[This review was first published in THE GUARDIAN of Saturday June 18, 2005 (pages 22-23). I could not find an online copy so I typed it out unedited and scanned the pictures. Apology: I had earlier posted it as “A 2005 Review of “The Sons of Gods and the Daughters of Men” but the title was not accurate]
The Man Who Rewrote Genesis
Septuagenarian Modupe Oduyoye is an exegete, language expert, polyglot etc., all rolled into one. In this piece, Yemi Ogunsola examines how this international scholar explores many African and Semitic languages to shed new light on the Book of Genesis and many difficult Yoruba words.
BY YEMI OGUNSOLA
When in 1972, Modupe Oduyoye, language expert and exegete, unleashed his book “The Vocabulary of Yoruba Religious Discourse” on the public, it sent shock waves throughout the linguistic community. Exegetes are experts who undertake critical study of texts, especially the Bible.
Oduyoye’s theories were bold, daring. He seemed to harbor no reverence for any hallowed folk etymology, but what his phonological tools told him. He challenged and often discreditedmany conventional etymological conclusions of the time.
However, his arguments were difficult to fault. They were intellectually water-tight and many times air-tight.
For one, they demolished once and for all, all notions that a ‘monolingual” approach is sufficient to find the root meanings (etymology) of difficult words in Yoruba – or any language for that matter. In many of his explanations of Yoruba words, Oduyoye drew from languages from outside Yoruba.
Secondly, Oduyoye demonstrated most vividly, the relationship, already acknowledged by language experts, between Semitic languages like Hebrew, Akkadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic, and many African languages like Hausa, Tiv. Efik, Yoruba, Ibibio, Igbo, Fon, Twi etc.
Oduyoye’s book was actually in response to the publication in 1969 of the report of the first consultation of African theologians held in Ibadan in 1966 with the title: “Biblical Revelations and African Beliefs.”
The report was subsequently recommended for the General Assembly of the All African Congress of Churches in September 1969. Oduyoye read and reviewed the publication.
Contributors to the conference included eminent scholars like the late Professor Bolaji idowu; Rev. E.A.A. Adegbola and Monsignor (Ezeanya. Oduyoye wasn’t very satisfied with many of the conclusions.Now he joined the “fray” armed to the teeth.
Oduyoye had studied Hebrew at Yale in 1964, Comparative Semitic Linguistics at the Linguistics Institute of the Linguistics Society of America on a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies in 1965, Arabic at Yale from 1965 to 1966 and Middle Egyptian in London from 1969 to1970. Added to this was his intimate knowledge of the traditions of his people, the Yoruba, a considerable knowledge of many Nigerian and African languages and a passionate curiosity about words and their origins. So Oduyoye undertook a review of the theological conference with the best tools.
While the scholars who contributed papers at the conference put up commendable efforts, Oduyoye could see that they were sorely limited by their, mostly monolingual tools.Oduyoye’s tool was different. It was comparative theology at its keenest. With profuse references to linguistic authorities in Afro-Asiatic (Hamito-Semitic) languages, Oduyoye sliced through hitherto impregnable words with the cold objectivity of an intellectual guillotine.
Who, for instance, would fault Oduyoye when he pointed out that Igbo “dibia” (medicine man) is cognate (has the same origin) with Arabic “tibia” (Physicnan, doctor)? Or that Yoruba ajo is cognate with Hebrew Haj and Arabic Hajj? And that “Alhaji” is cognate with Yoruba Alejo?
You see, in philology, (the scientific study of the nature and growth of words and languages) consonants like k, l, s, t, etc are the tell-tale that give away the relationships between words. These consonants are to words what bones are to fossils. Though vowels (the flesh) may decay or change as words travel over time and space, the consonants (bones) remain. It is these consonants (consonantal roots) that philologists use to track words to find their meanings or genealogy.
