[b-hebrew] Genesis 3:15 and order of ideas

Heard, Christopher Christopher.Heard at pepperdine.edu
Wed Dec 22 20:14:57 EST 2004

Dear Harold,

>>  Are there any _attested_ uses of the
>> verb ZR( taking a masculine subject and meaning "to impregnate"? I can't
>> find any in the Tanakh. Am I missing them?
> HH: We're dealing with this topic because that
> information is not in the Tanakh. This fact does
> not mean that one cannot draw conclusions about
> basic realities of life and how they impinge on
> the use of a word.

It's a pretty risky thing, philologically speaking, to make assumptions
about a word's usage based on "the basic realities of life." That is, we
aren't really entitled to assume that semantics always mirrors reality.

Having said that, I think there may be a little more to go on than I
originally thought. The phrase $KBT-ZR( does seem to mean an emission of
semen into a woman (whether she becomes pregnant or not) in Lev 15:18;
19:20; Num 5:13.

What we still lack, as far as I know, is any attested use of the verb ZARA(
with a masculine subject to mean "impregnate," or any evidence to exclude
the possibility that the verb ZARA( could take a feminine subject to mean

What I'm really struggling after here is understanding the use of the hiphil
of ZARA( in Lev 12:2. I am leaning ever more toward thinking that we have a
simple scribal error for a niphal.

> HH: The ancients were fully aware of the role of male semen in conception:
> Gen. 38:8 ¶ Then Judah said to Onan,  "Lie with
> your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her
> as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your
> brother."
> Gen. 38:9 But Onan knew that the offspring would
> not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's
> wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep
> from producing offspring for his brother.

Just for the record, whatever English translation you're copying here is
adding words to the Hebrew text, no doubt in order to clarify things for
English readers. Nevertheless, the word "seed" is _not_ used in Gen 38:9 for


[Eng] And Onan knew that the ZERA( would not be his, so whenever he went
into his brother's wife, he $XT on/toward the ground, in order to avoid
giving his brother ZERA(.

In this verse, ZERA( clearly refers to the offspring/descendants, _not_ to
the semen.

> HH: I've already argued that the Hiphil of ZR( in
> Lev 12:2 is a functional word looking forward to
> giving birth and probably functioning like HRH in
> the texts above. Otherwise, you have to assume
> that the text is speaking of simply producing
> eggs, which Peter says was an unknown reality
> until the nineteenth century. Or you have to
> imagine some other strange scenario. Why not just
> assume that the Hiphil in ZR( speaks of
> conception, which the ancients understood to
> involve male seed?

Well, that's precisely it. It's not _you_ I'm struggling with, it's the
hiphil of ZARA( itself. The construction makes the conceiving woman the
agent of the "sowing." How exactly does a woman "sow" semen? Clearly the
verb functions in Lev 12:2 like HRH usually does. I'm trying to understand
the implications of the fact that it is in the hiphil, which seems to imply
the woman as something other than the passive receptor of "male seed."

In truth I'm inclined to want to follow the Samaritan Pentateuch with its
niphal in Lev 12:2, matching the niphal in Num 5:28, but every text-critical
impulse within in me is screaming that the more likely scenario is that the
SP reflects an assimilation of an original hiphil in Lev 12:2 to the more
easily understood niphal of Num 5:28.


R. Christopher Heard
Assistant Professor of Religion
Armstrong Fellow in Religion
Pepperdine University

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