2023-01-03

The Second Creation Story in Genesis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 6]

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by Neil Godfrey

The stately narrative of the creation of the cosmos in six days crowned by a sabbath rest comes to an abrupt end as the reader is swept into a totally different dimension: an announcement of the “generations of heaven and earth”, a world of animals being created after the man, a garden with mythical geography and two forbidden trees, a talking serpent, and a god walking in the cool breeze wondering where his newly created man and woman are. If the first creation account draws on Plato and other Greek scientific thought, what are we to make of these following chapters?

For Russell Gmirkin, this Genesis second creation account is also inspired by Plato’s “second creation account” in Timaeus:

It is striking that both Plato’s Timaeus and the book of Genesis divide their account of the creation of the world into two parts, the first narrating the creation of the present universe as a whole . . . 

. . . and with the second part introducing the popular anthropomorphic gods of the Greeks, offering an explanation for mortality and how human wickedness came about without being the responsibility of the supreme creator god.

Thank God for Plato – or rather, Plato for God

It was Plato alone who postulated a truly eternal god that dwelled beyond the plane of sensible existence, beyond time, in the world of Being. This essentially monotheistic conception of a supreme transcendent god existing beyond the sensible universe was a major Platonic innovation, found neither in popular Greek myth nor in the writings of the pre-Socratics, though a commonplace belief today in the religions that are Plato’s intellectual heirs. Earlier natural philosophers who postulated a monotheistic deity, such as Xenophanes of Colophon, Heraclitus of Ephesus and Anaxagoras of Clazomene, did not localize the supreme god outside the realm of sensible existence, but rather as an intelligence pervading the physical universe. Plato’s view of this god as one, eternal and without bodily form, appears to most closely echo the views of Xenophanes. But Plato, by postulating a separate eternal realm of Being distinct from the temporal realm of Becoming, gave a novel ontological basis for the existence of a divine realm where both Forms and the Demiurge could have an abiding existence separated from the sensible physical kosmos. (Gmirkin, 159)

Plato wrote of the supreme deity commissioning his lesser gods to create mortals and Genesis 2 is consistent with this pattern:

  • in the first chapter Elohim creates the cosmos;
  • Elohim then appears to address a divine assembly, “Let us create humans…”;
  • in the second chapter a deity called Yahweh Elohim is depicted creating man and woman, walking in the cool of the day in the garden and engaging in conversation with earthly mortals.

The traditional view among scholars is that Genesis contains two quite different accounts, each composed many years apart, each depicting a different god, and being clumsily combined (certain contradictions between the two were allowed to stand) into a single narrative. Gmirkin argues that both of these different accounts were composed under the influence of Plato’s two-stage creation narrative.

The serious reader will want to investigate the details: what textual variants do we find in the various Hebrew and Greek manuscripts? Gmirkin discusses these questions, engaging with various inconsistencies, and concludes:

it seems reasonable to posit that the original text of Genesis 1-3 was consistent in its use of Elohim and Yahweh Elohim in the First and Second Creation Accounts respectively. (p. 163)

I have to admit that I have some slight reservation over the similarity of the names of the deities: Elohim and Yahweh Elohim. Is it possible that in the original text Yahweh Elohim was stressing a particular attribute of Elohim rather than being meant to be a second god? (Compare the many epithets associated with Zeus and Dionysus.) Another option proposed has been that the original text was referencing two different “hypostases” of the supreme god but I’ll save that discussion for another time when I post on some of Bernard Barc’s ideas. My question at this point does not at all overturn the basic principle of Gmirkin’s thesis, but I wonder if it does open up doors to further explorations of the details of how Hellenistic influence was embedded in Judean/Samaritan thought before the split between the two peoples and reactions against Hellenism.