But then, some consonants are “liquid”, that is, change form from language to language.Thus, when the English word “guava” gets to Yoruba-speaking peoples, the consonant “v”, being absent Yoruba pronounciation becomes “b” or “f””. So guava becomes “goba” or “gofa”. Similarly “l” often becomes “r”, “s” becomes”sh” (e.g. among Ibadan indigenes) or “th” or even “z”.Philologists look out for these consonantal changes (liquidity) in the “detective work of tracking words.
Armed with these basic rules of comparative philology, Oduyoye tracked the irun-prefix in Yoruba Irunmale
(divinities) hitherto thought to be “400” to the Arabic” word harem and Hebrew herem both of which convey the idea of “sacred” or “holy”. The r-m-consonantal roots are clear, but the “h” is missing in Yoruba, Oduyoye says, because “Yoruba nouns generally do not begin with an /h/ or any h-type sound.”
From Ijebu “Lisa” (chief of first rank) to Igbo “Olise” (“God” as in Olisemeka) to “Lesa” among the Ambo of Malawi, the Barotse, the Bemba, the Kaonde, Lala, Lamba, Oduyoye, tracks the “l-s” consonantal root (which liquid forms are r-s” “l-z” “r-th” which all convey the idea of “head” “chief” first”) to Hebrew “rosh” (first) to Arabic “ras,” Aramaic “resh” and Akkadian “rishu”. And to Yoruba “Orisha”. In fact Hebrew “Harison-iym” is translated “Ancestors” in Psalm 79.8 of the Jerusalem Bibe Oduyoye says, the “-iym” being a mere plural suffix in Hebrew
Oduyoye also laces Yoruba Religious Discourse, with interesting “linguistic gossips in the foot notes like generous crumbs of stock-fish in an already delicious Osiki soup.
However, Oduyoye’s glaring success did not get into his head. He acknowledged the pioneering efforts of eminent scholars like Archdeacon Olumide Lucas (who was teacher to his father) with whom he actually corresponded while writing the book: ‘The thoughtful restudy of past scholarship is not criticism for the sake of criticism, but an attempt to elucidate the principles involved in the discovery of truth… in doing this, however, it is right that we express our gratitude and respect to those whose work is being used and restudied, and, without whose pioneering zeal and daring,the present evaluation will not have been attempted.” Oduyoye wrote, quoting yet another authority.
So when seven years later, in August 1979, the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Odogbolu, (now in Ogun State) the Rt. Rev. I.B.O. Akintemi, invited Oduyoye to lead a series of Bible studies at the diocese’s clergy schools, it was an opportunity to take apart Genesis 1 – 11 with the scalpel of Hamito-semitic (Afro Asiatic) philology.
Puzzles usually glossed over by other interpreters came under Oduyoye’s scrutiny. “Why” Oduyoye asks, “does the Hebrew language have a world with a plural suffix (-iym) as its word for “God” when Hebrew religion is anti-polytheistic?”
“Who,” Oduyoye asks “are the sons of the Gods of Genesis 6:1?”
Traditional interpretation will say “angels” or “Israelites”, but Oduyoye says “no” to both.
Hear Oduyoye “And thus I dug up the questions those obvious in the English version and those patent only to one who reads from the Hebrews text. The true nature of the literary corpus we were studying thus becomes clear, and the need for interpretation could not be questioned…” The result, expectedly, was extraordinary. And for the , it was fascinating, if a mite disturbing. What would these unusual interpretation do to the faith of Christians? One of them wondered aloud.
Oduyoye’s response was simple: “Christian preaching certainly needs a stronger pillar to lean upon than a basis of obscurantism.”
Oduyoye himself was and remains an eminent member of the Church having served in many capacities, including being the literature secretary of the Christian Council of Nigeria.
Oduyoye had first informed his cleric students that. Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament texts and other Semitic languages like Aramaic, Akkadian, MEgyptian, Ugarithic etc all belong to the same Afro-Asiatic (Hamito Semitic) language group as many Africa languages like Hausa, Efik, Ibiobio, Yoruba, Igbo Fulfide, Twi, Fon etc. Thus, in seeking explanations to passages of Genesis 1- 11, Oduyoye drew from these languages.
