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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — No “Yes,” But Two Nos: Zechariah 1:4
The last few posts have been a little heavy. In this post, I would like to focus on a lighter matter, which I hope you find interesting and enlightening.
It is strange for English speakers to learn that Hebrew has no word for yes. So, how does one answer a yes-no question in Hebrew in the affirmative? By repeating the salient part of the sentence. For example in the NIV, Gen 3:11–12 reports that the Lord asked Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Adam responds, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” In his response, Adam prefaces the answer with what he apparently regards as important mitigating circumstances (nine words in Hebrew!) before finally giving the answer in one Hebrew word, וָאֹכֵל (waʾōkēl), “and I ate [it].”
Note that answering yes in certain types of questions can be ambiguous. “Don’t you want to go shopping?” If the response is, “Yes,” does that mean “Yes, I do” or “Yes, I don’t” (we usually say “No, I don’t” for clarity)? The Hebrew response is unambiguous. So, maybe Hebrew isn’t bad after all.
But No Means “No” or “No”
On the other hand, Hebrew has two different words for no: לֹא (lōʾ) and אַל (ʾal). There are other negative indicators, but these are the two main ones used with finite verbs. By one count, the first word, לֹא, occurs 5183 times in the OT, while the other, אַל, occurs only 728 times.
The negative לֹא is the more general negation. So, for example, the word translated not in the Ten Commandments is לֹא. These commands do not have any specific occasion in mind, but are meant to prohibit these behaviors in principle.
On the other hand, the negative אַל serves to negate specific actions. So in Gen 13:8 (NIV), Abraham says to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives.” Abraham urges Lot to act in such a way that there not be any quarreling in this specific situation of the land use. It is not a general command that there should never be any quarreling.
The NIV renders this verse,
Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord…
The English words not and not are in Hebrew two different words, the first being אַל and the second being לֹא. The first is a negative command (a prohibition); the second a negative assertion. The first is specific; the second is general.
When Zechariah wrote, it had been about 20 years since the return from Babylon. Though people were living in nice houses and the temple’s foundations had been laid, no more work had been carried out since then; it was past time to get the job done (Hag 1:2–8). In the next chapters Zechariah reports several visions that lay out and confirm for the people the task and the leaders: the rebuilding of the temple and Joshua the priest and Zerubbabel the governor. This is the specific situation addressed by Zechariah’s appeal in v. 4, “Do not be like your ancestors.”
In what way are they not to be like them? The Lord had sent prophets to tell them to repent. But he indicts their ancestors for not listening or paying attention. The term “former prophets” likely refers to the prophets before the exile. The Lord had sent numerous prophets with this message, but the people did not give heed. These actions occurred many times over time, but always with the same result: generally speaking the people did not listen to the Lord. Not all of their ancestors were bad, but the majority of the leaders had led the people astray, and the result was the exile of the nation.
Israel’s leadership after the exile was not failing the people to the degree that the leaders were before, but for whatever reason, they had been slow to accomplish God’s task for them. They should listen now to Zechariah (and Haggai).
The command not to be like the ancestors in this way is applied to the specific situation of Zechariah’s audience. Of course God’s people should never ignore the Lord, and the text could have read, לֹא תִּהְיוּ, the general prohibition. By using the expression אַל תִּהְיוּ, however, Zechariah focuses on the immediate, specific application.
The Bible is not a theology book; each book was written to specific people to meet specific needs. As we study the Scriptures, we must understand the original situation, then draw out the general principles, and finally identify corresponding situations in our lives to which we can apply those principles. There is in Zech 1:4 no general prohibition to not follow the example of those who have gone before us, but a specific application of the general prohibition of not listening to the Lord. May we always listen to the teaching of God in the Scriptures and seek to apply those principles to our daily lives in specific ways.
(Image: Aleppo Codex ; By Shlomo ben Buya'a [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Lee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.
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