Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Story Behind The Word

Posted by foryourfaith on June 9, 2011

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The second day of Creation begins with God’s Enigmatic command, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters.” What is a “firmament?” This little-used English word is a translation of the Hebrew word raqia, but it captures little of the color of the original. The Hebrew raqia derives from the verb raqa, meaning to beat out or hammer out, and it conveys the vivid image of a metal surface hammered out like a copper or golden bowl.

God used this solid expanse to divide the waters of chaos from the lower waters of the earth. God called the solid dome “heaven,” connoting “the skies.” As the Book of Job observed, God “spread out the skies, hard as a molten mirror” (Job 37:18). It was in this dome that God set the sun, moon, and stars, and across this firmament that the birds flew (Genesis 1:17; 20). Under the firmament God pronounced the creation good; above it lay chaotic waters that could pour through the windows of heaven to destroy creation. Thus, the mighty firmament, visible day and night as the dome of heaven above the earth, proclaimed the glory and “handiwork” of God (Psalm 19:2). The world was enclosed and protected, since God’s immeasurable power had spread the heavens “like a tent to dwell in” (Isaiah 40:22).


It is curious that the first appearance of the word Israel is in one of the most deeply mysterious passages in the Bible (Genesis 32:28). The exact meaning of the word is not certain. Israel may mean “he who fights Gods,” “he who fights for God,” “he whom God fights,” “he whom God rules,” “the upright one of God,” or “God is upright.”

When the kingdom of Israel was divided in 922 BC, the northern kingdom remained Israel, while the southern one was called Judah. The land itself, as bordered on the west by the Mediterranean Sea, and on the east by the Jordan River, is called Erez Israel, the Land Of Israel.


The rituals prescribed for the Day of Atonement were imbued with mystery. In particular at one point the priest cast lots over two goats: “one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel” (Leviticus 16:8). One goat was slain as a sin offering for the people. Then the priest laid his hands on the second goat, confessed the people’s sins over it, and sent the goat, now bearing the sins, into the wilderness. The second goat was said to be going “to Azazel.”

Who or what was Azazel? One interpretation suggests that the word means “the goat that departs,” or “the escaping goat,” hence the English word “scapegoat.” Another is that Azazel was the name of the place to which the goat was sent.

Most scholars think the word means something like “angry god.” Azazel was probably a demon dwelling in the desert, an area believed to be the favorite habitat of evil spirits. It may be that the ritual of dispatching the second goat was meant to send the evil of sin back to a place of evil. Or perhaps “all their iniquities” (16:22) were being sent where they could do no harm.


The word shibboleth in Old Testament Hebrew means “ear of grain” and also “flowering stream.” But in present-day English usage shibboleth refers to a word or phrase that distinguishes a speaker’s native region, social background, or group affiliation. How did the definition change so drastically? This modern meaning derives from a story in Judges 12:5-6.

The Gileadites, after defeating the Ephraimites, arrival Israelite tribe, in battle, used the word shibboleth as a password in order to catch Ephraimite fugitives. Jephthah, leader of the Gileadites, posted sentries at the fords of the Jordan River to make sure that no Ephraimites got across.

Each man who approached to cross was asked, “Are you an Ephraimite?” Each Ephraimite, aware of the gravity of the question, would reply “no.” The sentry would then ask the man to say the word shibboleth. Ephraimites spoke a different dialect of Hebrew and could be distinguished from the Gileadites by their inability to pronounce the sh in shibboleth – they pronounced it sibboleth. Thus, any man who replied sibboleth was revealed as an Ephraimite, and was seized and slain on the spot.


Few institutions seem as foreign to the modern age as that of concubinage. The concubine was a part of the household. She cohabited with the man of the house or with his son, but her status was that of a secondary wife, a captive, or a slave. She was subservient to the wife, who was her mistress; nevertheless, it was dishonorable to sell a concubine, especially if she had children. The Deuteronomic Law allowed both polygamy and slavery, but having more than one wife was an economic burden. Concubines, however, served two purposes: bearing children – who were regarded as legitimate – and providing labor.

Over time, possessing a large number of concubines, or a harem, became a status symbol. David had 10, Solomon had 300, and Rehoboam 60. The harem was usually overseen by a eunuch. To lie with a royal concubine was tantamount to usurpation of the throne. Thus, when Solomon’s brother Adonijah asked for their father David’s concubine, Abishag the Shunamite, Solomon had him put to death.

Prophetic Mantle

Elijah’s mantle served not only to clothe him, but it played a role in his prophetic duties as well. He used it to part the waters of the Jordan River, just as Moses had used his staff. And later, after Elijah had been borne to heaven in the fiery chariot, his mantle was left behind for Elisha – indicating that, by donning the traditional robe, Elisha had acquired Elijah’s prophetic gifts.

