In his דמות and צלם, Part 1

After reading the earlier summaries on loanwords by Eskhult and ‘Aramaisms’ by Hurvitz, Charles Halton sent me an e-mail about דמות in Gen 1:26a:

1:26 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ

And God said let us make man in our image, according to our likeness…

He had been reading a paper on דמות and צלם and wondered if דמות could be an Aramaic loanword or ‘Aramaism’,  and if so how this relates to linguistic dating of texts, etc. What is interesting about דמות is that if you do a quick Accordance search you notice that the distribution of the term is skewed toward the unquestionably later books. Of the 25 occurrences, 18 are in Daniel (1), 2 Chronicles (1), and Ezekiel (16). Three of the other occurrences are in Genesis 1-11 (Gen 1:26, 5:1, and 5:3), leaving 4 other attestations (2 Kg 16:10, Is 13:4; 40:18, and Ps 58:5).

On the other hand, צלם seems to have a broader distribution. Of the 15 occurrences, 5 are in Gen 1-11 (Gen 1:26, 27; 5:3; 9:6), 1 in Nu 33:52, 3 in the story of the golden “hemmorhoids” (1 Sam 6:5, 11); 1 in 2 Kg 11:18, and 1 in Amos 5:26. There are only 4 in the late books – 3 in Ezekiel and 1 in 2 Chronicles. So the knee-jerk reaction from such a search would seem to be that צלם is the good Hebrew word which is being displaced in the later language by דמות, an ‘Aramaism’. Consequently, the use of דמות would point to a later date of composition for the Genesis 1 creation story. This is a great example of the dangers of jumping to conclusions based only on the distribution of a term within the Hebrew Bible

What Hurvitz points out is that, while Hebrew and Aramaic are in much greater contact after the exile, they are always in contact. Thus the post-exilic period is not the only time when Hebrew could have borrowed from Aramaic. Further, Hebrew and Aramaic are closely related languages which share a good amount of vocabulary. In fact, where pairs or groups of synonyms exist, it is not uncommon for Hebrew to use one of the words more commonly while Aramaic uses the other (this is part of what distinguishes them as dialects). But this doesn’t mean that they don’t know the other word. In poetry and high prose these rarer words show up due to the need for synonyms and/or a stylistic preference, etc.

Now, strictly speaking, Genesis 1 isn’t poetry in that it cannot be scanned as lines and cola, but I would probably call it high or styled prose. It has a very tight structure and it is getting tighter here in verses 26 and 27 with the creation of man. Verse 27 is certainly a poetic triplet, and I think the synonyms דמות and צלם in verse 26 are a nice little poetic touch as well. Thus, this would be a good candidate for a place where a poet pulled in a rare word to find a synonym.

So did he use a rare Hebrew word, an ‘Aramaism’, or borrow an Aramaic word? And if it is one of the latter two, do we have any idea when that would have been? More to come tomorrow…

Explore posts in the same categories: Language Contact

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