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Just Hearing or Really Listening: Exodus 5:2 (Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields)

Categories Biblical Studies Hebrew & Cognate Languages Hebrew and You

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה מִי יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל
לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת יְהוָה וְגַם אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחַ׃

Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go?
I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”

The story of the exodus is well known to Bible students. Exod 5:2 is the beginning of the Lord’s bringing out the Israelites from Egypt. The Lord sends Moses to request leave for the Israelites to go into the wilderness to hold a festival to the Lord. Pharaoh’s response is arrogant in the extreme.

The new student of Hebrew reads this familiar passage and might read the Hebrew word אֶשְׁמַע and feel confidence, because the lexical form שָׁמַע (šāmaʿ) meaning “he heard” was learned in first semester Hebrew. But then, the student might feel some surprise, expecting a different word than the one meaning “to hear,” when the NIV reads “obey.” A quick check of other English versions shows that “obey” is by far the most common rendering in this verse.

As the students grow in their knowledge of the language, they learn the concept of collocation. This concept refers to the meaning of certain groups of words to form idiomatic meanings. English does this. I like to give my students this example. If I ask, “Did you work yesterday,” they invariably think about a job, or perhaps even school work. But if I ask them, “Did you work out yesterday,” they immediately picture some form of physical exercise. The word work collocated with out is used in a specialized sense in English to mean “to exercise.”

That is what is going on here with שָׁמַע (šāmaʿ): the verb for hear is collocated with the preposition בְּ־ (bĕ-) in the next word בְּקֹלוֹ (bĕqōlô) to give the meaning “to obey.” It is similar to English “listen to,” but stronger, since “listen to” can be a request to pay attention. Here Pharaoh is not refusing to hear the words of the Lord (he had indeed heard just them), but the obeying of them.

This collocation does not always mean “obey,” however. After hear, the preposition בְּ־ (bĕ-) can indicate place (בְּאַרְצִי, “in my land,” 1 Kgs 10:6). Further, the most common prepositional phrase is “the voice of …” (בְּקוֹל, bĕqōl). This makes many contexts clear.

Many such idioms occur, and drive all careful students to greater knowledge of the biblical languages.

The word שָׁמַע (šāmaʿ) even without the collocation can mean obey, as indicated by context. So, in Exod 24:7, when Israel ratifies the covenant, they affirm, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will hear (נִשְׁמָע [nišm̄āʿ])”; the first verb, “we will do” narrows the meaning of the next to obeying.

In Jas 1:22 we are told to be doers of the word and not hearers only. Perhaps James is alluding to the Israelites’ ratification of the Mosaic covenant and applying the same principle and obligation to members of the new covenant in Christ. Whether the original readers read the Hebrew Bible or the Greek translation (Septuagint), James wanted to make clear that just hearing is not the same as really listening. God’s people are obligated to obey, for he is their Lord.

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