We continue on our journey with Obadiah as the means for entering into the language of Biblical Hebrew. We have already done verse 13, but there is one word that needs attention: רַע (ra’, “evil”). The part of the sentence is, “You shouldn’t have looked upon his adversity/affliction (ra’) in the day of his calamity.” The word ra’ is actually much more supple than that, encompassing the moral category of “evil” as well as the reality of “adversity” or something that is just “disagreeable.” Let’s take a brief detour with ra’.
Three Cheers for ra’
We meet it in Genesis when it is contrasted with tob, but by the time we arrive at the Great Flood narrative we have the idea that the ra’ was “great” (רַב, rab), and that people “only “ (רַק, raq) had evil thoughts (machashabah, which we have recently seen). Their inclinations or intents (יֵצֶר, yetser) were just really, really bad. Yetser and machashabah make a potent duo throughout the Bible, and it is nice to meet them today. As we who love the Bible also tend to notice, we are being prepared for another time that God clobbers people.
Well, let’s go on to other appearances of ra’. After God clobbers people through the Great Flood, He still is a bit dissatisfied, for he recognized that people still have evil in their heart from their “youth’ (נָעוּר, naur). It seems like God went through a lot of trouble to solve a problem but didn’t really solve it. Destroy everything and everyone, and people still are evil! Maybe we need a new God and not new people. . . But, God puts a limitation on himself by saying that he will not (lo) again (יָסַף, yasaph means “to do again” or “add”) “smite/destroy” (נָכָה, nakah) humans. Well, it actually is any “living thing” (חַי, chay). Phew. Seven new words so far.
We see the “ugly” or “disagreeable” meaning of ra’ in Gen. 41:3, which talks about Pharaoh and his dream. He sees sheba (“seven”) “cows” (פָרָה, parah) coming up out of the “Nile” (יְאֹר, yeor). Before getting to their description, I note that in another passage where parah appears we also have other animals— “thirty” (שְׁלוֹשִׁים, sheloshim) camels” (גָּמָל, gamal) and “forty” (אַרְבָּעִים, arbaim) “bulls” (פַר, par) and “ten” (עֶשֶׂר, eser) “female donkeys” (אָתוֹן, athon). But this has gone far enough, and I frankly don’t know from my quick reading whether it was ten bulls or ten female donkeys, but the joy of the language is that you just need to learn the words. In addition, in every class where I have learned languages, from Persian to Greek, they have a lesson on numbers, where they run you through all of them. But I don’t like that method, since it forces on you the learning of word before they come up “naturally,” as here. So let’s return to the disagreeable or ugly use of ra’ after having added eight more words.
Ok, back to seven cows coming up out of the Nile. As we have seen, seven “other” (אַחֵר, acher) cows come out after (achar, which we have seen) these from (מִן, min) the Nile (yeor) and these are ra’ “in appearance” (מַרְאֶה, mareh) and דַּק (daq, “thin/gaunt”) בָּשָׂר (basar, “of flesh”). These cows “stood” (amad, which we know) “next to/by/beside” (אֵצֶל, etsel) them on the “bank” (שָׂפָה, saphah) of the river. Note that the word for “bank” is really the word for “lip” in Hebrew, and it can also be the word for “tongue” or “language.” Perhaps the edge of a river reminded people of that lip or extremity of the mouth, and thus became a wonderfully suggestive word.
Well, that is a few more than twenty new words for the day, and that is a pleasant enough part of our journey. I look forward to the next verse of Obadiah and the mysteries it unlocks.
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