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How should we understand Gen 31:24 in view of the context (i.e., Laban speaks to Jacob) and an apparent Hebrew language nuance?

The King James Version (“KJV”) provides a marginal note at Gen 31:24 that indicates that the text segment “either good or bad” is “from good to bad” in Hebrew.

And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night, and said unto him, Take heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad. {either...: Heb. from good to bad}

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    Also occurs in II Samuel 13:22 And Absalom spake unto his brother Amnon neither good nor bad.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 20 '19 at 0:15
  • @NigelJ - Yes. So is this a Hebrew idiom or figure of speech? Jan 20 '19 at 0:20
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    I'm not able to say as I do not have sufficient knowledge of Hebrew. I just remembered the other occurrence of it in English. It seems to mean that one is careful in the presence of someone, neither criticising nor applauding, remaining completely neutral. For different reasons, I would say, from the two occurrences.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 20 '19 at 1:11
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The Hebrew phrase in question is מִטּוֹב עַד־רָע (metov ad ra), literally “from good to bad.”

According to Gesenius on מן...עד (min...ad),1

There are used in opposition to each other—(α) מִן אֶל … from … unto (see אֶל let. a, 1); often for tam, quam, whether, or. Psa. 144:13, מִזַּן אֶל־וַן “from kind to kind,” i.e. things of every kind.—(β) מִן … עִד and מִן … וְעַד. Lev. 13:12, מֵרֹאשׁ וְעַד רַגְלָיו “from his head to his feet;” Isaiah 1:6; 1 Ki. 6:24. This phrase is often used when all things are without distinction to be included, as if from beginning to end, from extremity to extremity. Jon. 3:5, מִגְּדֹלָם וְעַד קְטַנָּם “from the highest to the lowest,” i.e. all; hence it often is tam, quam, both … and, Ex. 22:3; Deu. 29:10; 1 Sa. 30:19; and with a particle of negation, neither, nor. Gen. 14:23, אִם מִחוּט וְעַד שְׁרוֹךְ־נַעַל “neither a thread nor a shoe latchet;” Gen. 31:24.—(γ) מִן … -ָ֫ה. Eze. 25:13, מִתֵּימָן … וּדְדָ֫נָה “from Teman … even to Dedan.”

The particle of negation in the clause in question is פֶּן (pen)2 which precedes the verb תְּדַבֵּר.

Hence, the phrase

וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן־תְּדַבֵּר עִם־יַעֲקֹב מִטּוֹב עַד־רָֽע

would be translated as,

And he said to him, “Be careful that you do not speak to Jacob either good or bad.

or

And he said to him, “Be careful that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad.

In summary, it is a Hebrew idiom,3 since, as you stated in your comment, we [English-speakers] do not speak in this manner. While it can be translated verbatim into English, it would be nonsensical, hence it must be interpreted. Gesenius discusses the occurrences of this phrase and its meaning when translated into English. (Unfortunately, I do not think Gesenius really requires further clarification. Simply read what he is saying. Focus particularly on the bold-faced elements.)


Footnotes

1 Gesenius, p. 483, מִן and מִ·, number (3)
2 id., p. 678, פֵּן:

II. פֵּן pr. subst. removing, taking away (from the root פָּנָה PI. No. 1), always in constr. פֶּן־ (followed by Makkeph) it becomes a conj. of removing, prohibiting, hindering, i.q. μή, ne, lest.

3 idiom (n.): a construction or expression of one language whose parts correspond to elements in another language but whose total structure or meaning is not matched in the same way in the second language.

References

Gesenius, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm. Gesenius’s Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Trans. Tregelles, Samuel Prideaux. London: Bagster, 1860.

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  • Can you perhaps provide a summary of your answer (i.e., citation); which still leaves a bit of vagueness to the English-only speaker since since we simply don't speak in this manner. Jan 20 '19 at 3:26
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    @InfinitelyManic This answer is by far superior to the one you accepted. I very, very strongly recommend accepting this one instead.
    – jpmc26
    Jan 20 '19 at 8:18
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    +1, this is the correct answer. It would be good however to note that you use Tregelles' translation of Gesenius, which is severely outdated (though not on this point). The latest edition does not include the explanation you quote but reads: "von ... bis (a.i. Aufzählungen u. Grenzbeschreibungen) [...] neg. i.S.v. weder ... noch". The technical term for this stylistic figure is merism, by the way; it can be compared to "heaven and earth" meaning everything (anything in negated clauses) by taking the combination of two extremes.
    – user2672
    Jan 20 '19 at 12:44
  • @Keelan—Thank you for the info on merism. Just so others know, this is both an idiom and a merism; the two terms are not mutually exclusive. What is the latest edition of Gesenius to which you refer so I can bookmark for future reference? Jan 20 '19 at 18:36
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    Yes, I didn't mean to suggest "idiom" was incorrect. The latest edition of Gesenius is the 18th, edited by Herbert Donner: springer.com/gp/book/9783642256806. I don't think there is a free and legal digital edition.
    – user2672
    Jan 20 '19 at 18:39
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Trying to perceive Hebrew with a western understanding can be tricky because not everything fits.

