Connotations and interpretation

As the theologians of the School of Antioch were especially preoccupied with the Old Testament, we may fittingly start our excursus on exegesis by considering three texts from the Old Testament, namely Genesis 19:8, Jonah 3:3, and Isaiah 7:14.

In their interpretation the Antiochenes used the grammatical/historical approach. First they analysed what the words and sentences of the text was saying, and then they used its historical background to find out what was meant.

Genesis 19:8

Now, let us have a look at what the patriarch Lot said when his house was surrounded by men who wanted to rape his guests:

“Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.”[i]

To us Westerners the suggestion of Lot is atrocious, and we find it hard to understand how a father can offer his two daughters to rapists. We may even get the impression that the text is anti-feministic. However, the cautious reader may realise that there is something hidden in the text that he does not quite understand.

Linguistically the text does not present any problem. It is easy to understand and there is nothing hidden in the original Hebrew text. So we have to we take to look at history, in this case at the culture of ancient Middle East.

First of all we have to remember that Lot offered his two daughters to the potential rapists to protect his guests. In ancient Middle East your guest was sacred. You had to protect him or her with all what you had, your own life and that of your family included.

For example, among the pre-Islamic Arabs, if a refugee from a neighbouring tribe came rushing in and touched the cords of your tent saying: “Dachīlak!” (freely translated: “I seek asylum”) you were obliged to protect him with what you had. Otherwise you would be regarded as a man without honour.

The story goes the Arabic prince Samaw’al [or Samuel] ibn ‘Ādiyā, who was living before the birth of Islam, once promised to keep the personal belongings of the poet Imru’ al-Qais, who was going abroad to seek support against his enemies.

As it happened, these enemies, led by a man called Hārith who had been sent by the Arabic prince al-Nu’man ibn al-Mundhir, appeared in front of the al-Ablaq castle that belonged to Samaw’al and was situated north of Medina. He demanded the belongings of Imru’ al-Qais, but Samaw’al refused to deliver the items. Then Hārith managed to catch the son of Samaw’al and threatened the father with killing the son in case the demand was not met. Samaw’al refused, and his son was killed.

Today Samaw’al is remembered in the Arabic saying “awfa min as-samaw’al” [more loyal than Samaw’al]. This illustrates very well how loyalty to guests, and to protégés in general, is appreciated in the Middle East. Lot’s offer to the would-be rapists may reflect a desperate attempt of a host to protect his guests.

However, the Middle East offers another possible interpretation. Some years ago carpet dealers, when their customers turned out to be too unfair in their bargain, used to say: “You take the carpet! It is a gift!”

Taken out of context this might be understood literally. But this was not the intention of the carpet dealer. The purpose of the expression was to tell the customer in no uncertain term that he had gone too far. [ii]

Was this what Lot meant to say? We do not know. But if it was, it would not be an unusual style in the Middle East.

Jonah 3:3

“So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.”[iii]

The problem with this text naturally is the claim that Nineveh i a “city o three days’ journey.”

Years ago, when I took Hebrew lessons at the University of Copenhagen, my teacher, who by the way was Bent Melchior, the chief rabbi of Denmark, told us that these words represented one of the exaggerations you find in the Old Testament.

There is no help in the text itself. It is even added that Jonah “began to enter into the city a day’s journey.” A city of three days’ journey would be a city with a diameter of about 100 kilometres.

Again we have to consider common usage in the Middle East.

When workers from Asia Minor about fifty years ago started to immigrate to Europe, some of them told us that they came from Konya [Iconium]. During our conversation, however, we learned that they were from a small city called Kulu about 150 kilometres from Konya (5 days’ journey by ancient standard). Subsequently we realised that the name of the principal city is used on the entire province.

This, in fact, has given way to some discussion about the name of Antakya [Antioch]. Antakya is the capital of the Turkish province of Hatay. Therefore many prefer to call it Hatay instead of Antakya.

And this is not just a Turkish phenomenon. Years ago while in Egypt, we visited the ruins of Memphis south of Cairo. We went by taxi, and the taxi driver lost his way. We were somehow surprised when he asked people in the street: “What way to Egypt [مصر : maṣr]?” It dawned on me that he used the name of the entire country on its capital.

Does the Book of Jonah apply the name of Nineveh to the whole province? We do not know, but it is likely.

Isaiah 7:14

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”[iv]

Here critics have rightly pointed out that the word “virgin” is not an exact translation of the Hebrew word עלמה [‘almah], which according to the dictionary carries the meaning of “lass, maiden”[v] and “marriageable girl, maiden, young woman.” [vi] The Hebrew word for virgin is בתולה [betūlah] as seen in Leviticus 21:12-14. Consequently, they say, the female in question needs not be a virgin.

However, when the Jews in Alexandria a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ had the Old Testament translated into Greek (the Septuagint Version) the translators chose the Greek word παρθενος [parthenos: virgin] when translating עלמה [‘almah].[vii] Why?

We got an answer years ago in Istanbul. While speaking with some of our friends the subject of the conversation turned to a young woman we knew. Due to her age, and due to my European background, I called her ‘a girl’ [kız]. One of my friends turned on me exclaiming: “She is not a girl. She is a woman [kadın]!” In the Middle East a girl is a girl until she has been to bed with a man. Then she is a woman.

Consequently the denotation the word עלמה [‘almah] is “young female” but its connotations of are those connected to virginity.

Interestingly the translation of the New Testament from Greek into Hebrew by Delitsch uses the word עלמה [‘almah] for παρθενος [parthenos], the Greek word for virgin.[viii]

The problem of understanding texts from different centuries and different cultures does not consist in the denotations of the words used but in their connotations. If we neglect exploring of these, we are in danger of aberrant decoding.


[i] The Bible: Authorized Version (London: The British and Foreign Bible Society, 1960), 14.

[ii] Compare De Lacy O’Leary, Colloquial Arabic (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul LTD, 1965), 175.

[iii] The Bible, 725.

[iv] Ibid., 550.

[v] Reuven Sivan and Edward A. Levenston, The New Bantam-Megiddo Hebrew & English Dictionary (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), 194.

[vi] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987) 473.

[vii] The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited, [no year]) 842.

[viii] haberîth haHadashah (The Bible Society in Israel [no year]), 48.

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About Antiochene

Writer, living in Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya, Turkey).
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