Hebrew Word Play

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Have you ever been in a group where most of the people spoke fluently in a language you barely understood? You could sort of follow the conversation until someone says something and everyone but you bursts out laughing. Why? Because someone told a joke that involved some wordplay or the double meaning of a particular phrase—and you didn’t get it. One of the most difficult elements in any language is to be able to catch such phrases.

Hebrew is no different. In fact, there are many places in the Old Testament where an author will take a particular word or even the three radicals of a lexical root and use those letters in a powerful way to communicate his message. The only way to catch these lexical dances is through reading a verse or even a series of verses in Hebrew.

In a few cases, a translation such as the NIV will point out the wordplays in the translation notes. For example, Genesis 29:31–30:24 records the births of the sons born to Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Rachel (for Rachel’s second son, Benjamin, see 35:16–18). With each of the names given to these babies, Leah or Rachel makes some statement, and there is a relationship between the name of the son and statement made. For example, with the birth of Judah, Leah says, “This time I will praise the LORD” (29:35). The text note states: “Judah sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew word for praise.”

Or take the prophet Micah in Micah 1, as he writes about God’s judgment against Samaria and Jerusalem and the effect of that judgment on God’s people. Micah refers to a number of cities in which these people lived and creates a pun on the name these cities. For example, the prophet says, “The town of Akzib will prove deceptive to the kings of Israel”; the NIV note reads, “Akzib means deception.”

But for the most part we have to find these sorts of wordplays for ourselves, and that can only be done by reading the Hebrew (or reading a commentary that works with the Hebrew text). Such reading greatly enriches our understanding of God’s message. For example, in Isaiah 5:1–7 the prophet sings his Song of the Vineyard. He describes how Yahweh had done everything he could to make his vineyard (“the nation of Israel … the people of Judah,” 5:7a) the most fruitful vineyard ever. He expected luscious, plump, juicy grapes at the time of harvest, but instead “it yielded only bad fruit” (5:2). So God pronounces judgment on his people (5:3–6), and in verse 7b he summarizes his feelings in a clever, yet heart-rending wordplay: “And he looked for justice (משׁפט), but saw bloodshed (משׂפח); for righteousness (צדקה) but heard cries of distress (צעקה). In transliterated Hebrew, God looked for mišpāt from his people and got miśpāch instead; he looked for tsedāqāh and got tse‘āqāh instead.

Here were God’s people—so close to what God expected, and yet so far away. Note how there are only a couple of sounds different between these two sets of words, and yet in terms of their meaning, they are miles apart—justice vs. bloodshed; righteousness vs. distressful wails. Put otherwise, from Isaiah 1:10–15 we know that the Israelites were doing all the right rituals as prescribed in God’s law, but when you looked beneath the veneer, they were out to serve themselves rather than the Lord their God and his true will for them.

But isn’t that sometimes like us? We can do all the things that outwardly look good, at least as far as other people are concerned, but if our hearts are not in the things we do, we are miles away from who God wants us to be and what he wants us to become. God does not want a surface Christianity; rather, he wants a heartfelt relationship with him. And Isaiah cleverly gets that message across through the words he uses.

What interesting wordplays have you discovered in the Hebrew Bible?

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