[b-hebrew] Genesis 49: 6: The Joint Curse of Simeon and Levi

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Thu Dec 13 10:15:00 EST 2007


The main controversy concerning Genesis 49: 6 has traditionally been the 
argument as to how to translate the last word in that verse.  The last word is our 
old friend:  sin/shin-vav-resh.  (Although we semi-promised the moderators 
that we would not discuss that word any more, hopefully that semi-promise does 
not apply here.  In the context of Genesis 20: 1, I uniquely see 
sin/shin-vav-resh as being “Sur”, the wealthy island city-state off the coast of southern 
Lebanon.)  Here at Genesis 49: 6, the widespread controversy is whether this 
word means “wall”, with the Masoretic pointing being incorrect, or whether this 
word means “bull” or “bullock” or “ox” or “oxen”, with the Masoretic 
pointing being correct.
 
Robert Alter is one of the few modern translators who follows the older 
approach of seeing sin/shin-vav-resh at Genesis 49: 6 as meaning “wall” or “
ramparts”, viewing such word as having nothing to do with oxen.  Here is Robert Alter
’s comment about sin/shin-vav-resh at Genesis 49: 6 (p. 294): 
 
“‘they tore down the ramparts.’  With many critics, the translation here 
reads ‘shur’, a poetic term for ‘wall’, instead of ‘shor’, ‘ox’, as the 
Masoretic Text has it.  The verb, if it refers to oxen, would mean to maim or 
hamstring.  It was sometimes the ancient practice to hamstring the captured 
warhorses of an enemy, but it would have been foolish to hamstring captured oxen, 
which could be put to peaceful use.  Moreover, since Jacob is speaking of the 
massacre at Shechem, the narrative there explicitly noted that the cattle and 
other livestock were carried off, not maimed.”
 
(Let me make two quick comments in passing concerning those assertions by 
Prof. Alter.  In my view, Jacob is not “speaking of the massacre at Shechem” at 
Genesis 49: 6, as Prof. Alter alleges;  rather, Jacob is condemning Simeon and 
Levi for trying to kill Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph.  Note also that Simeon 
and Levi, who are jointly being cursed here, played no role in carrying off 
the livestock at Shechem;  all livestock matters were handled by other sons of 
Jacob.)
 
Prof. Alter is right that many older translations view sin/shin-vav-resh at 
Genesis 49: 6 as meaning “wall”.  The following translations go with KJV in 
saying “they digged down a wall":
 
(1)  Bishop's Bible 1568;  (2)  Geneva Bible 1587;  (3)  Spanish Reina Valera 
of 1569 and 1602;  (4)  Las Sagradas Escrituras 1998;  (5)  the Italian 
Diodati;  (6)  the Modern Greek Old Testament (not the Septuagint);  (7)  Jewish 
Hebrew Publishing Company of New York version of 1936;  (8)  Douay Rheims of 
1950;  (9)  Webster's 1833 translation;  (10) KJV 21st Century version;  (11)  
Third Millennium Bible;  (12)  John Calvin’s Latin translation:  “et voluntate 
sua eradicaverunt murum".  In addition, (13)  the Syriac Peshitta says: "in 
their rage they destroyed a town wall."
 
To my way of thinking, one important issue here that is usually overlooked is 
whether sin/shin-vav-resh is singular or plural.  “Wall” is singular.  If 
sin/shin-vav-resh is singular, that would support my view that Simeon and Levi 
get their joint curse because of their attempt to kill a single individual -- 
Joseph.
 
Note also the unique translation of Genesis 49: 6 by Young’s Literal 
Translation in the mid-19th century:
 
“…For in their anger they slew a man,  And in their self-will eradicated a 
prince.”  
 
That is not a “literal” translation, but it is interesting.  In my view, the 
“prince” that Simeon and Levi tried to “eradicate” was Joseph.
 
I myself see sin/shin-vav-resh here in Genesis 49: 6 as primarily meaning “
bull”, or perhaps “bull (of a man)”, and referencing Joseph.  I do not like the 
standard modern translation “oxen”.  Even if “oxen” or “ox” may be 
technically correct, to me it is completely the wrong imagery.  Gesenius states that 
the animal imagery here is to an animal that is very strong and bold.  I agree 
with that thought.  Though Gesenius himself says “bull” at one place and “ox”
 at another, to me a bull is strong and bold and virile, whereas an ox has a 
very different image:  strong and placid and dumb.  Thus for a modern English 
speaker to get the right image, to me the translation should be “bull”, and 
should not be “ox” or “oxen”.  
 
