Carved in Stone: Origins of a Hebrew Term

Yesterday we mentioned the following verse from the opening of the Book of Deuteronomy:

“Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to explain this law, saying, the LORD our God said to us in Horeb, ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” (Deuteronomy 1:5-7)

In the original Hebrew the verb for ‘explain’ is ‘Be’er’ (באר). This quite rare Hebrew verb is hard to find in the Hebrew Bible and appears only a few times more, and one of these times is also found in the Book of Deuteronomy:

“And you shall write on the stones all the words of this law very plainly.” (Deuteronomy 27:8)

In this verse, the English translation chose to use the word ‘plainly’ but in fact in the original Hebrew the same word – ‘Be’er’ – appears.

Why does the English translation use the SAME Hebrew word for TWO different English meanings?

Well, because the initial meaning of the Hebrew verb ‘Le-Va’er’ ({לבאר} the infinitive form of ‘Be’er’) is actually to engrave something very clearly on a stone. From the initial action of carving something very clearly on a stone, this Hebrew verb has developed into meaning ‘making something very clear’ or in other words ‘explaining’ – as what Moses did (Deuteronomy 1:5-7).

In Medieval Hebrew, the meaning of this verb was extended and also included the concept of ‘to interpret’ – or in other words ‘to explain the deeper layers of things’ (mainly the Bible and other religious texts).

Today, in Modern Hebrew, we use this Hebrew verb primarily when we want to clarify complex issues and that is why it is consider a ‘high language’ usage of the verb.


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