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This is my first post here, so I hope I'm doing this right... I have recently asked this same question on the b-hebrew forum but was very impressed by the quality of replies I see on this site.

Why do the majority of translations make the הַעַ֖יִט סָבִ֣יב עָלֶ֑יהָ (Jer 12:9 WTT) a plural "birds of prey" instead of its grammatical singular, and how does one determine whether a noun qualifies to be used collectively?

One fellow I asked said, "The image of the first being surrounded by the second implies some sort of collective entity doing so." But could "encircled" here be something like the circling of a vulture overhead? I'm thinking it refers to Babylon here, the idea being one bird of prey deserves another.

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    – agarza
    Aug 31 at 1:46
  • Are you asking : why “birds of prey” = vulture עַיִט Ayit, since the plural would be עֵיטִים Eitim? Aug 31 at 2:20
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    @חִידָה More or less...
    – Dizerner
    Aug 31 at 5:08
  • Edited answer to include all occurrences.
    – Perry Webb
    Aug 31 at 15:44
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This appears to be difficult word play for us. To answer you question the BDB lexicon and translations seem to indicate that עִיט can be used in a collective sense meaning birds. It occurs four times in the Tanakh. Never in a plural form. In Gen. 15:11 and Isa. 18:6 this noun definitely has a collective since, as well as in at least one of the two uses in Jer. 12:9. Thus, the evidence we have points to the singular having a collective sense like sheep.

This is a difficult verse to translate.

   My own people acts toward Me 
  Like a bird of prey [or] a hyena; 
  Let the birds of prey surround her! 
  Go, gather all the wild beasts, 
  Bring them to devour! 
         (Jer. 12:9, JPS Tanakh)



         Is my heritage to me like a hyena’s lair? 
  Are the birds of prey against her all around? 
              Go, assemble all the wild beasts; 
  bring them to devour. 
                  (Jer. 12:9, ESV)

צָב֤וּעַ is a word difficult to define because it only occurs here in the Old Testament.

Gesenius has it as hyena, based on ὑαίνης in the Septuagint LXX.

צָבוּעַ m. ἄπ. λεγόμ. Jer. 12:9, hyena, i.q. Arab. ضَبُعُ. LXX. ὕαινα. Others take it generally as a rapacious animal, compare Talmud, צְבוֹעִים, Arab. سباع rapacious animals. See Bochart, Hieroz. part i. p. 829. Root צָבַע No. II. -- Gesenius, W., & Tregelles, S. P. (2003). Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (p. 700). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Most lexicons define it as does BDB.

†צָבוּעַ S6641 TWOT1872b GK7380 adj. coloured, variegated (proposes pt. pass.);—עַיִט צ׳ Je 12:9 a variegated bird of prey. -- Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 840). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

For the word translated birds, different meanings based on the verb meaning scream, shriek

†[עִיט S5860 TWOT1610, 1610b GK6512, 6513] vb. scream, shriek (Arabic عيط, عَاطَ (ʿyṭ, ʿāṭa), II. scream, scold, عِيَاطٌ (ʿiyāṭun) screaming, scolding, Frey Dozyii. 193; Syriac ܥܰܝܛܳܐ (ʿayṭo) anger, reviling);—only Qal Impf. 3 ms. וַיָּ֫עַט בָּהֶם 1 S 25:14 and he screamed at them (of Nabal).

†עַ֫יִט S5861 TWOT1610a GK6514 n.m. Je 12:9 bird(s) of prey (from scream);—abs. ע׳ Gn 15:11 +, עָ֑יִט Jb 28:7, c. art. (perhaps) הַע׳ Je 12:9 b (cf. Gie; הַע׳ interrog. v a); cstr. עֵיט Is 18:6; Ez 39:4;—usually coll. Gn 15:11 (JE), Is 18:6 Jb 28:7, עֵיט הָרִים Is 18:6, עֵיט צִפּוֹר כָּל־כָּנָף Ez 39:4; fig. of foes of Judah Je 12:9 b; of single bird v 9 a (fig. of Judah), Is 46:11 (fig. of invader, || אִישׁ עֲצָתִי).

†[עִיט S5860 TWOT1610, 1610b GK6512, 6513] vb.denom. dart greedily (like a bird of prey);—Qal Impf. 3 ms. וַיַּ֫עַט Qr (Kt erron. ויעשׂ) 1 S 14:32 and the people darted greedily upon the spoil (אֶל־הַשָּׁלָל), so 2 ms. וַתַּ֫עַט 15:19 (on forms v. Ges 72 ff.). -- Brown, F., Driver, S. R., & Briggs, C. A. (1977). Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (p. 743). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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Why “birds of prey” = vulture עַיִט Ayit, since the plural would be עֵיטִים Eitim?

