Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Anah and The Mules

It is always interesting to see a word that appears only once in all of the Tanach. Invariably, words like this are subject to theories of scribal error. In this week's portion, we are treated to just such a word. "הוא ענה אשר מצא את הימם במדבר ברעתו את החמרים לצבעון אביו". "This is Anah, who discovered 'yemim' in the desert, while shepherding his father's donkeys." (Bereshit 36:24) (The word ימם does appear once more in the Bible, but there (Bamidbar 6:5) it clearly is the חסר (defective) spelling of ימים, days.) The word ימם is a hapax legomenon, and while the traditional commentaries and translations use 'mules', some raise the thought that perhaps it is really the word מים, water, changed by the process of metathesis. Thus, the verse would be talking about Anah, whose discovery was springs in the desert.

The reason this theory is advanced is that the word ימם is a singularity, appearing only once in Tanach. Also, it might be argued that מצא is a weak word for inventing a stronger, sterile animal. If Anah really discovered that mating donkeys and horses will produce a mule, one might expect a stronger word for this discovery, one that remarks on the innovation. For example, in 4:21 and 22, the inventors Yaval, Yuval and Tuval-Kayin are called אבי and לטש, fathers and instructors of new trades. Also, נמרד began the trend of being mighty, and he החל, began the trend. מצא is simply found, or discovered, and seems like a weak verb for an innovator. However, מצא is used time and again referring to finding water.

There are a number of reasons that I tend to reject this theory. First of all, with regard to the possible question of מצא, I find this question weak. It could be that the discovery of mules was by chance, and Anah simply found the results of the horse-donkey mating after the fact. He did not necessarily have a hand in the experiment, and just found the results when the baby was born. Thus, מצא could be the best verb to describe Anah's role in the new breed. Further, the verse's explicit statement that Anah was watching over donkeys certainly does legitimate the discovery of mules.

In regard to the text, we have the general principle of difficilior lectio potior, that the more difficult reading, all things being equal, holds more authority. This is because we assume that the scribes who copied the text read what they wrote, and that a more obvious scribal error would quickly be caught. The offending copy would be destroyed or, at least, clearly marked as un-authoritative. Tiny errors, because they do not necessarily change the meaning of a text, or render it unintelligible, are much more likely to be allowed to creep in. However, corruptions that make the text unreadable, are very likely not able to make it into a guarded text. Therefore, if there is a singularity in the text that, if considered an error, would have been a big one, we tend to believe that the singularity is meant to be there.

It also seems, from a reading of the rest of Tanach, that the construction of the sentence if we exchange מים for ימם is quite awkward. There are many instances of water being found in the Bible. Let us examine some of them, and compare them to the theoretical reading of 36:24 with מים.

In Bereshit 8:9, we have, כי מים על פני כל הארץ. In 26:32, the servants of Yitzchak tell him that מצאנו מים. In Sh'mot 15:22, we have Israel traveling in the desert, שלשת ימים ולא מצאו מים. In Sh'muel I 9:11, girls are found יוצאות לשאוב מים. These are just a few examples of water being found, and it is always referred to as an indefinite article. This suggests that water should be referred to grammatically in Hebrew as it is in English, indefinitely.

It is true that water is sometimes referenced as a definite article. For example, in Sh'muel II 17:20, עברו מיכל המים, and Vayikra 14:6, על המים החיים. However, in these examples, the water is modified; either it is in a container, or it is presented with an adjective. In these situations, it is understandable that usually indefinite water becomes definite: it is now specific water, defined by its container or adjective. However, in general, water is simply indefinite -- water.

With this in mind, if one argues that ימם is really water, he would have to argue that this verse is still singular in Tanach. Instead of the singularity of the word ימם, now the singularity of a grammatical construct treating plain water as a definite article would have to be posited. The acceptance of a theoretical grammatical singularity instead of a hapax seems weak ground, indeed, to claim scribal error.

After writing this, S. provided me with the Vulgate and Peshitta. They both translate ימם as water, as opposed to the Samaritan chumash, which uses אימים, mules. The Septuagint transliterates the word as a proper noun. S. further says that it does not have to be metathesis to allow the word to mean water, it could be 'yamim'. This would do away with my point about the definite article, because ימים needs a definite article to mean 'the springs' in the desert. However, it would still be a singularity, with the defective spelling of ימם (missing the אם הקריאה of 'י'). So this reading still admits a hapax.

Be that as it may, it does not seem that there is any reason to treat ימם as an example of metathesis. If anything, it seems the lack of נקודות led to an ambiguity as to the meaning of the word ימם itself.

S. has a great follow-up post to this discussion on his blog that I know you will love.