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““Hear us, my Lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.”” ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭23‬:‭6‬ ‭

How does the Hebrew read most accurately? Is Abraham being called Elohim or is Abraham Elohim’s?

נשׂיא אלהים

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This is actually a question that I asked my Hebrew professor about a month ago. The instructor was initially taken aback by the question, and after looking closely at the text, determined that it really was not well translated, as it should be "God", not "mighty."

The reason for this apparent mistranslation may surprise you. It boils down to this: subjectivity.

Translator Assumption 1: The sons of Heth, being heathen, do not know God, and therefore cannot be referring to Him. Therefore, their usage of "elohim" does not reference God, but to some great (God-sized) thing.

Problems with Assumption 1: The word "elohim" in the Hebrew is not an adjective; it is a noun. (See below image of interlinear, with grammatical notations.) Further, Abraham had lived for some time among these people, as one of their neighbors. It takes considerable presumption to assume these neighbors had learned nothing of Abraham or his God via his interactions/witness with them.

Translator Assumption 2: The word "elohim" references Abraham. Since Abraham is obviously not "God," we therefore must translate this as something other than this.

Problems with Assumption 2: The text could very well be addressing God, not Abraham, by this construct chain, in that it shows Abraham belonged to God as one of God's nobility on earth.

Note my usage of "nobility." The Hebrew word is not "prince," because a prince is a son of a king. The English usage of "prince" is ambiguous and can apply to others who are not sons of kings, but for the sake of clarity, let's not translate this as "prince", as this is definitely not referring to the son of a king. It could be translated as a leader, chief, captain, etc.--someone of rank, but not a prince.

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Looking at the interlinear notations in the above image one may note that there are two nouns in construct state preceding the "elohim": both "my lord" and "a prince" (a leader). It was this that attracted my attention to the verse, as I wanted to understand if they were part of the same construct chain. I was at that time grappling with whether a construct chain could include more than one noun in construct state, or if it should be only the first noun. (The answer is that chains can actually end with a noun in construct state as well, because any pronominal suffix causes the word to be in construct: consider, e.g. "house of my God" (Joshua 9:23).)

In this case, the two nouns in construct are not part of the same chain. It would be virtually impossible to translate if they were. It is not necessary for a noun in construct to be followed by another noun in Hebrew: it can start and end with a single word. So we have "my lord" as separate from the next two words which are linked in construct state: "a leader of God."

My Conclusion

Scholars will, and do, differ on this; but my conclusion--supported by the teacher who said the translation could go either way, depending on one's assumptions as touched on above--is that "elohim" should be translated as "God" and not as "mighty." The children of Heth are acknowledging that Abraham is one of God's leaders, and are appreciating/respecting him for this.

One possible rendition might be:

"Listen to us, my lord: You are a master from God among us, . . ."

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Technically, Gen 23:6 could be interpreted either as "mighty prince" or "prince of God", ie, both are grammatically possible; because we have two simple nouns in succession suggesting the genitive; thus, "prince of God" (as opposed to a simple adjective which is absent) is the preferred. Note the comments of Ellicott:

(6) A mighty prince.—Heb., a prince of God. Compare

  • “wind of God” (Genesis 1:2);
  • “wrestlings of God” (Genesis 30:8);
  • “mountains of God” (Psalm 36:6);
  • “cedars of God” (Psalm 80:10).
  • So also “a sleep of Jehovah” for a deep sleep (1Samuel 26:12).

Benson is similar:

Genesis 23:6. Thou art a prince of God — So it is in the original, not only great, but good. He called himself a stranger and a sojourner, they call him a great prince; and well they might, considering his wealth, prosperity, and retinue, and the simple manners of those times.

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