In the Spirit of the Day
A Proposed Retranslation of Genesis 3:8
Jesse Broussard, Westminster Term Rhetoric, 2003 words.
Exordium: Spirit, wind and breath. In three different languages, each of these shares a single word. In Latin,anima, in Greek, pnuemos, and in Hebrew, ruah. Usually, this presents no problems; we are not often speaking Latin, Greek or Hebrew, and context will generally eliminate one or more options. But, when we come to Scripture, all of our authoritative texts are in Hebrew, Greek or Latin; the context is often less than helpful, and that is when having three possible meanings for the same word in every original copy of every authoritative text becomes a problem.
Narratio: Generally, those of us who are Orthodox Christians don’t like to mess around too much with Scripture, and that’s a good thing. There are always exceptions, such as wild exegesis—“St. John saw many strange monsters, but none so strange as one of his own commentators”—but even wild exegesis is exegetical (or isogetical, my point is that there is a longsuffering text to bleed beneath our benevolently bumbling scalpels). But what do we do when the text itself is under dispute? Should we preach off of that little section at the end of Mark? Should we try to go over it in our familial devotions? And what do we do when respected theologians are disputing different interpretations—how do we know which one to go with?
Meredith Kline’sImages of the Spirit proposes a retranslation of Genesis 3:8: “they heard the sound of Yahweh God traversing the garden as the Spirit of the day,” particularly retranslating “l’rwh hyywm” as “Spirit of the day” instead of the traditional “wind of the day,” which we changed (for the sake of clarity) to “cool of the day.” Kline states that judgment is inherent and essential to the narrative, and that the “day” (ywm) is the “day of the Lord,” the day of judgment.
Everett Fox translates this verse in his Shocken Bible in the more traditional mean: “Now they heard the sound of YHWH, God, (who was) walking about in the garden at the breezy-time of the day. And the human and his wife hid themselves from the face of YHWH, God, amid the trees of the garden.” In his footnote he clarifies: "breezy-time: Evening."
Partitio: These two translations are obviously different approaches to the text, and they offer different perspectives from which we would view the judgment of the fall of mankind. The traditional translation (Fox’s), however, does not seem to adequately capture the importance of the narrative—the comment that “it was evening” seems entirely superfluous, where reading the text in light of judgment seems to clothe the overall narrative with a far more suitable and consistent theme. Propositio: While we traditionally translate the Hebrew phrase "l'rwh hyywm” as "cool of the day," we should probably translate it as "spirit of the day."
Confirmatio: One of the reasons to translate this phrase as “spirit of the day” is that while evening is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament, the particular phrase l’rwh hyywm is never used to indicate “evening”—in fact, through all of Scripture, that phrase is found onlyhere, in Genesis 3:8. It would seem that such an unusual phrase would bespeaka similarly unusual occurrence (such as the fall of mankind), not merely evening (which is most often denoted “le’et’ereb” ). As ruah means spirit, wind, or breath, these are our options for its translation. Since “wind of the day” leads to a very odd way of saying “evening,” and “breath of the day” makes no contextual sense whatsoever, we are left with the phrase “spirit of the day.” But what does that mean? The spirit of what day?
In his Images of the Spirit, Meredith Kline comments that the “spirit of the day” would almost undoubtedly be the spirit of the day of the Lord—the Day of Judgment. Defending this, Kline shows that the “day of the Lord” is always a day of judgment, and that judgment is the entire effect of God’s visit to man in this narrative.
To support this theory, he studied the common factors in all of the more explicit theophanies of Scripture, and narrowed them down to a foundational three: light or day, dark or obscuring, and “qol,” sound. Since all elements of the day of the Lord are present, Kline states that this Parousia “corresponds fully…to the awesome approach of the Glory met with elsewhere in Scripture, the approach with which a thunderous voice of Yahweh is regularly associated.” The qol is a great and thundering noise, and is what Adam and Eve hear traversing the garden toward them in l’rwh hyywm (spirit of the day), and it is this that causes them to hide (obscure) themselves. It is not the sound of “footsteps,” or of twigs cracking, but the sound of a great thunder, of a crushing waterfall, of earthquakes and armies and trumpets—it is the sound of approaching judgment. This day is a day of the Lord—He comes in power to judge his faithless people and those who have led them astray, and then to promise a future deliverance from these curses. He truly was coming in the Spirit of the Day—in judgment.
Because this is such a momentous event, one that bestows upon us the first Messianic prophecy, the protoevangelium, because this isthe reason for our sehnsucht, because this is the origin of all that is evil in the world, we expect the prose of the narrative to reflect that gravity and severity of judgment. But, should “ruah” mean wind, we do not find even a hint of it—the segue from Adam to God gracefully leaps from the high dive, only to encounter a dry pool floor in verse nine, where God is catching on to what has just happened, like a dad opening his daughter’s bedroom door and finding her boyfriend, “dressed” only in the loosest sense of the word. However, ifruah means “spirit,” then judgment pervades the narrative, covers it as the sky covers earth, or as skin covers muscle and bone. This seems to be the primary and crucial difference between the two viable interpretations of ruah: judgment is incidental to the “evening,” and central to the “spirit.” And which of these would we expect?
