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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — Words and Emotion: Isaiah 6:5 (Part 2)

Categories Hebrew and You

In the last post, we began looking at the question of the emotion implied in the word נִדְמֵיתִי (nidmêtî), translated “I am undone” (KJV, ASV), in Isa 6:5. We began by identifying the Nifal stems of the roots. We were left with 13 contexts. Here they are from HALOT:

HALOT’s Identification of Roots in the Nifal

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It is comforting to us that Even-Shoshan’s list of Nifal examples is identical to that of HALOT; he also eliminates all the conjectural items. His classification is quite different from HALOT, however. His root I includes only Ps 49:13, 21 and is glossed “to be like.” His root II includes all the other references, including the duplicated Ps 49:13, 21, as mentioned in the previous post, and he glosses the Nifal as “to be cut off.” For Even-Shoshan, then, all the Nifals may come from a single root.

Checking Contexts for Emotional Connotation

The question as posed is not so much about meaning, as it is about emotional connotation.

  1. Emotionally neutral. Ps 49:13, 21: In both occurrences, both meanings 2 (“be silent”) and 3 (“be destroyed”) are possible, with the former probably being metaphorical for death, but the question has to do with emotional content. In these verses animals are described and seem unaware of their fate. In Jer 47:5, the nidmâ is parallel to the baldness of Gaza. Both meanings are possible, but in this context the physical state (destruction) is in view, not the emotional state. The destruction of Israel seems to be in progress rather than in anticipation. Hos 4:6; 10:7, 15, seem all to be have the same meaning of physical destruction without bearing an emotional state. Zeph 1:11, referring to Judah, seems to fit here. So also Obad 5, referring to Edom, in a parenthesis, following HALOT, but see 3. below. On Ezek 32:2, referring to Egypt, see 3. below.
  2. Distraught, having a deep sense of loss. Isa 15:1 (twice) does not seem to mean destruction; Moab is grieving or put in a state of fear and unrest because of the destruction of two cities.
  3. Prideful musing. Ezek 32:2 is dual listed and is considered doubtful by HALOT to mean “destroyed.” The English versions all take it as meaning “to be like” or to consider oneself (ESV, NASB, NLT, NRSV). The problem is that this would be a unique occurrence in the Nifal, though the Qal is common enough. One can make sense of the meaning “destroyed,” for example, if we treat the reference to Egypt as an address, “O lion of the nations, you are destroyed.” If this is the case, then emotional neutrality would be in view. HALOT marks Obad 5 as clear, and that is the simplest. However, one can make sense of this in this category: “How you considered yourself!” which fits the context.

Connotation of the Word in Target Text

If these three categories represent the range of emotional connotation, what can we say about Isa 6:5? Either of the two main meanings is possible. If it means destruction (or silencing), the emotional connotation is not in view in the word itself. However, Isaiah is not yet destroyed (or silenced), but anticipates such a fate, because of his self-recognized sinfulness. In other words, he anticipates God’s judgment because of his and Israel’s sinfulness. The context of anticipation carries a connotation of dread of impending doom, but not the word. If, however, Isa 6:5 is an expression not of impending destruction, but of Isaiah’s sense of loss as a result of personal and national sin, then the word could be carrying the strong emotion of being distraught.

Final Thought

The question was whether the word itself carries a highly charged emotional connotation. The word study revealed that it may, but not necessarily so; it depends on whether the event is viewed as past or future. In the target text, is Isaiah anticipating destruction (emotionally neutral) because of sin, or is he overwrought (emotionally charged) because of sin? Either is possible and fits the context.

Destruction might mean eternal separation from God (hell), but a specific reference to eternal punishment would be unique among the passages checked. Clear examples refer to physical destruction, in Isaiah’s case, might refer perhaps to physical death. Apart from the purification of Isaiah’s lips in vv. 6–7 by God’s grace, all is lost. On the other hand, distress is the appropriate response of the pious toward awareness of personal sin. Apart from God’s grace, despair is the burden of one aware only of his or her own sin. God’s people, individually and corporately, do well to remember sin, realizing that without cleansing done by God, only despair is present in anticipation of a future destruction. Yet we live in joy and confidence because of what God has done for those who accept his offer to remove our guilt (Isa 6:6–7; Eph 3·12).

(Image: Aleppo Codex ; By Shlomo ben Buya'a [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

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Lee M. FieldsLee 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.

Learn more about Lee's innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.

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