6

In Gen 15:1, the LORD says to Abram:

אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ שְׂכָרְךָ֖ הַרְבֵּ֥ה מְאֹֽד
Fear not, Abram. I am a māgēn to you, your very great reward. (my overly literal [partial] translation1)
Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great. (ESV)

I recently heard in a sermon the claim that māgēn here means "benefactor" rather than "shield". This was put forth as a homonym,2 and the choice was supported by the fact that Abram's response was more appropriate to the promise of beneficence than to a shield metaphor:

...אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהוִה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י
O Lord GOD, what will you give me...? (ESV)

HALOT doesn't seem to include this as a substantive, although the root מגן "to give as a gift" is included. There it is mentioned only in Prov 4:9 with that meaning, although the same (rather unusual) root is found in Gen 14:20 meaning "hand over", also of God, from the mouth of Melchizedek shortly preceding our passage, which may or may not be meaningful.

Is "benefactor" a legitimate/good translation of māgēn here?3

Addendum: Since the general tenor of the answers seems to be that this preacher is likely either just wrong or at least is making claims that deviate from the Hebrew text, I would like to point out that there is an academic discussion (which I believe draws on a Ugaritic root) lying behind his claim and my question. You can see the entry in the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew here and the references here. The HALOT content cited in the question also relates to this. I am happy to accept answers that come down against this interpretation, but I am most interested in answers that consider this body of research.


1. This was included because the choice of ל rather than a sufformative to express the possessive "your" may be relevant, as may the decision about whether the final bit is an independent clause as rendered in the ESV but (I think) not required.
2. Though of note, I believe the root of מגן = "shield" is גנן ("to protect"), so this would be two completely different roots that happen to have a form with identical consonants.
3. This question probably also applies to some Psalms. I haven't gone through these.

4

Neither "benefactor" nor "shield" are good modern English translations for מָגֵן in Genesis 15:1. A better translation would be based on "defender" or "guardian". The reasons are that:

  1. the word מָגֵן is used here as a metaphor meaning defense or patronage1. The translation should follow the tenor of the metaphor rather than the vehicle
  2. "shield" is not used in English as a synonym for guardian, defender or patron as מגן is used in the MT

The word "benefactor" is close to "patron" (patron in the sense of protector) given as the second meaning of מָגֵן in the Even Shoshan concordance. It could be that the preacher had this in mind. Note that the NIV for this verse provides the alternate translation "sovereign". But neither "benefactor" nor "sovereign" sound consistently appropriate in the concordant verses (listed below). I think that they are both poor choices for translating מָגֵן in this verse.

Neither the ESV nor the OP's own translation deals with the possibility of translating מגן as a verb form of גנן rather than a noun, as Rashi and most other classical Jewish commentators read this verse. When translated as a verb form - and translating the tenses of both verbs correctly as present tense, the translation becomes both less labored and much closer to the sense of the Hebrew,

Fear not Avram, I am defending you. Your wages are very great.

The word מִגֵן, a pi'el verb form of the root מגנ meaning to hand over, turn in, deliver, or give as a gift, which is similar to the same Phoenician word, is found in three OT verses (ESV translation),

  1. Genesis 14:20

    and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!

  2. Hosea 11:8

    How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

  3. Proverbs 4:9

    She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.

and once in the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness 18:12,

כיא אתה [...] לב גיבורים מגנתה לאין מעמד

Reading Genesis 15:1 as מִגֵן rather than מָגֵן creates a verse with a missing direct object - what it is that is handed over? However, if we read against the readers marks, specifically the zokef koton over לך that creates a clause break, then we can read the verse as does the Cambridge New English Bible,

"Do not be afraid, Abram, I am giving you a very great reward".

This reading requires two overrides of the MT and creates a thematic problem - how is the admonition not to be afraid connected with giving the great reward? As an aside, the word "reward" is not a straightforward translation for שכר, wages, as wages are the just compensation for work performed by covenant whereas a reward (in English) can be bestowed without respect to a covenant.


1.

Avraham Even Shoshan's A New Concordance of the Bible gives two meanings for מגן in his concordance. The first meaning is "shield", a device used for defence , and the second meaning, by metaphor, is "protection", "defense" or "patronage" (מחסה).

The second meaning according to Even Shoshan is polysemic - related to, but different from the first. That is, the second meaning does not mean shield in the sense of a device used as a means of defense, but defense itself, the service that a shield provides, or patronage in the sense of someone who provides protection.

The verses in which מגן is used with this second meaning, "defence", defender" or "patron" are listed as follows, to which I have added the NIV translation:

  1. Genesis 15:1

    Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.

  2. II Samuel 22:31

    As for God, his way is perfect: The Lord’s word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him.

  3. Psalms 3:3 [MT 4 ]

    But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.

  4. Psalms 18:30 [MT 31]

    As for God, his way is perfect: The LORD's word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him.