Hebrew doesn’t really have the word evil, ra is translated bad even when in English it is translated evil, it’s still ra. The word good is tob or tov. Both words are seen as balancing each other, two poles of the same magnet. One cannot exist without the other. To the Eastern mind a balance is sought between the two and not necessarily one being chosen over the other.

Illustrate it this way, kindness (grace) and only kindness can be detrimental to proper development of a child. Meaness (regulations) and only meaness can be detrimental to proper development of a child. But a balance between law and grace is very beneficial to proper and harmonious development of a child. It’s not seeking one or the other it’s seeking the balance. That’s not to say that there are times or circumstances where only one is needed without the other.

Take light and dark. Westerners for the most part see light as good and dark as bad (extremities) but an easterner sees them as functional and dysfunctional. Light exists, darkness is its absence. Both are useful independent and separate of each other but G-d saw that light AND dark were good. Westerners understand this concept that it was good and take it as absolute but the eastern thinking is in the verse too, light and dark, day and night, morning and evening

So when Laban is told say neither good nor bad

It helps me to phrase it a little like this

  • Don’t say anything functional or dysfunctional
  • Don’t say anything with intention to act or without intention to act
  • Don’t threaten Jacob with intention or without intention
  • Don’t be overly nice or overly cruel

Considering (as far as I know) the word threaten is not in the ancient Hebrew vocabulary as a stand alone word, the aforementioned explanations and other interactions I’ve had

I feel it means ‘don’t threaten Jacob’

If someone accuses you of stealing and then only speaks really nicely to you, instinctively you are on edge or at least the accuser is ill willed. The accusation does not match with the behavior. Likewise if someone accuses you of stealing and then only speaks accusatively you instinctively understand this to be a threat. If you take these ideas and sum them up as concise as possible it would be, say neither good nor bad. Don’t threaten

Same with Absalom he didn’t threaten his brother. He said neither good nor bad. He gave his brother no reason to feel threatened.

What I don’t think it means is, ignore or indifference. While in the case of Absalom ignore might fit, it would assume Absalom never interacted with his brother at all. That in itself would warrant a reason to feel threatened. It makes sense that in Absalom’s dealings with his brother he never gave him reason to feel threatened. He wasn’t only nice to him or only repulsive. Both of these would have put him on edge. Rather Absalom displayed all manner of behavior that the occasion warranted. This idea of not threatening seems to be communicated with the phrase, “did not (in the negative) say good or bad”.

Same idea communicated here, G-d in a dream is telling Laban don’t threaten Jacob or say (in the positive) neither good nor bad.

Also if you use diacritics or niqqud texts, which came much later and are not found in the older versions of the text written by the original author, this in itself is an interpretation of the text. Diacritics are very helpful and possible to be the correct interpretation but one must allow for the possibility that the interpretation given in the diacritic text was not exactly the meaning conveyed in the original, especially ambiguous primitive texts. Therefore it’s already a second hand text. Then add to that translation to English and add to that personal biases and limited (all study is limited) studies and what you get is a guess. Granted some guesses are better than others and educated guesses are preferred but in and of themselves educated guesses are still guesses, take for instance the Big Bang guess. Quoting another educated guesser or more educated guessers generally eliminates the possibility for errors because of textual scrutiny but it can also reinforce an error and make it main stream thinking.

References

• An Akkadian lexical companion for biblical Hebrew: etymological-semantic and idiomatic equivalents with supplement on biblical Aramaic. Hayim Tawil

• Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible. Jeff A. Benner

• Leningrad Codex

• The Tao and the logos: Literary hermeneutics, East and West. Longxi Zhang

• E-sword.net

• TheWord.net

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    Your answer does not include any citations. From the phrasing, much seems to be your personal guess and not very well informed by study, history, or the studies of others. You also have rather severe grammar and mechanics problems. Please improve your answer.
    – jpmc26
    Jan 20 '19 at 8:20
  • I’ll say neither good nor bad Jan 20 '19 at 13:30
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    This is not how references work. You cannot just add "Leningrad Codex" to a list and expect the reader to figure out how it relates to the rest of your post. Especially when it concerns a book, website, or otherwise large work, you should cite specifically (which page(s)) are relevant, and you should include those references at the relevant places in your answer. See further hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/help/referencing.
    – user2672
    Jan 20 '19 at 15:25
  • Thank you for the link. It is only plagiarism if and when you use other people’s ideas without acknowledgment. Excerpt from the link: “Plagiarism - posting the work of others with no indication that it is not your own”. It is my own. Furthermore a quick look through hermeneutics stack and the majority of posts lack references. Let me give you another example of my own idea, one you will not find anywhere else. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/35159/… My own idea. Who should I reference? Jan 20 '19 at 15:57
  • I said in the response “I feel it means ‘don’t threaten Jacob“ Jan 20 '19 at 16:16

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