Does “after” mean “since”? – A look at אחרי in Gen 41:39

[UPDATE: I’ve made some edits to this post in light of some good feedback in the comment box.  Of note was the comment of Wedas who reminded me that the English word “since” is not just causal but can also be used temporally.  I think I might have titled the post differently, maybe something like “Does אחרי mean מאז?  Prepositions or adverbs in Gen 41:39.”  All this just cements in my mind the importance and value of wrestling with grammar!]

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are.” (Gen 41:39 ESV)

ויאמר פרעה אל יוסף אחרי הודיע אלהים אותך את כל זאת אין נבון וחכם כמוך

εἶπεν δὲ Φαραω τῷ Ιωσηφ ἐπειδὴ ἔδειξεν ὁ θεός σοι πάντα ταῦτα οὐκ ἔστιν ἄνθρωπος φρονιμώτερος καὶ συνετώτερός σου (LXX)

In doing my translational work for a sermon in two weeks, I was a bit thrown by the way the ESV translated Gen 41:39. Since אחר and אחרי generally mean “after” or “behind,” I didn’t know what to make of the ESV’s rendering of the lexeme as “since.” What should we make of this translation? Does it make any difference?

The LXX, as written above, translates the word as ἐπειδὴ.  This can be translated either as “after” or “since” so it is not entirely clear whether the LXX is interpreting the term as Hebrew as temporal or causal.  (Incidentally, the Tov LXX/MT alignment project notes that this is the only place the LXX renders אחרי with ἐπειδὴ, although the cognate ἐπεί is used two times for אחרי.  It should be noted, however, that ἐπεί can also have a temporal meaning, so the opacity remains.)

Targum Onkelos translates אחרי with די (“because”), so it seems that at least one ancient interpreter is reading this causally. And yet it is also possible that Onkelos simply didn’t care for the word “after.” After all, it feels a bit more awkward:

“And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘After God made all of this known to you, there is none discerning and wise like you.'”

“After” just doesn’t flow as nicely as “since” or “because.” But the MT does say אחרי and both Targum Pseudo Jonathan and Targum Neophyti translate with בתר, which means, according to Marcus Jastrow, “after, behind.” (Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, s.v., בתר, באתר). HALOT and Holladay also translate אחרי solely as “after.”

Victor Hamilton (NICOT) translates Gen 41:39 with “because,” but footnotes it, citing an article by W.J.P Boyd, “Notes on the Secondary Meanings of אחר,” JTS 12 (1961), which I am unable to obtain as of the writing of this post. The statistic Hamilton gleans from Boyd is that only 8 of the 71 occurrences of אחר have a causal force. (See Hamilton, pg. 501, n.3.) I decided to take a look at the passages to see what might be driving this translational decision. Here are the passages he cites, not reprinting passage currently under consideration, with my comments.

Gen 46:30

Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.”
ויאמר ישראל אל יוסף אמותה הפעם אחרי ראותי את פניך כי עודך חי

ESV translates with a causal meaning, but אחרי may still read fine with a temporal meaning. If not pressed too literalistically, the aged Jacob could be telling Joseph that after seeing his face, he is at peace and can now face death. (Cf. a similar type-scene in Luke 2:29.)

Josh 7:8

O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies!
בי אדני מה אמר אחרי אשר הפך ישראל ערף לפני איביו

Since אחרי is in collocation with אשר, I am skeptical of assigning a causal meaning to אחרי using this verse as support. After all, the causal meaning might be coming from the אשר half of the collocation. (Note that the ESV has even stayed with a temporal translation, “when,” simply changing the timing of the action. Incidentally, “since” does sound like a better translation here.)

Judg 11:36

So she said to him, “My father, you have given your word to the LORD; do to me as you have said, since the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.”
ותאמר אליו אבי פציתה את פיך אל יהוה עשה לי כאשר יצא מפיך אחרי אשר עשה לך יהוה נקמות מאיביך מבני עמון

Another collocation of אחרי אשר, cf. notes on Josh 7:8 above.

Judg 19:23

And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing.
ויצא אליהם האיש בעל הבית ויאמר אלהם אל אחי אל תרעו נא אחרי אשר בא האיש הזה אל ביתי‪‬ אל תעשו את הנבלה הזאת

Another collocation of אחרי אשר, cf. notes on Josh 7:8 above.