BDB says the following regarding sin/shin-vav-resh at Genesis 49: 6:  “a head 
of cattle, bullock, ox, etc….usually a single head of cattle, without 
emphasis on sex…as property, spoil of war, etc.”  (A “bullock” is either a young 
bull or a castrated bull/steer, which in my view is not quite the right image.  
I prefer “bull”.)  I certainly do agree that the animal in question here is 
viewed very positively.  BDB sets forth the plural form of this word, which has 
the expected suffix “-yod-mem”, and to me BDB seems to emphasize that at 
Genesis 49: 6, this word is singular, not plural.
 
Although it is easy to find plenty of heated discussion about “wall” vs. “
oxen” at Genesis 49: 6, I have not found much discussion of the issue that I 
myself see as being of more importance here:  singular vs. plural.  Here is a 
rare comment, directly on point, that I managed to find.  In his 1600's 
commentary concerning Genesis 49: 6, Matthew Poole wrote:  "Or rather thus, they rooted 
out, or drove away an ox, i.e. the oxen, the singular number for the plural, 
as before”.  The reference in that old commentary to “the singular number for 
the plural” seems to confirm that at least on its face, aleph-yod-shin is “
male” or “man” in the singular, not “males” or “men” in the plural, and 
sin/shin-vav-resh is “bull” (or “ox” or “bullock” or, perhaps, “wall”) in the 
singular, not “oxen” in the plural.  In my opinion, the translators “force” 
the text to be plural in English, because they want Genesis 49: 6 to be 
referring to the Shechem incident, in which case only the plural would make sense.  
But as I see it, Genesis 49: 6 is not referencing the Shechem incident, but 
rather is referencing the Joseph incident, in which case only the singular makes 
sense.  
 
If we stick to the singular, we will see that the unforgivable joint sin of 
Simeon and Levi was their attack upon Joseph.  In their anger, they would slay 
a male, namely Joseph, and in their willfulness they would maim a bull of a 
man, namely Joseph, by cruelly selling their own brother to slavetraders.  
(Joseph was a boy at the time of the Joseph incident when he was sold to 
slavetraders, but of course Joseph was a grown, powerful man by the time Jacob gives out 
his blessings and curses to his 12 sons.)  If we read what the Hebrew text 
actually says at Genesis 49: 6, which is singular in both cases, the received 
text refers naturally to the Joseph incident, involving actions taken against a 
single male (Joseph), and is not talking about the Shechem incident, where 
actions were taken against many men in Shechem.  The Shechem incident was of much 
less importance than the Joseph incident in terms of the moral failings of 
Simeon and Levi. 
 
(And Yes, I myself also uniquely see a vague reference here at Genesis 49: 6 
to Sur, the wealthy Lebanese city-state, though that is not the primary 
meaning.)
 
As I see it, sin/shin-vav-resh at Genesis 49: 6 refers to “a bull” or to ”a 
bull (of a man)”, and is referring to Joseph.  Simeon and Levi maimed Joseph 
by forcing Judah to resort to the terrible expedient of selling Joseph to 
slavetraders in order to save Joseph’s life.  Joseph was never able to live in his 
beloved homeland of Canaan again.  It is unclear whether Joseph ever truly 
forgave Simeon and Levi for that truly treacherous action.  Note that Simeon is 
the half-brother whom Joseph holds hostage in Egypt.  “…and he [Joseph in 
disguise as an Egyptian vizier] returned to them [his older half-brothers], and 
spoke to them, and took Simeon from among them, and bound him before their eyes.”
  Genesis 42: 24  Simeon and Levi for their part had no confidence that they 
had ever been forgiven by Jacob for their terrible deed.  “And when Joseph's 
brethren saw that their father was dead, they said:  'It may be that Joseph 
will hate us, and will fully requite us all the evil which we did unto him.'”  
Genesis 50: 15  
 
Based on the horrible joint curse at Genesis 49: 6, it seems clear to me that 
neither Jacob/“Israel”, nor the author of the Patriarchal narratives, ever 
forgave Simeon and Levi for their wanton attempt, in anger, to kill their own 
brother Joseph.
 
The bloody incident at Shechem has nothing to do with any of it.
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois




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