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In Genesis 6:20 we read that God told Noah to keep three categories of animals

  1. Flying creatures
  2. Animals
  3. Creeping things

What confuses me is the word בְּהֵמָה translated as "animals." Lexicon says that it is usually in reference to domesticated animals and sometimes of wild animals but does not say about being able to reference both at the same time. My question as I stated, can בְּהֵמָה refer to wild and domesticated animals or can it only refer to one of them?

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2 Answers 2

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The pertinent word in Gen 6:20 is בְּהֵמָה (behemah) whose BDB entry is given below in the appendix.

Note that this word can (and often does) refer to domesticated cattle, but also wild animals, and also almost any animal other than humans. It can refer to both clean and unclean animals as well.

More specifically, the word can mean:

  • animals or beasts in general, Ex 9:9, 1 Kings 4:33, etc
  • wild animals and beasts of the earth, Deut 28:26, 32:24, 1 Sam 17:44
  • cattle or livestock, NIV, NASB, Gen 1:24-26, 2:20, 8:1, 47:18
  • beasts of burden or for riding, Neh 2:12, 14

Thus, Gen 6:20 probably refers to animals most generally and of all kinds.

APPENDIX - BDB entry for בְּהֵמָה (behemah)

187 noun feminine beast, animal, cattle (Arabic ) — ׳בּ Genesis 1:24 137t.; construct בֶּהֱמַת Numbers 3:41 (twice in verse) + 10 t.; suffix בְּהֶמְתְּךָ Leviticus 19:19 4t.; בְּהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ Exodus 20:10 4t.; בְּהֶמְתּוֺ Genesis 36:6; Proverbs 12:10; plural absolute בְּהֵמוֺת Deuteronomy 32:24 6t. + Psalm 73:22 (see below); construct בַּהֲמוֺת Psalm 8:8 5t.; — beast, & collective beasts (Genesis 8:1 + very often)

  1. of living creatures other than man (אָדָם) Genesis 8:1; Exodus 8:13; Exodus 8:14; Exodus 9:9,10,22; Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 18:23 (twice in verse) (where ׳בּ is male, so Leviticus 20:16) Deuteronomy 27:21; Psalm 36:7 etc.; ׳מֵאָדָם וְעַד בּ (׳בּ including all the larger animals) Exodus 9:25; Exodus 12:12; Psalm 135:8; Jeremiah 50:3 etc.; as inferior to man Job 18:3; Psalm 49:13; Psalm 49:21, so also Ecclesiastes 3:18,19 (twice in verse); Ecclesiastes 3:21; opposed to also birds & reptiles Genesis 6:7; Genesis 7:23; Genesis 8:17 compare Ezekiel 44:31 etc.; also to fishes 1 Kings 5:13; Job 12:7 compare Job 12:8, Psalm 8:9; Zephaniah 1:3.

  2. opposed to also to wild beasts חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ, הַשָּׂדֶה ׳ח Genesis 1:24,25,26; Genesis 2:20; Genesis 3:14; Genesis 7:14,21; Genesis 9:10; Psalm 50:10; Psalm 148:10; Isaiah 46:1 etc.; especially therefore cattle, as owned and used by man, Genesis 47:18 (׳מִקְנֵה הַבּ) Exodus 20:10 = Deuteronomy 5:14; Leviticus 19:19; Leviticus 26:22; Numbers 3:41 (twice in verse); Numbers 3:45 (twice in verse); Deuteronomy 2:35; Deuteronomy 11:15; Jonah 4:11; Zechariah 2:8; Zechariah 8:10; Zechariah 14:15; Ezra 1:4,6; Nehemiah 9:37; Nehemiah 10:37 etc.; in one (late) passage of animal for riding (horse ? mule ?) Nehemiah 2:12 (twice in verse); Nehemiah 2:14.

  3. rarely of wild beasts, especially carnivora, יַעַר ׳בּ Micah 5:7; הָאָרֶץ ׳בּ Deuteronomy 28:26; Isaiah 18:6 (twice in verse); Jeremiah 7:33; Jeremiah 15:3; Jeremiah 16:4; Jeremiah 19:7; Jeremiah 34:20; הַשָּׂדֶה ׳בּ 1 Samuel 17:44; alone, Proverbs 30:30; שֶׁןבְּֿהֵמוֺת Deuteronomy 32:24; ׳שֹׁד בּ Habakkuk 2:17.

