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Onkelos the Convert is said by the Talmud to be the author of the official aramaic translation of the Pentateuch. Rashi and Maimonides understand Onkelos as having a tendency to interpret physical reference to God metaphorically. Indeed it seems very evident that throughout his work, Onkelos adopts this stance in his translation.

However I was looking in Deuteronomy 26 and I saw that in verse 8 (Hebrew (Masoretic)-Aramaic (Onkelos)-English (OJPS)):

וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל--וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים.‏
ואפקנא ה', ממצריים, ביד תקיפא ובדרע מרמם, ובחזוונא רבא--ובאתין, ובמופתין.‏
And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.

Onkelos translates hand and arm simply. He also does this in Exodus 13:14, And Deuteronomy 6:20, regarding hand. This is all in the context of the exodus, so their is a commonality as far as context. Why does he not use metaphor in this area? The only other use of arm that I am aware of in the Pentateuch is Deuteronomy 4:34, where it is translated the same way, in the same context. For hand, see Exodus 9:3, and 7:4, where Onkelos interprets hand to mean plague or strike.

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    how does Onkelus translate hand and arm in other verses in the Torah? – termsofservice Apr 27 '14 at 8:52
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    @Efraim, in all the examples of the words ביד חזקה or בחוזק יד it seems that Onkulus does not use metaphor – Jewels Apr 27 '14 at 10:59
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    Highly related (and the answers there may essentially answer this question, too): judaism.stackexchange.com/q/33577 – Fred Apr 27 '14 at 16:37
  • @Fred idk, Rashi clearly left well enough alone, at times. Onkelos always goes out of his way to explain, with this one exception. Why? I don't understand the bridge. – Baby Seal Apr 27 '14 at 16:45
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    @Fred like figures of speech! Interesting thought. – Baby Seal Apr 27 '14 at 22:19
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Onkeles does not use the literal translation when the hand (or other appendage) is associated with G-d, or G-d is being described as associated with a specific place. G-d's hand, G-d's finger, My hand, and so on.

Here the hand is free standing. A mighty hand, not G-d's mighty hand. So we can understand that this represents (perhaps metaphorically) a tool that G-d used, just like signs and miracles.

  • So what is described is not "Gods mighty hand and God's raised arm', but 'a mighty hand and a raised arm'. Certainly compelling. I want to look around the Pentateuch a bit for counterpoints, but I think you have something here! – Baby Seal May 13 '14 at 19:13
  • @BabySeal, if you find a counter example, let me know. I didn't (I had my eye on this question since you asked initially) but I'm hardly an expert. – Yishai May 13 '14 at 19:15
  • My follow up question is why use these words at all, as opposed to 'plagues' or 'might' and 'a raised sword', as we see in the haggadah. strange... – Baby Seal May 13 '14 at 19:19
  • @GeminiMan, "Your right" is not "Your right hand". And in the first and last case, neither is actually translated in the Targum. Shemos 31:18 is an interesting counter example. – Yishai Nov 3 '14 at 17:01
  • @GeminiMan, BTW, the argument in my answer was already made by the Rambam (as quoted in the Ramban Bereishis 46:1 that Shimon bM quoted in his answer). – Yishai Nov 3 '14 at 17:05
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+100

Unfortunately, it is widely felt that the character of Targum Onkelos (and all of the targumim, as a matter of fact) is inconsistent on this issue to a degree that defies generalisation or explanation. In the words of somebody considerably more familiar with them than myself:

The targumim on many occasions soften anthropomorphic expressions used of God... Since the time of Saadya it has been argued that such translations are motivated by doctrine and arise from a desire to defend the transcendence and spirituality of God. The problem is that the targumim are not consistent: they also translate literally many anthropomorphic terms. No one has yet discovered a pattern in this inconsistency, or offered a convincing explanation for it.

-- Philip S. Alexander, "Jewish Aramaic Translations of Hebrew Scriptures", Mikra: Text, Translation, Reading and Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (ed. Martin Jan Mulder; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 217-253 (226).

