In his article, Nathan Mastnjak writes, “The translation ‘by a human shall that person’s blood be shed’ is not strictly impossible, but given the norms of Classical Hebrew grammar, it should be viewed as prima facie unlikely especially since there is a much more plausible translation that is contextually appropriate and grammatically mundane.” This has it completely backward. It is Mastnjak’s claim that the ב in Genesis 9:6 be construed as expressing price or exchange that, while not strictly impossible, flies in the face of Hebrew lexicons and grammars – in contrast to the standard translations (both Jewish and Christian) which are contextually and canonically appropriate and grammatically mundane.
Mastnjak rightly examines both
grammatical issues about the specific phrase translated in the NRSV as “by a
human shall that person’s blood be shed” (Gen 9:6) and contextual issues
arising from its literary connection. Unfortunately, both aspects of his
argument are seriously flawed and completely ignore the mountain of
scholarship, Jewish and Christian, medieval and modern, which support the
traditional translations. The implications of the traditional translations, as
Mastnjak correctly diagnoses, install “the death penalty as a common principle
of the Natural Law and thus would make it be applicable and theoretically
usable by all human societies.” This includes recent Catholic scholarship that
explicitly supports Pope Francis in his desire to abolish the death penalty but
concedes that the God who executed retribution for violence in the flood
delegated in Genesis 9:6 this power to humans created in the image of God. And
it goes at least as far back as the Tosefta
in the late second century. The Tosefta
regards the establishing of human courts of justice to administer the death
penalty as part of the Noahic code in Genesis 9.
Mastnjak’s central grammatical points are that “Of the hundreds of passive verbs in the Hebrew Bible, the grammarians can find only a handful of possible cases where the agent of a passive verb is explicitly expressed” and that a frequent usage of the Hebrew preposition ב is “to express price or exchange.” One problem for Mastnjak is that major lexicons and grammars with entries on the Hebrew preposition ב are well aware of both these facts and prefer to render the ב in Genesis 9:6 not as a ב pretii expressing price or exchange but as indicating that humans are involved as the instrument through which murderers will be executed. These lexicons and grammars include GKC (the grammar by Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley), BDB (the lexicon by Brown-Driver-Briggs), BHRG (the reference grammar by van der Merwe-Naudé-Kroeze), IBHS and HSTE (the syntax grammars by Waltke-O’Connor and by Davidson repectively) and DCH (Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, edited by David Clines, which does use a “perhaps” for Genesis 9:6 as an example of the ב pretii but includes it straightforwardly as an example of ב of agent). Other than a second option “perhaps” in DCH, the major grammars and lexicons discussing the relevant ב in Genesis 9:6 do not support Mastnjak’s contention.
Another problem for Mastnjak is that
the construction need not be an agent of a passive verb for Genesis 9:6 to
establish the death penalty for murder as a standard judicial principle.
Genesis 21:12, another construction with a passive and a ב plus noun
segment with human semantics, is plausibly translated “it is through Isaac that
offspring will be named for you.” Although Isaac is not the direct agent here,
without Isaac’s involvement the people of Israel as Abraham’s quintessential
offspring would not have existed. Such a usage applied to Genesis 9:6 would
have emphasized humans not as the agents of execution but that it is through
humans sentencing the murderer that the murderer’s blood would be shed. This
would still entail an establishment of capital punishment.
And this is precisely how two of the major targums (early
Aramaic translations, which often engage in elaboration) translate the verse.
