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Hebrew and Aramaic Terms
Word Meanings for Old Testament Study

Dennis Bratcher

These terms represent significant theological concepts in the Old Testament or are terms that are important to understand in order to interpret the Old Testament.  As with any translation, there is often no precise equivalent of words across languages.  So a translation is always a provisional rendering of the communication of the original.  That simply suggests that care should be taken not to hang too much weight on single words in a specific translation.  Likewise, it suggests that an adequate understanding of a translation must also entail some rudimentary knowledge of the original language and its cultural and historical background, as well as the nature and purpose of the material in which it is used. That does not mean that everyone must become an expert in Hebrew in order to understand the Old Testament (although it might help!).  But it does mean that more needs to go into the effort to understand than just reading an English translation.

There are several factors that complicate trying to use English words to translate Old Testament Hebrew concepts and ideas.

1)  The sheer span of time between the earliest stages of the Old Testament (c. 1,000 BC) and the modern world makes it difficult to understand the meaning of some terms.  We simply do not know all the ranges of meaning of some terms, or the nuances of meaning they could take in different contexts. For example, the meaning of the word selah, often used in Psalms, has been totally lost even in Jewish tradition.

2)  The historical and cultural contexts in which languages function are radically different between the biblical world and our own.  Some terms, especially metaphorical ones, depend on a certain background of experience to communicate the meaning adequately. For example, the often-used metaphor of “water” as an object of conquest is nearly incomprehensible without understanding the role of water as a symbol of chaos and disorder in the ancient world (see Baal Worship in the Old Testament).

3)  Closely related to this is the understanding that single words often function in a particular literary context that establishes a “semantic field” in which the term takes on a specialized meaning.  Also, some authors may use a common word in a more specialized sense. This simply suggests that in some literary contexts a particular word may have a different range of meaning than in other contexts.  For example, the idea of “serve” is conceptualized differently in priestly sections of the Old Testament than it is in the prophetic literature.  And even within the book of Isaiah, the term “servant” takes on three different ranges of meaning in the three major sections of the book.

4)  Words in most languages tend to have wide ranges of meaning depending on how they are used.  While English tends to aim for precision in communication, Hebrew, as an Eastern language, depends far more on context and rhetorical shaping, as well as cultural and historical frames of reference, to carry the meaning of words.  Many Hebrew words have much wider possibilities for meaning and carry a built-in ambiguity that may invoke several levels of meaning at once. For example, the term ruach (spirit, breath, wind, movement) is often used with interplay of the various meanings, as in Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezek 37).

5)  In a similar vein, some terms have become such huge theological concepts in the Old Testament from use within the community over centuries that they communicate far more than the single word itself could possibly mean.  For example, such words as torah, covenant, and chesed have become larger than life and must be heard against the entire confessional background of Israel’s Faith.

6)  The fact that Hebrew shares more of its worldview with the East than it does with Western ways of thinking further complicates understanding.  Often, the modes of thought of the Ancient Near East are dramatically different than our modern scientific and technologically oriented ways of viewing the world.  The assumptions of that way of thinking can easily lead us to misinterpret certain concepts.  For example, the English term “perfect” is often used to translate a Hebrew term (tamam).  However, while the term “perfect” is an attribute or quality term in English, the Hebrew word tamam is a relational term, meaning suitable or mature or appropriate.  Hebrew had no direct equivalent of the English word “perfect.”

7)  Two thousand years of Christian interpretation cast in radically different philosophical assumptions than was most of the Old Testament often causes us to hear the Faith of the early church when reading the Old Testament rather than hearing the Hebrew terms for what they communicated apart from that later accretion of meaning.  For example, “salvation” means something quite different in the Old Testament than it does in Christian doctrine.

None of this means that we must despair of ever understanding these terms.  But it does call for a careful and intentional effort in trying to hear what the biblical text communicates with these terms. We cannot just assume that a single English word used in translation says everything that needs to be said about the meaning.  This also suggests to us that some meanings that we have accepted as clear and normative, upon closer inspection of the Hebrew terms that lie behind them, may need to be reexamined in light of what the Hebrew words actually mean in context.

This is a new section of the CRI/Voice web site that is under development.

The Terms

These terms are alphabetized according to a simplified transliterated English.

Hebrew Transliteration English
‘abodah [see also ‘ebed] N: service, work, worship
’adam N: man, human being, humanity
’adon; ’adonai or ’adonay N: master, lord; my Lord
‘am N: people
‘am ha’aretz N: people of the land, the people
’asherah; pl. ’asheroth N: Asherah


N: sin, iniquity, guilt
ba‘al N: husband, master, Ba‘al
bara’ V: create
basar N: flesh
berit N: covenant
chata’, hata’ V: go the wrong direction, sin
  chesed, hesed N: grace, lovingkindness, covenant faithfulness
chozeh, hozeh N: seer
da‘at N: knowledge
dabar; n. pl. debarim V: speak; N: word
derek N: path, way
ebed N: servant
’eheyeh [see also YHVH, Yahweh] V/N: I will be/become, proper name for God
, ’el, eloah N: God, god
elohim, pl. of  ’el (see ’el) N: God, gods
’Elohim Tsebaot God of hosts

’El ‘Elyon God most high
’El ‘Olam Everlasting God
’El Ro’i God who sees me
’El Shaddai mighty God
’El  berith covenantal God
’emet N: truth, faithfulness
  gehenna N: Gehenna
  goy N: people, gentiles
  Hades N: Hades
  halak V: walk, live
  haram or charam V: devote to destruction
  hinneni Part: here am I
  ’ish; fem form, ’ishah N: man, husband; woman, wife

[no such word in Hebrew]

Jehovah (see YHVH, Yahweh) Christianized name for God
  kabod N: weight, honor, glory
  ketib, ketibh V: write
  ketubim N: writings
  leb, lebab N: heart
mal’ak N: messenger
  mashal N: proverb
  mazzebah, massebah; pl. mazzeboth, massebot N:
  melek N: king; V: govern, rule over
  megilloth N:
  meshiach N: anointed one, messiah
  mishpat; pl. mishpatim N: justice
  nab’i; pl. nebi’im N: prophet
  nephesh N: life, person, soul
  panim N: face; Prep: in front of
  peshat N:
  pesher N:
  qadosh A: holy
  qal A:
  ra‘ N/A: evil, bad
ratsach V: to kill
  rib N: controversy, dispute
  roeh N: seer; V: see, envision
  Ro’sh-Hashanah New Year
  ruach N: wind, breath, spirit
  satan N: adversary; V: oppose
  shalom N: well-being, peace
  she’ol N: Sheol
  shophar N: ram’s horn
  sed N: emptiness, demons
  sa‘ir N: oat-demon
  shophet; pl. shophtim N: chieftain, judge, warlord
shub V: turn, return, repent
tamam, tam N: whole, complete, blameless
  tehillim N: praises
  tob A: good, appropriate
  torah; pl. toroth N: instruction, law
  yada‘ V: know, have intimate relationship
YHVH, YHWH, Yahweh N: proper name of God
  Yom Kippur Day of Atonement

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2011, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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Hebrew Terms


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