But the most definitive point, the point that converted me, is quite simple. According to the traditional translation, why is the phrase even there? What is the significance of mentioning that God was walking in the evening? It is definitely an evocative description, so if it were a peaceful scene in poetry, it would make perfect sense. But in this? In this horror and empty, desolate bereavement, this stark prose recitation of the pathetically futile, damning and abortive rebellion of mankind against severe sovereign holiness and beauty, this origin of all that is painful, evil and ugly? The sun was darkened, moon bloodied, earth undone; the stars were hurled from heaven, a seraph cursed; forgive me, butGod damned Himself: an idyllic stroll seems a touch out of place.
Refutatio:The only argument that I have yet heard that makes any sense of the jarring insertion of “evening” appeals to the poetry of the situation: a heaven on earth, where God walks in His garden with the human caretaker each eve, and then this utopia becomes literal utopia: not here, as it is laid waste by man’s sin.
But the problem with this exegesis is the same as before—why the obscure wording? Were the Author wanting us to read “evening,” why did He not simply write it? He does not hesitate to do so elsewhere. Why use a phrase so unusual that we find it nowhere else in Scripture? If it is to flag the one and only time that mankind’s innocence is utterly destroyed and the death of God Himself is, in that moment, necessitated, then I understand the use of such a singularly rare phrase. If it is to show the time of day, it’s absurd.
The single greatest argument against re-translating this passage is the weight of all of Church history. Who indeed are we to correct the mistakes of so many (and such great) men? And yes, this is a huge step—if we are retranslating a Scripture because it makes more sense to us, what is to prevent us from editing it to please ourselves? Already liberals are headed down this track with the TNIV, Episcopals can no longer play chess (is it a bishop or a queen?) and our names for God, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” are being judged by many as inferior to “Rock, Redeemer and Friend” (which will hopefully stop before it becomes “Rock, paper and scissors”). We have resisted this abominable trend to retranslate the Words of God as we see fit, and rightly so.
But for us to struggle with the translation of a verse is not anything new—the Church has defined the bounds of Orthodoxy over less: “For there are three that bear witness in heaven…and these three are one (1 John 5:7).” According to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, these three are one in their will, one in their actions. According to Christians, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are heretics, because they deny the divinity of Christ, and their translation of this verse is one of the ways in which they do so. Here, the translation of the word “one” in a highly disputed passage of Scripture divides orthodox from heterodox, possibly heaven from hell.
Nor does stating something about Scripture place us above it in any way—we are testifying to something in it, not changing it at all. John the Baptist declared Jesus to be the Lamb of God, but his declaration did not make Jesus the Lamb of God any more than my statement “it’s a hamburger” changes anything about the nature of my hamburger. Indeed, the only problem comes in when I say, “It’s a hamburger,” and it is in fact, not a hamburger. To use an absurd analogy, if I claim that it’s a hamburger when it is actually an aardvark, this will cause awkwardness for those that believe me (as well as the aardvark). If we claim that this Scripture says something that it does not say, then we are guilty of leading people astray as well as corrupting the text, which is why we should take great caution when translating Scripture. If we translate “ruah” as wind, and then have to make it “cool,” all so that it can use the most obscure way possible of saying something that is an irrelevant side note to an otherwise continuous and tremendous narrative, all while there is a perfectly cogent, meaningful, and contextual translation that could be made with no violence to the text whatsoever, then we are guilty of handling the text with great frivolity, if not plain stupidity. The sooner we correct that, the better.
Peroratio: “L’rwh hyywm” should be rendered Spirit of the day, and we should keep this in mind as this new typology further links this day in Genesis 3:8 with all other days of the Lord, including—especially including—the judgment of Christ as the second Adam. For that is the day when God darkened the sun, crushed the head of the serpent, lifted the curse from the ground, and welcomed man into His new garden-cemetery (from which man in Christ will never be expelled) to walk with the dead man, who is the living God, in the new spirit of the new day, which shall never end.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time…
And all shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Kline, Meredith, Images of the Spirit (Eugene, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 106.
Fox, Everett:Vol. I of The Schocken Bible: The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 22.
Free Republic, Culture and Society, “Presbyterians Consider Renaming the Trinity (“Mother, Child, Womb,” “Rock, Redeemer, Friend”), http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1652271/posts, (Accessed April 18, 2008).
Peter Leithart, Leithart.com, New Testament, 1 John, http://www.leithart.com/2007/01/29/sermon-notes-fifth-sunday-after-epiphany/#more-2735, (Accessed May 1, 2008).