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Although, as regards how to understand some of the animal terms included in Genesis 1, an atmosphere of vagueness lie over this matter, we may safely conclude that every careful Bible reader is able to discern that Genesis 1 fixes a kind of ground plan of animal’s classification (taxonomy). Postponing the possible discussion about the animal’s sub-category mentioned in Genesis 1 (tninm, v. 21), we have now to focus ourselves on the macro-categories of animals Genesis describes.

The terms of animals’ macro-categories utilized in these Genesis passages are, in order of their appearance:

עוף (oup, ‘flying [animals]’) – Gen 1:20.

רמשׂ (rmś, ‘creeping [animals]’ – Gen 1:21 (moving in in the waters), Gen 1:24 (moving on the ground). Regrettably, also here some translation increase some confusion, since some of them translate this term as ‘moving [animals] (for other information, see the footnote).

בהמה (beme, the term we are discussing) – Gen 1:24.

If we linger over these passages we will be able to make a first and immediate conclusion. Indeed, on what conceptual basis were chosen the first two terms (עוף, רמשׂ)?

The only possible answer is: those terms were based on the concept of the animals’ manner to move along through their preferential environment (sky, water, or ground).

So, עוף describes the manner in which birds go across the sky, without touch the surface of the ground (namely, to fly); whereas, רמשׂ describes the manner in which creeping animals cross the ground, touching nearly always the surface of the ground (as we see above, this term can be applied also to the aquatic animals, because these animals too – for all practical purposes – do creep through the water [compare Gen 1:24-25; Psa 104:25]).

This understanding does aid us, so that we now have to search a meaning of בהמה (beme) - the term we are discussing - that agrees with the abovementioned concept, namely, “an animals’ manner to move along the preferential environment (sky, water, or ground) of them”.

Before to reveal the real meaning of בהמה (beme) - the term we are discussing - we now very briefly explain why the reading “domestic animals” (chosen by a lot of Bible translations) - for בהמה (beme) - is incorrect.

If בהמה (beme) were related to an animal domestication concept, it would make part of an animals’ binomial unity (that is, domestic ones versus wild ones). But we have encountered three great categories of animals in Genesis, and none of them is related with the sense of ‘wildness’, to mirror to the ‘domestic’ animals. In fact, some animals in the category of ‘birds’ can be considered ‘wild’ (as vultures, for an example), whereas others ‘domestic’ (as hens, for an example). The same in the other category (‘reptiles’, see the varan vs the turtles).

Dottard was nice to remember us that בהמה (beme) - the term we are discussing – may refers also to wild beasts, saying: “rarely of wild beasts, especially carnivora, יַעַר ׳בּ Micah 5:7; הָאָרֶץ ׳בּ Deuteronomy 28:26; Isaiah 18:6 (twice in verse); Jeremiah 7:33; Jeremiah 15:3; Jeremiah 16:4; Jeremiah 19:7; Jeremiah 34:20; הַשָּׂדֶה ׳בּ 1 Samuel 17:44; alone, Proverbs 30:30; שֶׁןבְּֿהֵמוֺת Deuteronomy 32:24; ׳שֹׁד בּ Habakkuk 2:17.”

But this Dottard’s specification corroborates the בהמה (beme) meaning we are about to reveal. In fact it is not possible that a term x is able to mean ‘A’ as well as ‘non-A’.

In other words, how can be correct the equivalence בהמה (beme) = “domestic (animals)” along with (beme) = “wild (animals)” (though in ‘rarely’ instances)? Apart the catch-all term ‘animal/animals’ itself, do you know some languages in the world that possess a term that can mean both “domestic (animals)” and “wild (animals)”?

Clearly so, בהמה (beme) is not linked with an animal domestication concept (moreover, the domestication implied man’s presence/interaction, but in the Genesis verses at issue man isn’t yet been created).

Then, what is the real meaning of this term?

If we peruse some reference works we find what lexicographers conclude about the derivation of בהמה (beme): • ‘From a root not in use’ (probably meaning ‘to shut, to close’ (the mouth) > ‘to be mute’, accord. Gesenius, Strong, Davidson, and others. • With no specific derivation detected, accord. Schökel, Reymond, NAS Exhaustive Concordance, and others.

