It’s All About Who You Know

"Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.’" (NIV)

"Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, ‘I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.’" (NASB)

"Adam slept with Eve his wife. She conceived and had Cain. She said, ‘I’ve gotten a man, with GOD’s help!’" (The Message)

"The man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the LORD.’" (NAB)

"Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.’" (ESV)

Genesis 4:1

Why have I listed five versions of the same verse? I believe they demonstrate differing viewpoints on translational accuracy in the Bible.  The first three more clearly convey in modern language what Adam and Eve did.  On the other hand, the last one maintains more of the meanings found in the Hebrew.  (I do not mean this as an apologia for the ESV.  I’m well aware of the many faults that are not apparent in this particular verse. )  "To know" is idiomatic and obviously denotes sexual intercourse.  It means more than that, though.  It  connotes intimacy and the notion of becoming "one flesh".  "Cain" sounds like the Hebrew for "gotten".  Strangley, more of the translations maintain this parallel.  But I digress; it is "to know" that interests me today.

Later authors of Scripture utilized the intimate and marital implications of "knowing" when writing about the relationship between the LORD and Israel (and ultimately the Church). Take today’s reading of Hosea 2:16-17,21-22 for instance (verse numbers vary across translations).  At the end, God tells the people of Israel that they will someday "know" Him.  This is not mere intellectual knowledge or recognition.  The preceding verses give clear context that the LORD will take Israel as His bride.  He and they would be intimately joined in one flesh.  Indeed, as the gospel reading (Mark 2:18-22) indicates, Christ is the bridegroom that Israel waited for.

There are countless examples of marital imagery in Scripture.  Many, if not most, utlilize the subtleties of "knowing", even where Greek is employed rather than Hebrew.  By the mere mention of humanity knowing God, an author could recall for readers/listeners the notion of marital intimacy with our Creator.  Sadly, in their zeal to make Scripture as appealing and accessible to everyday Joes, a worthwhile and important goal to be sure, many translators have obscured such allusions.  In those translations, people "have sex", "make love", or "have relations", without expressing the intimate "one flesh" aspect of knowing someone (i.e., to know them as well as one knows one’s own body), and humanity merely recognizes, remembers, or intellectually assents to God, without becoming "one flesh" with Him.

One may see a current application of this imagery in the lengthy conversation about NFP started by an earlier post on this blog.   After seemingly endless exchanges concerning the nature of NFP’s means, intent, and ends, DSA offers the following insight and challenging question.

"[I]ntellectualization can be a powerful defense and a very fun one at that. We can spend great deal of time talking about such matters, many very important matters worthy of our consideration, and even point to the astute observations of theologians and popes to add weight to our perspective. However, behind all the chatter and along with all the important and even valid judgments can reside a powerful resistance to embracing the far more challenging truth – the self-emptying and self-sacrificing love of Christ crucified – the love that Christ has for his Bride the Church It is this love that must form our judgments and that must be the measure of our actions and behaviors. What light do these realities shed on our discussion of NFP, abstinence, and the relationship between husband and wife? What limitations might they reveal in our thinking?"

Christ, the bridegroom, demonstrated His great love for His bride, the Church, when He laid down His life for her.  From His birth, He was betrothed to her.  At His crucifixion, He married her and with His last words, "It is finished", He consummated the marriage.   Every time we receive the Eucharist, we become one flesh with Christ.  We are sacramentally recalling our marriage to Him, just as a human couple recalls their sacramental unity when they come together in intercourse.  Christ holds nothing back from us in the Eucharist.  He is present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  God’s seed, grace, is given to members of the Church, in whom it might take root, if we provide "good soil", and grow into faith, a faith that enables us to go and make new disciples, new members of the Universal Church.  Likewise, a husband’s seed is given to his wife, in whom it might “take root” and grow into another human being, another member of the domestic church.  To take God’s command to "go forth and multiply" seriously, we should imitate the self-emptying and self-sacrificing love He offers when He "knows" us in the Eucharist.

"This is my body, given for you."

Comments 7

  1. Jordan wrote:

    This is one of the most important linguistic features, as “knowing” the Lord is the goal of life: at the end we shall know him even as we are known. This intimacy which you have explained so well is a central theme of the Christian theological tradition.

    Posted 26 Feb 2006 at 4:44 pm
  2. Jordan wrote:

    Not to put a damper on DSA’s post by introducing trivialities, but I must observe that “it’s all about whom you know,” old boy, not “who“. The advantage of using this construction, lest you accuse me of antiquarianism, is that it makes clear that “who” is the direct object. In this case, that’s not so difficult to figure out, but in other cases it is, and so a habit of using “whom” will serve you well in your writing. Pip pip.

    Posted 26 Feb 2006 at 7:46 pm
  3. Funky Dung wrote:

    1) While I tend to be a fan of “whom”, it’s falling into disuse.
    2) Lot’s of people have heard that phrase in its grammatically incorrent form.
    3) I’m moving DSA’s comment to the NFP post (seems to fit better there).

    Posted 26 Feb 2006 at 8:26 pm
  4. Tamilda wrote:

    There is certainly some beautiful midrash about “knowing” and the connection with good marital sex.

    I don’t know that I would be too hard on translators, though (despite my love for a literal translation), because the same verb is used for rape (Judges 19:25) and rape by sodomy (Genesis 19:5). I think the word simply means to know someone carnally, as much as we might wish for it to have a more spiritual and uplifting definition.

    Posted 27 Feb 2006 at 10:08 am
  5. Funky Dung wrote:

    My understanding is that the word was more concretely associated with carnal knowledge early in its use and gradually accumalated more nuanced uses. I’m no linguist or philologist, but it seems to me that by the time the gospels and epistles were written, the word would have evoked more complex and altruistic notions than mere copulation.

    Posted 27 Feb 2006 at 10:14 am
  6. Tamilda wrote:

    Oh, I think the nuances have always been there, at least I hope they have! I think you have the correct interpretation of the word “know” and that the question rather is why it was used in the rape cases (instead of “lie with”, for example).

    I don’t know the answer to that, but I do see how a translator might choose to use another word for having sex in order to use the same English word each time the Hebrew word “know” was used in a sexual way.

    I don’t think the Hebrew approach to sexuality was like the Greek one. From what I’ve gathered, the Hebrew view seems to focus more on body (as seen in Songs, for example), whereas the Greek is focused more on mind, on “elevating” sex beyond the physical.

    There are bound to be differences in interpretation and the resulting translations.

    Posted 27 Feb 2006 at 11:17 am
  7. Jeremy Pierce wrote:

    Actually, the parallel between “gotten” and Cain’s name isn’t preserved in any of these. She’d have to say “I’ve Cained a man” or name him Gotten or something if you wanted to preserve that. (Either would be inaccurate anyway, since Cain’s name means something like metal-working, and it just sounds like the word for “gotten”. It’s a wordplay, not an etymology in the modern sense.)

    On “who” vs. “whom”, Jordan is simply wrong. Funky is right. The supposedly right “whom” used to be correct, but it’s just not English anymore. There are some places where it could be ok to do either. The word isn’t dead yet. But “about whom you know” is just not correct grammar anymore in most dialects, English teachers and archaists like William Safire notwithstanding. I agree that something is lost in terms of clarity, but that’s how things go. We’ve lost clarity before, and we’ll keep doing so as language chances.

    Posted 22 Mar 2006 at 5:33 pm

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