Recently there was a (sometimes heated) discussion about the translation of Genesis 19:5, on a new Facebook group, the Annual Meeting Hotel Lobby: An Unofficial SBL/AAR Member Group.
Genesis 19:5 occurs in the middle of the unusual story about two men (also described as angels) who stay the night at Lot’s house, in the city of Sodom.
The two angels (Genesis 19)
The Hebrew MT of Genesis 19:5 reads as follows:
וַיִּקְרְא֤וּ אֶל־לוֹט֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְרוּ ל֔וֹ אַיֵּ֧ה הָאֲנָשִׁ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֥אוּ אֵלֶ֖יךָ הַלָּ֑יְלָה הוֹצִיאֵ֣ם אֵלֵ֔ינוּ וְנֵדְעָ֖ה אֹתָֽם
The JPS translates the verse like this:
And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that they may be intimate with them.”
The Living Bible goes for the more direct route:
[the men of the city—yes, Sodomites] … shouted to Lot, “Bring out those men to us so we can rape them.”
The translation of this verse raises interesting questions about the rendition of Hebrew double entendres in English translation, and about translation more generally. The Hebrew text of Gen 19:5 contains two probable double entendres, which are both used to describe sexual intercourse.
1. The most obvious double entendre is the use of the verb ידע, which has a variety of meanings, including “to know”, but also “to have sex with”, ie. have carnal knowledge of. The Hebrew verb has been translated very mildly in JPS as “we may be intimate [with them]”, but very explicitly as “we can rape [them]” in the Living Bible. The double entendre (although inherently ambiguous) is made clear by Lot’s subsequent offer of his two daughters as sexual substitutes for the two men/angels in Gen 19:8, and their description of the two daughters as those “who have not known [ידע] a man”.
2. The less obvious double entendre is the use of the phrase באו אליך הלילה, literally “they [who] came to you tonight”, spoken by the men of Sodom to Lot, about the two men/angels who came to Lot’s house in Sodom. As in Genesis 16:2, the phrase could also refer to “they [who] went into you [Lot]”, ie. “they who had sex with you [Lot]”. The presence of a double entendre is supported by the description of this “entering” occurring at night (הלילה) and by the double entendre that follows concerning the crowd’s desire to “know/have sex with” the two men/angels.
So the story of Sodom in Genesis 19 evokes three types of sexual intercourse, none of which actually occur, but which are only spoken about.
- First, the crowd infer that Lot had been having sex intercourse with the two men/angels by night (Gen 19:5a);
- Second, the crowd of men demand sexual intercourse between them and the two men/angels, and (Gen 19:5b);
- Three, Lot offers his two daughters for sexual intercourse with the crowd of men (Gen 19:8).
But no actual sexual intercourse takes place until, in a surprising twist, Lot has sex with his two daughters (Gen 19:30-38).
With the exception of the imagined sexual intercourse between Lot and the two men/angels, each of the other three descriptions of sexual intercourse (described or actual) involves rape: the rape of the two men/angels by the crowd of men from Sodom; the rape of Lot’s two daughters by the crowd of men from Sodom; the rape of Lot by his two daughters.
It’s a nasty little story. But I find myself agreeing with the suggestion of “Tom Wrong” that – despite the explicitly violent sexual intercourse (rape) attempted in Gen 19:5 and proposed in Gen 19:8 – the double entendres in Gen 19:5 are best rendered in a manner that retains their ambiguity while making clear their decidedly seedy and sordid character. Make no mistake, the story is brutal, violent, and patriarchal in the most extreme sense. So there is a good argument to make this clear, by translating the demand in Gen 19:5 in the most explicit way. On the other hand, a more muted yet sordid translation might have a similar effect, while more closely rendering the inherent ambiguity of the double entendres. So I adopt Tom Wrong’s translation:
And they called to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who gained entry to you tonight? Bring them to us, so that we may experience them.”
– Genesis 19:5 (tr. Tom Wrong)
But how would you translate this verse? And for what reasons? Do you even think that there are two double entendres in Gen 19:5? I tag the following bloggers, to see how they would translate MT Gen 19:5 in a way that does justice both to its content and its form:
Robert Cargill, Cláudia Andréa Prata Ferreira, Jim Linville, Jim West, JK Gayle, Caroline Blyth, Roland Boer
See also: “Were the men of Sodom into Sodomy?” Remnant of Giants