Thursday, October 22, 2009

Creation in Rabbinic Literature

In an attempt to explore what rabbinic literature has to say about Creation, I've begun reading Genesis Rabbah, a midrashic commentary on Genesis likely composed between 200-500 CE. I'll be posting text, translation, and analysis as I work through the text.

Genesis Rabbah I.I.1

בראשית ברא אלהים וגו׳. ר׳ אושיא פתח ואהיה אצלו אמון ואהיה שׁעשׁעים

אמון פידגוג[1], אמון מכוסה[2], אמון מוצנע[3], אית דא׳ אמון רבתה[4], אמון פידגוג

היך מה דאת אמר[5] כאשר ישא האומן[6] את היונק, אמון מכוסה היך מה דאת אמר

האמונים עלי תולע, אמון מוצנע היך מה דאת אמר ויהי אומן את הדסה,

אמון רבתה היך מה דאת אמר התיטבי מנא אמון ומתרגמינן האת טבא

מאלכסנדריא רבתא דיתבא ביני נהרותא.

Translation: “In the beginning, God created, etc.” R. Hoshea opened [the discourse by quoting]: “And I was beside him – an ‘amon, and I was a delight” (Prov 8:30). ‘Amon means tutor; ‘amon means covering; ‘amon means hidden; some say ‘amon means great. ‘Amon means tutor: [This is] like what you read – “just as a guardian (‘omen) carries the nursing child” (Num 11:12). ‘Amon means covering: as in the verse that says “those who were brought up (ha’emunim) on purple” (Lam 4:5). ‘Amon means hidden as in the verse that says “and he was bringing up (‘omen) Hadassah” (Esth 2:7). ‘Amon means great as in the verse that says “are you better than No-Amon?” (Nah 3:8) which is translated “are you better than Alexandria the Great situated between the rivers?”

You can almost hear the inner monologue of the sage:

Amon, amon . . . what’s an amon? Hmm . . . we don’t know this word. This is both a problem and an opportunity. It’s a problem because, well, we don’t really know what the text says. It’s an opportunity because we can interpret according to what we want the text to say. Where to begin? Words that use the same consonant pattern-aleph, mem, nun? Well, we have omen, emunim, and No-Amon. Those could work.

The problem is that in biblical Hebrew the word in these contexts is all the same word. It is used in the sense of legal guardianship or of child-rearing. The word doesn’t denote “covering” in Lam 4:5 or “hiding” in Esth 2:7. However, it is a good example of the method used to determine the semantic range of a word when you don’t have a lexicon—look at other cases of how the word is used. The fact that these words are imbued with unusual meanings is significant because it highlights the esoteric nature of the discourse. The sages are about to reveal secret and hidden things encoded in the Torah. This section is just the teaser building up to the preferred meaning attributed to ‘amon in the next paragraph.

At first glance, it appears to be a rather oblique way to get at interpreting Gen 1:1a by immediately embarking on a discussion of the meaning of a rare word in Proverbs 8. A master plan seems to be at work shaping the interpretation with a singular purpose. The context of Prov 8 is essential to interpretation because nowhere does the writer of Genesis Rabbah make the connection explicit. The reader is expected to know who is speaking in Prov 8 and why that’s significant for understanding Gen 1:1.

To be continued . . .

Hebrew text is from J. Theodor and Ch. Albeck, 1965, Midrash Bereshit Rabba: Critical Edition with Notes and Commentary, Jerusalem: Wahrmann.

[1] “pedagogue, tutor” (Jastrow 1136)

[2] “covering” (BDB 491-2)

[3] “hidden” (Jastrow 1292)

[4] “capital, great city” (Jastrow 1446) or “chief, great” (Jastrow 1438).

[5] היך מה דאת אמר: “even as you read in the Scriptures” (Jastrow 345). Lit: “like that which you say/read.”

[6] “nurse, guardian; foster-father or foster-mother” – see Isa 49:23, 2 Kgs 10:1, 5.


  1. And while we're at it, let's conenct both of them to Psalm 104:24 O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.

  2. Lucian, the rabbis eventually connect the dots on a lot of these texts, so you're anticipating where this is heading.

  3. 1. Offhand do you know what word is used in the place of "amon" in the Syriac OT? Perhaps "epitroophah" / "epitroophoh" (guardian, steward; derived from Greek "epitropos")?

    2. Lucian, nice to see you here :)

  4. Justin, I checked Prov 8:30 in the Syriac and other versions. It was involved enough that I turned it into a separate post instead of a comment here.

  5. see also this serie called “קריאות מדרשיות”

  6. A very ambitious project indeed, I'm looking forward to reading future posts.

    Of course, no study of Creation in Rabbinic literature would be complete without Chagigah 2:1 (

    Who knows? Perhaps they would have changed their tune had a decent Hebrew dictionary been available.