Here are the generations of heaven and earth

A Roman mosaic depicting the Greek primordial gods Uranus and Gaia

Another curiosity in Genesis that has surely caused many readers at some stage to wonder is “here are the generations of the heaven and earth”:

These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth — Genesis 2:4

That’s one of the many curiosities that I asked about as a child. At the time I was assured that since this was holy writ the meaning had to be whatever followed, however unsatisfying the proposed answers were. One had to wait to reach adulthood to find the same questions are permitted and freely discussed by the scholars. The most likely explanation (uncomfortable for the innocent believer) is that we are reading a passage that had its origins in a view that Heaven and Earth were themselves gods. That’s exactly what we find in Greek mythology. Plato’s highest craftsman god was the father of numerous other deities, beginning with Ge, earth, and Ouranos, heaven.

Plato claimed that the traditional visible Greek gods, starting with Ouranos and Ge, were the offspring of the invisible Demiurge or Creator, and that these semi-mortal, corporeal gods in turn created mortal life, which exonerated the eternal Demiurge from having created mortals with their potential for evil. Likewise, in Gen 2:4 Ouranos and Ge appear as the first two offspring of the Creator of Genesis 1, and an account of their descendants is projected. In Genesis 2-3 the narration shifts from the Creator to the creation of mortal Efe by Yahweh Elohim, a visible god who is one of the descendants of the Creator of Genesis 1, alongside the other terrestrial gods alluded to in Genesis. Yahweh Elohim in turn created mortal life, like the lesser gods in Timaeus. (p. 165)

Contradictions

Contradictions between the accounts:

  • Animals and man created in a different sequence;
  • Birds from water or birds from the ground?
  • Man and woman created together or separately?
  • Humans created by multiple gods or a single god?
  • All plants to be eaten or some forbidden?

For Gmirkin, the contradictions between the two creation accounts are the result of the cooperative authorship process, with several authors being responsible for various sections of Genesis.

Yet it will soon become apparent that the author of Gen 2:4-25 did not directly consult Gen 1:1-2:3, since the two accounts contradict each other at key points. One such con- tradiction was the time it took to create the kosmos, which was specified as six days in Gen 1:1-2:3 but a single day in Gen 2:4 (Cassuto 1989: 88). It does not seem useful to ask which of the two accounts was earlier if, as I have argued elsewhere, the Pentateuch was the product of a collaborative authorial project by multiple contemporary authors present at Alexandria in ca. 270 BCE. Instead, one may merely note that either the storytellers of Gen 2:4-25 or the editor that united Gen 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25 acknowledged that the stories of Genesis 2 presumed the earlier cosmogony of Genesis 1. (p. 165)

Plato assumed his readers had background knowledge of the gods so it was not necessary to relate how they came about. Gmirkin sees the similar sparseness of detail in the Genesis narrative as following the same approach — assuming the reader’s knowledge of the background of the gods.

Much like Plato mentioned Ge (Timaeus 23d), Helios (Timaeus 22c), Hephaestus (Timaeus 23c; Critias 109c), Athena (Timaeus 2le, 24b-d; Critias 109c; 112c), Poseidon (Critias 113b-e, 116c, 117b, 119c-d) and Zeus (Critias 11 Id, 121b) without having traced in detail their descent (except incidentally for Zeus in Timaeus 40e-41a), so Genesis later mentions Yahweh Elohim as one of these terrestrial sons of God without charting the genealogical connections. Yet the vocabulary of theogony in Gen 2:4 allows us to understand Yahweh as a descendant of the Heavens and Earth, Ouranos and Ge, the first offspring of the Creator god. (pp. 166f)

Not Only the Greek Translation

I can only touch on some of Gmirkin’s key points since to attempt more would be to produce a much longer post that included references to a good number of other specialist works. Plato’s influence on the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew text) is noted by several Septuagint scholars but Gmirkin goes a step further by pointing out that there are times when the Hebrew vocabulary also reflects the same patterns so that the original Hebrew, not only the Greek translation, is indebted to Plato.

A living soul

and man became a living soul (Gen 2:7)

One detail where the creation of Adam veers from a point vital to Plato is the nature of “the living soul” that man became when the god (Yahweh Elohim) breathed into his nostrils. For Plato, the implanting of an immortal soul, a spark of divinity, within the human was necessary for his special status in relation to the gods. But Gmirkin sides with those scholars who have argued that in Genesis there is no suggestion of an immortal soul: rather, the “soul” of man refers to his air-breathing living status. Here the author of Genesis 2 departed from Plato and turned to the understanding of Zeno, the Stoic philosopher, that the human soul was perishable life-giving warm breath.

