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I was reading the Hebrew of Genesis today and came across the first instance of 'fat:'

Genesis 4:4 (WLC)

ויהי מקץ ימים ויבא קין מפרי האדמה מנחה ליהוה׃ והבל הביא גם־הוא מבכרות צאנו ומחלבהן וישע יהוה אל־הבל ואל־מנחתו׃ ואל־קין ואל־מנחתו לא שעה ויחר לקין מאד ויפלו פניו׃

Now it happened after the passing of many days that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought, of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat. And the Lord had regard for Abel, and for his offering; but for Cain, and for his offering, he had no regard: and Cain was filled with rage, and was visibly upset.

The above is my 'traditional' or 'conventional' translation. However, isn't the de-Hebraized version as follows?

Now it happened some years later that Cain brought of the fruits of the earth an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought, of the firstlings of his flock, and of the choices lambs. And the Lord had regard for Abel, and for his offering; but for Cain, and for his offering, he had no regard: and Cain was filled with rage, and was visibly upset.

What makes me think this is an 'idiom' of Hebrew is such verses as:

Leviticus 3:16 (DRB) And the priest shall burn them upon the altar, for the food of the fire, and of a most sweet savour. All the fat shall be the Lord's.

It seems at once strange and arbitrary that the 'fat' (i.e. alone) would be dedicated to the Lord, when the whole offering is to Him, and He has specified that the whole animal be sacrificed to Him.

If we were to 'amend' the above per this theory, it would read:

And the priest shall burn them upon the altar, for the food of the fire, and of a most sweet savour. Its every part is the Lord's.

Question

Could the word "fat" in Hebrew be idiomatic, and mean "fulness" or "choices parts" or "the best thereof?," as it might be forgivable to understand? (i.e. rather than literally apidose—"fat")

Thanks in advance.

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On the one hand, Psalms 147:14

הַשָּׂם גְּבוּלֵךְ שָׁלוֹם חֵלֶב חִטִּים יַשְׂבִּיעֵךְ

makes it clear that חֵלֶב is sometimes used allegorically. I would compare this usage to "the fat of the land" as used in English.

On the other hand, verses such as Leviticus 7:23 (Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: You shall not eat any fat of an ox, sheep, or goat)

דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר כָּל חֵלֶב שׁוֹר וְכֶשֶׂב וָעֵז לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ

makes it clear that the חֵלֶב is a specific part of the animal fat that is forbidden to eat, but that the rest of the animal is permissible.

The problem with translations such as the NIV's Psalm 147:14

He grants peace to your borders and satisfies you with the finest of wheat.

is that the translation completely misses the sense of the original and deflates its charm. You wouldn't translate the English idiom "the fat of the land" as "the finest lands", that would obviously be a mistake. Clearly, wheat has no fat in the sense that animals do, but this verse seemingly wants to say that wheat will have such fat to satisfy you. It is the impossibility of the metaphor, just like "the fat of the land", that gives the verse its charm. Better to stay with the YLT's

Who is making thy border peace, With the fat of wheat He satisfieth Thee

or the JPS's

He maketh thy borders peace; He giveth thee in plenty the fat of wheat.

Back to Genesis 4:4, the word ומחלבהן means "and from their [possessive, plural, feminine] fat". The referent of the possessive "their" can only plausibly be the firstborn of the flocks, so Abel is bringing the fat of the firstborn of his sheep, not the firstborn of his flocks and the fat of his flocks. The proposed OP translation ignores this possessive.

Furthermore, such a mistranslation would destroy the meaning the the verse. When it says that Abel brought the firstborn, and their fat, it means that the reader should infer that Abel brought the best of the best, la creme de la creme (also a fat metaphor). The Hebrew conjunctive phrase ", and of their fat", is the Hebrew way to say "Abel brought from the firstborn, and not only that, he brought from their fat". Unfortunately the literal translations do not convey this meaning well while the more interpretive translations give the mistaken idea that "fat" in this verse is allegorical.

The religious context of the Genesis story is the first and second temple cult of animal sacrifice, which was also the prevailing form of worship outside the Israelite culture in the ancient eastern mediterranean basin. Much of Leviticus deals with this cult and primacy of the animal fat sacrifices. See for example I Samuel 2:15. It is in this context that Genesis 4:4 speaks of Abel bringing the literal fat of his firstborn sheep.

  • By 'idiom' I mean the idiomatic use of the concrete term "fat" (apidose) (I'm not saying "fat" doesn't refer to fat proper, but that it's idiomatic usage is quite distinct and closer to equivalent to our English 'choicest' or 'the fullness' and ought to be understood if not translated as such. – Sola Gratia Feb 10 at 0:49
  • My translation "the choicest lambs" is a (proferred) dynamic translation of the possessive... "the fat of the [firstlings]" referring to the fullness of them, the best, the choicest... the choicest lambs." – Sola Gratia Feb 10 at 0:49
  • "makes it clean" --- clear? – Der Übermensch Feb 10 at 1:07
  • @SolaGratia I added some clarifications to explain that the usage of "fat" in Genesis 4:4 is not metaphorical or allegorical, it is literal. The intended meaning that is derived from this literal action by Abel is that he brought the best of the best. The cultural context is an agrarian and herding society whose members are familiar with animal anatomy and the cults of animal sacrifice, their own and their neighbors. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Feb 10 at 6:02
  • You are apparently still missing what it is I'm saying judging based on the form your objections to it are taking: I'm not saying this isn't the exact same thing you'd say if you were literally speaking of "their fat." That's not what I mean by 'would they have idiomatically understood it to mean x.' Think of the word "bowels" with regard to tender compassion... I don't think the "bowels of Christ" refers to any part of His literal gastrointestinal tract, even though if you were speaking of such, this is what you'd say verbatim. – Sola Gratia Feb 10 at 16:00

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