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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — Whose Son is Zechariah?

Categories Hebrew and You

T'oros_Roslin_-_Ancestors_of_Christ_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe name Zechariah was a common name in the period of the Old Testament, belonging to 30 or more men in the OT (see “Zechariah” in the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, 5:1208–10). The writing prophet Zechariah is identified in Zech 1:1 as “Zechariah son of Berekiah, son of Iddo” (NIV). In Ezra 5:1 and Neh 12:16, a certain Zechariah is identified as a priest and as the “son of Iddo.” This may be troubling for English readers. Is Iddo the father or the grandfather of the prophet Zechariah? Or are these two different men named Zechariah, one a prophet and one a priest, living at the same time?

If they are the same, then why is Berekiah omitted from the lineage in Ezra and Nehemiah? Some have suggested that Berekiah died young and that at a young age himself, Zechariah succeeded his grandfather as head of the family. This is certainly possible, but is not really a necessary explanation to identify the two men.

English Terms for Relatives

In English we get quite specific in our references. The terms father and son are used to refer to immediate relationship. So, I would never refer to my father’s father as my father; he is my grandfather. Likewise, my grandfather only had one son (my father), and he only had one son (me). I would not think of myself as the son of my grandfather. Consequently, when we modern English speakers read the biblical genealogies, we see this:

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The Hebrew Use of Son in Genealogical Lists

This English understanding of the lineage is exactly correct. However, what is often not understood is that the word son repeated in a genealogy may refer to the same person.

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How do we test this? By finding a case in which it must be so. John Lightfoot found such a case in his Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, first published in Latin in parts during the years 1658–1674, but known today from a later English translation published in 1859 and subsequently reprinted.

In his discussion of the genealogy of Jesus on Luke 3:23, Lightfoot, 3:54, cites Gen 36:2. I give the English and Hebrew in parallel.

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For this discussion, we are interested in the genealogy of the second of the two wives of Esau. Graphically the relationships are as follows:

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Two observations: (1) the NIV “granddaughter” is in Hebrew simply בַּת, “daughter”; (2) there are not two ways to understand the English, or the Hebrew for that matter. Anah was not the daughter of anyone! He was the son of Zibeon.

Septuagint Evidence

The later Jewish translators of the Septuagint do not translate in accordance with Lightfoot’s understanding. Normally, they read genealogies like a modern English reader would. For example, in Num 16:1 we read Κόρε υἱὸς Ἰσαὰρ υἱοῦ Καὰθ υἱοῦ Λευί, “Korah the son1 of Izhar, the son2 of Kohath, the son3 of Levi” (the occurrences of the word son are numbered for easy reference). The words Korah and son1 are in the Nominative case in apposition. However, son2 is in the Genitive in apposition with Izhar, and likewise son3 with Kohath.

However, at times they did understand the structure as described by Lightfoot. For example, Jdg 10:1 reads, ἀνέστη ... Θωλα υἱὸς Φουα υἱὸς πατραδέλφου αὐτοῦ, “There arose … Tola, the son of Puah, the son of his uncle.” Both occurrences of υἱός are in the nominative case in agreement and in apposition with Tola. If the second υἱός referred to Puah, it would have to be in the Genitive case. (By the way, I don’t know “the son of his uncle” means; the Hebrew, Dodo, could be a proper name, which makes the text easily understandable, but the LXX translated its meaning instead of transliterating it as a name.)

So, in Zech 1:1 the Greek reads, πρὸς Ζαχαριαν τὸν τοῦ Βαραχιου υἱὸν Αδδω τὸν προφήτην, “to Zechariah, the son of Berekiah, (the son) of Iddo, the prophet.” The word Zechariah is in the Accusative case after the preposition πρός, and the words son and the prophet are also in the Accusative case in order to agree with their referent Zechariah. In Greek, the υἱόν is not repeated before Αδδω, which is understandable, since two occurrences of υἱόν would occur together. If a Genitive were intended, we would expect it to appear as in Num 16:1 etc. In fact one manuscript and one church father actually insert υἱοῦ.

What Is Learned

Biblical Hebrew has no distinctive word for grandson or granddaughter. Both בֵּן, “son,” and בַּת, “daughter,” may refer to immediate descendants or to more distant generations. Incidentally, the terms father and mother work the same way in the reverse direction.

Second, in these genealogies, the referent for son (or daughter) refers to the same person, the one at the end of the lineage. So, in Hebrew to say, “Zechariah the son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo” (Zechariah), or to say, “Zechariah the son of Iddo” (Ezra and Nehemiah) can be understood as referring to the same person. The identification of the two would seem quite natural to the writers of the OT. Modern English speakers will not think this way initially; apparently neither did the Jewish translators of the Septuagint.

Third, the NIV and other versions do well to use the terms grandson and granddaughter for clarity to modern English readers. But the Hebrew system is equally clear and much more economical, especially in the numerous and lengthy genealogical lists in the OT, such as Num 16:1. This avoids the use of repeated use of “great-.”

It is quite possible that the two Zechariah’s of Zechariah and Ezra-Nehemiah are the same person, both a prophet and priest.

Finally — and this is Lightfoot’s point —, this also applies to Jesus’ genealogy in Luke. Lightfoot argues that understanding Matthew to be giving Jesus’ lineage through Joseph is not contradicted by Luke 3:23, “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli” (NIV). Luke is not saying that Joseph was the son of Heli (cf. Matt 1:16 which names Joseph’s father as Jacob), but that Jesus was the son of Heli. What do you think of Lightfoot’s interpretation?

(Image:"T'oros Roslin - Ancestors of Christ." Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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lee-fieldsLee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.

Learn more about Lee’s innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.

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