Back to Mamre

By Philologos

Published November 20, 2007, issue of November 23, 2007.
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Seth Cohen of Mamaroneck, N.Y., has an interesting suggestion to make in regard to my column of two weeks ago on oaks and terebinths in the book of Genesis. You may recall that in discussing the correct translation of Genesis 18:1, “And God appeared to him [Abraham] in elonei mamre,” I wondered why the first-century C.E. Aramaic translation ascribed to Onkelos, which has canonical status in Jewish tradition, translated elonei Mamre not as “the oaks of Mamre” (which, as I explained, is a better reading than “the terebinths of”) but as “the plains of Mamre.” I didn’t have a clue, I said in my column, as to what Onkelos was thinking.

Mr. Cohen thinks he has one. The translation of elonei as “oaks,” he writes, “might have suggested to some readers in antiquity that Abraham settled in the midst of tree worshipers, since the worship of trees was quite prevalent in his lifetime and for many centuries afterwards.” Therefore, Mr. Cohen continues, although Onkelos’s translation is generally highly literal, he deviated from the text in this case for apologetic purposes — that is, to prevent any possible misinterpreting of the biblical story contrary to the way that he, and the rabbinic sages whose authority he accepted, understood it.

I must say that this makes a good deal of sense to me. Onkelos’s translation of the Bible does indeed combine the two features that Mr. Cohen speaks of: a rigid adherence to the Hebrew text 99% of the time, and considerable freedom with it whenever a literal reading threatens to contradict some fundamental point of rabbinic interpretation or theology. For example, at the very beginning of the book of Genesis, in the story of Creation, where the Hebrew text says, “And the spirit [Hebrew ru’ah., which can also mean “wind”] of God hovered over the water,” Onkelos translates, “And a wind from God blew over the water,” so as to avoid the anthropomorphic implication that God or His spirit has a physical dimension. For the same reason, when the book of Exodus tells us that “God descended” upon Mount Sinai at the time of the giving of the Torah, Onkelos translates this as “God revealed Himself.”

Thus, Onkelos was quite capable of being unfaithful to a biblical verse if he felt that the truths of Judaism called for it. Would he have felt this way about alonei mamre? It’s conceivable. In its injunctions against idolatry, the Bible repeatedly warns against worshipping “under every green tree,” and trees, especially impressively large ones, whether worshipped in themselves or chosen as a sacred spot for worshipping the gods, played an important role in many ancient pagan religions.

Indeed, something I didn’t mention in last week’s column is that an oak tree appears in the story of Abraham even before the oaks of Mamre, in the form of elon moreh *in Genesis 12:6. Although this is commonly translated as “the oak of Moreh,” *moreh being construed as a place name, like Mamre, the word moreh means “teacher” in Hebrew, so that one could also translate the verse as “the teacher oak” or — as is suggested by the commentary in the contemporary Jewish Publication Society Bible — “the oracle-giving oak.” Here, too, Onkelos prefers to translate elon as meshar or “plain.”

Moreover, as I observed last week, the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into any language, the third-and-second-century-BCE Greek Septuagint, renders the elon of elon moreh and elonei mamre as drus or “oak,” a word that is akin, in the history of Indo-European languages, both to our English “tree” and to “druid.” The druids, the ancient priests of the Celtic peoples of Europe and the British Isles, commonly held their religious ceremonies in oak groves, to which their name is related, and were a widespread feature of the European landscape in Onkelos’s time. This could have been another reason for him to worry that wrong-minded readers might think that the oak trees among which Abraham pitched his tent were chosen by him for their sacredness. To avoid giving this impression, he might have felt entitled to depart from the literal meaning of the text.

Up to this point, Mr. Cohen’s theory can explain things. What it does not explain, however, is why, even if he had his reasons for not translating elon as “oak,” Onkelos chose “plain” as his alternative. Why “the plains of Mamre” and not “the hills of Mamre,” or “the environs of Mamre,” or “the crossroads of Mamre,” or something else? There is nothing about the Hebrew word elon to suggest a plain or a valley, and nowhere in the early rabbinic literature by which Onkelos is often guided have I been able to find such an interpretation. It would appear to be his own invention.

Of course, had Onkelos translated elonei mamre as “the hills of Mamre,” I might now be writing a column asking why he didn’t translate it as “the plains of Mamre.” He had to choose something, after all, and perhaps his choice was entirely arbitrary. Unless Mr. Cohen has another bright idea, we may never know.

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


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