The Garden and Land of Eden

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Golden Age

The Garden of Eden emerges as the dwelling place of Yahweh Elohim. Both the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were forbidden to humans, so we must conclude they were reserved for the gods, or for Yahweh Elohim himself. The garden grew every good plant for the humans to live on and there was no need to kill animals for food; animals were created to live side by side with humans and humans could even converse with them (compare Eve talking with the snake); there was no need for clothing; and direct contact with Yahweh Elohim was regular. All of these features coincide with the myths Plato imagined about the world and life for the first humans, otherwise represented as the golden age of Kronos. Even after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden they were still within the boundary of the land of Eden since the garden comprised only one portion of that land. The first character we read about who was expelled from the land of Eden, the land where Yahweh Elohim dwelled, was Cain. Cain was sent into the land of Nod (Gen 4:16) after he murdered Abel. Presumably the land of Nod was “owned” by another terrestrial deity other than Yahweh Elohim.

When Plato imagined a myth he was quite open to the possibility of someone creating a better myth that more aptly demonstrated the point he was making. The author of the Garden of Eden was, as Gmirkin proposes, writing a narrative to be embraced by the public. To my mind, one firm indicator of this intent is the way the description of the “fantastic” land of Eden morphs into very real geography. We are to understand that Eden is in the region where four rivers have their source, and nearby known lands rich in mineral wealth.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold.  (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

 

The Nile (Gihon) river was thought to be connected, like the other rivers from Eden, to a source in the Caucasus via the “river” of Oceanus. ———– In Genesis description of the land of Eden intrudes into real-world geography. If there is a theological purpose behind these “here-and-now real world” markers I wonder about the insights of another scholarly work (Bernard Barc’s) that, like Gmirkin’s, also argued for a Hellenistic era composition of the Pentateuch. For Barc the author of Genesis was attempting to blend, compromise, join, Hellenistic and “Judean-Samaritan” outlooks and belief systems. In due course I can discuss that view here.

Adam Names the Animals — and the Woman

When Adam is tasked with assigning names to all the animals a reader familiar with Hellenistic philosophy would recognize Plato’s mythical figure, semi-divine, who was the “giver of names” that were fitly appropriate in some way. The classicist R.G. Bury directly compared this figure in Plato’s Timaeus with Adam. Of course, Adam also assigns the name Eve to the first woman. Here, too, there is an interesting comparison: Plato wrote that the Greek name “woman” was fittingly similar to “birth” (γυνή and γονή) just as we read in Genesis that the name Eve was suitable for one who as “the mother of all living” (Ζωή and ζώντων in the Septuagint; cf חַוָּה and חָֽי).

The “Making” of Woman

he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God [Yahweh Elohim] made a woman from the rib

I am reminded of Galatians 4:4 where there is some evidence that the original text said Jesus was “made  from a woman” rather than “born from a woman”.

The biblical author wrote of the first woman being taken from the flesh of the first man by God (Yahweh Elohim) who then “closed up” the gaping wound from where he had taken the flesh and bone to make the woman. Plato devised a comparable myth whereby Zeus surgically cut in two the first “man” to make a female counterpart (though for Plato the first man was androgynous so the separation of the sexes was a bit “cleaner” than the biblical account that required the deity to build up the female from the rib. Plato had another god, Apollo, patch up the wound left in the original “man”. Plato’s myth was a comedy put in the mouth of the comic playwright Aristophanes. I think it is easy to imagine the biblical author taking the core ideas from the comedy and turning them into a serious and more dignified narrative more suitable for popular belief.

