Saturday, March 29, 2008

Εγω ειμι ο ων (Exodus 3:14)

ויאמר אלהים אל משה אהיה אשר אהיה ויאמר כה תאמר לבני ישראל אהיה שלחני אליכם׃

And God said unto Moses, אהיה אשר אהיה (I will be who/what I will be; I am who/what I am): and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, אהיה (I will be; I am) hath sent me unto you.

Greek Septuagint:
και ειπεν ο θεος προς Μωυσην Εγω ειμι ο ων (I am the being [one]/I am he who is)· και ειπεν Ουτως ερεις τοις υιοις ισραηλ Ο ων (the being [one]/he who is) απεσταλκεν με προς υμας.

Latin Vulgate:
dixit Deus ad Mosen ego sum qui sum (I am who (I) am) ait sic dices filiis Israhel qui est (who is) misit me ad vos

Noting what seemed to me to be a difference in meaning between the Hebrew ehyeh asher ehyeh (אהיה אשר אהיה) and the Greek Egô eimi ho ôn (Εγω ειμι ο ων) for God's name in Exodus 3:14, I posed a question to the B-Greek list (for this post I have slightly revised my comments and edited the responses):
Are there any thoughts about whether the Septuagint rendering of God's name as Egô eimi ho ôn in Exodus 3:14 accurately translates the Hebrew ehyeh asher ehyeh? I.e., is something lost or changed, and/or is something added? (And perhaps gained - i.e., just because a Greek rendering may add a nuance or clarification that the Hebrew doesn't or can't express doesn't automatically mean that the translation into Greek has wrongly added something to the text.)

Some of my thoughts:
  • If the Hebrew ehyeh asher ehyeh means "I am who/that I am," then the Greek (Egô) eimi hos/ho (egô) eimi might be more accurate - but there would be the problem of deciding whether to use the masculine hos ("who") or the neuter ho ("that"/"which"); the Hebrew asher (who/which/that) is not gender-specific, and Hebrew has no neuter gender, only masculine and feminine genders. For the Greek translator to have to pick either hos or ho means having to make a translation and meaning choice that is not necessary in the Hebrew. Is the LXX reading perhaps because there is no literal Greek equivalent to the Hebrew that can maintain this ambiguity re: whether the name is referring to God's Who-ness versus His What-ness? (The choice of the masculine ho ôn instead of the neuter to on (το ον) suggests that the LXX translator favored God being "He Who Is" ("The Being One") over "That Which Is.")
  • If ehyeh asher ehyeh means "I will be who/what I will be" - which may be supported by the nearby uses of ehyeh in "I will be with you" in Exodus 3:12 and 4:12,15 ("I will be with your mouth") - then the Greek (Egô) esomai hos/ho (egô) esomai may be more "accurate." Interestingly, the LXX only uses esomai in 3:12; it says "I will open your mouth" in 4:12,15. However, ho ôn is repeated in 3:14 as God's name.
Did rabbinical or Greek philosophical traditions influence the LXX rendering of Exodus 3:14? Because of the identification of Jesus with ho ôn in this passage, as well as the use of this phrase in the halo of icons of Christ, the LXX rendering has had a significant impact on church history, theology and worship.
One respondent wrote:
No, it really isn't totally accurate. The Hebrew has the imperfect (prefix form) of the existential verb twice and would more accurately be translated "I will be who/what I will be." I think I'll leave the Greek to your own efforts. It would almost seem that the LXX was translated under some Platonic influence.
and I replied:
Richard Elliott Friedman chooses "I am who I am" and Robert Alter chooses "I will be who I will be." Both discuss the other's choice, and Alter also discusses using "what" instead of "who." Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (The Living Torah) goes with "I will be who I will be," and in his notes refers to Rambam's Moreh Nevukhim 1:63 (1200 A.D.) when he says that the name "denotes that God has absolute existence" (and also refers the reader to the Septuagint), and that He is outside the realm of time (Rabbi Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforna, 1567 A.D.). Thus, it appears that the Hebrew imperfect need not be translated with the future, according to these Jewish/Hebrew scholars, and the concept of ho ôn may not be Platonic (or maybe Rambam was a Platonist?).
Another responded:
I don't think that your question can be dealt with in purely linguistic terms. Even if I point to Parmenides' discussion of the verb eimi with its insistence that this verb be understood solely in the existential sense, not in the usage as copula, how will that help? Or to Plato's discussion, in the dialogue, Sophistês, of whether to on (and Plato there doesn't use ho ôn but to on-- usually conveyed as "Being") can be devoid of life, how would that help in terms of language usage itself?

I might suggest that you read a classic little work of Thorleif Boman entitled Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek--it was originally published back in the '50s of the last century and I was surprised just now to find that it is still in print and in a paperback edition (Amazon: It was back in the '50s while I was beginning graduate work that I read it. It is an interesting read (as I recall) but it has been both highly praised and damned and pronounced "dated." It has a chapter comparing the Hebrew verb hayah with the Greek verb eimi.

For my part, I haven't ever seen a discussion of the question here raised that did anything more than a superficial probe of how the Greek translation expresses the Hebrew original of the Masoretic Text. I tend to doubt whether the question can be resolved by any approach that could be called in any way "scientific."
One respondent raised the text question:
It seems reasonable that the LXX reflects a different underlying text which would've included the Tetragrammaton in the ho ôn position, the Hebrew being perhaps simply ehyeh YHWH ("I am YHWH"), which was simply literally translated egô eimi ho ôn. ho ôn is certainly a passable translation of YHWH - "He Is" - and is likewise understood thus in patristic texts and iconography.
And this reply came:
While it is not impossible that the LXX had a Vorlage different from Masoretic Text, I see no good reason to think so. Instead, a number of facts suggest that the translator had the same text (as MT) in Ex 3:14, but that he interpreted/exegeted his source text:
  1. The expected reading, esomai hos esomai, would have been quite grammatical.
  2. ehyeh asher ehyeh produces two unique Hebrew-Greek equivalences:
    • ehyeh = egô eimi, and
    • ehyeh = ôn
  3. the third occurrence of ehyeh in 3:14 is brought into line.
Therefore, what we have, it would seem, is a deliberate move away from the source text, i.e., a piece of exegesis. Why he exegeted the way he did is not certain, but a reasonable guess is that he intended to personify the Greek philosophical phrase to on ("being").

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