Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Hebrew Shamayim

Some translate the first verse of the Bible

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

The key word here is 'heavens'.  The heavens is a plural translation. The justification for this seems to stem from grammatical studies that the Hebrew word transliterated 'shamayim' (non-phonetic smym) is a Hebrew dual word. There is no singular variant of the Hebrew shamayim. So I looked into this and came to my own conclusion that the Hebrew word 'shamayim' appears as a dual because it is a compound of the Hebrew word 'mayim' meaning waters.

Hebrew, like most other languages, has two characteristic numbers: singular and plural. A third is called the dual which is a modification of the plural preserved by aid of punctuation. The only purpose of this post is to present my opinion that the Hebrew shamayim appears to be a dual since it has the Hebrew dual mayim built into it. If I can rest on this assumption then the referent of shamayim is not always many objects or a pair of objects and from a strict grammatical viewpoint need not be always be translated as a plural.

Some Hebrew words are plural only or dual only. Plural or dual only are words that have no singular variant. An English example is 'glasses' or 'scissors'. The Hebrew word for water: mayim is supposedly a dual only. For whatever reason the ancients conceived, uttered and traced the word referencing water as a pair. Perhaps the reason is they understood the basic systematic relation between the water of the land and the water of the sky.

It seems that this Hebrew word mayim is built into the Hebrew word for heaven: shamayim. Shamayim could be a compound of 'waters' and a prefix. Lets take a look at a couple of sources.

1. The great Medieval Jewish interpreter Rashi.

Rashi's loose translation of Genesis 1:8:

God called the expanse "heaven" because it was made from fire and water. There was evening and there was morning, a second day.
And Rashi's notes:

And God called the expanse heaven: Heb. שָׁמַיִם [This is a combination of the words מַיִם שָׂא, bear water (Gen. Rabbah 4:7); שָׁם מַיִם, there is water; אֵשׁ וּמַיִם, fire and water. He mingled them with one another and made the heavens from them (Chag. 12a).

So with Rashi there is this concept that the Hebrew word shamayim is a word combination: fire in waters, or fire and waters or fiery waters.

2. Scholars Bauer and Leander in Historische Grammatik der hebraischen Sprache des Alten Testaments I return to Proto-semitic postulating the reconstruction of samayim from *sa, which is according to them is the (demonstrative and) relative pronoun, and *maiu “water.” *sa-maii would yield the meaning “place of water.”

3. Min Suc Kee in a little article from the Jewish Bible Quarterly states:
The word shamayim (sky, heaven), which is closely associated with water in the cosmologies and takes the same intriguing dual ending, could be explained in the same manner. A point of interest here is that fact that the words denoting "sky' in the Semitic languages are all spelled by prefixing s/sh to the words meaning "water" in general. Simply understood, for example, shamayim in Hebrew or Aramaic and šamu in Akkadian could be seen as a term combining "of/one of which"(ša) and "waters" (mayim/mu). One might therefore assume that the sky was "one of the waters/of the waters.(see http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/403/jbq_403_mayim.pdf)

4. Fabre d'Olivet's etymology:

"I am taking up here, the etymology of the word [shamayim] heavens, because it is attached to the one I have been explaining in this article, and because it signifies literally, the waters, raised, brilliant and glorified; being formed from the word [mayim], waters, and from the root which is united to it. This root contains the idea of that which rises and shines in space, that which is distinguished and noticeable by its elevation or its splendour." (From The Hebrew Tongue Restored)

So I conclude the Hebrew word shamayim is a dual since it has the Hebrew dual mayim built into it. Thus shamayim can reference a single object or many objects pending the context. For example in the second day sequence of Genesis One God names a singular object, thus the name should be translated in the singular Heaven not the plural Heavens. If He made a single thing that is Earth's spherical expanse then it follows that the name should be translated singular for this context. If God or a sacred author reference the many stars and galaxies seen through the night sky then the word could be translated in the plural: heavens.

In the Bible shamayim seems to reference either God's sphere, the Earth's sphere, or the stellar spheres seen through the night sky. So all the translator need do is decide what the word references in a particular context and mark singular or plural for his readers. It all boils down to context. Context, context, context. There is no justification for translating oblivious to context or making a case that the shamayim of Genesis 1 or Gen 1:8 should be translated as a plural based on morphology alone.

I am not an expert in Hebrew but this is what my study and pondering leads me to believe. Maybe this is a little folk etymology but I could care less. I do not need to pay out tens of thousands of dollars in order to attempt to translate and interpret Genesis 1, 2, 3.  
I am of the opinion that the shamayim of the first verse of the Bible refers to God's Sphere, the Heaven of God, the Heaven of the Blessed, the Place where God lives. Thus it should be translated in the singular. There is only one Heaven of God. This is the object from where God triggers the main light event described in the subsequent verses. The name Heaven of the second day sequence refers to Earth's atmosphere thus it should also be translated in the singular.

God named Earth's lofty sphere Heaven in order to plant in our brains a connection between His lofty Sphere and Earth's Sphere.

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