The Breath of Life in Genesis 1:30?
January 10, 2009 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Why does the New Jerusalem Bible (Standard Edition) not have the "breath of life" in Genesis 1:30 which is mentioned in most other translations?

The New Jerusalem translation of Genesis 1:30 reads, "And to all the wild animals, all the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that creep along the ground, I have given all the foliage of the plants as their food."

Other translations can be found here.

Hoping someone familiar with Hebrew can help.
posted by Outis to Religion & Philosophy (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The New Jerusalem is presenting a reading which is both more accurate and more awkward than the traditional formulation.

The Hebrew is literally: "And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the sky, and to every creeper upon the earth, in which is a living breath [I have given] every green plant as food. It was so."

nefesh chayya is a noun and an adjective, meaning "living breath". The traditional translation reads this as a genitival (construct) noun phrase: "breath of life", which is inaccurate (this would be nefesh chayyim). This traditional reading is the result of the Septuagint (greek) tradition's rendering of the phrase as psuchein zoeis, using a genitive noun meaning "life" instead of the adjective "living". The greek did this because late Hebrew poetry started rendering chayya as a noun, but when Gen 1 was originally written, it was almost certainly an adjective.

So the New Jerusalem is translating the relative clause, "in which is a living breath" as a simple adjective: "living [creatures that creep]". What's awkward about it, though, is that this relative clause in the Hebrew very clearly refers categorically to the three classes of creatures mentioned earlier: the beasts, the birds and the creepers. The New Jerusalem chooses to translate the relative clause as if it only modified the last one, the creepers.

Your translation captures some of the original force of the hebrew, against the traditional (and inaccurate) reading, but it loses the grandeur of the original, in which a categorical statement is being made about all these classes of creature: that they possess the same living nefesh and are equally permitted the consumption of green plants.
posted by felix betachat at 6:32 PM on January 10, 2009 [27 favorites]

Wow, I'm really glad I didn't open my mouth before he did. Beautifully summarized by Felix.
posted by AngerBoy at 7:58 PM on January 10, 2009

Thank you so much. My friends and I were discussing this Saturday night when one of them brought it up. Certainly a lot of changes to the phrase over time, and while we knew the New Jerusalem had a reason for its difference we were uncertain. You've helped us all quite a bit.
posted by Outis at 9:16 PM on January 11, 2009

« Older Make the adware stop.   |   Accomodations In Pikeville KY Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.