Alexander goes on to remark that he is doubtful of dogma playing a role, since in rabbinic literature contemporary with the targumim, "strikingly anthropomorphic language" is employed to speak of God. So it sounds to me (in my humble opinion) that this is two different questions:

  1. What is the reason for the inconsistency in Onkelos, so far as descriptions of God are concerned? Is there a pattern that can be identified?

  2. What is the reason that Rashi and Rambam (etc) considered Onkelos to have been motivated by a doctrine concerning the incorporeality of God, and how did they explain those instances in which he deviated from that perceived doctrine?

That these are two separate issues, and that a simple explanation of Onkelos as having been motivated by doctrine is insufficient, is threshed out more fully by the Ramban (Genesis 46:1), who goes through a lot of the evidence and who critiques the Rambam's position in detail. He doesn't provide an answer, claiming instead that none of this is a secret, and that the wise will understand. He does, however, demonstrate that Onkelos' "inconsistency" is not limited to descriptions of the exodus.

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    The examples in the question are not usually considered part of that issue, though. Some more important articles: Jacob Immanuel Schochet's dissertation, available online; "Michael Klien on the Targums", sec. I chapters 3 and 5; Carmel McCarthy's article in "Back to the Sources: Biblical and Near Eastern Studies in Honour of Dermot Ryan"; and the appendix to R. Dr. Posen's book published in 2012, "Parshegen", on Beraishis – הנער הזה May 13 '14 at 21:58
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The sefer אוהב גר here writes that it was not the main intention of Onkelos in his Targum to distance any notion that G-d is corporeal, because he left several posukim unchanged from the Hebrew even thought they mention the finger, or hand or eyes of G-d.

Because the truth of the matter is that the Targum was not made for the Torah sages but rather for the uneducated populace. Therefore, Onkelos did not flee from every case of corporeality, only where the notion of corporeality might debase the honor of Hashem in the eyes of the people.

But where the use of anthromorphism is a lofty usage which will be good in the eyes of the listener, and not damage him but rather it will benefit him by making the superiority of the Torah greater in his eye, in those cases he left the expression in the Targum as it was in the original.

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HaShem didn't offer us His pinky, but His strong hand and outstretched arm. I wonder if this was a figure of speech thousands of years ago, meaning that G-d took more than just a casual interest, but wholeheartedly with His entire almighty essence to bring our ancestors out of Egypt, and to bring us out of our Egypt of stress and blindess, so that we won't be suckered by our ego.

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The phrase is clearly idiomatic. Imagine what it would mean assuming the (ch"v) God did have a body and an arm: it would mean that a giant hand came from the sky and pulled each Jewish person out of Egypt. That is completely ridiculous and even a corporealist wouldn't read it as such (it would have been an important part of the story, no?), so the phrase is just an idiom, having nothing to do with any physical arm or hand. Onkelos must have thought this to be obvious as well.

In certain other places, the idiom makes sense to be explained differently by the Targum. Here though, 'plague' doesn't make as much sense in context: God took us out with miracles, wonders, and plagues? In this context the idiom is clearly meant to represent might.

  • Interesting idea, thanks! You are saying that, because this obviously did not happen, it is left as is, as it is clearly metaphoric. See Exodus 8:15 in Onkelos, when the necromancers describe the plague of vermin as 'a finger of God' after they are unable to perform the miracle. There is no such mention of a finger in the narrative, s this reference should also be left alone, yet Onkelos changes it: mechon-mamre.org/i/t/k/q/q0208.htm – Baby Seal May 13 '14 at 18:54
  • and added a bit when I just read comments to the questions. perhaps finger is less commonly understood as a figure of speech, but it's a good question – הנער הזה May 13 '14 at 18:56
  • re: edits, translate hand as 'might' then – Baby Seal May 13 '14 at 18:57
  • @BabySeal because the phrase is understood as being idiomatic, there's no need to, so Onkelos reverts back to being as literal as possible – הנער הזה May 14 '14 at 20:44

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