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Can we co-create with the Creator? Or are we just a tool He uses to create new life?
So Cain derives his name from his mother's declaration that she has "acquired" a man with God. As we mentioned in the previous article, Eve's use of the word "acquire" is a bit odd. But truth to tell, this is not the only oddity in Eve's declaration. Something else is a bit strange as well. It has to do with the way Eve says that she has partnered with God.
If you were a Hebrew speaker and you wanted to say that you had done something "with" someone else, how would you say it? Which Hebrew word would you choose for with?
The word you would immediately, instinctively reach for would be im. You can grab your dictionary and look it up. The word im appears everywhere in the Bible, and it is the most basic and plain way to say with.
But this is not the word Eve uses. She uses the word et.
Et too, is a common word in the Bible. And et can mean "with" -- at least occasionally. Nine times out of ten, though, et means something else entirely. It performs a particular grammatical function that would be entirely out of place in Eve's sentence. We'll talk more about what et usually means later, but for now, suffice it to say that Eve avoids the far more common word for with, (im), and uses the much more jarring, seemingly-out-of-place et instead. Why would she do that?
From Creator to Owner
Well, first things first. Eve talks about "acquiring" rather than "creating." Is there a relationship between the two words -- that is, the word we would have expected her to use (create) and the word she actually uses (acquire)?
Clearly, the words are related. "Acquiring" conjures up notions of having or owning, and indeed, a creator could be said to have or own the things he creates. He might be said to "acquire" them through the act of creating them. So creation, we might say, leads to ownership.
Well sort of, but not necessarily. Creation can lead to ownership -- but it doesn't have to. Let's stop and define our terms here. When I say that I own something, this means that I am asserting my right to control the thing and to keep you from using it. Now, after I make something, I can decide to assert this right if I want to, but I don't have to. I could alternatively decide that what I've made is open to the world and people can use it freely or alter it at will. If I make a software program, I can file a patent and assert my exclusive rights over it, or I can put it up on my website and declare it freeware. It is up to me.
The act of creation then, sets up a choice. The choice concerns my relationship to that which I've created. Will I choose to assert my control over it? Will I choose to own it?
Eve, at least in her own mind, seems to have made this journey from "creator" to "acquirer" -- she, along with God, has "acquired" this little man. Which leads us to ask: Why, exactly, would a creator choose to make this journey?
When It's Not About Money Anymore
The most obvious children come to mind -- and unless Eve was intending to put Cain up for sale on the slave market, it's doubtful that it is financial gain she has in mind motivation for a creator to assert his rights of ownership, I suppose, would be economic. If I own something, I can sell it or trade it for other things of value. But there are certain things which are "ours" that we don't own in an economic kind of way -- when she calls Cain "hers." Indeed, the lure of cash does not by any means exhaust the list of reasons I might want to "own" that which I create. Stephen King has a lot of money already, maybe more than he can use, but he still fills out the copyright forms for his books. Why?
A deeper reason a creator wishes to exert ownership is a sense of pride in that which he's made.
A deeper reason a creator wishes to exert ownership, I think, is a sense of pride in that which he's made. By this, I don't mean pride in a bad sense, I mean it in a natural sense. What I've made is an expression of who I am. It is precious to me. I poured resources, energy and ingenuity into its making, and I want to make sure the thing maintains its integrity once it is released into the world at large.
To clarify the point: Calling myself the owner of that which I've made is not necessarily a selfish act. I may well be ready to part with what I've made, to bestow it as a gift to others or to the world -- but still, I want to make sure the world gets what I intended to give it. I don't want my precious creation to be adulterated or corrupted by other well-meaning but foolish hands. Sometimes I assert that what I've made is mine merely in order to protect what I think is its core identity.
Speaking personally, I can certainly relate to the impulse of a "creator" to see himself as an "owner." A number of years ago, I was asked by a local organization to develop a series of classes on "the Meaning of Life" according to Judaism. It seemed like a hopelessly vague and probably fruitless assignment. But after many days and weeks of work, I had finally put together something that, well, I really liked. I was truly proud of this thing. And all of a sudden, I felt terribly reluctant to do what I had said I would do. I was supposed to teach the course to a number of teachers, who would then go out and teach it to students. But I didn't want to do that anymore. I feared that the organization that commissioned the project didn't really understand what I had put together, and I worried that the delicate tapestry I had constructed would become corrupted in the hands of others who didn't care about it as much as I did. I can't say I'm proud of feeling this way, but, for better or for worse, I just wasn't prepared to give up control over what I had made. It was too dear to me.
