The Little Hebrew Word אוֹ (o “or”), First Essay
Sometimes the most inconspicuous words take you on the most interesting journeys. The jury is out of course, on whether the Biblical Hebrew term for “or” (אוֹ, pronounced “o”) is such a word, but it will be the focus of this and the next essay. Several years ago, I decided to write a three-volume work on Biblical Hebrew vocabulary, focusing in volume 1 on single-syllable or two-letter words. These are often ignored in the study of Biblical Hebrew because of the common saw that Hebrew is a “three letter root” or “triconsonantal root” language, but I found hundreds of useful words to study that fit my criteria. Here is one.
Stating the Issue
My interest in the word “or” (אוֹ, “o”) is that it links two or more concepts. Therefore, for the “price” of one short word, you actually get many more words than just one. This word and many like it are, to use an analogy from the human body, the “small muscles” that tie together the tissues of the major joints and muscle groups. Thus, it is a valuable word to build one’s vocabulary. What I discovered upon looking at the 320 or so appearances of “o” in the Hebrew Bible is that an incredible 40% of them appear in one book—Leviticus.
Well, I won’t make it to Leviticus in this essay because there are just too many interesting appearances of it in Genesis and Exodus. For example, it appears in Genesis when “o” unites keseph (כֶּסֶף) or zahab (זָהָב) (“silver”/“gold”; 44:8); ra’ (רַע) or tob (טוֹב) (“evil”/ “good”; 24:50; yamin (יָמִין) or semol (שְׂמֹאול) (“right”/“left”; 24:49). Six beautiful and very useful words in just a few verses (and I could add ach (אָח) and ab (אָב) or “brother/father” from 44:19!)
When we turn to Exodus, we have a complex list separated by three appearances of o, illem (אִלֵּם) or cheresh (חֵרֵשׁ) or piqqeach (פִקֵּחַ) or ivver (עֵוֵּר) in 4:11. God is gently chiding Moses and asks him whether God can make people “mute” or “deaf” or “seeing” or “blind.” Each one of these is a much more sophisticated word than those in Genesis, but because of the presence of o in between them, it is an inviting list to master. Take time with these, even if you don't learn them all fully the first time through. Thirteen words so far.
Focusing on Exodus 4:11
Let's focus a few moments on those four nouns. “Dumb/mute” (illem) only appears five other times in the Bible, the most familiar to most people being Is. 35:6, “And the tongue of the mute (illem) will shout for joy.” If we wanted to pause on that verse, we could also pick up “tongue” (lashon; לָשׁוֹן) and “shout/give a ringing cry" (ranan, רָנַן). Cheresh (“deaf”) appears eight additional times, with Is. 35:3 being one of them. So, it may be that Isaiah meditated deeply on the Exodus passage in shaping his own prophetic word. That passage reads, “The ears of the deaf will be opened,” which yields, in addition, “ears," though we will pick that word up later. Interestingly enough, one of the last words of this essay I will introduce is the verb “open,” which is the same “open” as in this text. Then, there is piqqeach, a very rare word which only occurs here and in Ex. 23:8. Finally, the word for “blind” (ivver) is the most common of the list, appearing twenty-five more times in the Bible, also in Isaiah 35 (v 5), but 6x in Isaiah 42 alone. We build our understanding slowly, but firmly.
A few more pairs from Exodus show the suppleness of the worlds that o can unite. In 5:3 we have the choice between “pestilence” or “sword” (deber (דֶּבֶר)/chereb (חֶרֶב), and in 19:13 we have a rather shocking contrast between being “stoned” or “shot (with an arrow)” if one touches the mountain (the verbs, respectively, are saqal (סָקַל)/yarah (יָרָה)). We are beginning to see that if we wanted to take an additional literary journey that we could just check on all the appearances of saqal in the Hebrew Bible and be taken to the story of Nabal or the law in Deuteronomy 22. It is all courtesy of o.
Now, we can begin to understand why more than 40% of the Biblical appearances of o might be in the imposing and generally unattractive (to Christian people) book of Leviticus or in legal texts of Exodus. Why? Because the word “or” is generally “owned” by lawyers, and Leviticus and the Covenant Code in Exodus are the quintessentially “legal” texts of the Bible. They use the word “or” in order to make sure that they are covering all the bases when they seek to understand an issue or, more cynically speaking, when they seek to get their client out of a hole.
So, we are not surprised to see several examples of o in the Covenant Code (Ex. 21-23), the oldest collection of Israelite laws. We have, in 21:4, a reference to “sons or daughters” (ben (בֵּן)/bath (בַּת); the texts give the plural banim/banoth) and just two verses later there is the “door or doorpost” (i.e., what you attach a slave’s ear to. . .you have to be there; deleth (דֶּלֶת)/mezuzah (מְזוּזָה). Then, a few verses later (21:18) we will have legal consequences for someone who attacks with “stone or fist” (eben (אֶבֶן)/egroph (אֶגְרֹף)). The latter word, egroph, is rare—it only appears one other time in Biblical Hebrew. Yet, learning it in this context is useful and it shows the weakness and unhelpfulness of just learning Hebrew vocabulary by the “more than 50 appearances” method, which is the staple method of instruction in Biblical Hebrew today. The law continues by talking about “male or female” slaves (ebed (עֶבֶד)/amah (אָמָה)) in 21:26, but then the law is expanded a bit in 21:28 by talking about animals who might gore a “man or woman” (ish (אִישׁ)/ishshah (אִשָּׁה)) to death.
The Covenant Code is great in giving alternatives! Just a few verses later (21:33) it talks about legal liability for someone who “opens” or “digs” a pit (pathach (פָתַח)/karah (כָּרָה)), which takes us on interesting journeys through these two very useful verbs. We feel especially blessed when we realize that this same verse gives us another “or” combination, between “ox” or “donkey” (shor (שׁוֹר)/chamor (חֲמוֹר)). Later on, in 22:1, we have someone who might steal either an “ox” or a “sheep” (shor/seh (שֶׂה) and we realize that we have the first repetition in our list. But repetition is great, because it emblazons on our mind the word for “sheep.” Then, also in 22:1 we have a second o as we have an alternative between “slaughtering” or “selling” the animals (tabach (טָבַח)/makar (מָכַר) are the two verbs). Each one of those two verbs has a rich story to tell in the Hebrew Bible.
Enough has been said, even before reaching Leviticus, to show how important this method can be in learning Hebrew vocabulary. It can yield interesting results with very common and basic terms, but we also see how more complex nouns and then very useful verbs can be linked by an o. Rather than spending a useless weekend memorizing all the verbs that appear 50x or more in the Hebrew Bible, why not try to learn a few three word phrases, with o as the middle term, and then link you with nouns or verbs without number? It will be a magical weekend. And, just think, you have already learned more than 35 Biblical Hebrew words.