The Hebrew Meaning of the Word ‘Prophet’

Chapter 13 of the Book of Deuteronomy opens with the following words:

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams.” (Deuteronomy 13:1-4)

In the original Hebrew, the word for ‘prophet’ is ‘Navi.'(נביא) In the ancient Near East languages ‘Navi’ (‘prophet’) is derived from the verb ‘nabû’ which means ‘to declare’ or ‘to announce.’ This verb strongly relates to the concept of public speaking, as can be found in the following biblical example:

“And the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.” (Exodus 7:1)

There, the original Hebrew word for ‘your prophet’ is ‘Neviecha’ (נביאך) and actually means that Aaron will be the one to speak with Pharaoh. During biblical times ‘dreams’ and ‘prophecies’ were strongly connected as can be found in many cases in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Jacob’s dream, which appears in the Book of Genesis, is probably one of the famous examples of this kind of connection.

Another fascinating biblical example can be found in the case of Balaam the son of Beor:

“So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand. And they came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s message. And he said to them, “LODGE HERE TONIGHT” and I will bring back word to you, as the LORD speaks to me.” (Numbers 22:7-8)

In other words, in order to know what to do, Balaam needed to wait until he had fallen asleep because a message from God would come during the night in the form of a dream:

“God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” So Balaam ROSE IN HE MORNING and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your own land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.” (Numbers 22:12-14)

Who knows, perhaps the origins of the common figure of speech ‘I will sleep on it’ is associated with the biblical tradition…