A Snake In A Minefield

Hapax legomena, words that appear but once, are gold mines for scholarly debate and minefields for idle speculation. A snake tempted me to enter such a minefield.
If gory lexicographic details are not among your abnormal interests, there is a moral at the end of this post that you may find interesting.
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Hebrew צֹהַר occurs in the Genesis 6:16 in the phrase צהר תעשה לתבה ואל אמה תכלנה, “you are to make a ṣōhar for the ark and terminate it within a cubit.(??)” The noun appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. Based on צָהֳרַיִם, “noon, midday” and Arabic ظهر (A), “to be clear,” translators have traditionally rendered צֹהַר, “window.” I think the Vulgate’s “fenestram” is the earliest such translation. Rabbinic literature appears to understand the word the same way. The LXX avoids a direct translation by way of a rather noncommittal paraphrase. The instruction with צֹהַר comes immediately before an instruction on making the door of the ark. Whatever the exact meaning of צֹהַר, the context nearly assures that it refers to some physical feature of the construction of the ark.
But why didn’t the author use the more common word for window, חַלּוֹן? As early as 1908, Ehrlich questioned the “window” interpretation and suggested that it might mean “Decke.” Most scholars now think צֹהַר is cognate with Akkadian ṣēru, specifically, ṣēru A (CAD Ṣ 138-47) with a semantic range centered on “back, top” or, when used as a preposition, “on top of.” In this regard, it is common to cite Amarna letter EA 232:6-12, for example, where Surta of Akka uses ṣuḫruma to gloss Akkadian ṣēruma meaning “back” in the expression, “I prostrate myself . . . 7 times and 7 times on the belly and on the back.” Ṣuḫruma likely represents the local Akka dialect of contemporary West Semitic. On this account, Hebrew צֹהַר, ṣōhar, reflects Amarna age West Semitic ṣuḫru. From there it is but a small step to understand צֹהַר as meaning the “roof” of the ark. Other cognates with the same general semantic range include is Ugaritic ẓr (ẓhr) and Arabic ظهر (B). Armstrong provided a very plausible explanation for use of צֹהַר rather than the more frequently used Hebrew word for “roof,” גַּג. Tawil, 318, is correct in giving “roof” pride of place among contemporary scholarly opinion on צֹהַר.
But all that didn’t stop me from thinking צֹהַר might mean “snake” or “serpent!” My pursuit of this insanity took me from the vocabulary text Milku = šarru to portrayals of ancient ships on Grecian urns to the Arabic word صهر to Vergil’s Aeneid with many stops in truly crazy places along the way. And what did I find? There is no sound (or even unsound) reason in either philology or ancient ship design to think that Hebrew צֹהַר means “snake” or “serpent.” Why did I think this in the first place? An overly active free association with Akkadian ṣēru, in this case ṣēru B, which does mean “snake” is the reason. I suppose this means there was not sound reason to have written this post either. However, there is a moral to this story.
The Moral of the Story
Well there’s actually more than one moral to this story but only one that I want to mention here. There are just enough disconnected factoids, if cited out of context and, in several cases wrongly interpreted, to spin a tale about snakes and arks. Had I ignored the history of scholarship and simply dresses up my free association in scholarly garb using only these few factoids, someone would have almost assuredly taken it seriously. If I had found someone crazy enough to publish it or, better, to do a TV documentary on it, I would no doubt attract a shocking number of believers, believers who would then use my “wonderful findings” to denigrate those who would rightly think both them and me crazy. Yes, there would be those calling on us to teach this controversy too.

Armstrong, James Franklin “A Critical Note on Genesis VI 16aα,” Vetus Testamentum, 10: (July, 1960), 328-333
Ehrlich, Arnold, Randglossen zur hebräischen Bibel, Leipig: J. C. Hintrichs, 1908, 32
Tawil, Hayim ben Yosef, An Akkadian Lexical Companion For Biblical Hebrew: Etymological-Semantic and Idiomatic Equivalents with Supplement on Biblical Aramaic, Jersey City, NJ: KTAV, 2009

2 thoughts on “A Snake In A Minefield”

  1. That’s “fenestra” in the Vulgate — not its German derivative “Fenster”.
    I see The World English Bible is the only one of the dozen or so translations at Scripturetext.com to have “roof” instead of “window” or the like. Roof or window (or snake even), I don’t understand “in a cubit shalt thou finish it above (KJV)”. Is the awkwardness in the translation or the Hebrew?

  2. Ooops. I’ve fixed the fenestra(m) problem. Not sure how that happened. To your question, the Hebrew is notoriously difficult and obscure.

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