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The verse of Genesis 4:7 ends with the words תמשל-בו (timshol-bo), and is often translated as 'you shall rule over it'.

But the prefix Bet often means 'in', 'with', 'at' or 'on'. Maybe there some other meanings that fit with the prefix Bet, but I wondered why the word בו is translated as 'over it', does the letter bet as a prefix also carries the meaning 'over' ?

  • Is this off-topic? – ezra Sep 4 '17 at 22:00
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    @ezra Since when is asking about the translation of a passuk in Tanach off-topic? Hebrew language is off-topic “except as related to Judaism.” – DonielF Sep 4 '17 at 22:55
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This is more of a Hebrew grammar question than anything else, but there are at least ten different meanings that this particular particle (represented by the letter, bet) might have:

1) Spatial - ie: "in", "at", or "on" a place. For example, Genesis 31:54 - ויזבח יעקב זבח בהר ("Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain");

2) Temporal - ie: a point in time when an action takes place. For example, Genesis 30:14 - בימי קציר חטים ("in the days of wheat harvest");

3) Instrumental - ie: an inanimate object used to perform an action. For example, Exodus 22:23 - והרגתי אתכם בחרב ("and I will kill you with the sword");

4) Adversative - ie: a relationship of disadvantage. For example, Genesis 16:12 - ידו בכל ויד כל בו ("his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him");

5) Specification - ie: clarifying an immediately preceding action. For example, Genesis 7:21 - ויגוע כל בשר הרמש על הארץ בעוף ובבהמה ובחיה ובכל השרץ ("and all flesh died that moved on the earth - birds, cattle, wild animals, all swarming creatures");

6) Causal - ie: a cause or reason for something. For example, Deuteronomy 24:16 - איש בחטאו יומתו ("each person shall be put to death because of his own sin");

7) Accompaniment - ie: denoting circumstances that occur together with something else. For example, Genesis 39:9 - באשר את אשתו ("because you are his wife");

8) Essence - ie: marking the identity of a noun. For example, Genesis 1:26 - נעשה אדם בצלמנו ("let us make man in our image");

9) Manner - ie: as an adverb, describing the way that an action is performed. For example, לך בשלום ("go peaceably");

10) Price - ie: indicating the cost of something. For example, Genesis 23:9 - בכסף מלא יתננה לי ("let him give it to me at the cost of full silver").

For more information, see Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 102-106.

Your example (תמשול־בו), is like #4 above: an adversative use of the particle. Such usages are common, and are found throughout Tanakh.

  • Just checking if I got your answer correctly: would you translate timshol bo in Bereshit 4:7 as: but you can rule 'against' it? – Levi Sep 10 '17 at 19:01
  • @levi, You can look at any published translation to see how people translate it. It's not particularly ambiguous. I would translate it as "rule over it", but that doesn't mean that the Hebrew particle has the same semantic range as the English "over". Languages don't work like that. – Shimon bM Sep 10 '17 at 21:22
  • I understand that, but the meaning of 'rule over' is something else as 'rule with' or 'rule against'. So I do think it's important to understand the suffix בו in relation to תמשול, which meaning is also not so clear as crystal for Hirsch and Vilna Gaon (to name some) both give a different definition to it. I'm just trying to understand these two little words and the meaning (in the broadest sense) they have when used combined. – Levi Sep 11 '17 at 12:25
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I will first show how Rav Hirsch explains the meaning of תמשול בו and then contrast it with תמלך על to show the difference between them and the reason for it. I will also explain the reason for the particular pasuk that you reference.

Rav Hirsch translates תמשול בו as master it, he then explains that

So that in truth the relationship between Man and his passions should be essentially not unlike that between husband and wife. A Man should be freely affianced to his sensuality, so as, under his guidance, together with it, to achieve the highest purpose of life.

Note what Hashem tells Chava in Bereishis 3:16

אֶל־הָֽאִשָּׁ֣ה אָמַ֗ר הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה֙ עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ:

To the woman He said, "I shall surely increase your sorrow and your pregnancy; in pain you shall bear children. And to your husband will be your desire, and he will rule over you."

Rav Hirsch also connects this with משל.

basic meaning: to declare what something is and should be, to give its character and designation. Hence, to command, to rule. The משל directs everyone what he is to be and do. So that it is by no means synonymous with כבש, to force to subjugate, it is rather to guide and rule.

Thus one establishes the correct character and meaning of a relationship within the party being ruled. This usage is why the בו is used here as well as why בָּֽךְ is used with Chava.

Note that in Vayeishev 37:8 the two terms are contrasted.

וַיֹּ֤אמְרוּ לוֹ֙ אֶחָ֔יו הֲמָלֹ֤ךְ תִּמְלֹךְ֙ עָלֵ֔ינוּ אִם־מָשׁ֥וֹל תִּמְשֹׁ֖ל בָּ֑נוּ וַיּוֹסִ֤פוּ עוֹד֙ שְׂנֹ֣א אֹת֔וֹ עַל־חֲלֹֽמֹתָ֖יו וְעַל־דְּבָרָֽיו:

So his brothers said to him, "Will you reign over us, or will you govern us?" And they continued further to hate him on account of his dreams and on account of his words.

Rav Hirsch translates the two terms for ruling as

Wouldst thou indeed be a King over us, or indeed now rule over us

The first term, מלך על, implies the force of כבוש over one imposed from outside, while the term משול ב means have us accept you as the ruler internally so that you are the legitimate and accepted ruler. This is the difference in modern terms between the dictator of North Korea, or the mullahs of Iran and the President of the United States or the Queen of England.

  • This doesn't answer any part of the question, which was about the prefix + pronoun, בו – Shimon bM Sep 5 '17 at 3:45
  • @ShimonbM The last sentence explains why the בו is used with the משל I first needed to explain the main usage beforesaying why that pronoun – sabbahillel Sep 5 '17 at 6:12
  • I still don't understand why it says bo, which can be found in many verses about 'ruling', but most often means 'among', why not use al על like in Genesis 37:8 to give it the meaning of 'over', it (almost) seems that the verse here teaches that man has to rule with or (among). – Levi Sep 5 '17 at 8:12
  • @Levi Exactly. It is not ruling over which is the context of , to force to subjugate but is the context of ruling within. I will add the reference to 37:8 to show the difference. – sabbahillel Sep 5 '17 at 11:59
  • @Levi Did the section that I added explain what I meant more precisely. Thank you for the reference as I used that to show why the two terms differ. – sabbahillel Sep 5 '17 at 12:14

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