Now the Serpent was Exceptionally Shrewd . . .

I have been using Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses recently in an adult Bible class I have been teaching. One of the praiseworthy aspects of his translation is the preservation of ambiguity. The Hebrew text does not always clarify meaning grammatically as we tend to prefer, and translations often cater to our preferences by removing the ambiguity. I, however, find it exciting to find ways to “translate” the ambiguity of a passage.

Recently over at Biblia Hebraica, Doug and I had a brief exchange over the description of the serpent in Genesis 3. The description of the serpent in Hebrew reads:

וְהַנָּחָשׁ֙ הָיָ֣ה עָר֔וּם מִכֹּל֙ חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָׂ֖ה יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֑ים

Doug was basing his interpretation on the typical way English versions translate the מן, as a comparative particle. I suggested the possibility of a partitive use of the particle. Thus, rather than interpreting this as saying that the serpent was the most shrewd, he could rather be understood as the solely shrewd beast of the field.

Assuming I am right regarding the ambiguity of this text, then something Moberly said in his article Did the Serpent Get it Right?” lends itself to capturing this ambiguity in an English translation. Moberly writes, “The story continues with the introduction of the serpent, who is said to be cunning to an exceptional degree and is one of the creatures made by God” (5, emphasis added). If one were to translate the passage, “Now the serpent was exceptionally shrewed of all the beasts of the field which YHWH God made,” then one would preserve both the comparative and partitive potentiality of the construction. Nice!

As to the use of the word “shrewd,” see here.


Moberly, R W L. “Did the Serpent Get It Right?.” Journal of Theological Studies 39, no. 1 (1988): 1-27.


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