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The Possible Significance of Gen. 11:2 -- Does it provide us with a clue as to where the Ark landed?

Prior to the Confusion of Tongues, all of Noah's descendants formed one united group. They had travelled to Shinar (Mesopotamia) from wherever the ark had landed and there built the tower of Babel. To the careful reader, undoubtedly familiar with the popular belief that Noah's ark landed on Mt. Ararat (or, for that matter, on another peak in what was ancient Ararat or Urartu), the following verse should seem strange: "And as men migrated FROM the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there." (Gen. 11:2, RSV)

Would they not have come from the north? Mt. Ararat is north of the site of ancient Babylon, so why would the text describe the migrants as coming from the east? To answer this question, we must consider the nature of the Ancient Hebrew language and the role that the various ancient translations have had in shaping our understanding of the text.

Hebrew is a very simple language compared to Indo-European tongues, such as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and even English. Although, for the beginner, there are a fair number of noun inflections and verbal conjugations to remember, the overall structure of the language is incredibly simple and a fairly small number of words are used to convey a variety of meanings. It is absolutely crucial that this be understood in order to appreciate what an art translating the Old Testament is. For example, there are only 2 tenses in Biblical Hebrew (a Perfect and an Imperfect, the former expressing a completed action and the latter, an incompleted action). There is not even a verb meaning "to have." The sentence "Abraham had a son" would read in Hebrew as "There was to Abraham (a) son."

Let us now look at the word "qedem," which is the word translated "east" in the verse above. Its primary meaning is "in front." The compass direction is a secondary meaning. According to "A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament," other meanings include: "before," "earlier," and "ancient times." In Deut. 33:27, the God of Israel is referred to as "the eternal God." The words used in Hebrew are "elohe qedem." In context, the meaning must be "ancient times." But it would not always be easy for scholars to know the true, idiomatic meaning in Hebrew if it were not for ancient translations, such as the Septuagint and Vulgate. Every modern translation of the Bible has been either directly or indirectly indebted to these early Greek and Latin versions.

In Gen. 11:2, the preposition before "qedem" is "min," and the Hebrew reads "miqqedem." "Mi(n)" means "out of/away from." It should not surprise us, then, that the Greek version of Gen. has the preposition "apo," which means "away from." The Vulgate, or Latin translation, has: "Cumque proficiscerentur de oriente..." = And when they were setting out from (de) the east." So did they come from Iran? Did the ark land on a peak to the east of modern-day Iraq?

One might dismiss Mt. Ararat as a possible landing-place if it were not for one thing [along with the alleged eyewitnesses]. In Gen 2:8, we read: "And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east..." The word group translated "in the east" in the RSV is "miqqedem" -- the exact same preposition + noun that we found in Gen. 11:2. Perhaps, then, we might translate Gen. 11:2 as "And as men migrated in the east"? From the perspective of the writer of Genesis, whether the verse as it stands was written by Moses (who would have penned Genesis in the Sinai Peninsula) or by a writer in Jerusalem, Babel and the Plain of Shinar would have been in the east. This translation is only a suggestion. Perhaps someone can point out a reason why the ancient translators (whose work is reflected in the Greek and Latin versions) may have been correct.

Stephen Clothier
Ontario, Canada

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