The Tanach yields treasures, even in its trivia

Yeshua declared (Matt. 5:18) that until this creation passes away, “not the smallest letter or stroke” will drop from the Torah and Prophets. This statement is most meaningful to Hebrew readers of Tanach, the Jewish Bible. The smallest Hebrew letter is yud (י), which is sometimes so insignificant its presence or absence doesn’t change the word (like the name David, which contains a yud in 1 Chronicles but not in 1 Samuel); a “stroke” is that tiny clip that makes, for example, a resh into a dalet (ר / ד ). In other words, Messiah taught that even the most trivial variations in the Hebrew Scriptures are there for a reason, and are as enduring as the earth. If so, it follows that they can yield profound insights… for those with eyes to see.

A recent entry on Rav Milim, a popular educational blog by Hebrew language expert Dr. Rubik Rozental, posted some number trivia relating to the Tanach. “The Language of Tanach in Numbers” was not about gematria (the rabbinic custom of deriving significance from the numerical values of the letters); it was just a collection of random statistics. But while hard-core Hebrew-language lovers may have been merely entertained, for this writer it demonstrated how the Tanach can reveal gems about God and His ways even in its trivia. Here are some examples.

[1] Dr. Rozental reported that the most frequent Hebrew word in the Bible is את, et, a two-letter root-word. Its most common usage is as an untranslatable connection between a verb and a definite direct object – as in Gen. 1:1 and 4: “In the beginning, God created et the heavens and et the earth…. And God saw et the Light….” Although it’s also translated as “with” (553 times), and “from” (284 times), there are no less than 10,903 places where English readers can’t even tell it’s there. And sometimes it clearly means something special – and it still disappears, like in Ezekiel 36:27: “I will give et My Spirit within you and I will make et which you will walk in My statutes…” The tantalizing strangeness of the second et is lost to English readers, because translators have ‘smoothed it over’ as: “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes.”

Is it a coincidence that the Tanach word used most often, yet so often beyond our comprehension, is comprised of the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet? Consider Isaiah 41:4, where GOD says: “‘I the LORD am the First, and with [et] the Last I am He.’” This same Divine title is claimed by the risen Yeshua three times in Revelation (1:17, 2:8, 22:13), and the third time He equates it with the first and last letters of the alphabet (transliterated into English from Greek as “Alpha” and “Omega“). The Hebrew New Testament quite sensibly renders it “Alef” and “Tav“, not just restoring the likely original of that expression, but also directing our attention back to the mysterious, omnipresent et.

[2] The most frequent noun in the whole Tanach is appropriate: it’s the personal name of the God of Israel, YHVH, appearing 6639 times. When His other names (Elohim, Adonai, El, Eloha, Shaddai) are added, the total comes to the interesting number of 10,007. The Hebrew words for ten-thousand (revava, רבבה) and for seven (sheva, שבע) both carry the idea of fullness and abundance. Math students will appreciate knowing that 10,007 is also a prime number. What a fitting symbol for “Him who fills all in all.” (Eph.1:23)

[3] The most frequent personal name (after God’s) should also be no surprise: Israel, 2512 times. It identifies not only the patriarch Jacob, but Jacob’s descendants who became God’s people, the nation of that people, and the Land which the God of Jacob promised them. Those who want to erase Israel from the Bible have a lot of erasing to do…. But (listen up, Iran!) it will do them no good; the Most High vows that they may as well try to erase the sun from the sky:

Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; the Lord of hosts is His name: “If this fixed order departs from before Me,” declares the Lord, “Then the offspring of Israel also will cease from being a nation before Me forever.” (Jer. 31:35-36)

[4] The verb used most often in Tanach makes sense for the Word of God, since it relates to hearing: it is amar (“said“), which shows up 5274 times. And the most common expletive relates to seeing: hinei! (“behold!“), logged 1057 times. Hearing and seeing are coupled in Scripture as a metaphor of spiritual awareness.

Curiously, the LORD declares that He sometimes withholds this ability (Deut. 29:4, v.3 in Heb.), and many of the prophets described Israel as having the ability but not using it (Isa. 6:10, Jer. 5:21, Ezek. 12:2). Yet God promises that one day He will act to reverse that: “On that day the deaf will hear words of a book, And out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see.” (Isa.29:18) Which book does He mean? Probably the one mentioned earlier in that chapter (v.11) as “sealed“: the whole vision of Isaiah (see also Isa.6:9-10). And indeed, many in the Torah community have never read this Prophet from end to end.