Having equipped himself with considerable acquaintance with many African languages, Oduyoye stood, as it were, at a vantage point where he has an unusually panoramic view of the innards of these languages. The substance of this Bible studies, Oduyoye later compiled in a book with the title: “The Sons of the Gods and the Daughters of Men.”
On the whole, the 132- page book, published in 1984 by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, impresses upon the reader that Genesis 1 – 11 contains a lot of folk or popular etymology as “tall stories for popular consumption” which are told not for their basis in fact but by way of the lay man’s attempt to explain things that are obscure to him.
Oduyoye had dealt at length with the problem of folk etymology in Yoruba Religious Discourse. In it, he cited the drum signal used then to reproduce the intonation pattern of the English statement: “This is the Nigerian Broadcasting Service.” Which some Yoruba folk erroneously interprete as
“Ninu Ikoko dudu la ti n se’be. It is inside a black pot that we cook stew”
He then cites such popular etymology in the Book of Genesis:
“that Eve was so named because she was the mother of all life; that Isaac was so named because he grabbed his twin brother by the heels while they were still in the womb; that Cain was so named because the mother said at birth” I have acquired a man with the help of God”… that Marah was so named because there Israelites found the water bitter”
“Babel” for instance, which according to the Bible, was derived from the fact that it is where God confused the tongue of men..
First, Oduyoye dismissed the claim that the whole world had one language by reminding us that earlier in Gen 10 we had been told that the son of Yaphet, Ham and Shem had been classified according to their different tongues.
Confused in Hebrew is “balal”. But the Genesis writers are saying that “Babel” (b-b-l) is derived from Balal (b-l-l).
Oduyoye says “no”. “The (writer of Genesis) is basing etymology on a single leg of sound similarity without any consideration for the other leg of meaning similarity. Hebrew “balal” means “mingle” mix, confuse, confound cognate therefore with Chichewa ideophone “balala-balala” scatter, disperse.
“Here, etymology has two legs to stand upon. Phonology and semantics. But what does Babel” mean? “Babel is Hebrew. It is the name of the Babylonian capital whose only gate was memorably designed with religious motiffs. It came to be known by the Babylonians as baab ilu the gate of God.’ Babel could therefore not be so called because Yahweh balal the speech of all the earth.” Oduyoye then goes blunt: “The etymology of Genesis 1-11 are based on fancy, not fact. They serve the purpose of mythology, not that of linguistics or philology. As far as the Genesis writers were concerned, a word in a strange language must connote something similar in a similar- sounding word in Hebrew. The semantic tour de force produces a good story, and in mythology, the story is the end.”
Oduyoye also drew attention to how Genesis writers borrowed generously form polytheistic mythology, but then superimposed their own brand of “monotheistic theology” on it. Genesis 2:4 for instance talks of the towledot (genealogy) of the heavens and the earth.
A genealogy gives the list of children just like in the genealogy Shem. But the Genesis writers, Oduyoye says, don’t want to hear talk of “sons and daughters” born of heaven and earth, which inevitably implies procreation . Instead they introduced YHWH (Yahweh/Jehovah) as a solo creator. “To introduce YHWH ‘eloh-iym into an ancient mythology in which the male heaven and the female earth were procreative agents—- persons or spirit or gods—- is to turn mythology into (Hebrew) theology,”Oduyoye comments.
Other glimpses of mythology shows in statements like that in Gen 6: that ‘the sons of the gods (heaven) married the daughters of men (earth) and gave birth to gibbor-iym (powerful ones).
In essence, what Genesis writers did is to rewrite mythology to suit their own religious (theological) purpose—- which is to push Yahweh as the sole creator who moulds (forms).
Another major record in the Bible which gives away this doctoring of ancient mythology is the very first sentence in the Bible. In the original Hebrew Bible, it reads:
“In the beginning eloh-iym (the gods) created the heavens and the earth. “Why,” Oduyoye asks does the Hebrew language have a word with a plural suffix (-iym) as its word for ‘God’ When Hebrew religion is anti-polytheistic?”
