Genesis 3:5: Like God or Like gods?

In Genesis 3:5, God reveals one of the consequences of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Here’s the NRS’s version:

“for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

Here’s the Hebrew text of the last clause.

Genesis 3:5b
 כֵּאלֹהִים יֹדְעֵי טוֹב וָרָע

It turns out that the Hebrew is mistranslated in many (most?) English Bibles. Moreover, this particular mistranslation is fairly significant so getting the translation correct is important. In this post, I’ll describe the mistranslation then offer what I believe is its significance.  Let’s get started.

Here are the mistranslations is a number of popular English Bibles:

  • (NRS)… and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
  • (NAS) “… and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
  • (NAU) “… and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
  • (NIV) … and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
  • (NLT) “… and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

The KJV, by contrast, gets it right.

  • (KJV)   … and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

The emphasis is meant to draw your attention to the mistranslated word. The plural ‘gods’ is correct. The singular ‘God’ is not.

Hebrew, unlike English, inflects its verbs for plurality. In other words, in Hebrew a plural verb is spelled differently than its singular counterpart. In the Hebrew clause in question, the word יֹדְעֵי (/yod`ey/) is a plural participle meaning ‘knowing’. Therefore, its subject must be plural. Hence the plural ‘gods’, not the singular ‘God’, is the correct translation.

The Pantheon of the Pagan Gods

The Pantheon of the Pagan Gods

Knowing this, we now see that God was not concerned that Adam and Eve (stand-ins for mankind) will become like God Himself. His concern was that mankind will take on the character and behavior of the [false] pagan gods worshipped by the surrounding cultures[1]. These gods were not unlike humans – they suffered pain, experienced joy, made war, murdered each other, and procreated. They certainly were not divine in the sense God (or His court) were divine. It may well be that the representation of the humans as pagan gods is another example of how the authors of the two Genesis creation stories went to great lengths to demythologize natural phenomena as objects to be worshipped.

For further background on this, and other aspects of the Garden of Eden story, you may want to read the an up-to-date commentary for the Garden of Eden.

Now, go and study

 

 

  1. [1]Read in the context of the Ancient Near East, the story does not rule out the existence of other humans
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