The prophet’s mantle was simply a loose robe or cloak. It was made of animal hair, perhaps goat or camel. The garment’s rough, simple quality was a reflection of the prophet’s essential character – humility in the face of God. While Elijah is portrayed as being fierce and brash in his challenge of the Baal worshipers, when confronted by the Lord on Mount Horeb, he “wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave” to await the word of God.

Just as Moses’ rod was a symbol of his divine office, so too was Elijah’s mantle – and both were a sign of God’s presence. Elijah’s mantle, though of no material value, was taken up by Elisha as if it were made of the most precious materials. He took it up not as a sacred talisman, but as a symbol of divine duty.

Hebrew, Israelite, Jew

In 2 Corinthians, Paul uses the terms Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew interchangeably. All three are names for the people who were the authors of the Bible and the principal actors in it, Israelite is probably the most accurate of three terms to use as a name for these people, since they were members of a confederation of 12 tribes which called itself Israel and which believed itself to be descended from the patriarch Jacob – also called “Israel.”

The word Jew comes from the tribe of Judah, which eventually gave its name to all those who followed the Israelite religion. After the fortunes of war had sent most of the northern tribes into exile, the name of the surviving tribe of Judah became applied to both all the Israelites who remained living in their ancestral homeland and those living abroad. Since this happened only in late biblical times (Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC) most o the Bible’s references to Jews come from the New Testament.

The origin of the name Hebrew is considerably less certain. The Bible derives it from that of Eber, one of Abraham’s ancestors. Israelites in the Bible often use the term Hebrew to refer to themselves in front of foreigners. “I am Hebrew,” Jonah said when he was asked to identify himself. Foreigners also used the term when referring to Israelites.

But Hebrew is a word that remains mysterious. Some think the word is related to Habiru, the name of a group of people who migrated throughout the Middle East hiring themselves out as soldiers or laborers. Others disagree. Finally, Hebrew is the name for the language in which most of the Old Testament was written. It’s Semitic tongue spoke by the ancient Israelites, on which modern Hebrew, the language of present-day Israel, is based.

The Song of Songs

Millions of people use a repertoire of apt and flavorful phrases in everyday speech without realizing that they are quoting directly from the Bible. The five books of Poetry and Wisdom (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs) are especially rich in these vivid phrases: survival is won by “the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20). Wisdom is cited as coming “by the mouth of babes” (Psalms 8:2). A loved person is called the “apple of the eye” (Psalms 17:8) and a world of yearning is summed up in the phrase “his heart’s desire” (Psalms 21:2)

But the Song of Songs (Called, in the Latin Vulgate, the Canticle of Canticles) is perhaps the single most frequently quoted book in the Bible. Its inclusion in the biblical canon is due in large part by Rabbi Akiva, a father of rabbinic Judaism, who at the Council of Jabneth of AD 90, declared that “all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

Some phrases of the Song have been especially inspirational. The verse “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the Valleys” has come to be a poetic representation of the virtue of humility. Likewise, “for lo, the winter is past . . . the time of singing has come” might indicated the rejuvenation of the soul; “catch us the foxes,” the importance of lowly things; and “I slept, but my heart was awake,” the immortal life of the soul.

Countless works of art borrow directly from the language of the Song. The modern American composer Lukas Foss entitled his work for voice and orchestra The Song of Songs; both the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem and the English novelist Israel Zangwill gave love stories this same time. Finally, the “voice of the turtle” (King James Version, Song of Songs 2:12) is the voice of the turtledove: turtles have no voices.

Old Testament, New Testament

The Old Testament is the Christian term for the Hebrew Bible. Originally transmitted orally, some of the Hebrew Bible was written down by the time of David. For Jews, the most sacred text of the Bible is the Five Books of Moses, also called the Torah, the Law, or the Pentateuch. In the third century BC, the Pentateuch was translated into Greek, the common language of the day; this translation is known as the Septuagint (Latin for “seventy,” referring to the legend of the seventy scholars who worked on it). In the Septuagint, the word covenant is frequently translated as testament. Hence, in the 27 books of the Christian Scriptures, Christ establishes a new covenant, continuing the covenant between Abraham and God, as well as the covenant of Moses at Sinai. These books form the New Testament. Some 300 years after Christ, St. Jerome produced the definitive Latin version of Scripture, known as the Vulgate.


The word canon, as applied to the Bible, refers to those books designated as authoritative for use in the church or synagogue. By the time the word, of Sumerian origin, entered the Semitic languages, it meant “reed” or “cane.” Later, it designated a measuring stick – and metaphorically evoked the idea of a supreme standard. With these various meanings the word then passed into Greek. The formation of the Jewish canon, known to Christians as the Old Testament, was hundreds of years in the making. The primary history, of which the Pentateuch forms the first part, was put together during the Exile, in the sixth century. Formal ratification of the Jewish canon finally occurred, largely in response to external pressure, sometime after AD 100. St. Jerome produced the authoritative Latin translation of the Christian Scriptures (the Vulgate), in the late fourth century. The following century, it was authorized by the Church. It includes the Hebrew Bible, the 27 books of the New Testament, and the Apocrypha.


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