The Temptation

As for the story of “the fall” commentators have compared Pandora of Greek myth and Adapa of Mesopotamian myth. Another scholar, one whom Gmirkin cites in another context, has suggested that there the story owes more to Plato than even Gmirkin appears to have recognized, unless Gmirkin considered the argument too subtle for inclusion in his book. The key difference is that Evangelia G. Dafni suspects that somehow a pre-Hellenistic Hebrew story had found its way to Greek thinkers, the reverse of Gmirkin’s argument. The comparison is not with Timaeus but with Plato’s Symposium. A drunken Alcibiades enters the proceedings:

Anselm Feuerbach, “The Symposium”

[In] Plato’s Symposium . . . Alcibiades’s speech alludes to Genesis 3 by focusing on the motifs of temptation, tempter and tempted (215e–216e). In Alcibiades’s speech – just like in [the] serpent’s speech (Gn 3:5) – the truth is distorted, and the tempted turns out to be the tempter (217a–e), who pretends to magnify and adorn the truth (214e). In Genesis 3, temptation takes place through eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil, for the sake of pleasure of the eyes and for the sake of wisdom. In Alcibiades’s speech, temptation actually takes place by drinking wine for the sake of Eros and for the sake of truth. Also, the comparison of Socrates to busts of Silenus . . [devilish creatures] . . . provides a standard against which both texts can be compared and opens new perspectives of interpretation.

The idiosyncrasy, distinctiveness and significance of platonic criticism on the Bible seems to be this: It is neither a verbatim quote nor a commentary but a free development of considerations and beliefs with hidden allusions that comes to light as such only through detailed linguistic and thematic analysis and analysis of the deep structure in order to let texts speak for themselves. . . .

Alcibiades attributes the highest degree of wisdom and beauty to Socrates, but afterwards, he will claim that Socrates is to be considered his deceiver and tempter. It is worth mentioning that Genesis 3:1, according to the LXX, also specifies the main characteristic of the tempter’s identity as follows: ‘the wisest of all wild animals’. Beauty and wisdom are attributed to the tree of knowledge of good and evil by the woman as it is pleasing to her senses and her mind (Gn 3:6). . . . 

Socrates responds by accusing Alcibiades of being obsessed with a sexual passion for him, always attempting to tempt Socrates into sexual liaison, and that it is Alcibiades who is the “devilish” creature. In the accusations of lying and deceiving, words are added to what the other has actually said, so distorting each other’s positions.

The same is also the case for the talking serpent in the Yahwistic narratives. In Genesis 3, feelings and intentions of the tempter are not even mentioned. They result from the words that the serpent spoke to the woman against God. The serpent pretends not to know God’s command (Gn 2:18: ‘You are free to eat of all the trees in the garden. But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat’) and innocently asks the woman (Gn 3:3) ‘Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?’ By adding a ‘not’, it changes fundamentally the meaning of the divine command and bears malice toward Yahweh, God the Creator, by presenting God as deceiving and misleading the first created people for whom God provided everything that they needed for their eternal life in the garden of pleasure. After trying to correct the seemingly harmless wrong opinion of the serpent, the woman herself follows its method and adds words in excess that God did not pronounce (Gn 3:3: ‘fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden’ and ‘nor touch it’). So the talking serpent as a devil articulates its most decisive argument (Gn 3:5): ‘God knows in fact that the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good from evil’. The serpent concealed and suppressed completely the possibility of death and makes God seem a liar and a fraud. . . .  Although it pretends to know God’s will and intention. In this way, the serpent is just like Alcibiades, who in fact attempts to seduce Socrates and his philosophy in person. . . .

The serpent imagery is found twice in Alcibiades’s speech . . .

. . . .The first people failed in an absurd way, but Socrates’s demand is as follows: It is better to look closely whether what is promised is of value or worthless and deceptive. . . .

We could summarise the analogies (similarities and differences) between Genesis 2–3 and the platonic speech of Alcibiades as follows:

1. The biblical narratives of man’s creation and fall seek to explain human existence and essence. Plato focuses on the likeness: Human beings should be like Socrates. . . . Self-control and self-mastery are exemplified due to motifs and imagery of the basic needs of the people. The same is also true in Genesis 3 and in almost identical sequence with hints at the given possibilities in human nature and how human beings deal with them.

