Hebrew In Israel | What is אמונה- Emunah? – Learn Torah

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Hebrew In Israel | What is אמונה- Emunah? – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi 3 comments

Most of us translate this word as “Faith” or “Belief”.  However, the truth of the matter is that to understand the meaning of such a fundamental word in our walk in Torah requires an understanding of the mental state of ancient Israel.  

Many of us try to reach Emunah by “knowing” or ידיעה Yedi’a.  In truth, these two words were actually the same for Hebrews in the ancient world (unlike the above image).  To know is also to believe, hence if you know something is true you are actually in a state of Emunah.  The issue is that nowadays “faith” has become an argument of believing without actually having evidence, something that was inconceivable as evidenced in the ancient world.  This is due to the very earthly and physical ideas in the ANE.  

Philosophical ideas and abstract thought was much more limited, and only developed after the contact with the Greeks.  This does not mean that abstract thought did not exist, however it was not the way most people will view the world.  This idea can be demonstrated by the very physical and realistic ideas presented in nouns and verbs in Semitic languages.  Transcendent ideas are rare, and most abstract ideas always have a physical link.  

An example of this can be found with the word for spirit רוח (ruach).  In Hebrew, the prime use of the word is for “wind” and only as a secondary idea is it spirit.  The early Hebrew speakers adapted simple concepts in the real world to try and explain more abstract ideas.  Another example is Nephesh נפש.  The word historically relates to the neck and breathing, however because breath was seen as a source of life, it was used to describe the soul.  Hence, If one believes in something there needs to be physical proof of said belief.

Hebrew, as many know, is an action-based language with a complex verbal system unmatched by western languages.  It bases many words on an action, and has many variants on each root word of action.  The root of Emunah is based on the very common word אמן-Amen.  The meaning of Amen is “Festive affirmation, that something is so” (Qedari.M, Biblical Hebrew dictionary, Bar-Illan 2007).  Hence if something is “amened” it is something that can be affirmed in reality, and not an arbitrary and baseless belief.

The word Emunah is defined as follows “Stable, done in a trustworthy manner”.  

Some derived words are:

  • אמונים Emunim- Loyal, one who is trustworthy
  • אומן Omen- Experienced
  • אמנה Amanah- Agreement of loyalty

All of these words represent the concept of something that can be trusted due to the fact that someone has done deeds that prove that they are trustworthy and will be loyal to their actions and promises.  Hence we must say that the Biblical meaning of Emunah is not “Faith” in the modern sense, Hebrew or English, but rather trust due to proven actions which affirm the truth of the trust. 

An example of this idea we can find in the opening of the “Song on the Sea” Exodus 14:31:


וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה בְּמִצְרַיִם, וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם, אֶת-יְהוָה; וַיַּאֲמִינוּ, בַּיהוָה, וּבְמֹשֶׁה, עַבְדּוֹ.

When Israel saw the mighty deed that YHWH had performed against the Egyptians, the people feared YHWH, and they believed in YHWH and in his servant Moshe


The word translated as “believed” is a modern day translation which raises questions about the meaning of the text. Did the Israelites not “Believe” in God? They had trust issues, not belief issues! The context of what was going on before the crossing proves that the word has the meaning of trust and not believe. The Israelites believed in God, but did not trust him. After they saw the intervention they reached the level of Emunah which is trust.

 

Another example of this subject is again in Exodus 17:12


וְאַהֲרֹן וְחוּר תָּמְכוּ בְיָדָיו, מִזֶּה אֶחָד וּמִזֶּה אֶחָד, וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה, עַד-בֹּא הַשָּׁמֶשׁ

Aharon and Hur held up his hands, the one on the one side and the other on the other; so that his hands stayed steady until sunset


In this case, the word Emunah is translated as steady, meaning something trustworthy.

 

One may argue that in the case of Avraham in Genesis 15:16 who “believed” in God that we have a case of blind belief.  However, I contest this interpretation.  Avraham did not just believe, he had knowledge via his communications with God which made him into a prophet and made him different than most people.  This is especially true due to the fact that immediately after these words God cuts a covenant with Avraham affirming his words.  The covenant was a binding principle which put the promise, which is only words, into a physical and binding action which represents the details and rules of the agreement and promise.

We can conclude, even based on these simple examples, that in Biblical Hebrew this specific word has to do with something one can trust due to the actions that affirm that the person or item has proven itself as trustworthy.  In time, this word did undergo a meaning change based on the changes in thought patterns in the world, but we can still find the original meaning in the biblical text.

An important offshoot of this subject is that Emunah is connected to action, hence one who believes is also one who does, and believing is not limited to the heart.  If you know something to be true you must act accordingly.  This is why when I hear people dismiss keeping Torah by claiming they “Believe in the heart” I have to dismiss this argument based on the above issues. The Torah is constructed as a covenant, and covenants in the ANE were based on actions, which represents one’s loyalty.  The heart is the first stage of any belief; however, we see throughout the Tanakh that people are called to action to show their faith in God.

A good example of action through covenant and faith is Yehonatan and the Philistines.  Saul, like many leaders before him, was given a mandate to protect Israel.  As a king, he was no longer a judge (which were a one-time deal), but a king who is given a covenant which will ensure his line.  A royal family line was a type of Grant Covenant with a suzerain element to it, and can be found in many examples in the ANE.  Many kings boasted about their royal line which was chosen by their god, and our case comes under the same principle (Licht, Royal Inscriptions of Esarhadon).  However, Saul who was paranoid about his kingship the whole time, failed to uphold his side of the agreement.  Not only did he fear his enemies, he disobeyed God twice.  In contrast to this stands Yehonatan who trusts in God when he attacks the Philistines (1Sam 14:1-16).  Saul was promised to lead Israel, however due to his lack of faith (and action) the promise was fulfilled by his son.  The only component missing was action from the human side, and God took care of the rest.  God stood next to his people, but only when they showed devotion to him.  Saul’s lack of action, and corruption of the actions, cost him the throne and in the end his life.

3 comments

Mary

August 22, 2017 at 1:23 am

Thank you, clear and concise

Sarah Yocheved

October 13, 2017 at 3:41 pm

What is ANE?

    Admin

    October 16, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    Ancient Near East

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