומה לשני אחים תאומים בעיר אחת אחד מינהו מלך ואחד יצא לליסטיות צוה המלך ותלאוהו כל הרואה אותו אומר המלך תלוי צוה המלך והורידוהו
“It is taught: Rabbi Meir says, ‘By way of a parable, to what may the matter be compared? To two identical brothers in one city. One of them became king and the other turned to crime. By a decree of the king, they hanged him [the king’s brother]. Everybody who sees him declares, “The king is hanging!” By a decree of the king, they took him down” – in other words, the act of being hanged causes an affront to God.

2. Deut 21:23 (Pseudo-Jonathan)
ארום קילותא קדם אלהא למצלוב גבר אלהן חובוי גרמו ליה
“Since it is an affront to God to hang a man, save for when his sins cause it for him”

So, it was assumed, ended the range of ancient opinions. There are more sources than these (chief among which are the LXX-recensions of Aquila and Theodotion, as well as the Aramaic translation of Onkelos), but they are reasonably ambiguous and do not serve to adequately communicate the opinions of their authors. There are also several mediaeval opinions (chiefly those of Rashi, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra) but, in each of these cases, it is evident which of the ancient sources they are utilising in order to derive their opinions. There is, however, one more item of relevance from amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Temple Scroll (11QT LXIV:11-12)
כי מקוללי אלוהים ואנשים תלוי על העץ
He who was cursed by God and men is hanging on the tree (/ impaled on the stake / crucified on the wooden thing)”

Fascinatingly, this long-absent text from the caves in Qumran has provided us with a second type of subjective genitive! To recap: the ancient sources featured three examples of subjective genitives and seven examples of objective genitives (the latter being divided between two broad types). Now we have a second type of subjective genitive as well and we see that we can actually divide all of our examples into four categories: subjective vs. objective; cause vs. effect. Observe:

Subjective Genitive
Cause: “He who was cursed by God and men” (11QT)
Effect: “He who is hanging is cursed by God” (LXX, Galatians 3:13, Neofiti)
Objective Genitive
Cause: “He who cursed God is hanging” (Josephus, mSan 6:4, bSan 45b, Symmachus, Peshitta)
Effect: “Hanging is an affront to God” (bSan 46b, Pseudo-Jonathan)

So there you have it. Not only is it possible to read the genitive in our clause as being either the subject or the object of the sentence, it is also possible to divide each of those interpretations into two further categories, depending on whether we see the corresponding verb as describing the reason for their punishment or the effect that the punishment has. Now, I wonder which of these four possible interpretations the authors of the Bible actually meant?


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3 responses

22 12 2006
tim bulkeley

Nice clear explanation!

I wonder does the cotext at least suggest that the ambiguity about the hanging etc. can be resolved, v.21 suggests that stoning has already been carried out…

22 12 2006
Simon Holloway

Broader context might be useful, in terms of finding other passages in the Bible (preferably Deuteronomy) that speak of capital offences, but v21 is actually at the end of the previous pericope. That pericope dealt with the wayward and rebellious son, while this one deals with somebody who has committed a specific crime, we are just not told what it is. That leads into a whole other branch of exegesis for, while some of the witnesses see the crime as being blasphemy, the Temple Scroll sees it as political subversion.

As for the method of death, we simply don’t know. The Mishna records much of relevance in relation to execution (although the same ambiguity sometimes exists in relation to hanging/impaling/crucifying), but the Mishna was composed almost a thousand years after Deuteronomy. For the record, so were many of the commentaries that I listed above, making the most reliable ones the translations into Greek and Aramaic. Were people hanged alive? Was hanging a method of post-mortem display?

There is a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls (a prophetic adaptation of the book of Nahum, known as 1QpNah) that is of relevance to this issue, but much of it is in lacuna. It reads (I:7-8): “… die amongst the ‘seekers after smooth things’, he who hanged living people … in Israel before, for he who is hanged alive upon [the] tree is [decl]ared…”. Unfortunately, we simply don’t know whether the author meant to say “such as has never been done in Israel before” or “as was done in Israel before”. It remains a bit of a mystery.

4 01 2007
Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Biblical Studies Carnival XIII

[…] has a nice explanation of the ambiguities of interpreting Deuteronomy 21:22-23 in his post, “Insulted by God?: The Anatomy of a Genitive,” while Harvey Bluedorn presents The Sabbath Syllogism over at Trivium […]

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