In repainting the existing picture of the polytheistic mythology of the time the Genesis writers left many patches of the old paint. And in several cases, the old paint shows from underneath the new.
Later translators of the Hebrew into Greek had to grapple with this tell-tale ambiguities. And in their efforts, they messed up many translations.
For instance, though Hebrews/Judaists insist that Yahweh is the only God, they left words like Ben-ey ha-eloh-iym (sons of the gods) in places like Genesis 6. Where do these fit in Hebrew theology? Who are the gods and who are their sons?
Oduyoye however tells us that such “sons of the gods” are not unknown in African tradition. He quotes Joshua N. Kudajie. Aspects of Religion and Morality in Ghanaian Traditional Society with particular reference to the Ga Adangme.”:
“The sons and daughters of Naa Nyamo (Ga “Father God”) are known to us as jemawoji ‘the gods of the world’. They are powerful and intelligent beings who walk about the world, but they have their own abodes in the seas, Lagoons, mountains and other natural objects. Having been delegated by Naa nyamo to be his vicegerents, they are in active contact with the world of nature in man.”
Oduyoye now compares this extract with Job 1:6:
“Now there was a day when ben-ey ha elo-iym (sons of the lords) came to present themselves before YHWH and Satan also came among them…..”
Oduyoye then draws the inference that ben-ey ha eloh-iym are” divine beings like Satan (Ngas go sot ‘the people of knowledge and power’) “We can not escape the answer that ben-ey ha eloh-iym in Gen 6 refers so to the same divine beings whom the Ga of Ghana know as jemawoji, whom the Akan of Ghana know as abosom….”
Then he adds: “The two examples of divine beings named in genesis and Job (Nimrod and Satan) are reflected in West Africa.
- as Yoruba Lamurudu, a legendary hero and
- as Ngas go sot “persons of knowledge and power.” In Yoruba these would be the Orisa.
So, how do translators of Hebrew Genesis to Greek cope with these mythological beings?
Badly: They gave different translations to the same words.
Hear oduyoye “The Septuagint (bible) renders ben-ey ha eloh-iym into Greek as hoi angeloitou theou “messengers of God” in Job 1:6 but as hoi huioi tou theou “the sons of God” in Gen. 6:2….”
A freak word which never existed in English was also introduced: “angel”.
“Those who know the ordinary meaning of Greek angeloi know that it means only “messe
ngers” just as Hebrew male’ak-iym means ‘messengers” ordinarily.
“But when mythical thinking enters into it, Greek angeloi and Hebrew male’alk-iym are rendered into English as angels… the Jews who translated the Hebrew Bible (old Testament) into Greek in Alexandria avoided the mythology of ben-ey ha eloh-iym in Gen.6:1 and Job 1:6 but gave us another myth —- that of angels…”
Perhaps some of Oduyoye’s most sensitive remarks are on what he calls “anti-Hamitism” — hatred for the descendants of Ham and Canaanites in the Genesis accounts. Why rain curses on Canaan when it was Ham who by accident saw his drunken father’s (Noah) nakedness? Oduyoye asks.
Many Bible readers will gloss over this anomaly or rationalize it. But not Oduyoye. It is a ploy to justify the annihilation of theCanaanites, he says:
“The truth is that the story is one of many told by the Hebrews to ridicule nations against whom they harbor a grudge.”
Four of such nations, he says are
*Egypt because of what one of its Pharaohs did to the ancestors of the Jews:
*Canaan who the Jews considered “Idolaters” and therefore could be annihilated in the name of Yahweh
*Moab whom the Hebrews say were born from an incestuous relationship between Lot and his two daughters;
*Babel whom the Jews considered too ambitious and therefore sees the ruins of its imposing ziggurats as punishment from Heaven.
