The Hebrew For Prophecy

The Hebrew for Prophecy

Listen here: Richard on Prophecy

The Hebrew for a prophet is nāvi’. It is a common word, used around 400 times in the Hebrew Bible, whereas the verb form is used over 100 times. In earlier scholarship some put forward the idea that it derives from a word meaning to “bubble over”, as in the ecstatic speech of the prophets. Certainly in the Old Testament we find prophets seized with a prophetic frenzy, as the verb in 1 Samuel 19:23-24 to describe Saul’s prophesying is in an intensive form which means “to rave”, and this was common in early depictions of the prophetic gift in operation.

More modern scholarship thinks that the word nāvi’ derives from roots meaning “to name”, “decree”, and even, rarely, “to create”. The idea of prophetic speech as creative is therefore not unknown to the Bible.

Hebrew is a language which in many instances conveys its meanings through pictures. So the verb for “to get up early” is derived from the word for shoulder, as when one got up early in Bible times, one would shoulder one’s bag prior to setting off. There is a certain pictorial vividness to Hebrew words. They are like little pictures packed with meaning. Hebrew utters forth a stream of images from the Levantine countryside. So we see in Amos where a vision of a basket of summer fruit (qayits) prompts the Spirit to reveal that an “end” (qeits) is coming. Words that sound like other words are used freely in the Bible and this generates another level of meaning in the text. In English, or Afrikaans, words have one layer of meaning. In Biblical Hebrew, words can resonate with echoes of other words; and this is used by the writers of the texts to add depth and multidimensionality to the writing.

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