Oaks, Terebinths or Plains
Terebinth. Now that’s an interesting word. Seems to be a Greek word, and it refers to a tree that is also known as a “turpentine tree”. It occurs in some translations of this week’s parsha of Lech Lecha.
Here’s the Mechon-mamre translation of Genesis 12:6 —
And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth of Moreh.
And to give another example, Genesis 13:18 —
And Abram moved his tent, and came and dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and built there an altar unto the LORD.
So the key word we are trying to translate here is ‘elon’. What is an ‘elon’?
My Artscroll Saperstein edition of Breishit translates ‘elonai mamre’ as ‘the plains of Mamre’.
My JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh claims ‘terebinth’ is the translation.
The first translation of the Bible, the second-century BCE Greek Septuagint, interpreted the word as ‘oak’.
OK, so which is it, oak, terebinth or plains? Depends who you ask. (Do you hate answers like that? Or can you just accept that as life?)
Incredibly enough, I was introduced to this whole topic by two articles on the Forward, of all places (I did not know they had words of Torah on the Forward, a newspaper founded by atheist socialists):
In the second article, Seth Cohen suggests an explanation to the ‘plains’ translation, the translation that is least likely to be the literal one but is suggested by Onkelos:
The translation of elonei as “oaks,” he writes, “might have suggested to some readers in antiquity that Abraham settled in the midst of tree worshipers, since the worship of trees was quite prevalent in his lifetime and for many centuries afterwards.” Therefore, Mr. Cohen continues, although Onkelos’s translation is generally highly literal, he deviated from the text in this case for apologetic purposes — that is, to prevent any possible misinterpreting of the biblical story contrary to the way that he, and the rabbinic sages whose authority he accepted, understood it.
Onkelos did not want any misinterpretation that Abraham might be a tree worshiper.
So what about oaks vs. terebinths?
The Philologos of the Forward argues for oaks, because it is the oldest translation, and because of its small appearance:
Terebinths, whose small leaves indeed smell a bit like turpentine when crushed, may have an impressive-sounding name, but they are not very impressive in appearance. The terebinth is an evergreen shrub that rarely grows to more than 7 or 8 feet and is found all over Israel, where it is one of the most frequent plants in the hillside maquis; terebinths grow wild in my garden and can spread like weeds if you do not keep them in check. The common Palestinian oak, on the other hand, develops into a tall, stately tree. A whole forest or grove of such trees, now seen in only a few places but less rare in Abraham’s time, is an impressive sight indeed.
Why do other translators, such as Robert Alter who wrote the Five Books of Moses, choose terebinth? Perhaps because of its abundance? I couldn’t find an answer.
Here’s a terebinth, courtesy of Wikipedia:
If any of you have the opportunity to visit Neot Kedumim in Israel, you can find a terebinth there. We were there in June (hot!), but I hadn’t yet read about terebinths, so I didn’t think to find one and photograph it.