Targum Onqelos renders the clause, “He who sheds the blood of a human before
witnesses, through sentence of the judges shall his blood be shed.” More
extensive legal codes in Torah prescribe the presence of two or three witnesses
as a necessary condition for a murderer to be executed. Targum Onqelos
clarifies that Genesis 9:6 does not override this condition. Targum
Pseudo-Jonathan further expands: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human in the
presence of witnesses, the judges shall condemn him to death, but whoever sheds
it without witnesses, the Lord of the world will take revenge of him on the day
of great judgment.” Targum Pseudo-Jonathan also provides a rebuttal to
Mastnjak’s second argument – that the context of the preceding verse, Genesis
9:5, where God requires an accounting for human blood shed by animals or
humans, precludes capital punishment in Genesis 9:6. Pseudo-Jonathan clearly
includes the context of Genesis 9:5 in its understanding of the following
verse; God authorizes capital punishment in circumstances of due legal process
where the evidence is clear but will personally revenge the murder victim
The third problem for Mastnjak on the grammatical side is
that the two resources he does cite do more to hurt his position than to help
him. His first resource is a paragraph in a four page book review of a Hebrew
grammar, not the type of source one would expect to carry the weight of
refuting over two millennia of Jewish and Christian interpretation of Genesis
9:6. His second resource, the Hebrew grammar by Joüon and Muraoka, has higher
renown but argues against Mastnjak’s position.
First, here is page 151 of Dennis Pardee’s book review in
volume 53 of Journal of Near Eastern
Studies (1994) of Waltke and O’Connor’s An
Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax: “Occasionally they give in to the
norms of Indo-European syntax or do not indicate the rarity of a given
construction. For example, on p. 385, they state that ‘in the complete passive,
the agent may be indicated by a prepositional phrase…’ (cf. also p. 213). Not
only have they omitted a statement regarding the rarity of the construction but
most of their examples can be explained, within the terms of the Hebrew
prepositional construction, otherwise (b
in Gen. 9:6 = b of price; bhm in Exod. 12:16 = ‘among them’).”
Unfortunately, Waltke and O’Connor only cite three examples of passive
involving ב of agent (Gen 9:6; Exod 12:16; and Deut
33:29), and I would go farther than Pardee and argue that Exodus 12:16 is
better translated “among them” than “by them.” Exodus 12:16 is not construed by
other grammarians as indicating an agent. Genesis 9:6 is the verse under
dispute. Tellingly, even Pardee does not object (in this book review anyway) to
regarding Deuteronomy 33:29 as a ב of agent or at
least some instrumental usage. But the list of plausible passive constructions
with a ב of agent extends beyond those mentioned by
Waltke and O’Connor. Leaving the disputed Genesis 9:6 aside, the examples of
the construction in question in at least one of DCH or BDB are “was
commanded by the Lord” (Num 36:2); “a people saved by the Lord” (Deut 33:29),
“Israel is saved by the Lord” (Isa 45:17), “by a prophet he was guarded” (Hosea
12:13), and “by you, the orphan finds mercy” (Hosea 14:3). In short, Pardee is
correct that Waltke and O’Connor could have done a better job on this
construction, but if Mastnjak had consulted some lexicons in addition to a book
review, he would have discovered that the construction is not as rare as he had
Things get much worse for Mastnjak in regard to his second
supposed support, Joüon and Muraoka’s deservedly influential A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Rome:
Biblico, 2006). That resource (ON THE VERY PAGE MASTNJAK REFERENCES) explicitly
argues for the traditional translation of Genesis 9:6 that Mastnjak wants to
reject! Mastnjak cites Joüon and Muraoka as follows, “In Hebrew (and classical
Semitic languages in general) the marking of an agent with a verb
morphologically marked as passive is rather limited in scope when compared with
many Indo-European languages” (page 454). True, but what really matters is
whether Genesis 9:6 is an example of an agent with a verb morphologically
marked as passive. And this is what Joüon-Muraoka say about that on the same
page 454: “In Gn 9.6 ב is used and not מן because man is
here the instrument of justice (the exception to the law which forbids the
shedding of blood, vs. 5): He who sheds a
man’s blood, by (means of) a man shall his blood be shed(1).”2
Like Mastnjak, Joüon-Muraoka note the connection between
verses 5 and 6 but draw a different conclusion to him. The footnote in this
quote mentions not only Ernst Jenni’s entire volume on the Hebrew preposition ב in his massive three volume work on Hebrew prepositions, but
also the medieval Jewish commentator Ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra argues that Genesis 9:6
obligates the descendants of Noah to execute a murderer. Radak (Rabbi David
Kimhi), perhaps the greatest medieval Hebrew grammarian, explains the
connection to Genesis 9:5 in similar manner as do Targum Onqelos and Targum
Pseudo-Jonathan: if there are witnesses, then the judges must ensure that the
murderer is executed; but when there are no witnesses, God may personally
require the reckoning.
