How was Paul’s Hebrew?: Gal 3:16

In some of the discussions following my previous posts, the point was made that Paul was fluent in both Hebrew and Greek as a serious student of Scripture and a man of “great learning” (Acts 26:24). While I do not doubt that Paul probably used both Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic, my reading of Paul is increasingly leading me to the conclusion that he was predominantly a Greek speaking Jew. For starters, in just about all of his citations of the OT, he drew upon the LXX. This could be explained by the fact that he was addressing a primarily Greek speaking audience in a Hellenised world.

While there is much we could speculate about his background as Saul of Tarsus (in modern day Turkey) and his educational background, that would serve little useful purpose. What I would like to look at is how this “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5) handled the Hebrew texts. Specifically, let us look at Gal 3:16 (NKJV):-

Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.

The context of this verse is Paul making the case that the promises made to Abraham prefigured Christ. He builds his argument around the fact that the word “seed” was used in the OT promises, as opposed to the plural “seeds”. So, for example, Gen 26:4 (NKJV) says:-

And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.

On the surface of it, this seems to be a plausible, if a little novel, line of reasoning that Paul is employing here. If the promises were made to a single “seed”, who would that have refered to? For Paul, Christ was the best candidate. Had it been “seeds”, then Israel might have fit in better. Where we find a problem is with how this argument was constructed – it was predicated upon the Greek distinction between the singular σπέρματί (Greek:spermati – seed) and the plural σπέρμασιν (Greek:spermasin – seeds). When we look at the LXX translation of Gen 26:4, it reads:-

καὶ πληθυνῶ τὸ σπέρμα σου ὡς τοὺς ἀστέρας τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καὶ δώσω τῷ σπέρματί σου πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν ταύτην, καὶ ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν τῷ σπέρματί σου πάντα τὰ ἔθνη τῆς γῆς

The underlined bit translates to the seed (singular) of you (singular)” and this is exactly in line with Paul’s argument. The Hebrew text, however, presents a slightly different story.

וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֤י אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֙ כְּכוֹכְבֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנָתַתִּ֣י לְזַרְעֲךָ֔ אֵ֥ת כָּל־הָאֲרָצֹ֖ת הָאֵ֑ל וְהִתְבָּרֲכ֣וּ בְזַרְעֲךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ

Here, the relevant phrase “in your seed” is found in one Hebrew word – בְזַרְעֲךָ֔ – that transliterates to “b’zerakha”. This breaks down into three components:-

“b” meaning “in”
“zer” (or “zera”) meaning “seed”
“akha” meaning “your” in reference to Abraham

The thing about “zer” or “zera”, though, is that this word in the Hebrew does not distinguish between the singular or the plural. It’s a bit like the word “sheep” in English where both the singular and plural are the same word “sheep”. “Zera” is just like that in Hebrew – there are no words to distinguish between the singular or the plural of “seed”. For example, in Gen 47:19 (NKJV) we have:-

Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants of Pharaoh; give us seed, that we may live and not die, that the land may not be desolate.

The word “seed” used here is obviously plural from the context – they were not asking Pharaoh for one seed but many seeds. The Hebrew word for “seed” here is “zera”, the same case as in Gen 26:4. Likewise, in Lev 27:16 (NKJV) we have:-

“If a man dedicates to the LORD part of a field of his possession, then your valuation shall be according to the seed for it. A homer of barley seed shall be valued at fifty shekels of silver.”

The “seed” here is again clearly plural from the context and in the Hebrew it is the same “zera” as used in Gen 26:4. You simply cannot argue that “zera” is singular or plural based on the word itself just as you cannot do that with the word “sheep” in English. In practice, you would have to rely on the context to determine if the singular or the plural noun was intended. In the context of Gen 26:4 (NKJV), it appears that “in your seed” sounds like a reference to the multiplied descendants, and is therefore plural in meaning. Even if you choose another passage such as Gen 22:17-18 (NKJV), you see the same sort of plural context:-

Blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.

