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"Mules" or "Hot springs" in Genesis 36:24?

“And these are the children of Zibeon; both Ajah, and Anah: this was that Anah that found the mules in the wilderness, as he fed the asses of Zibeon his father.” (Genesis 36:24, KJV)

The word “ימם (yemem)”, translated as “mules” in the KJV, appears only once in the Bible.  Modern translations such as the ESV and NIV follow the Latin Vulgate and translate it as “hot springs”.  Yet Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, admitted to the diversity of opinions regarding the proper translation of the word.  Adam Clarke says regarding the word, “here translated mules, has given rise to a great variety of conjectures and discordant opinions. St. Jerome, who renders it aquas calidas, warm springs, or hot baths, says there are as many opinions concerning it as there are commentators” (Clarke's Commentary on the Bible).  The NIV footnote to this verse admits that “the meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain.”

The KJV reading is supported by several authoritative rabbinical sources which identify this word as “mules”.  Clarke's Commentary on the Bible says:

The Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel paraphrases the place thus: "This is the Anah who united the onager with the tame ass, and in process of time he found mules produced by them." R. D. Kimchi says, that "Zibeon was both the father and brother of Anah; and this Anah, intent on heterogeneous mixtures, caused asses and horses to copulate, and so produced mules." R. S. Jarchi is of the same opinion. See his comment on this place.

Adam Clarke provides other interpretations of this word but admits to preferring “mules”, providing the following reasons involving history and etymology:

My own opinion is, that mules were not known before the time of Anah; and that he was probably the first who coupled the mare and ass together to produce this mongrel, or the first who met with creatures of this race in some very secluded part of the wilderness. Is it not probable that from this Anah, or ענה enah, the Enetae derived at least their fabulous origin, whom Homer mentions as famous for their race of wild mules?

Παφλαγονων δ' ἡγειτο Πυλαιμενεος λασιον κηρ,

Εξ Ενετων, ὁθεν ἡμιονων γενος αγροτεραων.

IL., lib. ii., v. 852.

The Paphlagonians Pylaemenes rules,

Where rich Henetia breeds her Savage Mules.

Pope.

The Enetae or Henetae, who were a people contiguous to Paphlagonia, Cappadocia, and Galatia, might have derived their origin from this Anah, or Henah, out of which the Ενετοι of the ancient Greek writers might have been formed; and according to Theophrastus, Strabo, and Plutarch, the first mules were seen among these people. See Ludov, De Dieu and Scheuchzer.

The primary objection to rendering the word as “mules” in Genesis 36:24 is that the word for “mule” in the rest of the Bible is “פּרד (pered)”.  By “rest of the Bible”, however, it is meant from 2 Samuel 13:29 and onward.  There is more than 400 years of lapsed time in between Moses’ use of “ימם” in Genesis 36:24 and the other prophets’ use of “פּרד” in the rest of the Bible.  Hence it is very probable that the word for “mule” changed over time.  For example, if a book were compiled today from the year 1600 to 2000, the portion written in 1600 might refer to an “ass” while the portion written in 2000 will probably refer to a “donkey”.

As to why “ימם (yemem)” could mean “mules”, the word may be related to the Hebrew word for “right hands”, which is “ימינם (yeminam)”, the plural of “ימין (yamin)”.  According to Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, “Yamin may be used in a figurative sense.  God’s taking one’s “right hand” means that He strengthens him: “For I the Lord thy God will hold thy right hand, saying unto thee, Fear not: I will help thee” (Isa. 41:13).”  “ימין (yamin)” signifies strength.  Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries defines the word as “the right hand or side (leg, eye) of a person or other object (as the stronger and more dexterous);” (Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries).  Mules are considered to be more sturdy and useful for transporting heavy loads than are horses and donkeys.  In today’s idiom, we could say that a mule is the “right hand man” of a laborer.  This characteristic of a mule may have given it a name that derives from the word for “right hand”.  As the primary reason for breeding a mule in the first place was to produce a more sturdy and helpful assistant for labor, it is fitting that its first name used in a passage about its discovery relates to its purpose.

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