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BHS has Genesis 12:16 as:

וּלְאַבְרָ֥ם הֵיטִ֖יב בַּעֲבוּרָ֑הּ וַֽיְהִי־ל֤וֹ צֹאן־וּבָקָר֙ וַחֲמֹרִ֔ים וַעֲבָדִים֙ וּשְׁפָחֹ֔ת וַאֲתֹנֹ֖ת וּגְמַלִּֽים׃

KJV reads:

And he entreated Abram well for her sake: and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.

NKJV reads:

He treated Abram well for her sake. He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

Questions:

  1. Why is there a distinction between the male/female donkeys, but not so with the sheep, oxen, or camels?
  2. Is there significance in the placement/pattern of male donkey, manservant, maidservent, and female donkey?
  • (In support of the question) -- Not sure about sheep and camels, but at least in the case of בָּקָר ("oxen", though in my version of English "cattle" makes more sense), there are available words פַּר (bull) and פָּרָה (cow) that could have been used to parallel the donkeys' sex specification. (Now I'm wondering how שׁוֹר fits in.) What I'm not sure about is whether there's a word for a gender-unspecified donkey. – Susan Jan 16 '16 at 20:28
  • @Susan I wondered the same and have not taken time to lookup – ScottS Jan 16 '16 at 21:30
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    Because when you write in Hebrew, you have to write the gender. Every noun, every verb is declined with gender. And then because your translation must be as accurate as possible. – Cynthia Avishegnath Jan 17 '16 at 11:07
  • I would also be interested to know what other versions of the text have as their language and order, e.g. the Samaritan Bible, Septuagint, Targumim, etc. – Tim Biegeleisen Jan 25 '16 at 6:32
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It's been noted in the past that animal names and varieties of plants are the most difficult to translate, and so we will be fortunate if we can determine a conclusive answer to these sorts of questions. I was originally thrown in understanding this question due to the KJV's rendering of 'asses', which I automatically assumed were cross-bred animals - but having read more on the subject I see that this was just a common word the translators used instead of donkey!


Can we confirm they're both donkeys?

As others picked up in the comments, it would appear there simply isn't gender neutral language for these animals, whatever they may be. In Hebrew we appear to have two separate words, which mandatorily specify the gender... but what is that supposed to tell us? Are these definitely two animals of the same species?

Since both words - the NKJV's "male donkey" (khamor / וַחֲמֹרִ֔ים) and "female donkey" (athon / אָתוֹן) - are used frequently throughout scripture, it would seem less likely that they would refer to anything other than donkeys. But let's see if we can discern anything from their usage in other passages. There are lots we can cross-reference, but I find Zechariah 9:9 proves the usage:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!

Behold, your King is coming to you;

He is just and having salvation,

Lowly and riding on a donkey [khamor: male],

A colt [ayir], the foal of a donkey [athon: female].

So yes, they're defined as the two sires of a colt, and there's no compelling reason to suggest they're anything other than male and female donkeys.


If they're both donkeys, why separate them?

At first, my suspicion was that the author may have been following a standard list convention for animals - and so I compared this with the following passage:

Then Abimelech took sheep [tson], oxen [bakar], and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham; and he restored Sarah his wife to him. (Gen 20:14 NKJV)

No donkeys present in the group, but we've got our pattern of "sheep, oxen/herds... male, female", so it could begin to look like a norm of speech, until...

Thus the man became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks [tson], female and male servants, and camels [gamal] and donkeys [khamor]. (Gen 30:43 NKJV)

...two hundred female goats [iz] and twenty male goats [tayish], two hundred ewes [rachel] and twenty rams [ayil], thirty milk/[nursing] camels [gamor] with their colts, forty cows [para] and ten bulls [para], twenty female donkeys [athon] and ten foals [ayir]. (Gen 32:14-15 NKJV)

Finally let's recall your passage:

He treated Abram well for her sake. He had sheep [tson], oxen [bakar], male donkeys [khamor], male and female servants, female donkeys [athon], and camels [gamal]. (Gen 12:16 NKJV)

Conclusion

As above, in each instance we can see that there are gender-neutral normal terms for 'flocks and herds' - 'tson and bakar', and camels [gamal] are also used neutrally. But donkeys have distinct words that separate them, whether for physical or practical or simply grammatical reasons... I doubt we'll ever know.


Is there significance in 12:16's placement/pattern?

Looking at the spread of different lists of animals in Genesis, it's likely that gender is an influencing factor in the lists, to a smaller or larger degree. This arrangement may have been preferred by the author or previous oral tradition as it keeps the 'male donkeys' with the 'male servants' and the 'female donkeys' with the 'female servants'.

However, Genesis 30:43 and 32:14-15 would appear to emphasise the largest or most valuable group of 'wealth' first, and this is exactly how we would talk about things in English - working from the largest or most valuable items to the smallest or least valuable. Towards an intuitive reading consistent with the other animal lists, I would suggest that Abram's belongings in 12:16 are largely being sorted primarily by their value/prominence, and (possibly) secondarily by their gender.

However, these are simply theories. Going by the four passages in front of us, there is no obvious norm of how these things are listed, and so my theory is trying to make the most sense of the common factors we see between them all.

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    +1 for revealing something I had not realized about mules, and this seems a step in the right direction. Yet the questions to still answer are, (1) does the Hebrew term show evidence of referring to also to these mixed breeds (mules) or only to the pure blood donkey (which is what the lexicons point to; e.g. Equus asinus [HALOT])? And still, is there significance in the text to the ordering (splitting those references around the male/female human servants)? But your argument makes theoretical sense. – ScottS Mar 20 '16 at 4:37
  • Thanks very much @ScottS - your question is an excellent point, and after investigation I've thoroughly debunked my original answer, and have revised accordingly. My original argument made good theoretical sense, but failed to measure up against parallel usages in other passages. – Steve Taylor Mar 21 '16 at 13:52
  • Good. In cross-checking lists, חֲמוֹר appears to be the gender-neutral and gender-specific term, often used to refer to "donkeys" as a group, implying the split is with purpose since it could be used alone (along with sheep, oxen, etc.; Gen 24:35, 30:43, et. al.). The order probably is by co-incidence gender grouped, and number (though unstated explicitly) driving the order: more male donkeys than male humans than female humans than female donkeys than camels. Perhaps a small enough number to easily count that males outnumber females in those groups (camels perhaps all one gender). – ScottS Mar 21 '16 at 17:19
  • Yeah, I would agree the male term can be used collectively, but given the mixed usage we see of the male and female terms through the OT, I would suspect that the male's term may have a narrower range of meaning which leans towards talking about male donkeys, whilst tson and bakar are very commonly a large neutral collective. I'd suggest the passage itself is evidence that khamor was thought of as a narrower term, or else there was just a significant difference in their value. The Gen 32 passage's list order does suggest it's not a pure numerical value involved. – Steve Taylor Mar 21 '16 at 18:14

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