Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav


Why does God in the Bible at first harden the heart of the pharaoh and then punishes him for not letting Jews go?  

[A2A] Because He was putting on a show, to demonstrate to the Hebrews* and other nations that He is the greatest—nay, the only—God.

This was, if you like, God’s comeback performance (His first since the Flood), so he was intent on making a big impression. And what greater impression could there be than to beat up and humiliate the most powerful kingdom in the known world at that time?

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What is “God is the greatest” in Hebrew?

Recently I was asked how How do you say “The Gates of Hell shall not prevail” and “no weapon formed against me shall prosper” in Hebrew?, and I replied that the expression the Gates of Hell is inherently foreign to Hebrew, because it is absent in the Jewish tradition.

The expression God is the greatest is similarly alien to the Jewish tradition, for at least two reasons:

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In the Bible, God calls Samuel which means “God has heard”. What would be Hebrew for “servant heard”?

Samuel (in Hebrew, Shmuel) does not mean “God has heard”: whoever told you that may be thinking it’s spelled שמוע-אל, i.e. “Shmua-el”, but it’s not. The consonant ayin is missing, and it doesn’t go missing lightly.

In the story of Samuel’s birth (I Sam. 1), Hannah, his mother, explains that she named him so—

כי מיהוה שאלתיו (ki meAdonai she’iltiv)

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What is the Hebrew word for “God’s purpose”?

The word purpose presupposes that one has no control over the future, so can only hope to achieve a particular outcome through intent, action, and hope.

This doesn’t apply to God in the Judaic concept: He knows and controls the future, so it’s only a question of what does He want.

God’s want, or desire, in Hebrew is רצון האל (retzon ha’el).

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How do Elohim and Yahweh differ?

Elohim was the name of God for the Israelite (northern) tribes.

IHVH was the name of the God of the Judeans (southern tribe).

Since both religions were based on the belief in a single, Creator, God, the two traditions were knitted into one when the refugees of the northern kingdom were absorbed into Judea following the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians around 725 BCE, at the instruction of the Judean King Ezekiah.

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Why is “אלוהים” translated as “God” in the singular, when it is actually plural – “Gods”?

This is one of those fun questions, like “Mummy—how do babies come into the world?”, or “How does Santa deliver our presents when we have no chimney?” The actual history is a lot more prosaic but more interesting than the pat answers, such as that the Hebrew words for water (mayim) and sky (shamayim) are also seemingly plural but are not (actually they are, as they use plural adjectives as well, and if quacks like a duck and waddles like a duck—it’s a duck). Talmudic tradition of centuries of pilpul is capable of much greater feats than that—such as why placing restrictions on women is really a sign of respect, or why there are several different answers to what happens when Two Men Come Down The Same Chimney.

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