[5] The word lo (“no” or “not”) occurs 5097 times – nearly 10 times more often than the word ken (“yes“), which shows up only 563 times. But lest you get the impression that the Bible is negative, the Book’s most frequent adjectives are gadol (“great“) at 526, and tov (“good“) at 495. And as evidence that “no” isn’t always bad for us, remember these promises to Israel in Jeremiah 31: “…their sin I will remember no more” (v.34); and “it [Jerusalem] will not be plucked up or overthrown anymore forever.” (v.40)

[6] If you’ve wondered why Bible scholars have so many arguments about how to translate key words, Dr. Rozental informed us that the Tanach has around 2100 words that appear only one time in its 24 books – nearly one-third of all the Bible’s vocabulary. And at the other extreme are thousands of words which have multiple meanings, which are selected according to what the translators believe is appropriate to the context.

While this fluid situation sounds intimidating, it is actually exciting to ponder the seemingly disconnected definitions for one word; they sometimes suggest intriguing relationships.

All Messianic believers are familiar with the multiple meanings of רוח (ruach), and we are alert to the extra dimensions this gives to the “dry bones” passage in Ezekiel 37, where this word is translated first as “breath“, then as “wind“, and then as “Spirit” of God. But there are other equally rich examples.

There’s  פנים, panim, meaning either “face” or “interior“, which hints at the idea that the face is the window to the inner man. What does it mean then, when both God (Exod. 33:14) and men (Gen. 32:30 – v.31 in Heb.) use this word to identify His Presence among men?

We also have נצר, netzer, which can mean either “Branch” (Isa. 11:1), one of the names of Messiah… or (with a vowel change) “Keeper [notzer] of lovingkindness” (Exod. 34:7), one of the revealed Attributes of YHVH. Matthew’s gospel (2:23) notes that the name of Yeshua’s hometown was derived from that same word, connecting it back to Isaiah: “[He] came and lived in a city called Natzrat. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called Notzri’.

[7] Besides words having different meanings, there are 150 cases in the Tanach of the same Hebrew root producing completely different words. Or are they so very different after all?  

Examples include א-ז-ן , which gives us the words ha’azinu (“listen!“) and moznayim (“scales” for weighing); and ש-ח-ר , from which comes the seeming opposites of shahar (“dawn“) and shachor (black). We can glimpse subtle relationships here that provide food for thought: really listening to someone requires weighing what we hear; the dark is always the backdrop for the dawn.

[8] Rabbinic sages often created teachings from such connections. It’s even possible that Yeshua’s famous saying, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor… But I say to you, love your enemies…” was a word-play on רעך – which can be read both as re’achah, “your neighbor“, and as ra’chah, “the one who is evil to you“. This possibility is strengthened by the context of the original command (Lev.19:18), which is about not taking vengeance… and the fact that vowels were not fixed in the Tanach until at least 800 years after Yeshua.

[9] Dr. Rozental concluded his list with the observation that fully two-thirds of the words used in modern Israeli society, media and literature are derived from the Hebrew vocabulary of the Tanach. So take heart, all of you who are struggling to learn Hebrew: you will be doubly rewarded for your efforts!

[10] If that’s not enough motivation, consider that these few examples don’t even scratch the surface of what’s probably still locked away in the Tanach Hebrew. We can only guess at how many spiritual truths are waiting to be discovered.

We can now understand why the apostles said it was “not desirable” for them to leave their study of the Torah and Prophets in order to supervise the care of the needy (Acts 6:2). We have yet to see what God will do when a critical mass of Israeli believers hears the call to restore this level of “ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4) to its original priority in Bible teaching. As Paul predicted (Rom. 11:15), it will be “life from the dead“, both for the church and for Israel!

But this is not an intellectual exercise; it does not depend on mental talent or formal training. Like the apostolic teachers of the first century, we must submit our Hebrew comprehension to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and allow Him to lead us to His treasures hidden in His Word.

“Open my eyes, and I will behold wonders from Your Torah.” (Ps.119:18)