In using the word "acquire" rather than "create," perhaps Eve was making some sort of journey from creator to owner. Not an "owner" in a base, economic sense, but in a fuller, even spiritual sense. What she created with God was not something trivial or incidental, but something which imbued her life with new sanctity and meaning. Indeed, Eve's very name speaks to this life-goal: Eve, or in Hebrew Chava, is short for em kol chai, "Mother of All Life." The fruits of her partnership with the Almighty are not incidental to who she is; they help define who she is. Her child would be hers and God's, come what may. Cain mattered to her, in the deepest possible way.1
From Im to Et
But to truly understand Eve, we must now turn to the next ambiguous phrase in her declaration, her use of the unusual "et" instead of "im."
As I mentioned above, et can be used to mean with (as Eve seems to use it here), but that is not the usual dominant meaning of the word. What, in fact, does et usually mean?
Before I answer that, let me take a minute to make my case as to why it's even important for us to know this. Why should we be so concerned with the other meaning of et if that's not the meaning that Eve intends?
The answer is this: When it comes to Hebrew, synonyms (like, for example, et and im, both of which can mean with) are a tricky business. You always have to ask why there are two words for an idea when one would have done just fine. More often than not, the two synonymous words don't mean exactly the same thing; they are instead slightly different flavors of the same ice cream. We can see another example of this with the words eiphoh and ayeh in connection with Adam and Eve in Eden. These two words, which each ostensibly means where, actually signify two very different questions: "where" vs. "where have you gone." Likewise, when it comes to with, if there are two Hebrew words for this idea, it may well be that the idea itself comes in two different flavors.
How do you discern the taste of each flavor, the precise meaning of each term? One way to do it is to look for alternative meanings of each word. If et has a primary meaning and a secondary meaning, it may well be that the secondary meaning derives from the primary one. The kind of with that et expresses may be influenced by whatever else this word et really means.
Getting at "Et"
So now, back to our question: What does et usually mean, when it doesn't mean with?
Well I'm glad you asked. The question though, isn't so easy to answer, for the primary meaning of the word et has no English counterpart. It is a grammatical utility tool unique to the Hebrew language. It provides a bridge, a link, between a verb and a direct object. In English, we don't have a need for any special words to perform this task. We just put the verb and direct object right next to each other and call it a day. In Hebrew though, et would be inserted between the two to complete the link.
Here's a quick example. In English, if you struck a little round thing, you would say, "I hit the ball," and it would be clear to all what you mean. In Hebrew though, you wouldn't say it that way. You would use the word et to create the link between verb and object. You would say hikeiti et hakadur -- or, "I hit "et‘ the ball."
So let me be the first to congratulate you -- you are now an expert in Hebrew grammar, and there there, it wasn't even so painful, was it? But the real prize is that you are now in a better position to understand the Bible. For now that you know what et usually means, you can now see what it might have meant when Eve used it to mean with.
Co-Subject or Tool?
In English, as in Hebrew, the word with admits of two meanings. I can say that I wrote this article with a co-author (I didn't). Or I can say I wrote it with a word-processor (I did). In each case, I am using the same word .with -- but I mean vastly different things.
One kind of with denotes full companionship; the other denotes subservience.
One kind of with indicates an equal partnership; the other, an unequal partnership.
One kind of with, I would argue, is denoted by im. The other kind, I think, is denoted by et.
The im kind of with points to a co-subject -- another author, for example, who along with me, plans, plots and writes the article. The et kind of with though, doesn't point to another subject at all. It points to an object -- a tool that I make use of to achieve my goal.
"Im" versus "Et"
I, with Sam, my fictional friend,
this chapter with my word processor
“Im” kind of “with”
“Et” kind of “with”
In a curious kind of way, perhaps the two meanings of et really are the same. Et, when used as a grammatical linker, points to an object in a sentence. And et, when used to mean with, points to an object, too. It indicates that which a subject uses to get something done.
So now, one more time -- when Eve said "I acquired a man with God," what was she really saying?
Eve perceives herself a partner with the Almighty in the sacred and miraculous act of creation.
The two halves of Eve's marvelously concise statement mesh to form a fascinating whole. Eve perceives herself a partner with the Almighty in the sacred and miraculous act of creation. The fruit of this partnership matters to her, means everything to her; she has acquired, not merely created, and the product of this creativity expresses the essence of who she is. And yet this is not a partnership of equals. One partner is subject; the other is object. One is innovator, the other a tool.
There is something inherently unsettled about this arrangement, and something inherently ambiguous about what Eve is saying. Hang on, dear reader, and we'll try to get to that -- as well as its ramifications for understanding Cain -- in our next article.
1 Indeed, the very word "matter' may well derive from the Latin word for mother, "mater".