Earlier, Odoyoye had also dealt with another personalty whom he said the Hebrew writers tried to run down because of his greatness: Nimrod, a blackman (Kushite) whom, quoting Genesis, oduyoye described as one of the gibbor-iym (Yoruba al-agbara) cited in Genesis as the ‘first on Earth to be a mighty man.”
Nimrod, according to Oduyoye is actually Yoruba Lamurudu (N-m-d / l-m-d) and he was the first empire builder whose kingdom spread from Babylon ot Nineveh.
“Given this anterior greatness of the Kushite Nimrod, the first gibbor, the writers of Genesis did with Nimrod what they did with Nebuchadnezzar: For no reason other than his greatness, they stated that Nimrod’s greatness was offensive to God (Yahweh).”
Then he adds; “The fact is that the jews had never been great (except during the empire of David and Solomon). On the contrary, they had suffered from great nations many of these included in the kingdom/empire of Nimrod. Babylonians… Assyrians”
Oduyoye return again and again to this issue of racism shown by the Jews in their records. On page 100, he declares: “It is the business of blacks to expose the inherent anti-Hamitism, which resulted in the paradigmatic extermination of the Canaanites by those who,when the tide is turned, have been complaining of anti-Semitism.”
Then Oduyoye zeroes in on the Nigerian situation: “We are asked not to believe that the Abore have any relationship with the ‘iber-iym, and yet what the Iber-iym did to the Canaanites in the name of Yahweh the Abore have done to the sons of Kush from Sokoto to Ilorin in the name of Allah.”
Citing the –b-r consonantal root among other evidence, Oduyoye had told us in the opening of Chapter 7 (page 63) that the Hebrew and Fulani (Bororo) have a common origin: “Eber is the name of the ancestors of the ben-ey Eber “sons of Eber.” These were, in the Bible, the ‘iber-iym ‘the Hebrews.
“Eber, the name of their ancestor is comparable to the name by which the wandering Fulani of West Africa are known: Abore in Nigeria (Borno) and in Chad, Bororo in Nigeria (Adamawa… Their language is called ful-ful-de in Nigeria.”
The ‘b-r root in the name ‘Eber and in the name ‘iber-iym (Hebrews), Oduyoye says occur in Hebrew ‘abar ‘(cross over, trespass, pass on, past by); twi boro (to trespass); Yoruba afara (bridge); Ibara (ford); Ibara-mu (Across the nose); eburu [Shortcut (across an area)].
Oduyoye then declares: “the ‘iber-iym, (Hebrews)go that name because being nomads, they were always passing by the cities of the Canaanites and never settling among them ‘-b-r means “pass on, pass by in judges 19: 12b, 18 and in Ruth 4:1
The sons of the Gods and The daughters of Men is a many-layered work which value continues to be uncovered with repeated reading.
Many more fascinating information are enclosed in its pages: like the link between Adamu Orisa (of the Awori Eyo masquerade in Lagos State) and Hebrew r’ison Adam, the link between Qayin (Cain) and Ogun the Yoruba Patron Saint of Smiths.
The latter link is particularly interesting in its detective nature. On the latter, Oduyoye notes that Hebrew Qayin is cognate with the Arabic word for smith(s) qayn/quyun.
Reminding us of the q/g/k consonantal liquidity, Oduyoye says the words are cognate with the Yoruba Ogun and Fon Gun both meaning “patron saint of smiths.” Other cognates include Hamn kuno (Investor of iron smelting) and Ebira Egene (the caste of Smiths)
He reminds us too tat the name Akin (valiant man) is most prevalent in Ondo which shares the n-d consonantal root with the land of Nod to which Qayn headed after leaving Eden. And is there a link between the city of Hanok (Enoch) and the Nok culture of Jos Plateau in Nigeria? And can the name Yoruba be a distant relation of Europa?
While the book’s appendix gives further detail on some words already tackled in the body-proper and summarises the main pillars of Oduyoye’s arguments, the index is a mini Afro-Anglo-Semitic dictionary.