How we have seen, only a single scrap of clue appears to be as a supposed derivation term of בהמה, related to the concept of ‘to be mute’, maybe in reference to the incapability of the animals to express themselves with a human-like language (note also that the supposed domestication derivation is not see by none of the Hebrew lexicographers). But, also this supposed derivation – dumbness related - is clearly doubtful because also the other types of animals (described in Gen 1 onwards), namely עוף (fliers) and רמשׂ (creepers), are ‘mute’ (in that sense), all the same. Why, so, the Bible would carry a specification of the ‘wordless/dumbness’ condition of the sole בהמה animal class, and not for the other classes of ‘wordless’ animals, as עוף (fliers) and רמשׂ (creepers)?

Regrettably, the lexicographers (as regards the conceptual derivation of the term בהמה) get nowhere because they do not start from the idea that עוף, רמשׂ, and בהמה, are terms that define some macro-categories of the animals described in the Bible itself, with an inner link that connects all them. This is why – for an example – the ESV (on Gen 1:24-25) sadly concludes so: “This [zoological] list is not intended to be exhaustive, and it is hard to know where to put some animals (e.g. the domestic cat).”

Is there a method to escape from this deadlock? First things first.


Step One

Since, in Hebrew, the not-cross-meanings (namely, the non-general ones) are carried by the consonants (whereas the vowels carry some cross-meanings) we have to search for another Hebrew term which possesses the same consonants (do not relying on the vowels). So – if we were capable to read Hebrew - it stand out a mile the Bible terms במה (bme, as in 1 Kin 11:7) > במת (bmt [the consonant ‘t’ here is not part of the term’s meaning. It is only a plural termination], as in Lev 26:30), it isn’t?

Do we – this time - know the meaning of this term? Happily, yes. First of all, this term is related with a ‘high place’ (where peoples had the habit to worship God, or other gods). To get to this place one had to go up along a sloping floor (natural or artificial), leading from one level (lower) to another (higher). This apparently obvious mine specification, will appear not so apparent, as we will see.

Indeed, we find – in Akkadian (a Hebrew-related Semitic language) the terms BAMAT, ‘height’, and BAMTU, ‘rise, high ground’. Not so oddly, also Greek have very similar (by letters and by meaning) terms: βημα, ‘step, pace’ (as in Acts 7:5); βωμος, ‘base, platform, height, high ground’ > ‘altar, podium’. Also in this cases I express now an apparently obvious specification related to deambulation (wow! a comparative linguistics’ coincidence?): to get to this places one had to lift a foot to access to the higher level, lowering the foot to the end of the action.


Step Two

These guys (the above-mentioned lexicographers) have omitted also to suppose that they did can receive a help from the examination of a Hebrew allographic root semantically related to בהמה (beme).

בהמה (beme) is derived directly from בהם (bem). Now, there is a Hebrew root linked with an interesting concept, very suitable to the animal classification (taxonomy) we find in Genesis 1: פעם (pom).

We’ve to consider now that the shifting between ב (‘b’) and פ (‘p’) is not uncommon in ‘Biblical’ Hebrew. For some examples: בקע and פקע (Gen 7:11/1Kin 6:18); זוב and זוף (Exo 3:8/Isa 34:9) כלב and כלף (Exo 11:7/Psa 74:6); סחב and סחף (2Sam 17:13/Pro 28:3); צרב and צרף (Eze 21:3/Kri 7:4); רבד and רפד (Gen 41:42/Job 17:13); and so on. In Akkadian (Semitic) language – too - was found this consonantal commutation (for example, between LABBANU and LAPPANU [Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, I:1:335]).

Now, what is the concept covered by פעם? It is related with stamping one’s feet (as to climb on a uphill slope, or to beat the [music] time with the feet). We can see clearly this basic concept in the following Bible sample passages: as in 2 Kin 19:24, ‘foot/feet’; Psa 17:5, ‘feet’; 57:6, ‘steps’; 58:10, ‘feet’; 74:3, ‘footsteps’; Pro 29:5, ‘feet/steps’; Son 7:1, ‘feet’; Isa 26:6; 37:25, ‘feet’).

Mmh… interesting! So, may we safely suppose that בהמה (beme, the term we are discussing, Gen 1:24) are related with the manner to move along of these animals? Sure.

Simply, it is related with what we call ‘to walk’, namely, to lift and to lower (alternatively) the limbs to move along the body (according the Bible, also animals can walk [elk], see Lev 11:20, et al.).


