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What's In A (Hebrew) Word

If I made a list of things that I wish I would have known earlier in my life when it comes to reading the bible, the subject of what this article is about would most definitely be on it. It has to do with what could be called a "key" you can use to unlock some of the hidden/deeper meanings in the scriptures, and this "key" has to do with knowing something about the original language, Hebrew, that the Old Testament was written in.

I promise that I'll get the boring & technical (yet necessary & important) stuff out of the way as quickly as possible by giving you just three main points as concisely as I can:

1) Like Arabic, Aramaic, and Amharic, Hebrew also belongs to the Semitic language family. All of the Semitic languages exhibit a unique pattern of stems called Semitic roots. This type of word-formation system (known as a triconsonantal root system) is one in which the basic form of a word has three specified consonants in order forming a "root word" that contains the essence of the word's meaning. Other forms and words are then derived from the root by inserting different vowels or no vowels on either side of each consonant. What this means—and keep this in mind for now because we'll be coming back to it soon—is that two totally different and seemingly unrelated words are actually/usually related in meaning if they have the same root.

2) We know language to be a way (or a tool we use) to express our thoughts. What most of us don't really know though is that the way we think is actually shaped by our native language. Put more officially, this idea, called linguistic relativity and also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, is a principle suggesting that the structure of a language influences its speakers' worldview or cognition, and thus individuals' languages determine or shape their perceptions of the world.

3) Bring to mind that phrase "lost in translation". We all know it to mean that some of the meaning you can convey in a word, phrase, or sentence in one language becomes "lost" when you translate said word, phrase, or sentence into another language. But...if you know something about the original language of whatever you're reading, you can "recover" some of this meaning, and sometimes that can be incredibly valuable. Let's bring this all together now to see how it relates to reading the Bible.

Remember that we said the Hebrew language uses a triconsonantal root system and different words that share the same root are usually related in meaning to each other. This is the reason that a substantial amount of rabbinical interpretation of the Bible is derived from the relation between root words, and it's where things start to get really interesting.

For example, the rabbis concluded that God created women with greater intuition and understanding than men, because man was "formed" (yitzer, Gen. 2:7) while woman was "built" (yiben, Gen. 2:22). The root of "built," Beit-Nun-Hei, is very similar to the word "binah" (Beit-Yod-Nun-Hei), meaning understanding, insight or intuition. Knowing and understanding this is only possible if you know anything about the Hebrew language system.

Down The Rabbit Hole

Continuing down the binah rabbit hole, understanding that God created women with greater intuition and understanding than men can even help us have deeper insights into some of the events in the Bible. For example, Ishmael was Abraham’s legitimate heir. This means that, in addition to the household’s wealth, Ishmael claims title to the spiritual legacy, established by Abraham that is to become Judaism. As the next patriarch, Ishmael would have been charged with continuing to spread the new monotheistic concept of Judaism.

Remember what happens to Ishmael and Hagar though?

"...Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking her son,and she said to Abraham, 'Expel the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac!'" (Genesis 21:9-10).

Now it's easy to think that Sarah was either simply being spiteful due to the mockery given to her son, or maybe just selfish (on Isaac's behalf) trying to protect the interests of her own son so he could become the heir instead Ishamel. But this doesn't seem to be right. Why?

Well, Abraham is reluctant to turn Ishmael out of the house (indeed it says the matter distresses him greatly). God's response is interesting though because he intercedes on Sarah's behalf and commands Abraham to “Listen to her voice in all that she tells you. It is through Isaac that you will gain posterity” (Genesis 21:12).

Given everything that we know, it seems pretty unlikely that God would side with Sarah if she were just being selfish and/or spiteful, especially considering the degree that sides with her ("...listen to her voice in all that she tells you"). More importantly though, he (indirectly) tells Abraham it's right that Isaac be the heir by telling him it's "through Isaac" that he will gain posterity.

Now To Tie In Binah

Remember what happens to Ishmael and his descendants? The angel of the Lord told Hagar, "He [Ishmael] will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers" (Genesis 16:11–12). Well, Ishmael wound up marrying an Egyptian woman, and his descendants settled near the eastern border of Egypt and lived in hostility toward all of their relatives (Genesis 25:18). It's also of note that Ishmael is considered a patriarch of Islam based upon legends that have developed around him and information found in the Qur’an. Whatever the case, Ishmael’s true nature and what is to become of him was clear not to Abraham but to Sarah, and we can attribute that to her binah.

And thus as Torah.org tells us, it is essential to note that Sarah’s decision to banish Ishmael was not the result of favoritism towards Isaac, her biological son. Rather, it is the preciseness of binah that enables Sarah to act decisively for the good of the Jewish Nation.

Last but not least, just in case you're still skeptical of the whole binah thing, remember who is responsible for Jacob getting Isaac's blessing? His mother, Rebecca. She realizes (via her binah) that the blessing has to go to Jacob as he is the one who is willing and able to change the world in the manner of Abraham. Considering this, one might indeed wonder if there is any symbolic meaning behind Isaac's blindness. As the Bible tells us, “his eyes were dim,” which, according to some scholars, suggests that his powers of judgment grew dim and he was not able to see reality.

The Takeaway

The very idea of God suggests that He has complex and layered ideas to communicate with His creation. Hopefully it's now clear though that you can gain a greater overall understanding of these layered, complex, and challenging scriptures if you take some time to look into the original Hebrew words of the verse you're reading, because you just might find some interesting rabbit holes and unlock some of the more "hidden" or deeper meanings of the words and stories.

And don't worry, you don't need to actually know any Hebrew to do this because there are more books, apps, and websites nowadays than ever before that do this for you—meaning, you can be reading a passage, and click on a word, and up will pop the original Hebrew word and all things you'd want to know about that word to gain a deeper understanding of what you're reading. The Literal Word is a great place to start.

I hope you found all this helpful!

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