Each Biblical Hebrew Word is a Precious Jewel to be Discovered
A Biblical Hebrew word is like a door, waiting to be pried open, eager to ramble across the threshold and explore the dazzle of a thrilling discovery.
The same Biblical Hebrew word, lacham means both eat and war. How can the same word have such opposite meanings?
(Origin of the Universe, chapter 3.3)
Each Biblical Hebrew word is like a rough stone to be dug up, cleaned off, and viewed under a magnifying glass to reveal its glitter and perfection. We continue with four more principles to master Biblical Hebrew: Points 2–5
I suggest you read part one of this series here: Fullness of Biblical Hebrew
2. A Biblical Hebrew word can have Opposite Meanings
Here’s a word most people are aware of: elohim. If you asked someone for its translation, I think 100% of the time you’d hear God and that is correct. But it can also refer to angels, judges, gods, and goddess.
In Genesis 31:30, the translation gods refers to idols. Exodus 12:12 talks about the gods of Egypt using the word elohim; this has nothing to do with God (whether you believe in idols and God or not). Even the context shows that the term gods of Egypt is the opposite as the verse says the Lord will smite their gods-elohim.
In Psa 82:6 human-beings are called elohim; how do you explain that? Also, in the New Testament, we see the term god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4) with the Greek Theos which refers to God, but in this verse, God is in opposition to god. Do you know who this god of this world is (even from a literary point of view)?
Thinking that elohim is God is correct, but that comprehension is not complete. Not understanding the total opposition of the meaning of Hebrew words can lead to significant misunderstandings; this is just one point in what I refer to as coherent completeness. Elohim = God is correct but INcomplete.
Furthermore, these oppositions go more in-depth, in that they teach us lessons about life. Another translation is the biblical Hebrew word for eat and war, lacham; the common word used in modern Hebrew today for bread derives from this: lechem. We all eat, basically every day, even multiple time in a day. It is one of the most common human activities. Why is the same Hebrew word also used for war?
Why did the author leave such ambiguity? What is the implication of this?
3. The same Biblical Hebrew word can have both a Concrete and Abstract meaning.
How would you express hand on a piece of paper or stone? You’d draw its outline; A hand is very concrete, you can see and touch it, you can easily envision its shape. But now, how would you represent the concept of success or the idea, you did it. Well, you could use a variation of something concrete to denote a notion, sentiment or feeling, like this: 👍 thumbs up. Just like the sentiment of love is expressed with a very concrete and tangible heart ❤. We’re even using the word concrete (cement and gravel) here in an abstract way.
Today we use all sorts of pictograms, icons, and smilies and think this is a modern form of expression. It goes back to the origins of written language itself when the formation of alphabets began.
Biblical Hebrew goes back to those origins when letters and root words represented concrete, tangible, visible items like a: hand, house or a head 🤦. Biblical Hebrew is replete with the concrete expressing the abstract. Here are just a few examples:
- Breath represents spirit.
- Head represents the beginning,
- Eyes point to understanding
- Lion pictures strength
- Sleep equated to torpor
Like today we use a light bulb to depict a bright idea or that Eureka, eye-opening, aha moment. The real and visible representing sentient and invisible.
The English word head comes from the Hebrew rosh. Here’s how rosh is translated in various places in the King James Version of the Bible: band, beginning, captain, chapiter, chief(-est place, man, things), company, end, excellent, first, forefront, (be-)head, height, (on) high(-est part, (priest)), principal, ruler, sum, top. Did you know that the first word of the Bible is this word head — beraisheet? It has a slightly different pronunciation which I’ll explain later, there, it’s translated by probably the best known Bible quotation, In the beginning.
Understanding some of the 17 translated words above in your native language helps comprehend that this beginning is somehow related to the notion excellent, another rendering of this same Hebrew word. I won’t get into the association of these two variant translations for the same Hebrew word now, suffice to say, there’s a relationship.
But this is important considering the very next verse in Gen 1:2 tells us: the earth was without form and void. If the beginning is associated with excellent, how do we explain the presence of this chaos? Do you see what I mean by grasping some meaning from a translation, but not full comprehension? As a result, Genesis 1:1 has more interpretations than ever, and if you get the first sentence in a story wrong, how can you understand the rest? You’ve missed a critical point.
For now, retain this third key. The concrete, tangible, physical words that your hands can reach out and touch like head represent abstract conceptual ideas that emanate from the mind like excellent. We shall see the relevance of this key shortly when I get into Genesis 1:1.
4. The same Biblical Hebrew word can have both a Literal and Figurative meaning
We find this not only in Hebrew but in English and other languages too. For example:
- Night literally is the twelve hours of darkness, but figuratively we use it in expressions like a long night for the survivors. Night can also be figurative referring to dark, evil, confusion. Translations only render one of those meanings, generally the most obvious. And, without getting into it here, but I do in due course, it is usually only the literal meaning.
Case in point: Gen 1:2 where we read: darkness was upon the face of the deep. I will show you how to check it for yourself, not only was there an absence of light but darkness figuratively means to destroy and make a noise.
If all you grasp from this verse is the literal darkness, you’ve missed at least half of the meaning which is not transmitted by the translations. And, probably, the figurative comprehension that is equally, if not more important than the literal translation. What have destruction and noise got to do with creation? What is the implication of this? What does it do for comprehension when we miss 50% of the author’s meaning?
5. Names of men and women have meanings
Just one example. Noah, as you know, was instrumental, the main character, in the story of the worldwide flood that covered even the mountains. I’m just repeating what the book of Genesis says. Whether you believe it’s true, a legend, a lie or if you’ve never read it or can’t make up your mind, don’t matter at this time. There are numerous statements in the Bible that say there was a flood.
What I want to draw your attention to is that the word noah, yes, with a small n. It is first and foremost a derivative of a Biblical Hebrew word ‘nooach’–not just a name. This word noah, and its other derivatives, are used over 70 times, and they have been translated by cease, be confederate, lay, let down, (be) quiet, remain, (cause to, be at, give, have, make to) rest, set down.
Understanding this one point can help you realize that a recent blockbuster film, depicting God and Noah as putting a definitive end to all of humanity, is incorrect. Yes, according to the Bible story, God destroyed humankind at that time. It doesn’t matter now whether you believe this piece of literature or not. But, if you understand the meaning of Noah’s name, you realize that somewhere in this story, there are quiet and rest.
Maybe you don’t understand how and where the quiet and rest fit in. But if you know the meaning of Noah’s name, the central figure in this account, that should give you some comfort. It also should make us wonder why a man named quiet and rest was the key figure in massive destruction.
Two major questions that are misunderstood, concerning the flood episode, are:
- How can a righteous and peaceful God put people to death?
- The whole question of death and afterlife concerns all of us.
Coupled with this is the concept from point 3 that these names can have both literal and figurative aspects to them. The point being that one name, identity, descriptive for a man or woman can have multiple meanings.
Translations capitalize the word identifying an individual (Noah), and we tend to take it solely as a name. Well, in Biblical Hebrew, there is no capitalization! It’s just another word like all the others, including all the nuances that these 7 Keys to Master Biblical Hebrew will Unlock for better Bible Understanding.
For now, incredible as it might sound, whether you believe it or not, the meaning of Noah — referring to comfort, and that whole episode, as gruesome, as you might consider it, has some incredibly comforting lessons.
But, you’ll have to be a little patient until we reach Genesis 6. There is so much to unlock before then to put the Bible story in context and give its theological perspective.
I suggest you read the third part of this series here: Roots to anchor Bible comprehension
This article is an excerpt from chapter 3.3 of the book Origin of the Universe.