Conclusion

The three terms (of animal’s macro-categories) we found in Genesis, עוף (oup, ‘flying [animals]’ [1:20]; רמשׂ (rmś, ‘creeping [animals]’ [Gen 1:21 (moving in in the waters), Gen 1:24 (moving on the ground)]; בהמה (beme, ‘walking [animals]’ [Gen 1:24]; are all related to their manner to move along through their preferential environment (sky, water, or ground), and – then – are not related with concepts of ‘domestication’ or ‘dumbness’.

P.S. Sorry, I was to forget the cat (kept above in suspense by ESV). Now that you have a more clear vision about this matter (I hope), in what animal’s macro-category you see the ‘domestic cat’?


Footnote a) translating this root [רמשׂ] > verb with form of the verb ‘to move’ is incorrect. In ‘biblical’ Hebrew there are at least 20 conceptual roots which cover the meaning of ‘to move’: הום [Deu 7:23], טעה [Eze 13:10], מוד [Hab 3:6], מוט [Deu 32:35], מעד [Job 12:5], נדא [2Kin 17:21], נדד [Gen 31:40], נדח [Deu 4:19], נוד [Gen 4:12], נוט [Psa 99:1], נוט נוע / נע[Gen 4:12], נוס [Gen 14:10], נוף [Exo 20:25], נסע [Gen 11:2], צעד [Gen 49:22], צעה [Isa 51:14], צען [Isa 33:20], רוד [Gen 27:40], תעה [Gen 20:13]. And if also we may consider a number of these roots as allographic roots (i.e. graphical variants of the same conceptual root), as the group הום, מוד, מוט, נוד, נוע / נ, or the group צעד, צעה, תעה, we have again an amount of ‘to-move-related’ conceptual roots more then sufficient to meet the sense of ‘to move’. There’s no need to force רמשׂ so it could be an indicator of the sense of ‘to move’. The Vulgate has motabilem, namely, ‘what is moving’, ‘equipped with movement capability’, don’t go very well with the original Hebrew meaning. In fact, ‘what is moving’ possesses a too general meaning to became part of a kind of - broadly speaking - zoological classification (taxonomy).

Then again, רמשׂ (there are about 40 occurrence of this term in the Hebrew Bible, or of other related to it) means - with no ifs and buts – ‘to creep’.

Parkhurst: “To move in a particular manner, without rising on the ground, to creep, to crawl, to move, as reptiles on the ground. […] It is distinguished from בהמה[the term we are discussing] […] and from חיה […].” (An Hebrew and English Lexicon […], entry רמשׂ).

The same in Schökel (Dizionario di Ebraico Biblico, same entry). The LXX has ἑρπετῶν, ‘creeping ones’, as well as the Old Latin has animal reptilium, a couple of terms nearer to the Hebrew terms.

En passant, Hab 1:14 excludes that among the רמשׂ-animals are included those who have a social organization that include a so-called ‘leader of the pack’, biblically a מלך (a ‘king’, a ‘governor’), as chimpanzees, elephants, lions, wolves, zebras, hyenas, honeybees, meerkats (a kind of mongoose), ants, and a lot of other species. As far as I know, no kind of ‘creeping animals’ (רמשׂ) has a a social organization that include a ‘leader of the pack’, as Habakkuk says (“And makest men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things [רמשׂ], that have no ruler over them?”, JPS). So, this clue could further indicates – indirectly – the correctness of the equivalence רמשׂ/ רמשׂת = creeping (animals).

For an example of this odd translation we may pick up the NKJV that translates Gen 1:21 thus (bold is mine): “So God created […] every living thing that moves […] and every winged bird […].” But, just a moment, do are not the birds yet included in the first group (“every living thing that moves”)? If yes, the further specification (“and every winged bird”) results pleonastic, as you see.

Moreover, if the NKJV’s reading of as ‘living thing that moves’ (in Gen 1:21) is correct, why NKJV itself translates this same term as “creeping thing”, in Gen 1:24? Nothing in the two context triggers a translating differentiation of this kind (‘to move’ versus ‘to creep’). The only difference between the two passages is that in Gen 1:21 we found a participle form of the Hebrew root, namely רמשׂת, then ‘[animal] that creeps’, whereas in Gen 1:24 we have the simple noun רמשׂ, then, ‘creeping [animal]’. This difference is about form, it is not a semantic one. Instead, the difference between ‘to move’ and ‘to creep’ is patently semantic (I – normally – am a moving creature, not a creeping creature!).

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