We first discover הָעַ֖יִט Ha-Ayit in Genesis 15:11 refers to the Vulture(s) : "[The-Birds of prey] came down upon the carcasses, and Avram drove them away." (וַיֵּ֥רֶד הָעַ֖יִט עַל־הַפְּגָרִ֑ים וַיַּשֵּׁ֥ב אֹתָ֖ם אַבְרָֽם)

Similar to Moshe's writing in Bereshit 15:11, the prophet יִרְמְיָ֖הוּ Yirmiyahu uses Ha-Ayit הָעַ֖יִט to represent The-Vulture species in Jeremiah 12:9 : "Is My inheritance to Me a speckled bird[s] of prey? Are there bird[s] of prey around her? Go, gather all the beasts of the field; come to eat." (הַעַ֨יִט צָב֚וּעַ נַֽחֲלָתִי֙ לִ֔י הַעַ֖יִט סָבִ֣יב עָלֶ֑יהָ לְכ֗וּ אִסְפ֛וּ כָּל־חַיַּ֥ת הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה הֵתָ֥יוּ לְאָכְלָֽה)

"הָעַ֖יִט THE BIRDS OF PREY. Ayit (birds of prey) is a type of bird. Ayit (bird of prey) in Is my heritage unto Me as a speckled bird of prey (ha-ayit) - Jeremiah 12:9 is similar." | Commentary by Ibn Ezra on [Genesis 15:11] ( העיט. העוף וכן העיט צבוע נחלתי ) : https://www.sefaria.org/Ibn_Ezra_on_Genesis.15.11.1?lang=bi

Why “birds of prey” = vulture עַיִט Ayit, since the plural would be עֵיטִים Eitim?

  • vulture עַיִט Ayit (singular)
  • Birds of prey הָעַ֖יִט Ha-Ayit (species)
  • vultures עֵיטִים Eitim (plural)

Yirmiyahu יִרְמְיָ֖הוּ | Jeremiah 12:9 references the Species of הָעַ֖יִט The-Vulture.

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It would appear that to surround or to encircle implies a plurality of entities, as one single bird is unable to surround God's "heritage"--unless we presume that heritage to be but an egg for size.

My Hebrew is insufficient to grasp the significance of referring to something in singular versus in plural form with respect to making a generalization, but it is possible that this is a generalization which, in English, would always be plural.

For example, in English I could say "I like birds" (birds in general), but it would be incorrect grammatically to say "I like bird." If I were referring to a specific bird, I could say "I like the bird." If I were referring to just one bird (any), as contrasted with all birds, I could perhaps say "I like a bird"--but this would be more ambiguous with respect to the intended meaning. Furthermore, Hebrew, like Greek, lacks the indefinite article.

In English, generalizations lack the definite article, but in many other languages this is not the case. Spanish, for example, must include a definite article to make a generalization, so to say "I like birds" one would need to say "Me gustan las aves." If this is true for Hebrew as well, the definite article is certainly present in this expression in Jeremiah 12:9. But Hebrew is complicated. The article is required in this case to prevent the expression from becoming a construct chain.

In Hebrew, a construct chain consists of two or more nouns (I think four is the OT maximum) strung together with the same grammatical definiteness (either all definite/proper nouns, or all common nouns). For example, if were to say, in Hebrew, "the son Solomon," the translation should be "the son of Solomon," because this is a construct chain. "The son" has the definite article, making "son" definite, and "Solomon" is a proper name, which is always definite. Since both of the nouns in the expression are definite, they form a construct chain in which the usual English equivalent would be to link them with the preposition "of."

With two common nouns, say "box wood," we would translate as "box of wood." If we had "the box wood," only one of the two words is definite. Because of the disparity in definiteness, the verb of being is implied and must be added, as in "the box is wood." Similarly, saying "son Solomon" (dropping "the") would be rendered as "son is Solomon" because only one of the two words is now definite.

In Jeremiah 12:9, the definite article precedes "vulture," which makes this common noun to be definite, serving a grammatical purpose that does not equate to making it a specific vulture as the English article would do.

To learn more about the definite article in Hebrew, you may like to follow up with reading from THIS LINK. Most certainly other sites would be helpful as well.

Hebrew nouns are notorious for having inconsistent grammatical form in terms of the function they serve. To know for sure whether a noun is singular or plural (or masculine or feminine) requires looking at the adjectives and verbs associated with it, which must always agree with their noun. Sometimes, however, the noun is unaccompanied, leaving this ambiguous.

Some verbs, like "panim" (faces), "mayim" (waters), "shamayim" (heavens), etc., are always plural in grammatical form in Hebrew, and only the verbs and adjectives can tell us whether to translate them into plural or singular. This class of nouns is sometimes called plurale tantum. (Consider "the sheep is lost" versus "the sheep are lost." Also consider "physics is my hardest subject.") The plural word "Elohim" (God) has singular forms that are rarely used in the OT, and similarly must be determined by the context of the verbs and adjectives with it. While I would think "vultures" should ordinarily be clear (plural), Hebrew does offer some surprises at times.

While this may not fully answer your question, it may help you to understand some of the additional complexities to the Hebrew language which might have been involved in the translators choosing to plural the word "vulture" in English. Perhaps someone better acquainted with Hebrew can be more definitive.

To summarize, these are the possibilities that I think of for the singular Hebrew word being translated as plural into English.

  1. Context of a generalization: English generalizations are always plural.

  2. An exceptional case of noun-verb-adjective agreement wherein the grammatically singular noun is known to be plural in usage by its companion verb(s). [Note that the two subsequent verbs following this ARE both plural, though their connection to the noun seems open to interpretation--particular for the first one--from my limited Hebrew understanding.]

  3. The translators simply felt it made more sense to have more than one bird in the context of "surrounding" God's heritage.

Obviously, if #3 were the only logical answer, the question would be well justified.

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