Notice that the referents here are the many descendants that Abraham will have. The pattern “… your descendants … your descendants … your seed …” should strongly make it clear that “seed” here is plural because the Hebrew for “descendants” is in fact “zera”. This means that the verse could just as well have been translated:-

Blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.

Just in case you still need convincing, look at Gen 13:15-16 (NKJV) to see how “seed” was understood within the Abrahamic promise:-

… for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.

Here it is even clearer that “zera” (translated “descendants” here) is plural. It just doesn’t get any clearer. I should mention that in all these cases, where our English translations read “descendants” or “seed”, the LXX renders it as the singular σπέρμα (meaning “seed” in the singular). The NKJV and most English translations used the plural word “descendants”, showing that the translators understood that the context suggested a plural “zera”. What this means is that contextually speaking, “zera” should be plural even though the Hebrew word itself does not differentiate between the plural or the singular. That said, Paul wasn’t making his argument based on the context but on the morphology of the word.

Now, if we assume that God spoke to Abraham in Hebrew rather than Greek, Paul’s argument should center about the Hebrew usage of the word “zera” and the entire argument he used in Gal 3:16 would fail. Had he even considered the Hebrew word “zera”, he would have known that the distinction he relied upon did not appear in the Hebrew and his entire line of reasoning would fall apart. Even if we should take the context of Gen 26:4 into account, you would still not arrive at a reading that yields a singular “seed”. How then could this expert of the Torah and master of the Hebrew language overlook such an obvious (in the Hebrew at least) mistake? That’s what I’d like to know.

Just so we are clear – I do not disagree with the substance of Paul’s argument. What I find problematic is his “exegesis” of Gen 26:4 and his making a distinction that isn’t there in the Hebrew and using that false distinction as the basis of proof-texting to a Greek speaking audience who most likely wouldn’t know any better. So what options do we have here concerning Gal 3:16? They are (MCQ):-

  • He really didn’t know what the Hebrew text of Gen 26:4 (and similar verses) said and was relying on the LXX.
  • His mastery of Hebrew wasn’t good enough to realise the problem with the word “zera”.
  • He knew the OT and was good in Hebrew but decided to make up a non-existent distinction.
  • He forgot what the Hebrew rendition was or made a blunder?

I’m open to other options you might come up with to help rescue Paul from this conundrum.

For the sake of completeness, there is an argument that Gen 22:17 might allow for a singular “zera” because of the genitive suffix for the word “enemies”. Gen 22:17 (NKJV):-

… and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.

The Hebrew for this bit goes:-

וְיִרַ֣שׁ זַרְעֲךָ֔ אֵ֖ת שַׁ֥עַר אֹיְבָֽיו

transliterated and literally translated we get:-

v’yirash            zarakha             et shaar  oyevav
and’possess  seed-of-yours     gate     enemies-of-his

Specifically, because of the “v” suffix in “oyevav” which makes it “enemies of his” (as opposed to “oyevahem” which would become “enemies-of-theirs”), it has been suggested that this would indicate that the preceding (antecedent) “seed” must be seen as singular. This seems like a plausible save for Paul. Then again, when we look at how this exact same phraseology is used in the subsequent Gen 24:60 (NKJV):-

And they blessed Rebekah and said to her: “Our sister, may you become the mother of thousands of ten thousands; And may your descendants possess the gates of those who hate them.

Here you have the exact same phrase in Hebrew with “soneav” (meaning “haters-of-his”) at the end instead of “oyevav” in Gen 22:17. Once again, you have the “v” suffix but here it is obvious that it is plural because the number “thousands of tens of thousands” is given, taking away the ambiguity in “zera”. What this means is that the “v” suffix does not automatically imply a singular antecedent as can be shown from its usage in Gen 24:60. Note that in both Gen 22:17 and Gen 24:60, the English translators unanimously rendered the words with a plural genitive, ie. “their enemies” and “of those who hate them” rather than “his enemies” and “of him who hates them”.

Ahhh… another over-lengthy over-technical post. I best end this here!