Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Hebrew and Accadian Words for ‘Dominion’

Duomo FlorenceBasing an argument on a translation is always tricky business.  Paul Ogden did some research on the Hebrew words for dominate and dominion and this is what he found—a fine piece of research for which I am sure we are all grateful:
Maureen Koplow is using an English translation of the Bible to make her argument. Traditional English translations of the Hebrew Bible, such as the King James Version, relied on three sources:

  1. The original Hebrew version (which modern critical scholarship suggests was redacted several times before it was canonized early in the present era),
  2. the Greek Septuagint, translated from the Hebrew in the 1st to 3rd centuries BC in Alexandria (although with additional books and a somewhat different ordering of books),
  3. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of circa 400 AD.

The King James Version, though majestically written, suffers from its translators’ ignorance of other Semitic languages and perhaps limited understanding of Koine Greek and Classical Latin. Many passages, indeed whole chapters, of the Old Testament are obscure, due to faulty transmission of the original text, scribal ignorance, and, on occasion, the phenomenon of “hapax legomenon”, i.e., where a single occurrence of a word in the entire work and the lack of other extant references render its meaning undecipherable. It is noteworthy that a considerable portion of the Talmud—akin in size to the Encyclopedia Brittanica and set down over the course of about 700 years concluding circa 500 AD—is devoted to rabbinical attempts to elucidate the meanings in the Hebrew Bible.

Modern scholars have labored to overcome these problems by studying the other Semitic languages, among them modern Arabic, but also the various dialects of Aramaic as well as Akkadian, Syriac, Ethiopic and so on. The task is far from complete.

With respect to dominion, English translations of the Bible often use dominion to translate a Hebrew word in Genesis 1:26. Dominion is also used to translate a Hebrew word appearing a few verses earlier, in Genesis 1:16. The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:16 is a form of a root used today to mean “govern, government and governor.”

The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:26 is a conjugation of rada. Ernest Klein, in his 1987 Etymological Dictionary of Hebrew for Readers of English, defines this word as “to tread, to rule, have dominion, dominate.” Whence also see

  • Judeo-Aramaic rada “he drove, ruled, chastised”
  • Syriac rada “he went on, moved along, drove, chastised, it flowed”
  • Arabic rada(y) “he trod”
  • Akkadian radu ” to drive, tend the flock,” related to radad * tr. v. 1. “he ruled, had dominion over, dominated;” 2.”he subuded, subjugated;” 3. (Post-Biblical Hebrew) “he chastised, punished,” and hirda “he subuded, subjugated (in the Bible occurring only Isaiah 41:2.)

The King James Bible translates Isaiah 41:2 thus: “Who raised up the righteous man from the east, called him to his foot, gave the nations before him, and made him rule over kings? he gave them as the dust to his sword, and as driven stubble to his bow.” *Radad (from Klein) “to beat down, repel, subdue, flatten.” (Klein continues with examples from Judeo-Aramaic, Arabic and Akkadian—all with substantially the same meaning.)

Robert Alter, in his lovely 1996 translation and commentary on Genesis, translates rada in Genesis 1:26 as “hold sway.” He comments: ‘The verb rada is not the normal Hebrew verb for “rule” (the latter is reflected in “dominion” of verse 16), and in most of the contexts in which it occurs it seems to suggest an absolute or even fierce exercise of mastery.’ Alter uses “dominion” in verse 16. A perusal of other occurrences of this word confirms his observation (click here).

Languages, of course, change over time, and people continually assigning altered meanings eventually gives birth to new languages. Modern Hebrew, unlike Modern Greek, remains quite close to its biblical forebear and sometimes strains to adapt to modern sensibilities while remaining faithful to its linguistic inheritance. Two examples illustrate: The word for husband in Modern Hebrew is the same as in Biblical Hebrew. That word is ba’al, which in other contexts means a lord or a god. A verb from the same root means to physically dominate, and dominate harshly, in the way that only a male can dominate a female. The modern word for female, again the same as Biblical Hebrew, derives from a root meaning “to pierce.”

—Paul Ogden, Israel

3 Responses to “Hebrew and Accadian Words for ‘Dominion’”

  1. Lucy Says:

    hi there,

    I was just wondering if you could send me the actual text and the citation (including pinpoint) for your reference to Ernest Klein’s ‘Etymological Dictionary of Hebrew for Readers of English’. I’m beginning a PhD, and I’m interested in the etymological origin of the word ‘dominion’ in genesis. Our library is somewhat lacking in etymological texts.

    Warmly yours,

  2. casmo Griffiths Says:

    I find this rather strange to read that dominion is seen the light of a harsh tendency how husband ruled over his wife, If that was the case in the beginning with Adam and Eve, the blame would not fall on the serpent but rather Eve and Adam’s way of dealing with the experience would be quiet different. Of course you mention the word changes or takes on different meaning over time, so this is just a thought. I found the word rada or raday very interesting as to drive, rule, chastise. It flowed or trod in some sense on the average reader consenting to physical abuse to spouse.

  3. Chuck Says:

    I suggest that ‘dominion’ may have an early implication of ‘care for’ in addition to the sense of ‘rule over’. When the shepherd moves his flock from place to place it is because of his responsibility to care for his flock. A kingly dominion may imply a ‘responsibility for’ in addition to ‘authority over’. Just a thought.

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