Other modern Hebraists see more examples of agential ב with passive than do Joüon and Muraoka, and the disagreement
may be more terminological than substantial. Joüon-Muraoka argue that the
meaning in Deuteronomy 33:29 and Isaiah 45:17 is saved “through YHWH” rather
than “by YHWH” but this is an exceptionally fine distinction given that
Brown-Driver-Briggs (on page 89) equates “through YHWH” with “by YHWH’s aid” as
an agential subcategory of the more general ב of instrument or means. Even if one argued that Joüon-Muraoka
should, by consistency with their understanding of Deuteronomy 33:29 and Isaiah
45:17, have translated Genesis 9:6 as “through humans shall his man be shed,” with
the “through” designating witnesses and judges rather than the “by” of
executioners, i.e. along the lines of Targums Onqelos and Pseudo-Jonathan, this
would not have helped Mastnjak’s case that Genesis 9:6 does not establish
Mastnjak’s grammatical argument regarding באדם is a complete bust. His second argument
is likely worse. He states that context supplies the “implied agent responsible
for shedding the blood the murderer. We need search the context no further than
the immediately previous verse, Genesis 9:5: ‘But indeed I will seek your blood
for your lives. From every beast I will seek it. From the hand of man, each man
for his brother, I will seek the blood of a man.’” And when Mastnjak says, “we
need search the context no further than the immediately previous verse,” he
backs this hermeneutical decision up by spectacularly ignoring the contexts of:
the preceding flood narrative after which Genesis 9 represents a new beginning;
the pattern of violence from Cain to Lamech through to the whole earth being
filled with violence to which Genesis 9:5-6 is a new response; the
historical-comparative context of other flood stories in the Ancient Near East;
the historical setting of the author of Genesis 9 living at a time when
societies including Ancient Israel had law codes prescribing capital punishment
for murder; and the literary setting of Genesis 1-11 which is replete with
etiologies of how present institutions and other realities originated.
In fact, in his contextual argument for how to translate the
first half of Genesis 9:6, Mastjnak does not even consider the second half of
the verse, whose discussion of the image of God clearly connects it back to
Genesis 1:27-28. Genesis 9:6b looks like a narratorial comment within the
divine speech3 and certainly is a clause which purports to explain
the rationale for the prescription in the first half of the verse; surely at
least that context would have been germane! But all Mastnjak gives us is that
“God commits himself in Genesis 9:5 to a mysterious mode of intervention in the
world in which somehow – he does not say how – he himself will intervene to
avenge any creature, man or beast, that violates the sanctity of human life.
This commitment to avenge the blood of any manslayer interprets the following
verse, Genesis 9:6, and provides the agent that the grammar does not specify.
Who will shed the blood of the murderer? God himself.” In this interpretation,
Genesis 9:6a adds basically nothing to what is said in verse 5, a weakness
compared to the traditional translation which shows one manner in which God
punishes the murderer (no one believes that all murderers are executed). Victor
Hamilton points out that reading Genesis 9:6 as “for man shall his blood be
shed” entails that Genesis 9:5-6 exhibits a tautology; and Kenneth Matthews
argues, “Since the value of the victim’s life already is presented in v. 5, v.
6a is best taken as building on this by adding that the divine means of God’s
‘accounting’ includes human agency.”4
Mastnjak is entitled to offer counterarguments to Matthews,
Hamilton, and others. What he is not entitled to do is give the impression that
those who translate Genesis 9:6 in the traditional manner have not taken the
context of the previous verse into account; they most certainly have and that
is part of why they reject seeing Genesis 9:6 as an example of ב pretii.
However much Mastnjak’s grammatical argument lacked
engagement with the relevant lexicons, it did at least cite two resources (even
if one of them actually sunk his position). But in his contextual argument,
Mastnjak’s audacity reaches new heights. He seeks to overturn the overwhelming
consensus of Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant commentators and translators by a
contextual argument that ignores almost all the contexts that responsible
exegetes take into account – and breathlessly does so without citing a single
scholar in making this argument.