  5. Proverbs 2:7

    He holds success in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,

  6. Proverbs 30:5

    Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

  7. Psalms 84:11 [MT 12]

    For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.

  8. Deuteronomy 33:29

    Blessed are you, Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will tread on their heights.

  9. II Samuel 22:36

    You make your saving help my shield; your help has made me great.

  10. Psalms 18:35 [MT 36]

    You make your saving help my shield, and your right hand sustains me; your help has made me great.

  11. II Samuel 22:3

    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior-- from violent people you save me.

  12. Psalms 18:2 [MT 3]

    The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

  13. Psalms 7:10 [MT 11]

    My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart.

  14. Psalms 144:2

    He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me.

  15. Psalms 28:7

    The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.

  16. Psalms 119:114

    You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word.

  17. Psalms 59:11 [MT 12]

    But do not kill them, Lord our shield, or my people will forget. In your might uproot them and bring them down.

  18. Psalms 84:11 [MT 10]

    For the Lord God is a sun and shield: the Lord will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly

  19. Psalms 89:18 [MT 19]

    Indeed, our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel.

  20. Psalms 33:20

    We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.

  21. Psalms 115:9, 10,11

    All you Israelites, trust in the Lord— he is their help and shield. House of Aaron, trust in the Lord— he is their help and shield. You who fear him, trust in the Lord— he is their help and shield.

  22. Job 41:15 [MT 7]

    Its back has rows of shields tightly sealed together;

In Psalms 3:3 the use of "shield" might be the best word choice but in the other verse the use of "shield" as the English translation of מגו instead of "defender" or "protector" has the disadvantage of not providing a distinguishing translation for the distinct meaning of the word in Hebrew. That is, it is using one English word for at least two polysemic Hebrew words, besides giving the English reader a mistaken impression of what the text actually says. Having said that, using "shield" throughout is nowhere as confusing or as silly as using "the horn of my salvation" (II Samuel 22:3).

  • I just wanted to point out that we actually do still frequently use shields. – Bʀɪᴀɴ Apr 13 '17 at 12:13
  • @BrianWeigand True, but the word's usage is restricted to riot police equipment or the recent "human shields" usage. otherwise it is archaic. It no longer has an immediate significance to everyone like "airbag", "seat belt", "ceramic vest", which מגן had before the advent of gunpowder. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Apr 13 '17 at 12:40
  • Ephesians 6:16 has the shield of faith as one piece of the whole armor of God. Do you think the letter to the Ephesians has this verse and 15:6 in view and so ties together Abraham's faith and shield? – Revelation Lad Apr 13 '17 at 14:52
  • @AbuMunirIbnIbrahim - I'm afraid you have not shown how 'shield' is archaic and "no longer has an immediate significance to everyone" when shields are frequently used by modern military, police and civilians. I agree with you that 'benefactor' is not supportable for מגן, but 'shield' most definitely is, even in modern times. – Bʀɪᴀɴ Apr 13 '17 at 15:47
  • @BrianWeigand The problem is that "shield" is never used metaphorically in English for a person or entity who is acting as a guardian or defender. You would never refer to your older brother as your "shield" in English although you might refer to him as your "defender" or "guardian", which is precisely the sense that the word is used in this verse. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Apr 13 '17 at 16:01
0

Is "benefactor" a legitimate/good translation of magen here?"

There are several reasons why "shield" is a better translation. Two reasons have to do with the other words in Genesis 15:1 and how they relate to "shield," and there are two related stories that took place before and after Genesis 15 that specifically support the use of "shield" in verse 1.

YHWH tells Abram to "Fear not." It doesn't necessarily make sense to withhold fear if God is your benefactor but it absolutely makes sense to withhold fear if God is your shield. Also, YHWH tells Abram that his "reward shall be very great" and this directly ties into Abram's response: "Oh Lord God, what will you give me?" Here, the use of the word "benefactor" is superfluous since YHWH has already mentioned a reward. What's interesting is how the translators must have struggled with punctuation. You quoted ESV and they were one of the few translations of this verse that used a semicolon (most used a comma). The use of "benefactor" makes sense, grammatically, with the use of a semicolon because it connects the benefactor to the reward, but as we'll see in the story told below, the shield winds up being the reward.

In Genesis 14, a battle took place involving several towns, namely Sodom and Gomorrah. As a result of the battle, the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah were taken, as were the people, and Lot, Abram's nephew. When Abram heard about this, he ordered his men to help him take back Lot, the people of the towns, and the goods that were taken. He was met with thanks from two kings. The first king acknowledged Abram's god, YHWH.

"And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thine hand. And he gave him tithes of all." (Genesis 14:20, KJV)

Then Abram was met with the king of Sodom, who did not acknowledge Abram's god and instead told him to keep the goods and give him back the people.