2. The central motif of Genesis 2–3 is the process of acquiring knowledge and wisdom . . . . The central figure in Alcibiades’s speech is Socrates as a personification of knowledge and wisdom.

3. In both texts, there is an effort to demonstrate how knowledge is acquired by temptation . . . .

4. Both texts use figurative language, but the contextualisation is different. . . .

5. In Genesis 3, the temptation refers to the consumption of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In Alcibiades’s speech, it has to do with the issue of homosexuality and pederasty in Ancient Athens. . . . . For Socrates, the soul or the mind dominates the body and its emotions through abstinence and moderation. Socrates’s abstinence and moderation are manifested mainly in the following areas: sexual intercourse (219b–d), money (219d), eating (219e), drinking (220a) and clothing (220b). The same areas are directly or indirectly reflected in Genesis 3.

6. It remains inexplicable why the protoplasts hear the words of the tempter as light-hearted or even frivolous (Gn 3). What could have caused this? Was it a conscious exercise, or were they confused? . . . .

7. In both texts, the confusion between the real tempter and the tempted is present: (1) The serpent presents Yahweh as tempter. (2) Alcibiades presents Socrates as his seducer although he himself seeks to seduce Socrates. . . .

. . .

Both texts, Genesis 2–3 and Alcibiades’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, deal basically with similar existential quests and comparable linguistic and thematic patterns. Symbols and discourses need explanation, but although they are embedded in a different historical, literal and ideological or theological context, analogies are definitely not by accident. They presuppose pre-Hellenistic cultural exchange . . . (Dafni, pp 2-6)

The above is from Dafni, as I mentioned, but it is interesting that she sees a connection between the Greek and Hebrew stories of temptation, wisdom, beauty, deceit, and “fall”.

Conclusion

Gmirkin has much more to discuss concerning the theme of “knowledge of good and evil” and how both comparable and varying values are evident in the Greek and biblical worlds. Nudity and shame, human appetites at war with godliness, the idyllic world for the first humans in a different age when gods lived alongside humans, questions of food and immortality, the introduction of clothing and technology after a “fall”, “Plato’s” lessons for Cain on mastery of sin. 

The above post only touches the surface of several of the points in this chapter. As I read it the second time I was compelled at most points to pause and follow up the cited references, and from those I followed up new references. If I attempted to cover all that I learned from that process I would have to write an article at least three times the length of Gmirkin’s chapter. Some of what I read raised new questions and new perspectives; and sometimes I felt Gmirkin’s thesis answered questions left hanging in other studies. In other words, there is much more to discuss. There is some ground, I think, for even re-evaluating aspects of the question of Christian origins through the new possibilities that Gmirkin’s and related theses open up.

But I’ll conclude this post with a few notes from the conclusion of this section:

The extensive new mythological content found in Genesis 2-3 thus marks it as having been written by storytellers, the class of literati the Greeks called poets. It is evident from the use of Hesiod’s Works and Days and Plato’s Timaeus, Critias (see Chapter 7 §7.2), Statesman and Protagoras that these poets were well read in Greek classics and acted under philosophical guidance. This coordination between philosophers and poets should not be surprising: Plato held that the philosophical ruling class should construct new myths set in ancient times useful to the nation, but should commission skilled poets for the task rather than writing such myths themselves (Republic 2.377c, 378d-379a, 382d). While Genesis 1 can be directly ascribed to ruling class elites knowledgeable in Plato’s writings, their influence in Genesis 2-3 was mediated by myth-writers acting under their direction. (pp. 187f)

As for the conventional view that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 originated in sharply different times and environments,

Furthermore, it is evident that the mythology of Genesis 2-3 bleeds over into Genesis 1, where there are speeches both by the cosmic creator god and by the lesser gods, whose creation of humans is anticipated in Gen 1:26-27. Likewise, the predominantly scientific outlook of Genesis 1 bleeds over into the discussion of the evaporation cycle in Gen 2:6 and in the little geography of Gen 2:10-14. These commonalities suggest that the authors of Genesis 1 and 2-3 were contemporary and shared a common intellectual and cultural frame of reference.