Mastnjak is right that
there is a certain vagueness concerning the agent of execution. But this fits
with a variety of agents, not just God himself. John Wesley comments, “That is,
by the magistrate, or whoever is appointed to be the avenger of blood. Before
the flood, as it should seem by the story of Cain, God took the punishment of murder into his own hands; but now
he committed this judgement to men, to masters of families at first, and
afterwards to the heads of countries.”5 Likewise, John Walton
writes, “Accountability to God for preserving human life is put into humanity’s
hands, thus instituting blood vengeance in the ancient world and capital
punishment in modern societies. In Israelite society blood vengeance was in the
hands of the family of the victim.”6
Regarding the context of Genesis 9:6b, “Because in the image
of God he made man,” Gordon Wenham comments, “It is because of man’s special
status among the creatures that this verse insists on the death penalty for
murder.”7 But it is also “man’s special status” as being in the
image of God – whether this refers to analogically shared attributes such as
intellect and will or whether it is as God’s royal representatives to the rest
of creation – that befits humans to be instruments of divine punishment.8
David vanDrunen comments, “The image of God carried along with it a natural
law, a law inherent to human nature and directing human beings to fulfill their
royal commission to rule over creation in righteousness and justice.”9
We now turn to the context of Genesis 9:1-7 as the
conclusion and remedy episode to the Genesis flood narrative, comparing and
contrasting it with the flood account in the Atrahasis Epic. Tikvah Frymer-Kensky
writes, “The structure presented by the Atrahasis Epic is clear. Man is created
… there is a problem in creation … remedies are attempted but the problem
remains … the decision is made to destroy man … this attempt is thwarted by the
wisdom of Enki … a new remedy is instituted to ensure that the problem does not
arise again.”10 In Genesis, a similar structure occurs with less
emphasis on earlier remedy attempts and with God paralleling both the role of
the main gods to destroy human beings and Enki’s role in providing a means of
escape for Noah/Atrahasis. Comparing these stories helps us focus on the reason
for the flood and on the changes made so that the world after enabled the
continued existence of human beings.11
In the Atrahasis Epic, the problem was overpopulation. This
is emphatically not the case in Genesis. God’s speech in Genesis 9:1b-7 is
structured so that introductory commands to be fertile (Gen 9:1-b) and
concluding commands to be fertile (Gen 9:7) envelop instruction concerning animals
(Gen 9:2-4) and concerning the shedding of human blood (Gen 9:5-6).
The instruction concerning animals includes an assertive
that animals will fear humans (Gen 9:2a), an exercitive granting humans
dominion over animals (Gen 9:2b, linking back to Gen 1:28), a permission to eat
animals (Gen 9:3), and a restriction of the permission by prohibiting the
eating of blood (Gen 9:4). If the Jewish understanding is correct that Genesis
9:2-4 signals that prior to the deluge humans were forbidden to eat animals (Genesis
1 contains a permission to eat plants, but no permission to eat animals or
prohibition thereof is mentioned), then the antediluvian mandating of
vegetarianism might have been a contributing cause to the violence. Against
this interpretation is that the distinction between clean and unclean foods is
mentioned in the flood story, or in one of its sources, and that the text makes
no link between human dietary habits and the divine decision to bring about a
In any case, Genesis 9:5-6 which concerns human blood shed
must be read as the remedy to the violence filling the earth which Genesis
explicitly records as the reason for the divine decision to destroy all flesh
(Gen 6:11, 13). As Frymer-Kensky observes, “Only three stories are preserved in
Genesis from the ten generations between the expulsion from the Garden and the
bringing of the flood. Two of these, the Cain and Abel story (Gen 4:1-15) and
the tale of Lemech (Gen 4:19-24), concern the shedding of human blood.”12
Frymer-Kensky then discusses the remedy of Genesis 9:1-7, developed in later
Judaism as the Noahic Code,13 as “a system of universal ethics, a
‘Natural Law’ system in which the laws are given by God” in which Genesis 9:6
contains “the declaration of the principle of the inviolability of human life
with the provision of capital punishment for murder.”14 Nahum Sarna,
justifies rendering Genesis 9:6 as “by man,” indicating the instrument of
punishment, similarly sees it as a remedy to the pre-flood situation: “Human
