[b-hebrew] "The Negev" at Genesis 12: 9 Is Not the Negev Desert

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Fri Aug 15 10:23:26 EDT 2008

Bill Rea:
You wrote:  “Actually it’s not difficult to translate this [Genesis 12: 9] 
if you are prepared to accept a somewhat old fashioned rendering.  You could 
simply say ‘he traveled Negev-ward’.  If you want to render Negev as south then 
you would translate
 ’he travelled southwards’.”
Your proposed translation of Genesis 12: 9 as “he traveled southward” will 
not work, because the identical phrase appears at Genesis 13: 1, and there 
Abraham is traveling northward!
Your proposed translation of “he traveled Negev-ward” will not work either.  
If by that you mean “he traveled southward”, that will not work as explained 
above.  But if by that you mean “he traveled Negev Desert-ward”, that is not 
a sensible interpretation of the text.  The author of the Patriarchal 
narratives is emphasizing at Genesis 12: 9 that Abraham traveled through the 
Jerusalem area, southern Canaan proper, which like the rest of Canaan proper was at 
that time experiencing a drought/famine.  The author is not saying anything 
about the irrelevant, arid Negev Desert at Genesis 12: 9.  Likewise, at Genesis 
13: 3 the author is not talking about the Sinai Desert or the Negev Desert.  No, 
he is emphasizing that instead of stopping somewhere in the Jerusalem area 
after getting back to Canaan proper from Egypt, Abraham persisted in going all 
the long way back through southern Canaan until he returned to Beth-el in 
central Canaan.  The focus at both Genesis 12: 9 and Genesis 13: 1 is southern 
Canaan proper, the greater Jerusalem part of Canaan, not the irrelevant Negev 
Here is a proposed solution.  Let’s translate “the negev” as “the South”, 
while translating “negev” (when the Hebrew definite article is not present) as 
“the south”.  (English requires the definite article even in that second 
case, but in English we can decline to use a capital S here, as the way to make 
this distinction.)  As to the Hebrew directional suffix he/H, let’s translate 
that as “to and through”, where the place referenced is, as here, a tract of 
land (either “southern Canaan” or “the Negev Desert”, not a specific named 
city such as “Jerusalem”).  Though a bit awkward in English, I think that 
better captures the Hebrew meaning than “to” or “toward” or “-ward”.  Now we can 
translate Genesis 12: 9, Genesis 13: 1 and Genesis 13: 3 consistently.  Both 
Genesis 12: 9 and Genesis 13: 1 are translated as “to and through the South”. 
 Genesis 13: 3 is translated as “from the south”.  I view Genesis 13: 3 as 
basically being non-controversial.  The key issue is the meaning of “the South”
 at Genesis 12: 9 and Genesis 13: 1.
In the context of both Genesis 12: 9 and Genesis 13: 1, “the South” 
logically must mean southern Canaan proper, the greater Jerusalem area, the land 
between Beth-el on the north and the northern edge of the Negev Desert on the 
south.  That is the important 75-mile-long tract of land on which the author wants 
us to focus.  At Genesis 12: 9, Abraham travels south from Beth-el, “to and 
through the South”, as Abraham makes the important confirmation that all the 
land in the general vicinity of Jerusalem is experiencing the same drought/famine 
as is the rest of Canaan (per Genesis 12: 10).  At Genesis 13: 1, Abraham 
could, but does not, decide to sojourn somewhere in the greater Jerusalem area.  
Unlike the lightly-populated, arid Negev Desert, southern Canaan proper had 
pretty good pastureland for a tent-dweller like Abraham.  The author is 
emphasizing at Genesis 13: 1 that instead of sojourning in southern Canaan proper, 
perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of Jerusalem, Abraham persisted in traveling “
to and through the South”, bypassing the opportunity to sojourn near Jerusalem, 
and instead insisting on going all the long way back north to Beth-el in 
central Canaan.  Yes, Abraham had passed through both the Sinai and Negev Deserts 
in returning to Canaan from Egypt, but there is no reason for the author to be 
mentioning either such desert.
The Hebrew phrase “the negev” means “the South”.  The question is what the 
meaning of the ambiguous phrase “the South” is.  Its meaning can only be 
determined by reference to the particular context in which that ambiguous phrase 
is used.  At Genesis 12: 9 and Genesis 13: 1 (but not at Genesis 20: 1 or 
Genesis 24: 62, where the circumstances are different), “the South” is referring 
not to the Negev Desert, but rather is referring to southern Canaan proper, the 
greater Jerusalem area, the 75-mile-long important tract of land of hill 
country in southeastern Canaan, between Beth-el on the north and the northern 
border of the Negev Desert on the south, which had plenty of decent pastureland 
for Abraham’s sheep and goats.  Whether we like it or not, the text is 
emphasizing at Genesis 12: 9, and especially at Genesis 13: 1, that Abraham decided  
n-o-t  to sojourn near Jerusalem, though Abraham could easily have done so 
(whereas Abraham could not have kept a large herd of sheep and goats, a huge 
household, and 318 armed retainers, per Genesis 14: 14, in the Negev Desert).
If we examine each use of “negev” in the Patriarchal narratives, we will 
discover that “negev”  n-e-v-e-r  means “the Negev Desert” in the Patriarchal 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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