Oaks or Terebinths?

By Philologos

Published November 06, 2007, issue of November 09, 2007.
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Forward reader Bill Morris writes:

“While perusing last week’s Torah reading in my ‘Etz Hayim’ (Jewish Publication Society, 1985) translation, I was struck by the phrase in its opening verse (Genesis 18:1) about God appearing to Abraham by ‘the terebinths of Mamre.’ Although the word ‘terebinth’ doesn’t flow easily off the tongue, it is mellifluous and sounds like it means something extremely impressive. In the Hebrew, the phrase is elonei mamrei, elonei being the genitive plural of elon. Yet when I looked elon up in my Alcalay Hebrew-English dictionary, I was told that it means oak, not terebinth. I then looked up terebinth in an English dictionary and found that it is a tree or bush in the cashew/pistachio family from which turpentine is made. (The word turpentine actually derives from terebinth.) So my question is: Is there a basis for elon meaning terebinth rather than oak? And if not, how did this mistranslation occur? And why does my Stone Chumash [Pentateuch] have neither oaks nor terebinths, bur rather ‘plains of Mamre’?”

If it sounds like there’s a lot of confusion about where it was that God appeared to Abraham, that’s because there is.

Confusion number one is between the Hebrew word alon, which means oak, and elah, which means terebinth. The word elon in Genesis, which has the initial vowel of elah and the final syllable of alon, looks like a hybrid of the two that allows one to choose the meaning one wishes. Yet it needs to be remembered that the Hebrew text of the Bible was originally written without vowel signs (and still is written that way in a Torah scroll), so that the original pronunciation may have been alonei and not elonei.

In any case, this is how the first translation ever made of the Bible, the second-century BCE Greek Septuagint, interpreted the word, for it gives us pros te drui te Mambre, that is, “by the oak of Mamre.” (Why “oak” is in the singular, I don’t know.) Yet, the next translation we know of, the first-century C.E. Aramaic version of Onkelos, a standard Jewish text to this day, has the puzzling b’meishrei Mamre, which can mean either “in the plains of Mamre” or “in the encampment of Mamre.” Since the verse in Genesis continues, “And he [Abraham] was sitting in the entrance to his tent [ohel],” perhaps Onkelos was working with a variant text that had ohalei, “the tents [or encampment] of,” rather than alonei. Although this may not seem terribly likely, I can’t think of any other explanation.

Be that as it may, when Jerome produced his fourth-century C.E. translation of the Bible into Latin, which was adopted by the Catholic church and heavily influenced all early Bible translations into European languages, he followed Onkelos by choosing — don’t ask me why — not “in the tents” but “in the plains” of Mamre (that is, in convalle Mamre). This was picked up by the 1611 King James Bible, which passed it on to other translations — hence Mr. Morris’s Stone Chumash. But not all English Bible translators agreed. Already in 1530, William Tyndale translated alonei mamre as “the oak grove of Mamre,” and many modern English Bibles have gone along with him.

As for terebinth, I don’t know who first introduced it, but it does not appear to go back very far. The earliest translation to which I have been able to trace it is the 1936 Soncino Press version of the Pentateuch by J.H. Hertz, a British rabbi.

So which is it: Plains, encampments, oaks or terebinths?

Plains and encampments, I think, can be dismissed immediately. They cannot possibly be the correct translation of elonei mamre.

That leaves oaks and terebinths. I’ll take oaks.

Here’s why. In the first place, while “oaks” is the oldest translation we have of elonei, “terebinths” is the most recent. The Septuagint rendition may represent a genuine tradition passed down from the time the book of Genesis was composed. The Soncino Press edition obviously does not.

Moreover, terebinths, whose small leaves indeed smell a bit like turpentine when crushed, may have an impressive-sounding name, but they are not very impressive in appearance. The terebinth is an evergreen shrub that rarely grows to more than 7 or 8 feet and is found all over Israel, where it is one of the most frequent plants in the hillside maquis; terebinths grow wild in my garden and can spread like weeds if you do not keep them in check. The common Palestinian oak, on the other hand, develops into a tall, stately tree. A whole forest or grove of such trees, now seen in only a few places but less rare in Abraham’s time, is an impressive sight indeed.

Would the Bible have bothered to point out that Abraham was sitting by some perfectly ordinary shrubs? And why single out “the terebinths of Mamre” when terebinths were everywhere? But if Mamre had a well-developed oak grove, that would have been a landmark worth referring to. The rudely monosyllabic oak wins this match against the mellifluous terebinth, hands down.

What’s in a name, Mr. Morris? Sometimes less than you might like to think

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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