"And the king of Sodom said unto Abram, Give me the persons and take the goods to thyself." (Genesis 14:21, KJV)

It was Abram's brave and loyal acknowledgment of his god, YHWH, to the king of Sodom (to his face) that would earn him favor from YHWH in Genesis 15:1.

"And Abram said to the king of Sodom. I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take from a thread even from a shoelatchet, and that I will not take anything that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich." (Genesis 14:22-23, KJV)

There is only one more verse in Chapter 14, then Genesis 15:1

"After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." (ESV)

In Chapter 19, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.

"Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities... And Abraham... looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace. And it came to pass when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot dwelt." (Genesis 19:24-29, KJV)

Abram acknowledged YHWH to the king of Sodom and when he did this, he showed YHWH his faithfulness. YHWH remembered that faith and rewarded Abram with the shield of protecting what was important to him -his nephew, Lot.

0

No, benefactor is not really a good translation of מׇגֵן. See Gesenius' lexicon entry below:
Gesenius

God protects Abram as a shield. While protector could also be used, it loses the metaphoric expression that shield conveys. See also John Parkhurst's entry 3 under גן:
Parkhurst

Shield is also used as a metaphor for protector in English in the same way the Hebrew is being used in Genesis 15:1.

Dictionary.com definition of "shield"

  1. a broad piece of armor, varying widely in form and size, carried apart from the body, usually on the left arm, as a defense against swords, lances, arrows, etc.
  2. a similar device, often of lightweight plastic, used by riot police to protect themselves from rocks and other thrown objects.
  3. something shaped like a shield, variously round, octagonal, triangular, or somewhat heart-shaped.
  4. a person or thing that protects.

Merriam-Webster.com definition of "shield"

  1. a broad piece of defensive armor carried on the arm
  2. one that protects or defends : defense
  3. dress shield
  4. a: a device or part that serves as a protective cover or barrier
    b: a protective structure (as a carapace, scale, or plate) of some animals

One of the most popular contemporary praise songs ever written, As the Deer, uses this shield metaphor:

You alone are my strength, my shield
♫ To You alone will my spirit yield ♫

"As the Deer" lyrics by Martin Nystrom

Several other contemporary praise and woship songs also use this shield metaphor:

♫ So I’ll stop living off of how I feel ♫
♫ And start standing on Your truth revealed ♫
Jesus is my strength, my shield
♫ And He will never fail me ♫

"All You've Ever Wanted" by Casting Crowns


♫ I will not be moved, and I'll say of the Lord ♫
You are my shield, my strength, my portion
♫ Deliverer, my shelter, strong tower ♫
♫ My very present help in time of need ♫

"Made Me Glad" by DavidB (originally written by Miriam Webster)


♫ You are my Life ♫
♫ You are my Strength ♫
♫ My Faithful Defense and my Cover ♫
My Shield and Shelter
♫ Savior and Shepherd ♫

"You Are My Life" by Fred Hammond

The secular side also metaphorically uses shield to refer to another person. Kristina Kulpins wrote a tribute to her older sister consisting of 31 things she appreciates about her on August 1, 2016:

19. She is my... Shield

Snowball fights and nerf wars were never my thing, but you were always there, on my team, ready to protect and shield me from the enemy.

Hannah Elizabeth Harrison wrote a tribute to her mother on August 1, 2016:

She has fought with me through my anxiety. She was always there at the hospital by my side and never left once. With every fainting spell she was always able to get me to wake up. She would wipe away my tears and tell me that it is okay and that she is here. She is my shield when it comes to my anxiety. She takes it away and I do not think I will ever know how she does it. She is the reason why I have become stronger in defeating my anxiety.

DeAndre Ayton, a star high school basketball player from the Bahamas who recently signed an intent to play for the University of Arizona Wildcats, said of his mother after she was able to join him in Phoenix:

“My mom is my rock,” Ayton admits. “She is my shield. She keeps all my sharks away. I can go anywhere—she has to be with me. Everything goes through my mom.”

So even in modern times it is still quite common and appropriate to call someone who protects you from things your shield.

Psalm 88:11 (NKJV) also metaphorically compares God to a shield:

For the Lord God is a sun and shield [מׇגֵן];
The Lord will give grace and glory;
No good thing will He withhold
From those who walk uprightly.

The metaphor would be lost if מׇגֵן was translated as protector instead of shield, and even more so if benefactor was used.

God tells Abram not to fear because He is shielding him from harm. Other ancient translations also give the idea of shielding and protecting:

Septuagint (Brenton)...Fear not, Abram, I shield thee...

Targum of Onkelos (Etheridge)...Fear not, Abram : My Word shall be thy strength...

Targum of Palenstine / Jonathan ben Uzziel (Etheridge)...Fear not ; [...] My Word will be thy shield...

As such, I don't really see how benefactor would be a good translation.

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