institutions, a judiciary, must be established for the purpose. This
requirement seeks to correct the condition of ‘lawlessness’ that existed prior
to the Flood (6:11).”15 Sarna also makes a grammatical argument
about the crucial clause, namely that a phrase containing “blood” and the
passive “shall be shed” always occurs in the Bible with a human agent (Lev 4:7,
18, 25, 30, 34; Deut 12:17; 19:10), not a divine one. Jozef Jancovic is another
scholar who makes the connection between Genesis 9:5-6 and the shedding of blood
in the Cain and Lamech stories as well as the violence in Genesis 6:11-13 that
was the reason for the flood.16 Jancovic concludes, “God here
delegates humanity with the power to punish human blood-shedding, and just as
in the creation story, this delegation of power by God is justified by the
creation of humanity in God’s image (Gen 9:6b).”17 He also connects
the first plain poetry in Genesis 4:23-24 with the poetic structure in Genesis
9:6a as indicating that the permanent problem of violence had been solved in
the lex talionis.18 Of
course, by the time Genesis 9:6 was written, the lex talionis was a part of many ancient societies, so Genesis 9:6
can be seen as one of the many etiologies in Genesis 1-11.
None of these larger settings, which provide further
evidence for the traditional translation of Genesis 9:6, are considered in
Mastnjak’s contextual argument. And only by neglecting to discuss what other
commentators have said about the grammatical considerations, the larger
setting, and the immediate context in Genesis 9:5-6 can Mastnjak dare to
conclude his article, “These observations on Genesis 9:6 do not, of course
settle the question of the morality of capital punishment or how Pope Francis’s
revision of the Catechism should be understood in relation to previous Church
teaching. But they do entail that if
support for the death penalty is to be found in Sacred Scripture, it should be
sought outside the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9.” No they do not entail that
at all! The entire article is a bust.
Timothy Finlay, Professor of
Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University
Jenni, Beth, 178–80, but so already
Ibn Ezra ad loc.
Joüon and T. Muraoka, A Grammar of
Biblical Hebrew (Roma: Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2006), 454.
Sailhammer notes not only the conjunction , “because,” but the shift to the 3rd
person reference to God, and comments, “Already the narrative has become a
platform for the development of the biblical law,” in “Genesis,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary:
Genesis-Leviticus (Revised Edition) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 132.
A. Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26 (New
American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 405.
John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the
Old Testament (Bristol: William Pine, 1765), 41.
6 John H.
Walton, Genesis (NIV Application
Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 343.
J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, vol. 1 of Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word,
Incorporated, 1987), 194.
8 See David Novak, Natural Law in Judaism (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1998) and Steven Wilf, The Law before the Law (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008) who draws
from Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed.
9 David vanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law (Grand
Rapids: Acton Institute, 2008), 14. VanDrunen comes from a Calvinist tradition.
Calvin, like Luther and Wesley, regarded Genesis 9:6 as establishing capital
punishment for homicide. See also Gerhard von Rad’s commentary on Genesis. Rad
observed that Genesis 9:6 holds in tension the sanctity of human life (murder
deserves capital punishment) and human responsibility to carry out punishment
(executing a murderer is permissible). Similarly, Rusty Reno’s commentary on
Genesis sees this tension as “the capacity to exercise authority for the sake
of a higher principle” Genesis (Grand
Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010), 125.
10 Tikvah Frymer-Kensky,
“The Atrahasis Epic and its Significance for our Understanding of Genesis 1-9,”
Biblical Archaeologist (1977), 149.
11 Frymer-Kensky, 150.
12 Frymer-Kensky, 152-53.
13 See for example Tosefta Abodah Zarah 8:4.
14 Frymer-Kensky, 152.
15 Nahum Sarna, Genesis (The JPS Torah Commentary;
Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 62.
16 Josef Jancovic, “Blood
Revenge in Light of the Imago Dei in Genesis 9:6,” The Biblical Annals 10 (2020) 198-99.
17 Jancovic, 203.
18 Jancovic, 199.