2 Sam 1:10

So I stood beside him and killed him, because I was sure that he could not live after he had fallen. And I took the crown that was on his head and the armlet that was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord.”
ואעמד עליו ואמתתהו כי ידעתי כי לא יחיה אחרי נפלו ואקח הנזר אשר על ראשו ואצעדה אשר על זרעו ואביאם אל אדני הנה

ESV translates with “after” (i.e., temporal). I am not sure how this could be rendered causally.

2 Sam 19:30 [MT 19:31]

And Mephibosheth said to the king, “Oh, let him take it all, since my lord the king has come safely home.”
ויאמר מפיבשת אל המלך גם את הכל יקח אחרי אשר בא אדני המלך‪ ‬ בשלום אל ביתו ס

Another collocation of אחרי אשר, cf. notes on Josh 7:8 above.

[Note: Hamilton lists Jer 31:18, but this might be a typo for Jer 31:19. I’m reading it this way.]

Jer 31:19

For after I had turned away, I relented, and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
כי אחרי שובי נחמתי ואחרי הודעי ספקתי על ירך בשתי וגם נכלמתי כי נשאתי חרפת נעורי

Like 2 Sam 1:10 above, I’m not sure how this can be rendered causally.

Concluding thoughts…

I am not sure translating Gen 41:39 causally is either warranted or necessary. The passages cited in favor of such a move do not seem to require a causal meaning, though Gen 46:30 could be one such example. Instead, retaining a temporal translation seems to add a neat nuance. Again, my translation from above:

“And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘After God made all of this known to you, there is none discerning and wise like you.'”

A temporal translation makes the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream a significant point in time. Prior to him stepping forward with this interpretation, there may have been discerning and wise men in Egypt, at least in Pharaoh’s mind. And yet after this happened it was crystal clear; Joseph was a cut above the rest. It is not just that the dream and its interpretation is the reason Joseph was better than the others, it is the sign that made clear Joseph’s unique status. After Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream, the definition of wise and discerning had been forever altered.

_____________________________

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

5 thoughts on “Does “after” mean “since”? – A look at אחרי in Gen 41:39”

  1. Of course, the semantic range of “since” in English tends to bridge the gap between the temporal and the causal. “Ever since R. Andrew Compton moved in down the block, you’ve been an unmanageable tyrant.”

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    1. Hahaha, nice example, Wedas!

      Yes, that is absolutely right. I was so hung up on the grammatical difference that I didn’t even think about *that* semantic overlap!

      I perhaps shold have titled this diffently, maybe something along the lines of “Does אחרי mean מאז?” Even though “after” and “since” have some overlap with a temporal sense, I am not sure if אחרי (“after”) and מאז (“since”) do so in the same way. I’ll have to think a bit more about this!

      Thanks for the comment!

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    2. I’ve been thinking about this again and I wonder if the word “since” is understood primarily as a causal term or as a temporal one. When it is modified by the word “ever,” then it is clear that since is being used temporally. But without it, the ambiguity still remains. Hmmm … more to munch on here ….

      “Ever since R. Andrew Compton moved in …” = temporal
      “Since R. Andrew Compton moved in …” = maybe temporal? Maybe causal? Which is more natural?

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    1. That’s an interesting question, bubaflub, and it has sent me spelunking deeper into this cave! (There are a host of semantic issues, I’m realizing, dealing even with the Greek words!)

      The Tov alignment (LXX/MT) made it pretty easy to locate the equivalents, I’ll post them below (although I don’t have a Greek keyboard on this computer, so please excuse the Latin script).

      Gen 46:30 = epei
      Josh 7:8 = epei
      Judge 11:36 = en tw poihsai (temporal use of the infinitive, I believe)
      2 Sam 1:10 = meta
      2 Sam 19:30 [31] = meta
      Jer 31:19 = usteron (both times)

      I did find that the preposition “epei” (of which epidh is a cognate) does carry a temporal sense, so it wasn’t entirely accurate for me to say that LXX was translating with a causal sense. It is possible that this is the case, but it is not necessarily the case. (I’ll make an update in the post in light of this.)

      (Incidentally, I’m not sure whether epei functions predominately as a temporal marker, or predominately as a causal marker. Liddel & Scott list the temporal first, giving more examples, but I’m not sure about the significance of that.)

      It would take a lot of work to study the semantic range of these Greek particles. (More time than I intend to put into this one word in my sermon prep!) :-) Frankly, exploring the range of די and בתר in the Targums could also be useful, yet tedious.

      The more I think about this, however, the more I think I’m starting to miss the forest for the trees in this passage! (Or making a mountain out of a molehill?!) Oh well, grammar is fun to muse about on a blog, at least when it’s in Hebrew or Greek!

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