Most importantly, there is a common thread of philosophical and theological thought taken from Timaeus that runs throughout Genesis 1-3, pointing to the close coordination and contemporaneity of the two creation accounts. . . .

In the model here proposed, Genesis 1 and 2—3 were contemporary literary compositions written by different authorial contributors to the Pentateuch created through a collaborative effort of the team of Jewish and Samaritan scholars present at Alexandria ca. 270 BCE. This model explains both the differences and commonalities in the two Creation Accounts, as well as their interrelationship and their mutual literary dependence on Plato’s Timaeus. (p. 188)

And after depicting a possible process by which the authors worked . . .

The differences between the First and Second Creation Accounts are thus not attributable to developmental changes in religious perspectives over the centuries, but instead reflected different contemporary authors with different literary and intellectual skills, each working in- dependently on their own writing assignment, drawing on the two stages of creation in Plato’s Timaeus. (p. 189)

I copy here Gmirkin’s table of parallels between Timaeus and Genesis 2-3:

God as Craftsman

Gen 2:4, 7

cf. Timaeus 28a,c, 29a, 41a, 42e, 68e, 69c, 75b

Divine Legislation of the Gods

Gen 2:16-17

cf. Timaeus 24a-d, 41e, 42d-e

Classification of Life Forms

Gen 2:19-20

cf. Timaeus 40a, 91d-92b

Dialectic Emphasis on Names

Gen 2:19-20, 23

cf. Timaeus 43c, 59d, 62a; Cratylus 390e-427d

Etymological Speculation and Wordplay

Gen 2:19, 23; 3:20

cf. Cratylus 390e-427d; Timaeus 37c, 40a, 43c, 45b, 55d, 59d, 62a, 80b, 90c.

Woman Created After Man

Gen 2:21-24

cf. Timaeus 91a

Woman between Animals and Man

Gen 2:18-20

cf. Timaeus 41d-42d, 91a,d-e

Eating the Fruit of the Tree

Gen 3:2-3, 6

cf. Timaeus 91c-d

The Lowly Status of the Serpent

Gen 3:14

cf. Timaeus 92a

The Jealousy of the Gods

Gen 3:22

cf. Timaeus 41c

The Origin of Evil

Gen 3:1-19

cf. Timaeus 42d-e


Barc, Bernard. Les arpenteurs du temps: Essai sur l’histoire religieuse de la Judée à la période hellénistique. Lausanne: Editions du Zèbre, 2000.

Bury, Robert Gregg. Plato: Timaeus, Critias, Cleitophon, Menexenus, Epistles. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1952. http://archive.org/details/timaeuscritiascl00plat.

Dafni, Evangelia G. “Genesis 2–3 and Alcibiades’s Speech in Plato’s Symposium: A Cultural Critical Reading.” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 71, no. 1 (2015). https://www.academia.edu/60521030/Genesis_2_3_and_Alcibiades_s_speech_in_Plato_s_i_Symposium_i_A_cultural_critical_reading.

Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.


 

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7 thoughts on “The Second Creation Story in Genesis — [Biblical Creation Accounts/Plato’s Timaeus – 6]”

  1. “There is some ground, I think, for even re-evaluating aspects of the question of Christian origins through the new possibilities that Gmirkin’s and related theses open up.”
    Come on Neil, it’s cruel to tease us like that. What ground are you referring to?

    1. Patience patience. 😉 I am thinking of how recent and diverse debates over the Law were. Allegorical readings may not have been so relatively recent. Christianity could well have been far more part of the Jewish word than even the “Judaizers” are said to be.

  2. I have made a correction to my post. I gave some half-hearted hint in the caption under the map that intrusion of a land of fable intruding into real-word geography was not likely derived from Plato. At the time I overlooked Plato’s well-known setting of Atlantis beyond the real-world Iberian peninsula.

    1. I also made a small correction, Neil. The Hebrew characters for hawwah (Eve, life) weren’t displaying correctly. There is some sort of font issue in the Englishman’s Concordance that doesn’t appear in Strong’s.

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