Punctuation in Genesis 2:4 (favoring the documentary hypothesis)

Paragraph Mark

I’m currently taking “Bible – Text and Context’ and Hebrew College.  Part of the course involves looking at the documentary hypothesis, which typically claims that redactors combined four different sources to give us the Bible we read today.  For example, they see that Genesis contains two creation stories, the first ending in chapter 2 vs 11.

For a quick overview, Wikipedia says this:

Genesis 1 is by an author, or school of authors, called the P (for Priestly), while Genesis 2 is by a different author or group of authors called J (for Jahwist — sometimes called non-P). There are several competing theories as to when and how these two chapters originated — some scholars believe they each come from two originally complete but separate narratives spanning the entire biblical story from creation to the death of Moses, while others believe that J is not a complete narrative but rather a series of edits of the J material, which itself was not a single document so much as a collection of material. In either case, it is generally agreed that the J account (Genesis 2) is older than P (Genesis 1), that both were written during the 1st millennium BC, and that they reached the combined form in which we know them today about 450 BC.

So during my reading for the class, I was rather shocked by the punctuation in Genesis 2:4.  I love the expression that “All translation is commentary”.  But did you ever think of a part of translation as being the punctuation itself?

In a prior class, our professor told us this joke, which shows how important punctuation can be.

A hundred years ago, a Yid comes to America and works as a traveling peddler. One day in July he’s walking down a New England road when he finds a cool country lake. He takes off his clothes and takes a dip when the country sheriff arrests him and throws him in jail.
The next morning he appears before the local magistrate.
“Sir, you have been arrested for trespassing. Didn’t you read the sign?
It says, ‘Private Lake. No swimming allowed.'”
The Yid wouldn’t hear of it. “Meester, you read de sign your vay and I read it my vay.”
The sheriff was surprised. “Your way? How do you read the sign?”
The Jew answered. “It says: Private lake? Nooooo! Svimming allowed!”


In our class, we were asked to read the text as though we were “martians” reading it for the first time, using the 1985 “New” JPS translation (there is also an 1917 original JPS translation).  I was noticing that 2:4 looked “strange” (okay, I probably would not have noticed anything if I were truly a “martian”).  I also use Bibleworks on my PC, which has the “Old” 1917 JPS translation (and dozens of other versions and languages).   The new JPS puts a period and even a paragraph break in the middle of 2:4, like this:

“4) Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created.

When the Lord God made earth and heaven – 5) when no shrubs…”.

The blank line between the two halves of the verse is clearly visible, almost like a paragraph break.

Two other translations (from the 70s and 80s) go with the New JPS period here, where as many the older ones have commas.  Perhaps this shows the effect that this “modern scholarship” is having on the publishers, i.e. that bible version published in the last 20 years tend to be different in this verse than the ones from 80-100 years ago.

“Such is the story” instead of “these are the generations” [ELEH TOLDOT] or “this is the account” has a much strong note of finality and closure and thus separation between these two accounts.

Looks like the cantillation symbol “ETNACHTA” divides the verse in this location.  One of the purposes of the Masoretic ta’amim – or cantillation symbols – is to note punctuation, and where a verse should be divided.  If I remember an “ETNACHTA” a major break in the verse, but I don’t know if it’s ever treated as a period.   But to put “white space” or a paragraph break before the next words seems like taking a big liberty.  It would seem that this translation is definitely biased toward the documentary hypothesis.

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