ESSAY
Spending Time with Noah: Reflections on Prepositions in the Flood Narrative
POSTED
May 25, 2021

In my work as a Bible translator, I was recently checking our translation team’s draft of Genesis 8:8, which says of Noah (translating the Hebrew quite literally): 

And he sent out the dove from with him to see: had the waters lessened from upon the face of the ground?

Part of my exegetical workflow includes reading the generally excellent translation notes in the NET Bible. On this verse, the translators observe: “The Hebrew text adds ‘from him.’ This has not been translated for stylistic reasons, because it is redundant in English.” 

I took a look in our draft translation, and confirmed that, like the NET Bible, we hadn’t included “from him,” either (let alone the more literal “from with him”). But the translation note set me to thinking: isn’t it redundant in Hebrew, too? And if so, might there not be a reason for it after all?

Redundant Prepositional Phrases

It turns out that the Flood story is chock-full of redundant and apparently unnecessary prepositional phrases. In all of the following verses—with one notable exception, discussed below—you can remove the italicized to and with phrases without disrupting the flow of the story, and in many of the verses the resulting English might be slightly more idiomatic.

God tells Noah: “You will enter the ark … [and your family] with you” (6:18). God says that Noah will bring in two of each animal, “to preserve [their] life with you” (6:19). Birds, cattle, and things that dart “will come to you to preserve [their] life” (6:20). When Noah enters the ark, his family enters “with him” (7:7). Then the animals come, two-by-two, “to Noah to the ark” (7:9, 15). 

When the 40 days and 40 nights of rain finally come, Moses spends seven verses recounting, in details reminiscent of Genesis 1, the undoing of God’s creation. Then, in just six (Hebrew) words, comes God’s salvation: “and there remained only Noah, and those that were with him in the ark” (7:23).

When God remembers Noah, he remembers, too, all the animals “which are with him” (8:1). When Noah sends out the dove, he sends her out “from with him” (8:8). Noah is soon told to leave the ark, and his family “with you” (8:16)—and they do indeed go out “with him” (8:18). Of the living things “that are with you,” God says, “bring [them] out with you” (8:17).

A Theme in the Flood Story: Solidarity with Noah

I remarked above that the italicized prepositional phrases can be deleted from all these verses without substantially changing the meaning, except in one verse, and that verse turns out to be the key to all the rest. In 7:23, only Noah is saved—and those with him in the ark. This pattern, only Noah, and those with him, is a repeated motif going back to chapter 6.

The Flood story begins with a grim assessment of the world: ruined. Everyone, in fact, has ruined his way on the earth. So God determines to wipe all flesh from off the ground. But righteous Noah—note the singular focus on Noah alone—finds favor in the eyes of the Lord (6:8). God goes on to give instructions to Noah, always addressing him in the 2nd person singular. In 6:14 Noah is told to make “for yourself [singular]” an ark, albeit one much much larger than is justified for a single man traveling alone! It isn’t until several verses later, after additional instructions and the repetition of God’s intention to “ruin” all flesh (6:17) that we’re told of God’s plan to save others. And they will be saved “with Noah” (6:18) It’s this pattern that’s repeated in summary form in 7:23: God saves Noah—and all those with him.

It appears, then, that those redundant prepositional phrases are really doing something after all: they reinforce a theme that takes shape in the unfolding of chapter 6 and is made explicit in 7:23: only in solidarity with Noah—only by going to Noah and being with Noah—is anyone or anything else saved.

Hebrew Style

Now, if you’ve read much Hebrew narrative, either in Hebrew, or in a close translation like the KJV or ESV, this sort of expression will have a familiar ring to you. It’s almost “Bible” style, the way you expect Scriptural stories to sound. So does that mean that all those “with Noah” and “to Noah” prepositional phrases don’t matter after all? That they’re just there to make the Hebrew sound good? This is an important question, because it can be dangerous to make a big hermeneutical deal out of words and phrases that are there more for style than for their contribution to the meaning.

On the other hand, the fact that all those with Noah’s and to Noah’s are consistent with Hebrew style doesn’t mean that they can be ignored, by either the interpreter or the translator. In the space of three chapters (6-8), there are (by my count) eleven instances of “with” and “to” and “from with” prepositional phrases with Noah as the object, far more than needed for good style, and far more than other similar prepositional phrases with some object other than Noah (see such a case in 7:13). Moses is beating a drum here, and the fact that the rhythm is distinctively Hebrew doesn’t mean we can ignore it.

Solidarity and Salvation

So what should we make of these repeated prepositional phrases? I’m not saying that the story has a deep, hidden meaning that can only be seen if we count prepositions. The point is that there’s a reason for the repetition: it reinforces what we can already see from the structure of chapter 6—the movement from God’s intention to ruin all flesh (apparently without exception), to God’s proposed salvation for Noah, to God’s plan to save others along with Noah. And that same point is repeated and focused in 7:23: “and there remained only Noah, and those that were with him in the ark.”

In other words, the march of prepositions isn’t contributing something unique to the account. Rather, it keeps our attention fixed on Noah’s place in the story, and everyone else in relation to him. Noah stands at the center of the narrative—indeed, at the center of the world—as the focus of salvation, and everyone and everything else moves in towards him to be saved, stays with him in that salvation, and then goes out with him in the end.

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in Biblical Typology to realize that God’s work of bringing salvation to and through Noah is part of a larger biblical pattern, in which the many are saved (or lost) in solidarity with the one, a pattern that reaches its climax in Christ: the one truly righteous Man who is vindicated in his resurrection, and gives vindication to all those who are (to use Paul’s favorite prepositional phrase) in Christ. And it’s surely no accident that when Peter discusses the symbolic significance of the flood, he compares it to baptism, which embodies our union with Christ in His resurrection (1 Peter 3:18-22).

Translation

I close now with a lesson for Bible translators, and readers of Bible translations. The now conventional wisdom is that any unusual phrase, or repetition, or figure of speech that slows readers down, or makes them scratch their heads, or strikes them as odd, is a mark of poor translation: “Bibleese,” as it is sometimes called derisively. But what if the Bible isn’t like a good newspaper article, that can be skimmed over during breakfast, with all the salient points right there on the surface for the taking? What if the Bible was written for readers and listeners who take their time, who ask questions, who reread again and again over the course of a lifetime? 

If that’s the kind of book the Bible is, then every apparent oddity, every strange image, every redundancy, every matter of “mere style” should give the translator—and the reader—pause. And perhaps that pause is just what the Author wanted from us in the first place.


Joshua Jensen is a translator and teacher of the Bible in northeast Cambodia, where he lives with his wife and six children.

Related Media

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.

CLOSE