A lesson in Biblical Hebrew syntax: Who was the mysterious Aramean?

In yesterday’s post we discussed the connection between ‘first fruits’ and the story of the Israelites in Egypt. We mentioned the intriguing and one-of-a-kind Hebrew phrase ‘Arami Oved Avi’ {ארמי אובד אבי} which was translated to English as ‘a wandering Aramean was my father.’

This Hebrew phrase, is probably one of the most difficult to translate to other languages – in the ENTIRE Hebrew Bible- because of the way it is formulated and can be understood as having TWO completely different meanings.

In the original Hebrew, this phrase has THREE words: ‘Arami’ (‘Aramean’) {ארמי}, ‘Oved’ {אובד} which is the verb and could have several meanings such as ‘missing’, ‘pursued’ and ‘wandering’ and ‘Avi’ (‘my father’) {אבי}. You are probably asking, ‘Where is the problem?’

Well, the problem is that according to the rules of Hebrew syntax, both ‘Aramean’ and ‘my father’ can be the subject of this sentence and due to the usage of the unique verb ‘Oved’ we can understand this phrase as: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean’ – as it appears in the English translation, OR ‘the Aramean who pursued or persecuted my father’ as can be found in the old Latin translation of the Bible (‘tui Syrus persequebatur patrem meum’ in the original Latin).

In yesterday’s post we discussed in some detail the SECOND option, which identifies the ‘Aramean’ as Laban – Jacob’s father in law. In this case, the meaning of the Hebrew verb ‘Oved’ will be ‘to persecute’ as can be found in the following example from the Book of Esther:

“Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with instruction to destroy, to kill, and TO ANNIHILATE all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods.” (Esther 3:13)

There, the original Hebrew word for ‘TO ANNIHILATE’ is ‘Le-Abed’ {לאבד} which is the infinitive form of ‘Me’abed’ {מאבד} and the intensive version of the Hebrew verb ‘Oved.’ {אובד}  Interestingly, the Modern Hebrew verb for committing suicide is ‘Le-Hit’abed’ {להתאבד} – the reflexive version of ‘Oved’ and ‘Me’abed’ – and by the Hebrew logic means ‘to annihilate oneself.’

Having said that, it is important to mention that the Hebrew word ‘Oved’ can be used as an adjective as well and has another meaning – ‘lost’ – which can be found in the following example from Psalms:

“I have gone astray like a LOST sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.” (Psalm 119:176)

There, the original Hebrew word for ‘lost’ is ‘Oved’ and simply means ‘a wandering sheep’. In this case, one can understand the Hebrew phrase ‘Arami Oved Avi’ as ‘a wandering (lost) Aramean was my father’ – as was indeed translated into English.

Now the question is WHO was this ‘wandering Aramean’? And according to most Jewish Bible commentators there are TWO options: Abraham OR Jacob.

Abraham – who is the less likely option – was born in ‘Aram Na’haraim’ {ארם נהריים} meaning he was indeed an ‘Aramean.’ Later, Abraham wandered to the Land of Canaan and even went to Egypt for a short while – as the continuation of the verse above mentioned (‘a wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there…’).

However, Abraham came back to the Land of Canaan and did not reside in Egypt. Jacob, on the other hand, fits perfectly for that description because his mother Rebecca came from ‘Padan Aram’ {פדן ארם} and he himself spent quite a lot of time there in his father in law’s house – Laban (aka ‘Laban the Aramean’ in the Jewish tradition). In addition, one of the well-known facts about Jacob was his many days of wandering which ended at his death in Egypt – where his children and their descendants suffered for many years until God had rescued them – exactly as the Book of Deuteronomy describes:

“A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-9)